Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Natasha and Signs and Symbols by Vladimir Nabokov

     I’m in the middle of reading Azar Nafisi’s landmark novel/biography Reading Lolita in Tehran which is about an unusual book club in Iran. As the title suggests, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita plays a huge part of the story and Nabokov himself seems almost like a character in the book; so often is he mentioned, quoted and dissected.  It made me very curious about his work. So, I put aside Nafisi’s novel for a bit and went hunting for Nabokov’s short stories online. Sadly, I could only find two, but I definitely plan to read more of him this year.


     Natasha is a strangely hypnotic story about a young girl who cares for her ailing father. One day her neighbor asks her out for a picnic and she happily goes along since her father seems to be recovering. I really mustn't say anymore because there isn't such a lot in terms of a plot anyway. It may seem predictable yet the ending really surprised me with its abruptness.

Signs and Symbols

     The story begins with an elderly couple choosing a birthday gift for their son who is being treated at a mental health facility. We learn that their son is suffering from ‘referential mania’ which is a form of paranoia where he feels that everything around him is concentrated on his existence alone. His parents reach the facility, only to be told that they cannot meet their son because he attempted suicide again and cannot be allowed to have visitors in this fragile state. The rest of the story follows the parents back home and stays with them through a terribly sad evening. The ending is poignant and so skilfully written.

     I cannot decide which one of the stories I liked more. Both were so haunting and affecting, yet so simple. Nabokov has a way of making up really simple characters, putting them in fairly commonplace situations and yet making the whole thing quite an extraordinary experience for the reader. You can read the stories here and here.

     I can’t decide which of his novels to read first. Lolita is of course his most iconic work, but Invitation to a Beheading sounds very interesting too.  Nabokov has also written a big bunch of short stories.  Anyone read any of these?

Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

     Continuing with my resolve to read more popular and contemporary books which everyone else in blogland has already read ages ago, I took on The Eyre Affair. I've heard and read a lot about it and mostly good things. I've also heard Fforde compared to Douglas Adams and even the Monty Python crew, but such comparisons do them all a disservice.  The only common ground is a certain irreverence that comes through in all their works. Anyway, back to The Eyre Affair. It’s a bit of a genre-defying variety show and you’ll enjoy it a lot better if you don’t go in with any preconceived notions.

     The Eyre Affair is set in an alternative reality where literature is taken very seriously and Jane Eyre ends very differently. Politics revolves around the ongoing Crimean War and England is almost entirely ‘managed’ by the Goliath Corporation. The heroine, Thursday Next, is a literary detective who is on the trail of evil mastermind Acheron Hades. Hades has stolen the manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit and is threatening to kill  its central character. What follows is a madcap adventure that defies time, logic, reality and even fiction.

     Based on everything I had heard about it (mainly the constant comparisons to Adams) I expected it to be more Laugh Out Loud funny. It wasn't. It was a fun book, but the humor is not as in- your- face as I had thought it would be. I’m probably not explaining this very well; just don’t expect The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.  I’m not complaining though. I thoroughly enjoyed the world Fforde has created here. Which reader wouldn't?  It’s a world where there are coin operated machines that dispense Shakespearean soliloquies and Mr Rochester walks in and out of Jane Eyre. What’s not to love? It’s the perfect adventure/fantasy for a bookworm like me.

     I am eager to read Fforde’s The Big Over Easy. Anyone read any of his Nursery Crimes books? Any good?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

     A very Happy New Year to all of you. I hope 2013 has begun on a positive note for you. I kicked off 2013 with a book shopping spree. My bookshelves are now stocked with more contemporary fiction. As I mentioned in my last post, I would like to read more books that were written in my lifetime. Not that I will be giving up my beloved classics entirely, I could never do that, but I do plan to go a little easy on them. To that end, my first read in the New Year is The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I had been reading reviews of this book all over the blogsphere and it’s been on my TBR list for a long while now.

     TGLPPPS is an epistolary novel that starts out sounding a lot like 84 Charing Cross Road (which I love so much), but soon it finds a different arc and there all similarities end. The story takes off when Juliet Ashton, a writer, receives a letter from a man in Guernsey who has a book that once belonged to Juliet. He writes of his admiration for Charles Lamb and also tells her about their strangely named book club and its interesting origins. Juliet begins to toy with the idea of writing about this book club and soon starts to correspond with all the other members of the society. Each of them writes to her about their love for a book or author but most importantly about their lives during and after the German occupation. Juliet soon starts to feel an immense emotional connect with these people. More determined than ever to write about them, she lands up in Guernsey for a visit that ends up a lot longer than she had planned.

     TGLPPPS is a pleasant and easy read. Exactly what I needed after spending so long in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s grey and bleak world.  Some of the characters are very well written and the tone of the book is very light and humorous, even though it does deal with the aftermath of the war.  I don’t remember reading anything set in the Chanel Islands before this so I enjoyed the insight into a land I know very little about. A good start to the year’s reading. Hope we all have a lot more great books to read in 2013. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne

“The wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and . . . becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.”

     Last year I read Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter for the Transcendentalist event and quite liked it. This year The House of the Seven Gables is the last of the classics I read for the Classics Challenge.  The House of the Seven Gables is often called a Gothic romance or a Gothic horror. It actually is neither. Although there is a bit of an abrupt love story woven in, calling it a romance is too much of a stretch. Also, any supernatural element to the story is only very dimly suggested, never really played out.

     The story revolves around the seven gabled Pyncheon house, an old, melancholy mansion in New England with a bloody history. The present inhabitants of the house are Hepzibah Pyncheon who is a nervous old maid, her brother Clifford who is emotionally shattered from events in his past, their cousin Phoebe, a delightful young country girl and a mysterious daguerreotypist.  I’m not going to divulge too much of the plot because there really isn't much of a plot anyway.

     Hawthorne’s style of writing is not for everyone. It requires a fair bit of patience for the reader to wade through his long-winded and heavy prose. This verbose style worked pretty well in The Scarlet letter, lending real insight into the mind of the protagonist and even her tormentors. In The House of the Seven Gables though, it wore me out.  This explaining of every nuance and character trait was not only tiring but also slightly patronizing  I always prefer it when author leave us to figure out the characters for ourselves without spelling it all out. All in all, not my favorite classic of the year.

     And that’s it from me for this year. It’s been a hectic year with a lot of changes for our family. The changes were all good and for that I’m thankful, but it has meant that I've had a lot less time for reading and blogging. I’m hoping that 2013 will be more restful and leisurely. To make it easier on myself I've decided not to take part in any challenges or readalongs. I want my reading to be more spontaneous. I hope to take part in The Short Story Initiative as often as I can and perhaps any short term events I fancy that aren't too much pressure. I also hope to go a little easy on the classics next year and read more contemporary fiction. I don’t think I've read anything this year that was written in my lifetimeJ.

I wish you all Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year. I hope 2013 will bring joy and peace to all. See you next year.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

A Classics Challenge- December Prompt.

So, here's the last installment of the Classics Challenge Prompts. It's been a great challenge to take part in and despite the crazy year I've had, I've actually managed to stay on track with my reading schedule. More or less. So here's this month's prompt:

Link to your favorite Classic Literature post you've written this year, it doesn't have to be related to this challenge. Just something you'd enjoy sharing.

Or make a list of what you read for the challenge, you could compare it to your original list drawn up late 2011 when you were planning what to read, link to the posts you've written for the challenge, how many authors you've read or any little stat or detail you'd like to share.

Ok, so my favorite classic read this year and my favorite review too is Mrs Dalloway. It stayed with me long after I'd read it and the post that followed, was one of my longer ones. It would have been a lot longer still had I not pruned it drastically. Didn't want to test the patience of my readers.

Here's my list of books read for this challenge. If you click on the names it will lead you to my post about the book.  

  1. Midsummer Nights Dream
  2. A Connecticut Yankee in KingArthurs Court
  3. Daddy Long Legs
  4. Mrs Dalloway
  5. Animal Farm
  6. Of Mice and Men
  7. The House of Seven Gables
I have read all the books I intended to and I've posted on 7 prompts so far. I think. So that makes this a successfully completed challenge for me. And I enjoyed every minute of it too. 

Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Short Story Initiative: Ismat Chugtai

     This month, for the Short Story Initiative, we are focusing on stories from India. As always, the theme isn't mandatory, but what a wonderful opportunity it is to explore a rich and varied literary goldmine. Nancy mentioned that she would like to read some stories by Saadat Hassan Manto. Mel U has covered Manto pretty extensively on his blog (Also the go-to place for a thorough and enlightening primer on the Indian short story). There has been a revival of interest in Manto’s works in the recent years, which is as it should be because Manto has long been an underrated gem. Manto’s stories have the kind of biting humor that stings and tickles at the same time. He wrote a bunch of really short stories (just a couple of lines each) about the partition of India which are brilliant. And this was long before the term Flash Fiction was even coined.

     Look at me going on about Manto when he’s actually not the subject of this post. Today, I want to talk about Manto’s friend and contemporary, Ismat Chugtai. Both Manto and Chugtai were tried for obscenity. Manto for Thanda Gosht( Cold Meat) and Chugtai for Lihaaf (The Quilt). The charges were eventually dropped but not before both writers had been saddled with a reputation of being controversial and shocking. It was even speculated that Ismat was in fact a male writer with a female pseudonym because her writing was too bold and unadorned for a woman. All this might lead you to believe that Chugtai was a rabble-rousing sensationalist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Chugtai spoke of the unspeakable but she did it with immense compassion and sensitivity. Her characters were set in a milieu that was her own so she understood their fears, hopes and idiosyncrasies only too well. But even if you are totally unfamiliar with the socio-cultural setting of her stories, they will strike a chord because of the honesty in her voice. To paraphrase a quote I read somewhere, “what is most personal is most universal”. You could buy just about any anthology of her works and read just about any story in it; you won’t be disappointed. However, I’d like to recommend some of my favorite works of Ismat Chugtai.

The Veil (Ghunghat)
     The Veil is about a strange battle of wills between a beautiful new bride and her insecure groom. Custom dictates that the groom must lift the bride’s veil before the marriage can be consummated, but Kale Mian is intimidated by his wife’s beauty and refuses to do so, leading to an impasse that lasts all their lives. The characters may seem caricature-ish at first glance but as the story unfolds, Chugtai makes you feel for not just the abandoned bride, but also the deluded husband.

The Quilt (Lihaaf)
     This is the story Ismat Chugtai was charged with obscenity for. You’d be quite bewildered at this if you read the story because Chugtai handles the sexuality with a very light hand. But the story was written at a time when even the slightest suggestion of homosexuality sparked an outrage. The Quilt is about Begum Jan, a bored and sexually frustrated housewife in a prosperous household who turns to a female servant for companionship and more. The story is narrated from the point of view of a young girl visiting Begum Jan.  The ending of this story is one of the best written ones I've ever read.

The Rock (Chatan)
     Chugtai is best known for The Quilt, but I think The Rock is a much better representation of her style and voice. It is about a man whose pretty young wife gradually loses all interest in her appearance. Her husband and family convince her that fussing over ones looks is shallow and completely unnecessary for a married woman.  Her complacence is shattered when a glamorous young woman moves in next door. Turns out, her husband is actually pretty shallow himself. It doesn't end there but I don’t want to give away the rest.

     Ismat Chugtai has a rich a varied body of work and I've barely scratched the surface here. I could easily recommend another five stories that I love equally as well and perhaps in the future I will. For now, let me urge you to give her stories a try. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

     I was quite sure I wanted to read something by Steinbeck for the Classics Challenge but for the longest time I couldn't decide between Of Mice and Men and The Grapes of Wrath. I went with Of Mice and Men because I read somewhere (probably Wikipedia) that it is one of the most frequently censored, banned and challenged books of all time. Apparently, it’s been challenged for obscenity, racial slurs and misrepresentation of the community. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about but frankly, I don’t see it. The language is positively mild by today’s standards and it’s plain to see that Steinbeck was not condoning racism.

     Set during the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men follows protagonists George and Lennie to a ranch in Soledad, California. George is small and clever; Lennie is strong but has the mind of a child. George is protective and very mindful of Lennie and the relationship between the two friends is really the backbone of this story. The two men share a dream of someday owning a piece of land where they could live and work as they please. When they both find employment at the ranch in Soledad, their dream suddenly, seems very attainable and within reach. However, as the title suggests, the best laid plans of mice and men go awry.

     What struck me the most about the book was the characters. Every single one of them is very distinct and well drawn although the descriptions and back stories are kept to a minimum. There is a thread of loneliness that connects these men (and woman) but nobody including the author harps on it. The setting feels very stark and cheerless, emphasizing this loneliness.

     Having said all of that, I’ll be honest with you; this wasn't my favorite classic of this year. I can see why it is such a classic and there definitely is a lot to this book, but I just couldn't connect with it. Maybe it was the setting, maybe it was the plot, I grew a bit fatigued with it towards the end, which is crazy because it’s such a short book. Don’t let that dissuade you if you were planning to read this because, like I said, there is a lot to like here.