Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

I like to participate in the Book Blogger Hop hosted by Crazy-for-Books whenever I have a Friday that isn't maddeningly busy. The Blog Hop is a great way to meet fellow book bloggers and follow new blogs that you may find interesting.

This weeks question is: “In honor of Banned Books Week, what is your favorite “banned or frequently challenged book”?”

Two of the books on the banned books list that I love are Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I cannot even begin to understand what anyone could have found objectionable about these books but then I cannot banning books anyway. 

Have a great week people and happy blog hopping.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

This week I read just one short story, Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell. Actually I had no idea that Orwell wrote short stories too. I sort of stumbled onto this one.  The story is narrated by an unnamed, British, police officer in Burma when it was under British rule. The officer talks of the contempt the Burmese have for the Europeans who presume to rule them. As a paid servant of the oppressive regime, he is hated and mocked by the natives, although he would personally never harm anyone. While he is irritated and hurt by the hatred of the natives, the actions of the British are downright repulsive to him. He relates the agonies and tortures that the locals are put through by the ostensibly civilized Imperial power. He would like nothing better than to chuck up his job and head back home but needs must and so he plods on, dissatisfied and bitter.

Then one day, there are reports of an elephant ravaging a bazaar and the officer is asked to go do something about it. He hasn’t the vaguest idea what he can do about it, but sets forth anyway, with his pony and a rifle. After some hunting about and general confusion, it is discovered that the elephant trampled to death a coolie. The townspeople want the elephant to pay (besides, they like the idea of all that elephant meat). The officer is horrified at the very idea of shooting an elephant in cold blood. Especially since the elephant in question seems to have calmed down. But he realizes that the mob behind him will not let him back out now. What follows is a momentous struggle, both within and without.

This short story is supposedly an autobiographical account of the time Orwell served as a police officer in Burma. There is definitely an insider’s perspective here. Orwell believes that imperialism corrodes and disfigures not only the oppressed but also the oppressor. This story illustrates that belief beautifully.  This could so easily have turned into an ‘us against them’ tirade, but Orwell never dehumanizes anyone. As a result, you feel for everyone, the natives who are being subjugated in their own land, the isolated and voiceless European officers and most of all the poor elephant who has nothing to do with imperialism but falls prey to it all the same. The last bit of the story is tragic and terribly disturbing but Orwell makes his point here, effectively and memorably.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Lifted Veil by George Eliot

My interest in the horror genre, gothic or otherwise, is slim. I’ve read a few of the classics like Frankenstein and some well known short stories by Edgar Allen Poe and Roald Dahl but that’s it. The Lifted Veil intrigued me because it isn’t what one would expect from George Eliot. Firstly, I’ve never known her (In case you didn’t know, Eliot is a woman. Her real name was Mary Ann Evans) to dabble in the paranormal before and secondly, this is a novella, from a writer who is known for HUGE books with multiple storylines and a gazillion characters.

The story begins with Latimer, the narrator, predicting his own death in chilling detail. He knows when and how he will die and he knows exactly how it’s going to feel. From here on, we travel back in time with Latimer to when he was a little boy, adored by his mother and ignored by his father and step brother. Physically and mentally weak, Latimer is forced into studies he does not enjoy and finally sent to Geneva. While there, he falls gravely ill. He survives the illness, only to realise that it has changed something within him. He can now look into the future and into people’s souls. To Latimer, this ability is a curse that makes him privy to the tortured souls of everyone around him and alienates him even more from his near ones.  The turning point comes when he sees and falls in love with Bertha, his brother’s prospective wife. The cunning and coquettish Bertha manages to keep her soul hidden from Latimer. He has a peek into their future and what he sees there horrifies him. But seeing the future doesn’t mean he can change it.

The story is pretty fast paced and well executed. It reminds me of Frankenstein in a way, mostly because both stories are narrated, in first person, by their tormented protagonists.  Eliot manages to create an eerie atmosphere and a sense of impending doom from the very first page onwards. However, it is very hard to sympathise with any of the characters, not even the wretched protagonist. His constant lamentations about his weakness start to get a bit tiresome after a while. But this is just me nitpicking really. Overall, the story makes the impact that it is aiming for. While it is more ‘Supernatural’ than ‘Horror’, it does manage to give you goosebumps.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Guy De Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and Henry James tell the same story, differently.

Its three for the price of one this week. Three formidable writers take on a single theme and give it entirely different shades.  It all started with Guy De Maupassant who was a prolific writer with a special talent for short stories. One of his most famous stories is The Necklace. Somerset Maugham and Henry James both put their own spin on this fable and came out with two stories that are very distinct in style and treatment. The characters, setting and motives are all changed but the necklace stays .

The Necklace by Guy De Maupassant
This is the story of Madame Mathilde Loisel who aspires to be one among the rich and fashionable. She is, however, married to a lowly but loving clerk. One day, she and her husband finally manage to get themselves invited to a very swish party. Unwilling to go unadorned, she borrows a necklace from her wealthy friend. As ill luck would have it, the necklace is lost by the end of the party and Mathilde and her husband’s life is forever changed. For more on this story I’m going to lead you to Mel U’s excellent review of it HERE.  You can read the story online HERE.

A String of Beads by Somerset Maugham
Miss Robinson is a well mannered and well liked governess in a wealthy household. One night, she is invited to dine with the family and a few of their distinguished guests. One of these guests is Miss Lyngate who is particularly proud of the pearls she is wearing. Shockingly Count Borselli, an expert on jewellery, seems more impressed with Miss Robinson’s string of beads than with Miss Lyngate’s precious pearls. He insists the beads are the real thing but how could a governess afford anything so expensive? Surely it is a mistake. Well it is a mistake, and a very fortunate one for Miss Robinson.
I couldn't find it online but there is an eBook you could download.

Paste by Henry James
Charlotte is given a tin of cheap costume jewellery that belonged to her late aunt, by her cousin Arthur.  But a string of pearls among them seems too beautiful to be just paste. However Arthur insists that they are worthless. So Charlotte seeks the advice of Mrs Guy, a woman who was sure to know about such things. Mrs Guy agrees with Charlotte’s assessment of the pearls and advises her to hang onto them. Honest Charlotte cannot repay Arthur’s generosity with deceit.  But she soon learns that not everyone has similar scruples.
You can find Paste HERE.

As I stated before, almost everything except the necklace itself is different in each of these versions. The most striking difference is in the three female protagonists. Mathilde is a pretentious and petulant woman making it hard for us to sympathise with her. Miss Robinson is generally liked but her story is less about her character and more about a stroke of luck. Lastly, Charlotte is a woman of real moral integrity and goodness but Henry James does not turn this into a moral tale. Ultimately, the real common thread running through these stories is the underlying idea of inanimate jewels profoundly affecting human lives.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Play Day: Sweet Bird of Youth by Tennessee Williams

Tennessee Williams, apart from writing some of the most affecting plays also has a talent for picking out hauntingly lyrical titles. A Streetcar Named Desire and Sweet Bird of Youth being the best of the lot. However, the sweetness of the titles contrasts rather starkly with the bitterness in the plays.  When Sweet Bird of Youth was first written and produced in 1959, it caused quite a stir. Mainly because it talked openly and non-judgementally about promiscuity, sex and even drugs. But none of this is really what the play is about. At its core, this play is about loneliness and ageing and the hopelessness of trying to hold on to youth.

Chance Wayne was going to be a Big Star; instead he’s become a gigolo, drifting from woman to woman and town to town. This time he’s managed to latch on to an insecure and aging movie star Alexandra Del Lago AKA the Princess who’s running away from the debacle that was her grand comeback. Chance is back in his hometown St Cloud to reclaim the love of his life, Heavenly. Years back, Heavenly's father Boss Finely had forced Chance to leave his hometown and his girl. Chance hopes to fool his former acquaintances into believing that he has made it big but everyone see’s through the false glitter. He had once been the golden boy of this town but today everyone looks at him with either pity or contempt or both.  The Princess drifts in and out of a drug induced stupor throughout the play, now leaning on Chance for comfort, now turning from him in anger.

The relationship between Chance and the Princess is very layered and bittersweet. They are bound not by love but by their desperation and despair. They have both, contempt and compassion for each other.  Each is using the other and willingly being used too. The other characters in the play seem one dimensional and somewhat stereotypical in comparison. Especially the bigoted politician and his spoilt, wayward son. Perhaps this lack of complexity is intentional, to depict a recognizable character type. Youth is a leitmotif in this play, with each character mourning its loss in some way or the other.

Williams includes very specific instructions on stage directions, lighting, scenery and even the background music which is to accompany certain scenes.  This really gives the reader a multi-layered experience unlike some plays which read pretty much like a short story.   The initial production of the play and also its movie version stars Paul Newman as Chance and Geraldine Page as the Princess.

In the foreword to the play Williams writes, “We are all civilized people, which means that we are all savages at heart but observing a few amenities of civilized behaviour. I am afraid that I observe fewer of these amenities than you do.” He is talking of himself but the same could be said of Chance and the Princess. Williams captures the savagery behind the veneer of civilization without resorting to psychobabble or rhetoric. That’s what makes Sweet Bird of Youth a disturbing yet unforgettable play.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Edith Wharton’s tales and poetry.

Much as I loved Age of Innocence, I hadn’t read anything else by Edith Wharton until now. House of Mirth has been on my TBR list for ages but I just can’t seem to get to it. Wharton has a real talent for creating flesh and blood characters and her prose is a thing of beauty but she does love to ramble on a bit. That being the case, her short stories are a great way to enjoy her writing when you don’t have the leisure to delve into one of her novels. This week I read two of her short stories, one of which is a supernatural tale.


"You won't know till afterward, you won't know till long, long afterward." 

That’s what legend says about the ghost at Lyng house. Ned and Mary Boyne have left America to settle down to a harmonious life in England, thanks to a lucky windfall. The couple love all things old-worldly, including ghosts.  Or so they think. Unfortunately, ghosts are not a quaint decor element as the Boyne’s find out. 

Frankly, there wasn’t much of a surprise element to this ghostly tale.  You could spot what’s coming a mile off. However, what it lacks in trick endings, it kind of makes up for with atmosphere and some well threshed out characters. As I mentioned before, brevity is not Wharton’s strong point and the lack of it is very evident here. I think this story could have been at least two pages shorter without losing anything. It might then have created a stronger tension which is so important in this genre. Not her best work but if you are in the mood for a softened ghost story without much blood-curdling going on, this is worth a read. 

Souls Belated

Lydia belongs to a time and society that would forgive a murder sooner than they would forgive a divorce. A divorce is just what Lydia has gone thru but being a social pariah is not what pains her the most.  It is the thought of being saddled onto Garret, her lover. The lovers had believed their love to be constant, unshakable and yet, here they were, unable to even look each other in the eye. Can marriage really bring two souls closer or is it better to part before the estrangement becomes even more painful?

Now this is where Edith Wharton really comes into her own. If you’ve read her novels, you know this is familiar territory to her. Affairs of the heart and the constraints of society are what she handles best. Wharton tells the story from Lydia’s perspective, and she tells it very well. Lydia’s helplessness, confusion and even hypocrisy are told most compassionately and without judgement. This story is classic Edith Wharton and if you enjoyed any of her novels, definitely read this.
You can find both stories here.

Edith Wharton also wrote a lot of poetry which I'd never come across until now.I’m going to leave you with a slice of the poem A Torchbearer.

Great cities rise and have their fall; the brass
That held their glories moulders in its turn.
Hard granite rots like an uprooted weed,
And ever on the palimpsest of earth
Impatient Time rubs out the word he writ.
But one thing makes the years its pedestal,
Springs from the ashes of its pyre, and claps
A skyward wing above its epitaph—
The will of man willing immortal things.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

The Literary Blog Hop,hosted by The Blue Bookcase is back and I'm very glad. Its a great way to meet fellow bloggers who are interested in literary fiction. This weeks question is:

Must all literary writing be difficult? Can you think of examples of literary writing that was not difficult? 

I don't think any writer sets out to write a book that is difficult to read. If they do, they shouldn't. I think the difficulty arises mainly due to archaic language, cultural differences and sometimes just complicated story lines. But all of this is highly subjective. Shakespeare's language takes some getting used to but his most enduring works are also his simplest which is why they lend themselves so well to adaptations and reinterpretations. Pearl S. Buck's characters and their choices may seem inexplicable and confounding to a modern reader but placed in their cultural context, they make perfect sense and are not difficult to understand at all.

The only difficulty that really slows me down is an overabundance of characters and multiple story-lines that one has to keep track of. However, if the story at the core is one that resonates with me and is engagingly told, I would never resent the effort I put into reading it.

I think works of Louisa May Alcott, Arthur Conan Doyle and more recently Jhumpa Lahiri and Alexander McCall Smith are all engaging and definitely not difficult to read.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Short Stories Wednesday: An Ode to Woody Allen

The past few days have been one of those rare times when I’ve barely read anything. It’s been a hectic and scattered time. I did however; manage to sneak in a movie with hubby.  I’ve been meaning to watch Midnight in Paris for some time now and finally did. May I take a moment here to gush and coo over Woody Allen’s cinematic brilliance and the literary fantasy that is Midnight...? I don’t want to give anything away for those of you who haven’t seen it yet, but I must say that Paris and New York seem to bring out the very best in Allen.  Brilliantly shot and nicely performed (especially Hemmingway and Dali). 

For this week’s short story I picked one by Woody Allen as an ode to his comic genius. I’m not saying this is anywhere near as good as his movies, or even some of his older short stories, but it’s funny and light and this week I really need funny and light. In a crazy way, it’s very close to Midnight in Paris. Both protagonists are unfulfilled writers who are contemptuous of the movie business but willing to sell-out to it anyway. You will also find some of the writers appearing in the movie mentioned in this story as well.

Mr Biggs and the Boychick

Flanders Mealworm has written several books on ‘lofty philosophical themes’. Unfortunately only one of them has been published and even that wasn’t quite the success he had hoped it would be. None of this prevents him from thinking of himself as the next Fitzgerald.  Then, one day, E.Coli Biggs, a hotshot movie mogul calls and is keen to hire the talented Mr Mealworm.  But, talented or not, how much existential angst can he squeeze out of The Three Stooges?

This is a pretty short and fast read, if you don’t keep stopping to check the meaning of obscure words and names. Despite the sometimes crazy language and long winded sentences, Mr Biggs and The Boychick is understandable and accessible. And funny. Definitely read it if you like Allen’s brand of humor.

The story is a part of Mere Anarchy, a short story collection by Allen. You can read it online here.