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Tag: Books

The Great Connection

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Prodigy – Smack My Bitch Up

I.

It was Smack My Bitch Up that was playing as I read a particular section towards the beginning of Bank’s Excession where a drone, if I remember correctly, has to escape from a spaceship that is being taken over. And in one of those inexplicable coincidences the music and the action in the book fit each other perfectly. I could imagine a scene of the same on film with the music on the background and the drone running to escape out of the ship. There was a thrill of adrenaline as the music pumped the page into a 6 minute scene of pulse pounding action. And when the song entered the slow meditative section in the middle the action also entered a seemingly slow motion stage on the page where the drone glides through the air. Spielberg couldn’t have done it better on film. Incredible!

II.

Greece was sunny and bright, the very opposite of Auster’s grey and moody New York in City of Glass. As I ran from one end of Greece to another I seemed to mirror Quinn’s random wanderings through the dark side of New York. It was a wonderful contrast to look out of the window of the ferry and lose myself in the endless blue of the Aegean and a moment later lose myself in a world of a different sort between those pages, a world where wrong numbers led to postmodern detective adventures. And on the plane back as Quinn descended into a spiral of pointless obsession I felt the darkness outside the thick window reach in and for a second grip my heart.

III.

The wild rain and wind made me stay indoors in a bunk bed in a hostel near the Princess Street Gardens in the heart of old Edinburgh. There, Safran-Foer held my interest with his young protagonist dealing with post 9/11 trauma and his mute grandfather, witness to the Dresden firebombing. Reliving the firebombing lying on a hostel bed does not seem, at first glance, the most profound or sensitive thing to do. But what did surroundings matter when body and soul you are beside the narrator experiencing the endless horror. The shriek of the wind outside the window became the cries of people burnt and mutilated. As he ran through the smoking ruins of a glorious city, crazed and horrified, the rain outside seemed to fall in tandem to his running footsteps. The strength and precocity of the young boy instilled hope in a dark world taken over by low grey clouds and muted light.

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Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

It is 06:17 am and I’m done. I’ve finished the book after having read it through the night. And even me, never a big fan of the series, am strangely content. No, I’m not elated. I’m not even sad that the series has come to an end and that perhaps there will be nothing more. No, I’m just content. Content that I’ve finished a rollicking good read. Something that I was not expecting to say as I plodded my way through the first half of the book, through pedestrian prose and middling dialog. But from that point on the book picked up like a beast unleashed. And I found myself getting caught up with the events hurtling towards their singular conclusion. Who had time to pay attention to the language then? Who had time to stop and raise eyebrows at the derivative ideas that drove the story forward, the horcrux which was eerily similar to Tolkien’s great ring, the parallel quest of the Three and the Fellowship and many more similar literary devices and themes? There will be critics in the days to come who will go into excruciating detail over such things. But in the end I’ve to give Ms. Rowling credit where it is due. She excelled herself with the second half of the book and gave a fitting and cinematic end to the series (I can only imagine how exciting it would be for many to eventually see all that easily translatable action on the big screen). The last fifty or so pages passed by in a blur of breathless action and never ending danger. Even if the end is to be expected and perhaps mocked at she brought it to a close with confidence and without resorting to mawkishness.

Yes, read the book. Not just the fans but those of you who look down their long noses and wrinkling brows at a world gone crazy in the grip pf Potter mania, get off your high horse and immerse yourself for a few hours in a world which while inevitably simple is exciting. Take off that chip from your shoulder and place it aside for a few days. While you may justly mourn the death of good children’s literature, put it off for a few page turning hours and give yourself up to the hollow but unique charm of the book. I assure you, like me, you will forget time between those pages.

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The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The publication of a novel by Umberto Eco is a big thing in my universe. After all, his ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ is one of my all time favorite books. He is a master at mixing the arcane with the ordinary. So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I started reading his latest novel, ‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’. Unfortunately, the book has been a big disappointment.

The book deals mostly with the period of World War II although the main character is said to be living in the recent past. The novel is clearly autobiographical in parts as it reflects the experiences Eco underwent as a child, when he went with his mother to live in a village in the mountains of Piedmont, as well as his experiences of growing up in Fascist Italy under Mussolini.

The novel is about a Milanese old books dealer called Yambo, who loses episodic memory (the ability to recall events) due to a stroke. He wakes up in the hospital to realize that he does not remember anything about his adult life. He cannot recognize his wife, daughter or his friends. However, he finds that he has excellent recall for all the books he has read. He attempts to somehow get his memory back. With that intention he goes back to his childhood home in Solara where he discovers all the comics and records he used to read and listen to as a child during the pre-war and war years. However, he is unsuccessful in recalling anything although he does get to know through the above sources and through his old housekeeper how his life must have been during that time.

One day, in the attic of the house he unearths a sensational find, the First Folio of Shakespeare. The shock of the discovery gives him another stroke and he goes into a coma. In the coma, he begins to discover aspects of his childhood life in the region as well as his adolescent sweetheart whose name he knows but whose face he cannot recall. In the coma, using the literary characters he knows from his comic books he tries to divine her face. Does he get his memory back? Is he successful in recollecting his first big love’s face? Does he wake up? You will have to read the book to find that out but I had stopped caring by then.

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Kafka on the Shore

kafka on the shore

It is hard on a writer when one of his books becomes a popular phenomenon. It is inevitable that all his later offerings will be compared to that which transformed him into a literary superstar. Is the new one better than that? Has he evolved? Is he deliberately trying to write differently to avoid any comparisons with that book? Most authors wilt under such close scrutiny and can never equal their former glory, if we can be arrogant enough to assume that that is what every writer tries to do. Even though Joseph Heller himself stated tongue-in-cheek (he being a perfect example for the case in point), “When I read something saying I’ve not done anything as good as Catch-22 I’m tempted to reply, ‘Who has?'”, there are many writers who break free from such artificial barriers and continue to produce quality work.

Haruki Murakami is one such writer. His fifth novel, Norwegian Wood, became a youth phenomenon in his native Japan when it was published, much to his dismay. So much so that he fled Japan to escape that sudden fame. The majority of Japanese youth (and indeed many in the rest of the world as well) connected with the poignant tale of lost love and youthful sexuality.

However, Murakami did not succumb to the pressures generated by such adulation and lose direction. He continued to write in his signature style, a mixture of pop culture elements and magic realism, written using language so simple that every book of his is instantly accessible. And that is one reason for much of the criticism directed against him as well. That his novels are all MTV style and no substance, easy to read sentences devoid of any deeper meaning. But his writing style can easily deceive. His books might be accessible but they are in no way superficial. Each of his books deals with profound issues, ranging from incest to infidelity. But let us not get into an academic discussion about the profundity of his writing. That is not the purpose of this essay. The purpose of this essay is to talk about his most recent novel available in English translation, Kafka on the Shore.

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Vikram Seth's Two Lives

There comes a time in every writer’s career when they are plagued by the question, “what do I write about now?” Such was the dilemma Vikram Seth found himself in after the publication of his novel The Suitable Boy, the longest single volume novel ever published. The fear of never being able to write again haunted Vikram. His mother, Leila Seth, asked him to interview his great-uncle Shanti Seth, which he did. Those comprehensive interviews have resulted in Vikram Seth’s latest novel, ‘Two Lives.’

The two lives in question are Uncle Shanti and his German-Jewish wife Henny. This incident was narrated by the author himself at the Penguin India book launch of ‘Two Lives’ in Chennai on October 13. The event, the first of a five-city promotional tour, was held at the Taj Coromandel and was well attended by the usual mix of dancers, socialites and other assorted culture vultures.

The author read extracts from his book for an hour. The book covers a period of time from the 1930s to the 1970s. Shanti Uncle migrated to Germany in the 1930s and lived with Henny’s family till he was forced to relocate to England due to World War 2. Henny joined Shanti in England after she fled Germany in 1939. Their friendship blossomed into love and they got married.

Vikram Seth went to live with his uncle and aunt when he attended boarding school at Tonbridge. He could thus observe them up close and the result is an extraordinary story about two ordinary people. The book covers a wide sweep from Nazi Germany, Britain, Auschwitz and the holocaust, Israel, post-war Germany and 1970s Britain.

The author talked about how he found aunt Henny’s letters in which she had poured out her grief over the loss of her mother and sister who perished in the gas chambers. When questioned about whether ‘Two Lives’ was his most personal work he replied that although all his books had some element of the personal, reading through aunt Henny’s letters was an emotionally draining experience. According to Seth the best stories are the ones that happen around us, just waiting to be told. And because the two people he wrote about were not famous he was not constrained by the regular rules that apply to memoirs and biographical accounts. Maybe that’s what makes ‘Two Lives’ so special.

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Hip: A History (Book Review)

Some strands of anti-globalisation, especially cultural globalisation, like to think of American popular culture as a rampaging juggernaut greedily gobbling up local cultures in its quest for worldwide hegemony. This reading makes out American pop culture to be monolithic. And especially in these times of militant protests against the ‘McDonaldisation’ of the world – think of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle in 1999 or French farmer Jose Bove’s vandalism of American food outlets – a greater understanding of the monster called American culture is needed.

John Leland’s book ‘Hip: The History’ is a must read for supporters and opponents of American pop culture. The book traces the evolution of American culture right from the arrival of the first white settlers and African slaves in the early 17th century to the late 20th century. Leland’s central argument is that it was the fertile and dynamic socio-political set-up of the new world that enabled the culture of the African slaves to interact with the culture of the white slave owners to produce a unique culture, neither fully African or European. This is the beginning of American popular culture. Leland even gives a name to this cultural mongrel: Hip.

The author calls the minstrel shows and the blues music of the 19th century the ‘two roots of hip,’ and says that all other forms of pop culture were improvisations of these. The ‘Blackface Minstrel Shows’ were a parody of black culture in crude, stereotypical ways. These shows were enacted by whites dressed as blacks and were a way of letting whites participate in a world they at once abhorred and found fascinating. It also set the stage for a recurring theme in the history of American culture, that of blacks inventing a form of expression outside the mainstream, which would be appropriated by whites and then gained popular appeal as something that was ‘cool’ or ‘hip’. The Blues began as a form of expression by Black-Americans in response to the hardships they faced. At this stage it was scorned as the ‘devils music.’ When whites got interested in the blues, it began its upward movement towards mainstream respectability. Think of Elvis Presley shaking his pelvis to ‘Jailhouse Rock’ in front of thousands of screaming fans or Eminem, one of the most popular rappers. The phrase, ‘the white man who stole the blues’ sums it up.

But can the vastly diverse forms of American pop culture be reduced to being described by a single three-letter word called hip? The author defines hip as something that is invented by a small group of people as a form of counter culture that, as more and more people adopt it, gets diluted as it radiates outwards. By the time it has achieved mass appeal, the original group has invented a new form of expression. This is broadly the story of pop culture in America. I don’t think that the term hip captures all the contours of American pop culture.

In the nineteenth century writers like Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville and Henry David Thoreau sought to break with conformism. Their writing celebrated the individual spirit and rejected materialism. Thoreau in fact rejected society and lived in the woods for two years, which forms the content of his book ‘Walden Pond’. The inheritors of this intellectual legacy in the twentieth century were the ‘beats’. They also rejected white collar and suburban family life, the two strands of American consumer culture. Jack Kerouac, one of the more famous beatniks, laid out the philosophy in his book ‘On The Road.’

The basic premise of the book is that the core of American pop culture is a result of the intermixing of black and white cultures and each would be incomplete without the other. But in some passages of the book it seems as if the author glosses over black contributions and emphasizes the role of the white. At times the author sounds a little condescending towards Afro-Americans. And what would the writing style of a book whose subject is hip be? You guessed it, hip. The language is hyperbolic at places. Maybe it’s just an American style of writing. But some of the idioms and phrases would be unfamiliar to Indians.

On the whole this book is highly entertaining, especially to readers who have spent countless hours listening to the blues or jazz or any other form of American pop culture. And for people unfamiliar with these, the book offers a glimpse into the forces that shaped American pop culture and gave Americans a sense of identity.

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