Posts tagged 2012
Posts tagged 2012
Last year has been, as every year is, very volatile w.r.t. reading. There were brief occasions of maniacal reading followed by extended non-reading periods, driven by work, laziness and hormones. This is not a comprehensive read list because I read a few not worth remembering. The links on the books take you to reviews I wrote here and elsewhere about them.
My best book read of last year was “The Old Man and Mr. Smith” by Peter Ustinov, a fantasy of God and Devil coming down to Earth to assess progress of creation. A funny and thought-provoking must-read.
The worst read of the year was “The Amateurs” by John Niven about a loser guy who becomes a raging success thanks to his Kluver Boosey syndrome that gives him a perfect swing in golf. I hated this book so much that it is, unfortunately, indelibly branded in my memory.
Sacre Bleu (dude’s review here) by Christopher Moore was an engaging read. Part fantasy, part history, part mystery. A certain blue color used by master painters in their master works has a sinister story. This blue keeps alive the mysterious “colorman” but kills the painter through the Goddess of blue – Bleu. How Bleu breaks free of the colorman with the help of baker-painter Lucien Lessard forms the climax of the story.
2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson was a science fiction I read after ages. It talks of the year 2312 when most of the solar system has been colonized and the earth itself faces the aftermirth of global warming and much of it is under water. The protagonist Swan is caught in a political plot that she must uncover and diffuse to save the worlds. An interesting read, if a bit sagging in the middle.
“Instructions for living someone else’s life” by Mil Milington was an unexpectedly interesting book I picked up at the library. A bloke goes to bed drunk and wakes up next morning 18 years into the future, beside a wife he does not know. How the 25-year old, now caught in a middle aged body come to terms with his lost years forms a fascinating story.
Remember the extended non-reading periods I mentioned earlier? They are strictly not “non-reading” but more of “brain-dead” reading – mostly re-re-re-re-re reads of various Agatha Christies, JeffertyArchers, Erma Bombecks Dave Barrys etc. (Harry Potter is soon joining the list of to-be-re-re-re-re-read during times of brain death) . While in the middle of an Agatha Christie Poirot mystery (who remembers the titles anymore?), I stumbled upon “The Floating Admiral“, co-written by, in addition to Agatha Christie, a football field full of mystery writers such as Arthur Conaon Doyle, Dorothy Sayers, G.K. Chesterton, Canon Victor L. Whiechurch, Henry Wade, John Rhode, Milward Kennedy, Ronald Knox, Freeman Crofts, Edger Jepson, Clemence Dane and Anthony Berkeley. The book started promising, but soon was lost in the complications of plot. I prodded along until the end, to a very unsatisfactory solution. The individual authors are excellent, but together, their work turns up like, as Crazy Mohan once said, excuse the grossness, “a beggar’s vomit”.
Sometime in 2011, dude and I decided to read “award winners”. That resolution was rudely terminated after Case Histories by Kate Atkinson. Of course Case Histories was the culmination of a series of really really depressing award winning reads. A Humphrey Bogart-ish detective attempts to solve the problem of a child that went missing 30 years earlier, another of a young woman, murdered by person or persons unknown, a decade before, and the third of a woman who apparently slaughtered her husband in a fit of post-natal rage two decades back. Actually, I am not sure the detective does much other than mope around with his failed marriage; that’s where the Bogart panache fades. Things just fall into place on their own, and the guy miraculously inherits millions from a client.
Missing Mom by Joyce Carol Oates started off very drab, but picked up somewhere in the middle, and ended being a good read after all. A rather intense story of a woman who comes to terms with her own adulthood after her mom’s unexpected and rather gory death.
Julian Barnes was another interesting author I was introduced to by the dude last year. Love etc. is a story of three people, about incidents that happened to them, from each of their viewpoints. I usually don’t like open endings, but the one in Love etc. was tolerable to me, even intriguing.
Having read Love, etc. by Julian barnes and having loved it, I read “The sense of an Ending” in one sitting. I don’t think I really got it (borrowing the narrator’s ex-girlfriend’s last words to him!). Of course, I did get the story of the novella – the past of a man, as remembered by him, sometimes erroneously, sometimes correctly in his own sunset years, and the facing of his own past actions and its consequences.This book was, however, less impressive than Love etc. to me because perhaps of heightened expectations.
The Leftovers by Tom Perrota was a 50/50 book. It is a grim tale of the world facing a sudden inexplicable disappearance of millions of people. The consequences to the “left overs” are scary but the world moves on, coping as best as it can.
Wodehouse is irreplaceable and incomparable (“how is the existing state of what I might call “plus pig” to be converted into a state of “minus pig“?), but Allen comes close with his wacky humor that is full of nonsense and intelligence at the same time. “Without Feathers” is Woody Allen’s collection of 18 ROFL-type short stories that are an instant pick-me-up on a dark, despondent day.
“And Another Thing” by Jeremy Clarkson is a collection of brilliantly humorous essays. What hits you like a double shot espresso on a sweltering afternoon is the total irreverence, brutal honesty and political incorrectness of opinions. Clarkson is not even remotely in the league of the supremely obnoxious Larry, the Cable Guy but merely communicates his strong ideas (often justifiable, even if unpalatable) on politically sensitive issues (e.g. homosexuality, Green peace movement etc.), and is not afraid to own his views. There is a lot of self-deprecating humor a-la Dave Barry, but with more class. Makes for good reading if you are not sensitive about issues such as the above.
While on the topic of humour, “May Contain Nuts“is a collection of American Humour writings, edited by Michael J. Rosen . Typical of American humor (against the stiff-upper-lip of the island) – the stories are mostly slap-stick and self-deprecating. I have not read the book fully because there is only so much slapstick you can take in a year.
Edmund Crispin’s Gervase Fen mysteries “Swan Song” and “Buried for Pleasure” are wonderful to read for the holidays where you don’t have a care in the world, and can just lie around in the couch with a bowl of coated peanuts, a mug of honey lemon tea and Ilayaraja playing in the background. It is heartening to note that I did get a few of those days last year, that allowed me to savor Crispin in peace.
The tales in “Stone Garden and Other Stories” by Alan Spence are not spectacular in any way, but quietly interesting – meaning, you don’t really feel like reading it all in one shot, but you don’t feel like not reading them at all either.
“The Franchise Affair” by Josephine Tey is a story set in post-war England of two women denying charges of kidnapping, and torturing a teenage girl, despite all evidence against them – a very simple plot sans corpses, and an engaging read.
“The little Black Book of Stories” by A.S. Byatt is a collection of vaguely disturbing short stories. It is disturbing by its macabre than depravity. The stories are scholarly, as is the flow of language. Each story has many layers to it, the superficial, apparently fantastic, fairy-tale (albeit grim) to the more profound truths the tales symbolise. My resolution at the end of this book to read more Byatt did not materialize.
On the non-fiction side, I read “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking ” by Susan Cain, about introverts and how stuff works with them, which I found fascinating because it said nice things about me.
2013, despite having started with excruciating work deadlines, has been promising so far, with “Practical Demonkeeping” by Christopher Moore, “Lamb”, also by CM (an amazing book) and “Holy Disorders” by Edmund Crispin already under the “read” (past tense) folder in the kindle. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred in the Springtime” is currently holding me in splits for the gazillionth time. Ofcourse the wave would go up and down. But if I can read at least as many books this year as last year, I would consider the year well-spent.
I like essays. Even the entirely fictional ones. I like the most, essays that blur the difference between fiction and non-fiction. They are the creative ones that shape your thought through the unease they suffuse through their fine mix of facts and fantasy. Finding such essays, leave alone finding such essayists, is hard. It is an endeavor. In Tamil, several essays/short-stories by Nanjil Nadan repeatedly define this standard with ease. Recent collections titled “kAvalan kAvAn enin” and “sUdiya pU sUdarka” (that won him the sAhithya akAdemy award) are treasures that demand your thinking and action. Discussing these books is for another note.
While on a recent splurge at a local bookstore for such essay collections in English, along with the relative heavy-weights like “The Collected Essays” of A. K. Ramanujan, “Patriots and Partisans” by Ramachandra Guha, “Selected Essays” of G. K. Chesterton, “Readings” by Michael Dirda, “Inventing the Enemy” by Umberto Eco, “Some Remarks” by Neal Stephenson, I also picked “My Husband and Other Animals” by Janaki Lenin with a prompting from my dame and on a lark, Never Push When It Says Pull by a guy named Guy Browning, a relative unknown to me. But that is one reason we read books, don’t we — to meet over a course of their printed discourse made available for a price, strangers whom you could become life-long friends with.
Never Push When It Says Pull is a collection of 800 word long (short?) essays with titles beginning with a “How to…” discussing everyday topics. The essays are segregated under ten categories ranging from “Out and About” to “Reading and Writing” to “Shopping and Spending” to “Lying and Swearing”. Intended as humorous asides peppered with unintended profundities, on several occasions they fall between sarcastic observations and ignorant hyperbole. The prose with distinctly understated British humor reminds one of those “How to Be…” books by George Mikes, popular from several decades back. But then, George Mikes was an emigrant (Hungarian) who ‘became’ a Brit.
Several of the first sentences of these essays are deadly. Sample these: You don’t realize how important your dignity is until you suddenly lose it (How to…embarrass yourself); The golden rule of healthy living is to make sure you keep your total units of alcohol below your total number of cigarettes (How to…live cleanly); Singing is what you do when you want to make a noise but haven’t got anything much to say (How to…sing); Things are very like people in that at any given moment one tenth of them are poorly (How to…fix things); Having too many choices leads to moral obesity (How to…choose); tourists are people who spend their life savings travelling many thousands of miles in order to stand directly in front of you when you are trying to get somewhere in a hurry (How to…be a tourist). One does feel some of the essays in this collection shouldn’t have been written beyond such first sentences.
Science is the religion for people who can’t cope with religion. That is the first sentence of “How to…be scientific”. If the humorous intent is kept aside, that first sentence only exposes the ignorance of the writer about science. In fact, many of the observations on science in this essay, if not taken as humorous observations, are either confused or wrong or both. But then, in the next essay on art, he observes:
Impressionism was the world seen through a couple of glasses of vin rouge. Expressionism was impressionism after the whole bottle. Vorticism was when the room started spinning and modern conceptual art is the throwing-up stage
Humorous and barbarous, respectively, for those who don’t know and know about art/paintings.
Like any short story or essay collection or even the omnibus of an author, this is a book not to be read in one go. It should be visited periodically, if not often, like chatting with our beer-buddy or meeting the town wise-counsel. Else the humor would begin to appear cynical, the reflections would appear judgmental and before long, the wry would turn dry. That is when the prose of such essays would settle into boring fiction or bland facts.
Author: Guy Browning
Year of publication: 2005 (paperback, 2010)
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Ruskin Bond is one of the Indian authors who writes in English; well. His English is not strained and doesn’t read ‘translated’ from a native Indian tongue — especially when writing the thoughts and emotions of Indians. Another writer with such language ease is R. K. Narayan (I wouldn’t put a Salman Rushdie in this league, not because he lacks skills in English — far from it — but his would often read pompous and ‘high-browed’). Ruskin Bond lives as a bachelor, away from the cities and on the hills, not mingling with the ‘literary crowd’ and their intellectual cocktail parties (“The cocktails usually run away with the intellect”). But he has prevailed and been prolific with an impressive profile, decked with the Sahithya Akademi to Padmashree honors. Penguin India is re-releasing some of his earlier titles and I bought a bunch.
When Darkness Falls and Other Stories is a collection of stories written by him around 2001. The book is less than hundred pages and takes an hour to complete. Most of the stories are set in and around his hometown Dehra Dun, at a time when he was young and forming. The first story, which lends the name to the book title, is also the best. It describes the life of Markham, the man with a scary face — result of an army-term accident — who no one wants to engage or endure. Put up by his longtime friend, Markham dwells in a forgotten corner of the dilapidated Empire hotel in his hometown, rotting along with the furniture through the changing times. A lifetime of resigned acceptance and dormant frustrations manifest one day (rather, night) unexpectedly, irrevocably, and an era passes in an inferno. I liked this story because it didn’t pretend to be a story; just events and experience and the rest is upto the reader.
There are other lighthearted stories like The Writer’s Bar (supposedly visited by great writers like Joseph Conrad, Somerset Maugham… to boost the sales) or the Monkey Trouble (Ruskin’s younger self describing the enjoyable childhood phase with a grandfather who loves to keep pets, much to the chagrin of the grandmother). The ‘ghost stories’ are the driest in content and charm, predictable and bland. But then, as one of the character says, “People can’t live without stories”. These are stories from a corner of India, events and experience told with a personal touch, in simple language. When Darkness Falls… is not the best by Ruskin Bond, but his regular is a better read than the self-professed nine-point someones in the market.
Author: Ruskin Bond
Year of Publication: 2001
Back in college, I read Ayn Rand because it seemed to be the “cool” thing to do. I use the word “read” rather loosely because I prodded along doggedly - partly not understanding what it spoke about, but mostly feeling miserably foolish for not being able to rave about it like my intellectual friends. I knew I had some opinion on that book, but couldn’t find suitable words to describe the opinion. A decade or so later, I read a post by John Scalzi, who described Atlas Shrugged as “nerd revenge porn”. That was the light bulb moment for me. I believed it was a once-a-lifetime thing, and there would be no further nerd revenge porns in my life again.
Until I read a Tamil novel called “Vishnupuram” recently.
Vishnupuram is a fairly large period novel; the first part of the novel is set at period t, the second at t minus a few centuries and the third, t plus a few centuries - in the now re-popular non-linear story telling format. The central theme of the novel as far as I can see (which is not much, to be honest) is that everything in this world is cyclic, more so, the quest of man to understand the truth of being. The story (?!) by itself is smartly set, the first and last chapters brilliantly portraying the repetitiveness of events and human emotions but what comes between the two is migraine inducing, with the words “pretentious drivel” repeatedly blinking inside your head.
To be fair, the author has worked really hard with history and facts and extended known facts commendably to fiction. He has also done his homework well in trying to understand the various philosophies that have reigned at different eras - Vedic, Sankyam, Buddhist, Jain and all in between. The downside of it is that most of the book (especially the second “t-centuries” section) comes out as the author’s brag of “see how much I know”. The book gets lost in the fuzzy area between fiction and non-fiction, where you wonder if the fiction has been painstakingly fabricated to carry the philosophical pondering or vice versa. What could have been said in one sentence of “in a debate among the various philosophers, the Buddhist monk won” the chapter rambles on and on about the various philosophies to the point of being childish - remember the time when in your Geography paper, you wrote up everything you knew irrespective of whether it was relevant to the question or not because your teacher (Mrs. Eipe) rarely read your answers and graded you according to the number of pages in your answer sheet ? Most of the second section seemed like an attempt at bragging, not very subtly either, at how much the author knows about the various philosophies, which is all very well except that it served the additional purpose of filling pages and making the novel an apparent “magnum opus” of modern Tamil literature, as it is considered by the cult following. Just like Atlas Shrugged.
The language of the book is elegant and chaste enough to bring out the period effect. The use of the colour imagery is also creative - the red river to symbolise the emotional unrest of the townspeople, the green stone to symbolise lust and so on. However, the descriptions, especially of nature, become very repetitive after a point. The third section that describes the pre-deluge and deluge makes you skip passages because of the monotony of the narrative.
All the characters in the book (and there are plenty of them) are emotionally high strung and it seems that everyone is obsessing about truth and enlightenment (and gratuitous sex) all the time. Agreed that you cannot write an interesting story with mundane characters who wake up every morning deciding what to make for breakfast like normal people do, but having a town full of jumpy people constantly agonizing about the nature of truth makes you wonder how many heart attacks and strokes the town must see. Won’t there be a single sensible person in that town who tells people to snap out of it and get on with life? The worst part is that this obsession with “truth” (“Gnyana thedal”) is not confined to an era alone, which is ok because that’s the premise of the book - what goes around comes around - but with so much torment, it is a wonder people didn’t kill themselves and put an end to the human race. As if it is not enough that people talk philosophy all the time, even an elephant ponders about the nature of its existence. As Calvin (of Bill Watterson) would say - there’s just too much atmosphere !
Of course, as with any book aiming to become popular with the mass, there is a lot of Brahmin bashing. Some of it justified, some, clearly racist. There is also the general theory that all apparently “great” philosophers are imbeciles and became gurus because people around them saw mileage in advancing them. The book vacillates between fantasy and reality- for example, in the first section the deification of a prostitute is clearly explained as an act of human conspiracy, while in the debate hall, the lamps lighting by themselves etc. is in the fuzzy area of “miracle” with no evidence of any trick and only a half-hearted suspicion.
As I have always maintained with “literature”, there is every form of human depravity and misery described in detail. In fact the book gets so depressing by the end of the second section that the last section that describes deluge and destruction is positively chirpy in comparison. By the time I was in page 600 of the 847 page book, I was snapping at everyone around and the only reason I completed the book was the masochistic thought that the remaining 247 pages can’t get any more annoying than the first six hundred pages.
I don’t care if I am too dumb to understand the nature of truth and such like. To me, now is the only truth and if I cannot smile or laugh at this moment,nothing else matters. As I publish this post, I shall seek out the people who will put that smile back on my face - Wodehouse, Bombeck, Devan. That will be the only cure for the intense acidity that has developed in the past three days.
Post script: The author has a strong internet presence and cult following and I have no doubts that I will get trolls here. I shall not approve hate comments to this post.
Book: Vishnupuram (Tamil)
British writer Conn Iggulden is known for his historical mysteries. He took a break perhaps, with this one released in the Kindle Singles format. This novella is a send up of James Bond type of spy stories. A ‘light’ story, tightly plotted, fast paced to suit the genre and format, The Quantum of Tweed features the exploits of a super spy — (in)appropriately named, Albert Rossi — who is everything a James Bond is not. Although tagged ‘00’ by a mysterious voice over telephone and licensed to kill, Albert manages to keep the license fresh, and yet strikes havoc and gold and eventually gets away rich. Even as he plans and tries to assassinate the adversaries, they get eliminated without his ‘service’, first by happenstance, then by coincidence and finally by enemy action (remember Goldfinger?).
The book is not exactly hilarious and no single line is LOL type funny, but throughout its short span (took my slow reading self, less than an hour to complete) holds your smile and attention in place. There are no ‘Bond girls’, no BMWs (but our man has a Nissan Micra), no gadgets or Walther PPKs (our man favors a Colt), but the plot has enough twists and action. As expected, there aren’t any character development or sub-plots, or for that matter an intricate main plot. But it doesn’t get as nonsensical and absurd as the ‘detective story’ from the Nonsense Novels of Stephen Leacock either. This is a story that mocks at spy thrillers and mafioso don-corleone-ish stuff in a stiff upper lip Brit way.
A quick and thrill read that leaves you stirred but not shaken.
Book: The Quantum of Tweed
Author: Conn Iggulden
Year of Publication: 2012
Some read books for entertainment. Some, for knowledge. Language. For the story. For the emotions elicited. Some like the funnies. Romance. Sleaze. Tear jerkers. I read for entertainment. I like the funnies. I like books that make me think. Not cry. I hate books that depress. And sadly, it seems most award winners are tear-jerkers that more often than not, exploit the misery of others to further their own readership. Human depravity is their calling card. The watch word there is “most award winners”. Sometimes you hit jackpot and come across an award winner, who, despite dealing with dark subject matter that disturbs you at many levels, does not make you despair. The story or stories are beautiful narrations of pragmatic or fantastic ideas and thoughts that, even with the dark background, entertain and excite the reader.
I have never read A.S. Byatt despite having heard much about her, partly because of my aversion to award winners, proven again and again to be justifiable. I finally yielded to the temptation to read her collection of short stories titled “Little Black Book of Stories” with much trepidation, because bad enough, the author is an award winner, worse still, the title reads “black”. Yes, the book was vaguely disturbing. But more by its macabre than anything else. The stories are scholarly, as is the flow of language. Each story has many layers to it, the superficial, apparently fantastic, fairy-tale (albeit grim) to the more profound truths the tales symbolise. The first story (“the thing in the forest”), for example, where two young war-refugee girls, wander into a forest, and see a horrible, smelly creature that gobbles everything in its path, and the vision shapes their entire lives as they split and go their way after the war, seems on the surface to be a chilling, horror story. The symbolism, as I see it, is of war itself as the creature, that obliterates all in its path and alters life in future as well. Some of us let it consume us and some merely shove the terror into the recess of memory to make entertaining stories of it for later. Perhaps the symbolism is in my own head and the author never intended it to be anything more than a horror story, but the success of the story is that it fired the reader’s imagination to make connections possibly unintended. “A stone woman” another such story in the collection, is the fable of a mourning woman, slowly turning into stone inside out - literally. This is a fantastically descriptive story, which can be read just for its beauty without bothering about symbolism and alternate meanings. However, the story does appear encyclopedic in sections, which can put people off by its apparent pretentiousness. Another disturbing, and vaguely comforting story is “The Pink Ribbon” where an aging war veteran finds a way to cope with caring for his Alzheimer-ridden wife Madeleine, by giving life to her alter-ego, Dido, a fall-out of ‘Aeneid’. “Raw Material” is by far, the least impressive story of the collection in that, the premise is interesting and the descriptions exemplary (the author’s love for the language shows), but the story predictable, exaggerated and lame (especially the climax). “Body Art” is another interesting story of human emotions that science is yet to contend with.
The little black book opened up my window to A.S. Byatt. I am now encouraged to read her other works, including her Booker winner, “Possession, A romance”. I am hoping that this book will dispel my mental block to award winners.
Author: A. S. Byatt
Year of Publication: 2004
I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain and realise that much of what she says about introverts applies to me. Cain admits to be an introvert herself and this book focuses on explaining the introverted psych both to the introvert and the extrovert. I believe that only introverts would read this book, because I don’t think an extrovert would really care enough to try and understand an introvert. The book also, expectedly defends introverts, which is very comforting to me. Such support is hard to find in the real world, where the more gregarious you are, the better are your chances of being accepted, especially in America, the nation of extroverts. Thankfully in my country, it is not unusual to be an introvert, although, with Western influences, there is now a greater need to be gregarious to be “successful”. However, being quiet is not frowned upon yet, and so I survive. It helps to have a family that is introverted (at various levels) as well.
There are one or two points of Cain that I don’t totally agree with. One is the black-white nature of extro-introversion that she talks about. Like any personality trait, I cannot believe that there is a sharp line that separates the two and there is always a gradation. For example, I am at one end of the spectrum of total introversion, more than three people in a given area is a large crowd to me, my sister-in-law, I would consider a complete and total extrovert who blooms full when there is an audience, and the rest of the family comes in between. There are people who are gregarious with people they know but take a long time for them to warm up to strangers. Another point that bothers me is the assertion that introverts are deep, brainy people who are thinking profound thoughts all the time. Yeah, I want to believe that, and I like it when people claim that I am one of the philosophical kinds because I am quiet. Not necessary. Some of us are quiet because we can think of nothing interesting to say.Some of us are quiet because we don’t have a great deal of self-esteem and know or believe that we will elicit a yawn within seconds of opening our mouths and that would hurt us badly, and so, instead of opening our mouths and proving our stupidity, we like to keep quiet and let people merely doubt it. In a chapter on cultural references, the author rightly points out that Asians are more introverted and support an introverted culture than Caucasians. Sadly, although she quotes three Indians – Gandhi, Mother Teressa and Buddha, as specific examples, she, as it happens with most Americans, uses the word “Asian” to mean far-East Asians alone – Chinese, Japanese and Korean. There are probably two solitary examples of Indians, and none of other Asians – Pakistanis, Bangaladeshis etc. It would be nice if Westerners stop believing that Asia only includes China, Japan and Korea ! She misses on a vast opportunity by not including Indians, because in India, introversion is actually even recommended by religion.
Lest it appears that I am merely picking faults at the book, let me assure you that this was one of the best books I have read lately. There is an in-depth analysis of the topic, and Cain has done her homework well before writing, it seems. The topics cover from neurological to social implications of introversion, and there is a very elegant flow of ideas throughout the book.
Author: Susan Cain
Year of Publication: 2012
Men may come and men may go, as Basil Rathbone had come before and Robert Downey Jr. came later, but for me, Sherlock Holmes in tinsel life means Jeremy Brett. He is the one who lived the character faithful to what Doyle had constructed (Just as Hercule Poirot = David Suchet, although the delectable Peter Ustinov had made a valiant effort earlier). With such a staunch bias to the original, even when depicted in another media (cinema instead of the written word), I shouldn’t have attempted reading the written word involving Sherlock Holmes and Watson, by a writer whose name is not Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I did. Only out of overwhelming urge to stroll through the swirling mists of Baker’s Street one more time, to rest and rejoice in a fresh set of mysteries laid out by, hopefully, an author who raises to our exacting expectation. To my credit, I carefully chose a book, out of the myriad available, that had Jeremy Brett posing as the detective on the wrapper. The Chronicles of Sherlock Holmes by Paul Gilbert. The book started promising in that the language was sufficiently Victorian to transport us back to the early 1900s and I slouched further in the couch with the Kindle DX firmly rested on my tummy with only the right thumb capable of any physical action. The game is afoot.
Each of the story in the book is an “untold mystery” by Watson in the original; cases that were solved spectacularly by Holmes, whose time hasn’t come then for public consumption. For instance, “The Affair of the Aluminium Crutch”, the third story here, was mentioned in the introductory passages of “The Musgrave Ritual”. That ploy, while regaling the reader, unfortunately also sets his expectation high. Premonitory came when I read in the first story titled Baron Maupertuis, a sentence “There is certainly more likelihood of picking up Moriarty’s trail again if we take up Lady Beasant’s consultation, than if we sit here sucking pipes.” Sucking pipes? That usage should have given the game away that the author is belabored to put on this writing style that does not come natural for him. But I am nit-picking; so I thought and I persisted my reading. All the usual suspects from Prof. James Moriarty to esoteric Spaniards were there. But the stories, one after another, came with an original title by Doyle, and gloriously fell flat. Even an introduction of a uni-sex character (Watson, there are many other forms of attachment between two men), with a reference to the “esteemed and now infamous Mr. Wilde”, couldn’t save the book. If these are the stories that go with the titles mentioned in passing as “untold mysteries” in the originals by Doyle, by writing them, Paul Gilbert provides now a good reason why they deserve to remain untold.
Having bitten once, I should have shied. I picked another book of similar purpose, a more recent “Between the Thames and the Tiber: Further Adventures by Sherlock Holmes” by Ted Riccardi. I gave up midway through the third story in this collection, which thankfully, also had ‘original titles’. There is no additional cause for dislike in this case. Seriously, what these ‘stories’ — for, I wouldn’t dare anoint them ‘mysteries’ — uniformly lack in plump is the fine art of deduction that Doyle originated and enunciated so well through his Sherlock to unravel a seemingly unsolvable mystery through logical appraisal of clues and facts that were at times merely over the top but neither impossible nor implausible. There are more such attempts to write ‘Sherlock Holmes mysteries’ by other authors (counted seven). I only hope some of those stories pass muster in the mystery and deduction department. Because, with no real talent in English writing, even I can construct Sherlockian sentences (the only thing going right for these books). Like this: After having brought on my undivided attention to bear upon some of the purported mysteries, delivered in wads of accentuated Victorian text, in two manuscripts by seemingly different authors, nevertheless bereft of any real mystery or deduction whatsoever, I could only throw up my arms now in remonstrance and ejaculate, “Catastrophe.”
Author: Paul Gilbert
Year of Publication: 2009
Author: Ted Riccardi
Year of Publication: 2011
Caught in the middle of an agonizing gum inflammation that precluded any sensible activity, and needing something to cheer me up, I picked up “Dave Barry Turns 40”. What do you know? The book starts with the following sentences:
Well, its finally happening. I’m talking about the long-predicted Aging Process. I see many signs of it in my own life. For example, I have become tremendously concerned about my gums.
Considering that I will be hitting the milestone myself in a few months, it was hilarious that I should be reading that concern for gums is a sign of aging.
Nothing helps overcome the adversity of middle age than a good laugh. In 10 chapters, Barry lightens, through his sophomoric humour, the mundane issues that hit you at 40 - the disintegrating body, midlife marriage, parenting, sex after 40 (or sex? after 40?), time management, financial management, politics etc. And while you are, as the cliche goes, rollingOFL, one sudden poignant section “Lost in America” tears you up, and it takes a while to get over the constriction at the throat to go on with the rest of the book.
Dave Barry is a welcome read if you are looking for a light book that will make you laugh without thinking too much. The humour is fairly clean, and what impresses me most is the up-beat-ness of thoughts that makes you laugh in, not laugh at, life. We have “Dave Barry turns 50” as well, I am debating if I should read it now, or wait a decade longer to laugh out louder through association.
Book: Dave Barry Turns 40
Author: Dave Barry
Year of Publication: 1991
Post-Harry-Potter English fiction, particularly, page-turning-unputdownable three-hundred-paged ‘entertainers’, is of a certain mould. For instance, it must cater to ‘young adult’ and so, all elements in the book should be PG13. The dialogues should be singularly constructed out of simple words with fewer syllables and ample um ah and yu knows strewn around to pad up for the rest of the human consciousness. All old and experienced humans and non-humans will and must listen, obey and follow the ‘young adult’ protagonist, who will be brave in soul and weak in flesh, but always with a ‘vision’ that is gifted for his/her virtuous inexperience, a vision or mission or goal that is superlative, indefatigable and unfathomable by any adult in the story. Either that or such development demands effort from the writer and distracts the reader from the ‘main narrative’. The story must have some fantastic element, magic by default; it should show off gizmodons and geekery as ‘futuristic science ideas’ but should always explain them as meta-magic spawned via agarbathi smoke and glabaderifst spells. The story should have non-human lifeforms, vampires by default, preferably succubus, fantastic creatures of fright and delight, always submissive to the protagonists (if for adult, amorous in all its fangs and tendrils) and takes orders in English, preferably teenspeak. And the girls should be in (malnutrition-ed) form-fitting leathers wielding swords as weapons, while the gents are clad in somersault-friendly, shapeless robes. And importantly, none of the characters must be developed to any level of maturity or depth — All the World is a Stage, hence, all ephemeral Stage-fests must thrive only in the all-pervading now. All of which is OK, but who gets to decide on how dumb the readers should be — the writer or the reader? With minor exceptions in plot elements and one neat idea notwithstanding, Railsea the latest by China Mieville, a talented author at that, fits snugly into the above category.
Railsea has one neat idea. <SPOILER> What if our railroads become in a near-enough future, a sea, a maze of crisscrossing never-ending rails laid on a terrain of ‘dangerous Earth’. Railsea as a symbolism for uncontrolled industrialization and associated deprecation. And mankind train-travels on Railsea as voyages on ships commandeered by noble captains bloodthirsty for Railsea monsters as life-ambitions (all domestic and gentle animals of our times have become megasize Railsea ‘man-eaters’), as philosophies; </SPOILER> to far-off forgotten lands, salvaging washing machine wrecks of the ‘past’; consulting charts and maps to sunken treasures… Pirates of the Carribean (all four parts) meets Treasure Island meets Mobydick yielding a sum of the parts that is way less than each of the parts.
Railsea is an adventure tale, i.e. an attempt at that. Its target readers age mentally somewhere between a tween and an adult, too old to rejoice in a Treasure Island and too young to enjoy a Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes); too modern for the directness of a Mobydick too impatient for the relaid Ulysses (James Joyce), too distracted to comprehend a Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco). The narration has all the elements tailor made for the genre: short dialogues interspersed with narrative that is also short, peppered with bombastic words perhaps to keep the needle of Fog Index reasonably above comprehension, all sectioned in short chapters of length between a page and five; Oh, BTW, the ‘and’ is printed throughout as &, with an original, lame, idea that reasons its form with rails (China, ayyoo!). Railsea is science fiction, i.e. an attempt at that. A silly idea taken seriously, way too seriously by the author. Yes, there will be fans who will take it even more seriously, rave on, to interpret and infuse meanings into the copious blandness of a story that chugchugs sedately with blips of action frenzy, to the most predictable of endings even a P. G. Wodehouse could better. The book is a telegraph pre-script for an inevitable screen-script of a mega summer action blockbuster. Brace self, it could become one; such writing doesn’t deserve anything better. Pools of joy and waves of sorrow are drifting through my annoyed mind…get the drift, ‘young adult’?
Christopher Priest in a recent criticism of the 2012 ACClarke Award nominees had this to say on China Mieville and his Embassytown (I am selectively quoting portions, without traducing Priest but to drive my point):
Miéville has already won the Clarke Award three times – which is not his fault[…] However, a fourth award to this writer would send out a misleading and damaging message to the world at large: it suggests that not only is Mr Miéville the best the SF world can offer at the moment, he is shown to be more or less the only writer worth reading.[…] Although Miéville is clearly talented, he does not work hard enough.[…] He also uses far too many neologisms or SF nonce-words, which drive home the fact that he is defined and limited by the expectations of a genre audience.[…] A better writer would find a more effective way of suggesting strangeness or an alien environment than by just ramming words together. Resorting to wordplay is lazy writing. […] I also find Miéville’s lack of characterization a sign of author indifference […] unless he is told in clear terms that he is under-achieving, that he is restricting his art by depending too heavily on genre commonplaces, he will never write the great novels that many people say he is capable of. In the short term, to imply that this (Embassytown) is the best science fiction novel of the current year by giving it a prize, or even shortlisting it for one, is just plain wrong.
After reading Railsea, I agree with Mr.Priest — whether a Mr. Scalzi agrees or not. I will not pre-order another book by China for some years.
Author: China Mieville
Year of Publication: 2012