Sunday, June 24, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Thank You, Jeeves”

Growing up, after the Enid Blyton phase, which lasted more than a decade, the two major stages I underwent were Agatha Christie and P. G. Wodehouse, and till date, Wodehouse remains one of my top four favourite writers of all time.

P. G. (Sir Pelham Grenville a.k.a. Plum) Wodehouse has written many series, and many, many books in each series (I won’t get into the statistics, I’m sure you can get that from Wikipedia). My favourite has always been the Jeeves and Wooster sequence.

I recently re-read, “Thank You, Jeeves”. Not counting short stories, this is the first appearance of Reginald Jeeves and Bertie (Bertram Wilberforce) Wooster.

Like all his stories - whether set in a grand old school or a picturesque castle or a swanky apartment in the heart of London - the main characters are more or less the same: the simple master who knows nothing, and the intelligent gentleman’s gentleman, who knows it all and can fix it all. The story is also always a straightforward one - usually involving at least one love angle and at least one inheritance angle - but how complex it is to the characters involved, how it gets worse before it gets better, and how in the end, everyone lives happily ever after… or for a while anyway!!

Oh, it is Funny!!! Not mindless slapstick or sexual drivel but sparkling witty humour!! The humour comes from eccentric characters (Lord Marmaduke “Chuffy” Chuffnell, J. Washburn Stoker, Sir Roderick Glossop!) and their outlandish circumstances (chiefly involving Wooster’s new found love - and Jeeves’ distaste - for the banjolele, and Chuffy’s love for Pauline, blocked only by a possible comparison to Lord Wotwotleigh).

I am very much in awe of Wodehouse’s excellent command of the English language. For, although mainly about the comedy, it is very much about excellent literature as well.

I also love how past events are referred to every now and then. Actually they are quoted throughout the books, not just in one book or even one series, but in the entire world of P. G. Wodehouse. So if you read of a time when Wooster, on a dare, pinched a policeman’s helmet, little knowing that the policeman was inside it, you don’t just laugh, you also say, “Yes! I remember when that happened”!

And of course I love the generous spread of typical “PG’isms” all across the story… his “wot? wot wot?”, his “stiff w and s”… etc! He won’t just say, I entered the room and found Pauline Stoker on my bed wearing my purple pyjamas. Oh no! He’ll say, “Reading from left to right, the contents of the bed consisted of Pauline Stoker in my heliotrope pyjamas with the old gold stripe”!

As I read over this blog, I realize I could be talking of any Wodehouse book… and that’s why he has stood the test of time as the undisputed pioneer of comedy. As long as there’s a Wodehouse book in my purse, I know I can face just about anything the day can care to throw at me… “Thank you, P. G. Wodehouse”.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “A Clash of Kings”

A Clash of Kings is the second book in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire. It is a seamless continuation of the story, and all the things that made the first book such a good read are present here as well.

I did feel that the book started off a little slow. As we follow the principal characters and their initial planning for the war for the Iron Throne, I was beginning to miss the drama of the first book! In a short while, however, a roller coaster ride of emotions ensued, and days later, I am still trying to calm down and collect my thoughts for this blog!

The first thing of note was that, if ever there was a puppet master, it is Tyrion Lannister! He arrives at King’s Landing to serve as Hand of the King - and then, from making small changes in order to strengthen the security of his city, to creating double spies out of unsuspecting relatives, to completing major negotiations with warring lords, to leading his men by example - it is this king-sized dwarf all the way!

For that matter, all characters go through great transformation, brought on by rapidly changing circumstances. Arya’s growth from Arya Stark to Arry to Weasel to Nan… Sansa’s growth from a spoilt girl to a woman with the makings of a queen… Robb’s growth to cope with leadership… Jon Snow’s growth to cope with a role that was in direct conflict with his basic nature… everyone adapts and grows.

Not only do characters go through a lot of development, the very definitions of good and bad are questioned. Heroes are suddenly revealed to have dubious motives, and villains suddenly seem to have another side to their story. A most notable example of this is Theon Greyjoy. Is he an ungrateful villainous ex-ward of Eddard Stark, or just a neglected son trying desperately to win his father’s approval?

Speaking of relationships, this book also had one of the more fascinating concepts I have ever come across - the ‘bond’ between the Stark boys and their pet wolves. If you haven’t read this book yet, I will say no more… but I have a feeling that the eye-opening event sparked by Jojen Reed will lead to more wondrous incidents in the next book(s)!

The other - equally remarkable - factor in this book is the very dark atmosphere that envelops the entire story. On the one hand of course is the tangible dread of an ultimate power play. It is brutal. It is harsh. Villages are plundered, babies are killed and women are gang raped. This is the age of people like Gregor Clegane and the Bastard of Bolton.

On the other hand, the story takes a turn toward horror! From the far-reaching effects of Dany’s dragons, to Jaqen H’ghar and his mantra of ‘valar morghulis’, to Melisandre and her deadly shadow assassins… this story is woven with magic, mystery and terror.

There is an old Stark saying, that has been oft repeated since the first book, “Winter is coming”… for most, winter has finally come. The time for games is over. This is war. This is what happens when kings clash.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “Kinkaku-ji” (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion)

I am fascinated by Japan - a culture that has managed to race far ahead of the rest of the world in terms of technological development, and yet has managed to not just retain, but cherish a traditional way of life that dates back thousands of years.

I have been reading (English translations of) Japanese novels for about a year now, and will share some of my favourite ones with you. For today’s blog, I have chosen Yukio Mishima’s Kinkaku-ji (The Temple of the Golden Pavilion) translated by Ivan Morris.

Kinkaku-ji is based on the real-life event of 1950, when the ancient Zen temple of Kinkakuji in Kyoto was burned to the ground in a shocking act of arson by a young Buddhist acolyte. The novel is about a boy who grows up with a very definite idea of perfect beauty - and what transpires when he visits that manifestation and is finally face to face with the knowledge of what can and cannot be attained.

What I liked most about this work was the brilliant way in which the form and structure of one is reflected in the life and affairs of the other. At one end of the story sits paramount beauty - the temple of the golden pavilion. At the other, is the protagonist Mizoguchi; unsightly, stuttering, friendless and despised. Everything that transpires in his life is a reflection of that difference - of what he is, and of what he can never have. And when the two finally meet, it is not just a face-off between beauty and ugliness… it is a symbolic renunciation of all that has been established as pure and perfect; the ultimate act of rebellion by an outcast who decided to “plunge into an inner world of evil”. Through it all, is the constant rise and fall of hope and despair in his different relationships: with his father, his friend, his lover and his teacher.

One other point (and this by no means is a point specific to this novel, as - from what I have read - this is an inherent part of Japanese literature, the very mindset of Japanese writers) I enjoy the complete freedom of writing. There are no censors, there is no closed-mindedness. That is not to say that there is any morbid glorification either. It is what it is - no more, no less. If there is a scene wherein a woman gives her lover a farewell cup of tea and adds her breast milk to it, there is neither a sense of shining bravado at writing something “bold”, nor is there a sense of childish titillation. It just is. The scene calls for it, and so it is there. In Art - at least - we could all learn to be as open and accepting.

This was actually a flawless book for me. Mishima has created a poignant comparison between the glorious temple that was, and the glorious boy that never would be. It is the ultimate revenge story… followed by definitive irony in the mundane smoke on the hillside. “I wanted to live”, says Mizoguchi. Was his final decision, like so many others throughout his life, guided by plain cowardice? Or was there finally a confidence and a sense of victory that came of destroying all that had once rejected him?

“When you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha”. In his own way, Mizoguchi does exactly that.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Ray Douglas Bradbury (August 22, 1920 – June 5, 2012)

There are a few writers whose work I am deeply in awe of (Arthur C. Clarke, P.G. Wodehouse, Agatha Christie, to name a few). But - I have said this before, and I will say it again - if I had to choose one god among writers, it would be Ray Bradbury.

It was with a sense of shock and loss that I heard about the passing of Ray Bradbury last evening.

While so many thoughts crowd my mind about my feelings for his work, any words that come to mind seem so trivial in the face of the greatness that is Bradbury. His work is truly an example of what happens when a person with limitless creativity forms a world of infinite beauty, infinite joy, infinite sadness, and ultimately, infinite possibilities. And THAT is what art should be.

It is obviously impossible for me to list my “favourite Bradbury stories” so I am not even going to try; suffice to say that his work covers the entire gamut of human emotion from happiness to sorrow, from peace to terror, while narrating stories that cover an entire scale from next-door neighbours on Earth to 2nd generation citizens of Mars.

Unfortunately Bradbury has come to be labelled as a “sci-fi” writer, but if you have read enough of his work, you will know that he cannot be compartmentalized as such. There is nostalgic simplicity in “I See You Never”. There is social commentary in “The Pedestrian”. There is drama in “The Toynbee Convector”. There is tragedy in “The Exiles”. There is fantasy in “The Fog Horn”. There is the supernatural in “The Witch Door”. There is a mystifying brilliance in “The Poems”. The Martian Chronicles. The Illustrated Man. Something Wicked This Way Comes. Dandelion Wine… In fact I would say his work cannot even be bound by the label of “prose” as there is sheer poetry in every sentence that he has created.

This is going to make me sound terribly presumptuous, but I am going to say it anyway: if ever someday, someone says that they see a slight reflection of Ray Bradbury’s writing in my work, I will consider myself truly blessed.

To end this blog, I will make a request of you: if you haven’t already, please read his works - your life will be so much the richer for it. Let us keep the works and memory of Ray Bradbury alive.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

Rashmi bookmarks “A Game of Thrones”

I am going to inaugurate this blog with the book I just finished reading (in time, I will talk about some of the books I have read in the recent past as well), which is A Game of Thrones, the first book in George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire.

My husband bought the blu-ray for this HBO series a short while back… unfortunately one of the very initial scenes, where some members of the Night’s Watch discover mysterious body parts, was too much for me to handle, and I had to stop!

(I’ll digress for a quick note about myself - I get queasy very easily and cannot handle the slightest bit of horror or gore! - however, this unease is limited only to movies / the visual media. Give me a book, and I can go through the worst of fear factors - possibly because my mind has its own filter system in place where it will let me imagine only as little or as much of terror as I can take! - hey, I have read graphic details about seppuku without pausing for air!… more on that later, when I review the Japanese books I have read).

Anyway, since the premise looked very interesting, I was not willing to totally give up on this story, and so we went and bought the book(s).

At the most basic level, A Game of Thrones is a Fantasy novel; it is about the lives of the rulers and the ruled of the people of the Seven Kingdoms. We travel from Winterfell to Riverrun to Eyrie to King’s Landing to the Wall to Pentos and back, as fascinating lives, questionable relationships, intricate game play and mysterious maegi change the course of history!

A Game of Thrones is a very well written novel - despite the fact that it is a little over 800 pages, not for a moment did the book seem like it was a daunting task that I had to finish. Right from the very first page, I was drawn inextricably into the story, and that fascination did not waver for even a moment.

To add to that, I liked that not everything falls into a pattern, not everything is predictable - you think you know how a character will act or how a scene will play out in the end - yet small little events will come out and pinprick you into a whole new consciousness!

The other thing that I really liked about this book was the fact that even though there are so many, many characters, each one has been given such distinctive characteristics, that each and every one is memorable. This is a quality that I find in all of Charles Dickens’ writing. No two characters are the same - for good or for bad, every one stands out, every one stays in your memory, long after you have finished the book.

That point brings me to my best and worst characters!!

The Best? Tyrion Lannister! That guy rocks!! I like characters that have shades of grey. Tyrion is neither saint nor sinner - or rather, he is a bit of both! Through wit alone, he can work his way out of the worst of situations (most memorably when he escapes certain death at the court of Lady Lysa!) - yet he can show amazing kindness and consideration (most memorably, his conversations with a disheartened Jon Snow, and an ailing Bran Stark). He reminds me of Quark (from the TV show Deep Space Nine)… that perfect combination of cunning and compassion! I also really like Jon Snow; he believes in following an honourable code of conduct, and tries to uphold his values, regardless of his situation. Amid a backdrop of treachery and betrayal, his brand of living is admirable. And I am truly, truly impressed by Arya Stark and Princess Daenerys Targaryen. I like characters that start out at a disadvantage, small and suppressed, but then rise to conquer extremely difficult situations. Both these characters grow to become a force to reckon with, and stand proudly and fearlessly in front of all those who had forced them to live their lives cowering in fear and humility.

And the characters I hate the most? - this one’s easy - Cersei Lannister and her eldest son Joffrey. The first, for being one of the wiliest women ever, completely devoid of any redeeming characteristic - moral or otherwise - yet full of schemes designed to set herself firmly in a position of authority. The second, for being someone who can only demand obedience by meting sheer cruelty, yet someone who really is a coward at heart. His decision about the fate of Eddard Stark… his treatment of Sansa Stark… Most despicable.

Somewhere in between these two categories lies Varys “the Spider”! I haven’t quite decided if I like him or not! He is an excellent spy and has his finger on every pulse, and because nothing happens without his knowing - or even orchestrating - it, he is as helpful and dependable a friend, as he is dangerous and unpredictable an enemy!

I like the genre of fantasy (I quite enjoyed The Hobbit), but what I especially liked about A Game of Thrones, is its fresh appeal to the genre; a treatment that is not bound by any formula, whereby an appropriate number of giants and goblins, dwarves and dragons are introduced into the story at just the right intervals. This is a world where there are dragons, but tales of their existence evoke strong cynicism as well as unwavering conviction. This is a world whose history goes back centuries, to the time of the Children of the Forest and the First Men, yet it is also a world very much rooted in the realities of today where political intrigue at the highest levels dictates the day-to-day lives at the lowest levels. And yet, lest you forget it, this is also the world where the mysterious Others strike suddenly, when you least expect it, leaving behind more than just dead victims!

I will end this blog with a quote from Queen Cersei Lannister: “When you play the game of thrones, either you win or you die. There is no middle ground.” That fairly sums up this world of royals and rebels, kings and commoners, and the games they play.