Sunday, January 27, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Tales of St. Austin’s”

For years and years now, P. G. Wodehouse has remained one of my favourite authors of all time, and each time I revisit one of his works, I am astounded by his wit and brilliance all over again! Part of the “School” series, Tales of St. Austin’s is a collection of short stories and essays set in the fictional public school of St. Austin’s. It deals with life in an all-boys’ school, which includes cricket, rugby, small favours and of course the ever-popular theme of successful ways to skip classes or score one over the teacher!

I really cannot pick one or even a few favourites from the 12 short stories. There were memorable moments in all of them. When Mr. Mellish announces an examination in Livy with less than a week’s notice, it makes Pillingshot “annoyed… disgusted, mortified… He would have liked to have stalked up to Mr. Mellish’s desk, fixed him with a blazing eye, and remarked, ‘Sir, withdraw that remark. Cancel that statement instantly, or--!’ or words to that effect. What he did say was: ‘Oo, si-i-r!!’” And that’s the start of this series, which goes to depict the trials and tribulations of the St. Austin’s student. We see Pillingshot manoeuvre events to legitimately miss a test; we see Philip St H. Harrison always find subtle yet effective means of avenging himself of ‘unfair’ treatment (read, punishment for flouncing rules); we see Uncle John’s entire character described, raised and debunked just through letters exchanged between Richard Venables, his brother Archibald Venables, their father Major-General Sir Everard Venables, and his sister Mrs. James Anthony (nee Miss Dorothy Venables); we see Frederick Wackerbath Bradshaw (got to love the fantastic names!) almost get away from an Euripides exam and actually get away from a Thucydides paper; we see J. S. M. Babington and Mr. Seymour’s cat and mouse game in a story about “wholly undeserved good luck”; and we see an annual poetry prize reveal a dark and sordid tale of sickness, bribery and deception.

Of the four Essays, “Notes” was my favourite. Starting with criticism of “the master who forces the human boy to take down notes from dictation”, the essay goes on to describe different types of notes, from the useful to the convoluted to those that are written purely with a view to air one’s vanity, the following example being the very simplest of this kind: “‘See line 80.’ You look up line 80, hoping to see a translation, and there you are told that a rather similar construction occurs in Xenophades’ Lyrics from a Padded Cell.”

This was one of Wodehouse’s first series (appearing in 1903 in a compiled form) and - having read a large majority of his life’s work - I can see the seeds of brilliance that would flower in the years and decades to come! While not quite uniformly ‘laugh out loud’ funny like some of his later works, there was a soft but persistent hint of gentle comedy right through, with bursts of guffaws every now and then!

As far as I can recollect, Tales of St. Austin’s was one of the first Wodehouse books I read, and while I consider the ‘Jeeves’ series the best, I will always revisit these tales for nostalgic comfort as much as comic relief. It reminds me of my early childhood, when I harboured a deep-seated desire to be a boarding house student, as opposed to the day scholar that I was, based on amazing stories like this and - prior to this - Enid Blyton’s school stories such as The Malory Towers series and The St. Clare’s series!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “A Dance with Dragons”

Meanwhile… A Dance with Dragons is the fifth novel of George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, but sequentially happens alongside its predecessor, A Feast for Crows. (I was reading on Wikipedia that that book was getting to be so long that a decision was taken to split the narrative into two books: not chronologically, but by character and location, resulting in two novels taking place simultaneously).

In this book, we revisit some places and meet some people from a long time back, example; we follow a certain character to Pentos and Magister Illyrio (where Daenerys Targaryen had spent time before her marriage to Khal Drogo). It is moments like this, that made me realize what an epic journey I am on, and just how far I have come since events first began! And for that reason, one very interesting feature of this book was that I got to read about events, which were on the other side of (Roose Bolton waiting to get married to Arya Stark), or at the beginning of (Jon Snow asking Samwell Tarly and Gilly to leave with one baby) events I read in the previous book!

The inclusion of a lot of fantastic elements - not only dragons and sorcerers, but also shape shifters and monsters, such as Sixskins and Coldhands - made for a fascinating read! That entire section about Bran Stark’s journey to the secret cave where the last surviving Children of the Forest dwell, his meeting with the Three-eyed Crow, and his subsequent powers, was absolutely brilliant!

The other major reason I really liked this book - more than its predecessor in fact - was that a lot of the characters that I really like and care about, who were missing in the previous book, are back now, and we get to know so much more about Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister and Jon Snow. On that note, Daenerys Targaryen was the most awe-inspiring character of this book. I think I mentioned this in one of my last blogs on this series, but she is someone who truly deserves to sit on the Iron Throne. From leading men to difficult victories, to pioneering care for her people, to making the most supreme sacrifices for her kingdom, she alone shows the courage and valour and adaptability I would presume would be required of one who is destined to sit on a throne.

Where the character development went a step further was in showing us characters from their early childhood years, as a result of which, we get to see how kings and kingmakers are born. It is one thing to read stories of legendary kings that are or have been, but it is quite another to see a young boy or girl grow to show signs of being a contender to the throne. Jon Snow may have been a great person to know and a good friend to have, but how is he in a position of high command? Daenerys Targaryen may have earned her title Mother of Dragons, but how will the mother behave when her dragons are considered dangerous and chained up at her subjects’ demands? That was very interesting.

There was an overriding sense, more than ever before that events are closing in and people are moving ahead with a very definite purpose towards sitting on the Iron Throne… events such as the return of ‘The Lost Lord’, or Roose Bolton’s taking over of Moat Cailin, etc. marked that definite movement.

Equally, there was a sense of people having to undergo vast journeys - in time, over distance, and of character. Tyrion Lannister’s sense of loss as he relives his relation with his father, with Tysha, with Jaime Lannister, was one of the higher emotional touch points. A prince becomes an entertainer and fights perched on ‘Pretty’ the pig against Penny atop ‘Crunch’ the dog… A queen is declared a sinner, and makes a long and humiliating ‘walk of shame’… From Tyrion to Hugor Hill, from Jeyne Poole to Arya Stark, from Arya across so many avatars to now the Ugly Little Girl, and from Theon to Reek (without question, one of the most horrific torture stories of the series); amid much waiting and suffering there is a life changing journey that all must undertake.

If there was one negative point about this novel, it was the pace of the storytelling, which tended to fall back and linger at times. Example, Davos’ journey to Stannis Baratheon’s court or Tyrion’s journey on the ‘Shy Maid’ - although followed by stormy encounters - were in themselves somewhat slow.

Davos Seaworth and Lord Wyman Manderly. Tyrion Lannister and the Widow of the Waterfront. Daenerys Targaryen and Hizdahr zo Loraq. As Tyrion says at one point, “a plot within a plot”… of which, there was no shortage! And there is the twist in the end as we meet a kingmaker, and a possible future king - one who, as the kingmaker says, has not been brought up to believe that kingship is his right, but rather has been trained from birth in everything from arms to languages, religion, history and law, to poetry, fishing, cooking and even medicine. And, not uncommonly, the book leaves this and other plot points (notably what happened to Jon Snow or Daenerys Targaryen!) unresolved.

Slightly off-topic, I’d like to end with a quote from Jojen, who tells Bran, “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one”.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Die Verwandlung” (The Metamorphosis)

Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis or The Transformation is one of the more amazing books I have read. There have been many translations of this work, and I read David Wyllie’s version. I am drawn to the weird, the unexplained, the deeper interpretations of life, and this story was such a perfect combination of all that. “One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.” - and that’s the very first sentence of the book; the first sentence of a story that raises as many questions as it inspires answers.

The Metamorphosis is the story of Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, who wakes one morning to find himself transformed into a giant insect, complete with an “armour-like back”, “brown belly, slightly domed and divided by arches into stiff sections” and “many legs, pitifully thin compared with the size of the rest of him, waved about helplessly as he looked.” It is the story of how that inexplicable transformation changed everyday life for Gregor and his family. On a deeper level, it is the story that raises certain fundamental questions about the very meaning of existence.

In a not too unfamiliar situation, Gregor is stuck in a job he doesn’t like, because he needs to offset a financial need. The job has all those typical elements, right from the hateful work to the spineless assistant and the mean boss; yet he has not wavered from his utter and complete devotion to his work on any grounds.

The great irony of the story is that even after being turned into an insect, Gregor still continues to think of how to make up for being late to work. The great tragedy of the story is that after devoting 15 unflinching years of his life to his job, the very first time that he is late, the chief clerk comes over, and derides him for being unprofessional.

From human to bug, from shock and scare to disgust and hatred, and then finally, the moving on of Life like nothing ever happened… this was a story that got me as angry as it got me sad, as outraged as it got me helpless… it stirred so many, many emotions.

At the end, it felt like we are all bugs, insignificant little creatures scurrying about our unimportant jobs in a meaningless existence. Even when faced with physical proof of our triviality, we continue to work conscientiously at a thing that has long lost its meaning. We do things we hate - even excel at it - because of an inescapable obligation. Sadly, at the time of need, none of those people for whom we toil, dare to step over to our side of the battle. As we see with Gregor, at best, his family did ‘well-meaning’ things that made it worse (as when his sister and mother decided to remove all his favourite belongings to give him space to crawl about in, but made the room more strange and hostile), or, at worst, completely shunned and even shooed him away with a stick or a newspaper (as his father did; ironically, because of whom, Gregor was stuck in that job to begin with).

Because no explanation is ever given for what happened to Gregor Samsa, this blog is of course just conjecture; I would be interested to see what your thoughts on the matter are, and invite you to post a comment!

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Velveteen Rabbit”

Okay, so you are probably wondering what this children’s book is doing in a blog that features the gore of Yukoko or the drama of The Postmaster or the evil of The Haunting of Hill House or the sex and violence of A Game of Thrones… but sometimes I do like to pick up a long forgotten book, just to revisit some old friends and old memories. (A few months back, I re-read two Enid Blyton books, and loved every moment!)

Although I had not read this particular book as a child, I was pleasantly surprised by the way the story got me hooked right from the very first line, as we walk into a room on Christmas morning, and experience all the magical elements of the day; the toy engine and the clockwork mouse, the nuts and oranges and chocolate almonds, the Aunts and Uncles, the rustling of tissue paper and the unwrapping of parcels! From the very first to the very last line of this magical story, I had a slight mist in my eyes and a slight smile on my lips! (Quite by chance, I actually happened to read it right around Christmas, and that made it even more wonderful!)

The Velveteen Rabbit (or How Toys Become Real) by Margery Williams is the story of a stuffed rabbit, given as a Christmas present to a small boy, and how it becomes Real one day. I really cannot evaluate this book, or talk about my “most favourite parts” or my “least favourite characters” like I usually do… it was a charming little story with a beautiful moral and I loved every moment of the experience! A little bit of love and a little bit of fairy dust came together to create sheer magic!

This may be stating the obvious, but I would highly recommend that every child read (and own) this book.