Sunday, June 30, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

The Mystery of Edwin Drood is the final novel by Charles Dickens and was unfinished at the time of his death. Set in Cloisterham, the story is primarily about Edwin Drood, his fiancé Rosa Bud, and his uncle John Jasper. It tells the story of the relationship between Edwin and Rosa, Edwin and John, and the dramatic turn of events that takes place with the coming of Neville Landless and his twin sister Helena.

I don’t think I can in all fairness judge the content or the pace of the story; the first half of the book seemed quite slow and I remember thinking that not much was happening. But the ‘first half’ was really probably the first quarter, which changes the overall picture completely.

As always, Dickens’ flawless rendition of character sketches shines through. One of my favourite characters was Mr. Crisparkle, and a highlight section was his meeting with the philanthropist Mr. Honeythunder (a section that I found myself reading twice over and mentally applauding towards the end!)

I was also very impressed by Rosa. When the story started, she was nothing more than a young, pretty, naive girl, bordering almost on the annoying. Circumstances involving Edwin Drood however, turned her into such a strong and mature woman, displaying such admirable qualities, that my irritation soon turned into respect.

Two other characters that also left quite an impression on me were Mr. Grewgious - with his fantastic sense of humour and his unending readiness to help people, and Mrs. Billickin - so outrageously outspoken, yet with such a kind heart!

From the ill-timed proposal to Rosa, to the mysterious warning about the name ‘Ned’, to an oft-repeated imaginary scene in the opium den …  it is my opinion that the villain of this story could only be one person; and if it is whom the clues point to, it makes the character - and all his words and actions - so very sinister.

Sometimes when I think about great novels and brilliant authors, I truly regret the passing of such genius writers as Charles Dickens, the likes of which the world will probably never see again. Reading this unfinished work was just such a brutal reminder of that fact.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “A Series of Unfortunate Events” - Books 6-9

Ok, I don’t know what the target age group of this series is, but I am thoroughly enjoying Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. (There, I said it!)

‘The Ersatz Elevator’ has left the deepest impression on me so far. I was so enamoured by its haunting atmosphere. True, where the other stories involve lakes, mountains and villages, this takes place entirely inside one apartment. But the 71-bedroom penthouse apartment at 667 Dark Avenue - home to the meek Jerome and the flamboyant Esme Gigi Geniveve Squalor - with its constant under current of the sinister was so fascinating. This book was also a favourite because this was the one where the story really moved forward and we took the first steps towards unravelling the mystery … what lay on the other end of the trap door of the elevator shaft was really exciting!

Following the two Quagmire triplets and VFD, the Baudelaire children next reached ‘The Vile Village’, whose inhabitants’ interpretation of “It takes a village to raise a child” is “Get three children to do all our chores.” With Mr. Poe’s exit, the children seem to be truly on their own from this point on, as they try to decipher secret messages from the triplets. Other than the exciting clues, and the very shocking appearance of one Jacques Snicket, I was also quite struck by the stark image of the endless stretch of flat land with a distant village, covered eternally by a thick cloud of crows. Oh, and I thought ‘Detective Dupin’ with his garish clothes and declamations of “not cool” was hilarious!

While I found ‘The Hostile Hospital’ to be the weakest one, I did enjoy its abnormally funny scenes. An infant who has just learnt to stand on her feet, and still speaks gibberish for the most part, wears a white gown and fools everyone into believing she is a nurse, about to perform a craniectomy! This story also took us to a very important twist with the discovery of the 13th page of the Snicket file in the Library of Records.

Disguises came to a head in ‘The Carnivorous Carnival’, which saw the children transformed to a two-headed human and a wolf baby in a world of such “freaks” as an ambidextrous man and a contortionist woman. This book was also the greatest comment on the base nature of humanity, which makes a one-armed man call a two-armed man a freak, and crowds enthuse about watching people being thrown to starving lions.

I also really like the way words or themes are used consistently. Example, the author’s repeated entreaties to not read such terrible books, Mr. Poe’s constant coughing, the explanatory “a word, which here means–”, the over-the-top anecdotes, the dedications to Beatrice, the letter to the editor with clues for the next story, the tie-in of the author to the plot, and of course, the all-pervading Eye: it’s these small things that bind all the stories together and give the reader a sense of being part of a complete adventure.

The story has come a long way from being just a series of unfortunate events. There is so much more than meets the eye (pun unintentional!) and I can’t wait to follow the clues in Madame Lulu’s documents to get to Mortmain Mountains. For now we leave the story of the Baudelaire children on a cliffhanger. Literally.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Psmith in the City”

P. G. Wodehouse continues to amuse and amaze me, this time, with a story about the life and times of cricketer Michael “Mike” Jackson and his friend Rupert Psmith at the New Asiatic Bank, as we follow our protagonists from the Postage Department to the Cash Department to the Fixed Deposits Department!

Part of the “Psmith” series of books, this story is unlike the Blandings Castle series or the Drones Club stories or the Jeeves books, in that it does not comprise solely of Lords and Earls and London’s idle rich. Yes, Psmith has the kind of wealth that lets one do a “job” as an amusing past time, but the world of this book was primarily one of routine bankers going about their mundane jobs. Into this stuffy, underground (literally) world, Psmith brings in such a fresh breath of air; it gives the bank - and the reader - a new lease on life.

Extremely wealthy, immaculately dressed, lazy and languid, permanently unruffled, and with an enormous heart, Psmith was clearly the best character of this book. Setting the stage with his whimsical spelling of an otherwise common name, Psmith challenges conventions wherever he goes.

The best part of this story was of course the revenge plan against the manager! On behalf of every one of us who has ever served a cruel and/or stupid manager, Psmith sees to fruition a carefully orchestrated plan against John Bickersdyke. From solidifying his position with manager Mr. Rossiter owing to a “common love” of Manchester United, to extending a firm “following” to socialist Mr. Waller, to an awkward encounter in a Turkish bath, Psmith’s grand plan culminates in a complete demolition of Bickersdyke, without offering him even the satisfaction of firing Mike and Psmith as they hand in their casual resignations and stroll out the doors.

Brilliant! And as always, that inimitable blend of sparkling wit and a superior command of the language.

The world is a better place because P.G. Wodehouse has lived in it.

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “A Series of Unfortunate Events” - Books 2 to 5

This month is going to be all about some very unfortunate events. Told in 13 books with 13 chapters each, ‘A Series of Unfortunate Events’ by Lemony Snicket is the story of the three Baudelaire children - Violet, Klaus and Sunny, the well meaning but utterly useless banker Mr. Poe, and the evil Count Olaf who is after the orphans’ vast fortune. Last week I talked about the first book of this tridecalogy; today’s blog is about the next four books, the alliterative The Reptile Room, The Wide Window, The Miserable Mill and The Austere Academy. Books 2 through 5 see the children live amid snakes, on top of a hill, inside a mill, and in an ominous school with its sinister motto, ‘Memento Mori’.

For me the best part about the books is that even though the theme is essentially the same, the people are always so varied, the places are always so new, it is exciting to see who and what is coming up next! We meet an aunt who is as obsessed with correct grammar as she is afraid of everything from phones to ovens, from doorknobs to realtors. We meet a mill owner who pays in useless coupons and serves chewing gum for lunch. We meet a Vice-Principal who considers himself a violin maestro and performs for six hours daily and forces the entire school to attend … Of course there are the wildly, ahem, successful disguises of Count Olaf, from an assistant herpetologist to a turbaned Coach - that fool none of the children and all of the adults. Oh and the fifth book also adds two new characters, the ‘triplets’ Duncan and Isadora Quagmire, who play quite an important role. We also go through some very fascinating places, from Lousy Lane to Lake Lachrymose to Lucky Smells Lumbermill to Prufrock Preparatory School!

With each book, the situations get quite frantic. I remember being surprised by the actions of Olaf in the first book - but dangling a baby from a tower was about the worst thing he did there. Now he actually commits murder, which was quite a shock. Then again, there are those situations that are so ridiculously dangerous; it almost adds a touch of the comical. An infant who can barely crawl and speaks gibberish is hired as an administrative assistant, and at one point, has to create staple pins out of big metal blocks just so she can keep her job. Sure there is a threat; but how over-the-top!

As mentioned in my previous blog, Lemony Snicket continues to tell this story to us - as opposed to us reading a story. Some of his best comments in his storytelling are when he refers to universally accepted dos and don’ts and completely trashes them. He recounts the story of the boy who cried wolf - and tells us that the moral of the story is that we shouldn’t live anywhere near wolves, and certainly not that we shouldn’t tell lies, because sometimes it is imperative for our safety that we do tell some lies.

One of the funniest parts of the book continues to be the introductory dedication to Beatrice. “For Beatrice - My love for you shall live forever. You, however, did not.” “For Beatrice - You will always be in my heart, In my mind, And in your grave.” Priceless!

These books make for very easy reading (it’s taking me about two hours per book) and I look forward to seeing what happens next - egged on, by no small means, by each book’s final letter from Lemony Snicket to his publisher, with clues pointing to the next story!

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Bad Beginning” (A Series of Unfortunate Events)

The Bad Beginning is the first book of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” by ‘Lemony Snicket’ (Daniel Handler). It is the story of three Baudelaire children, Violet - who loves inventing, Klaus - who loves reading, and baby Sunny - who loves to bite! and their experiences living with a distant relative, the evil Count Olaf.

I have to say, going into the book - even after reading the introductory ‘warning note’ by the author - I had imagined this a much lighter book than it turned out to be! Yes, we are cautioned, “In this book, not only is there no happy ending, there is no happy beginning and very few happy things in the middle.” but I figured, it’s a book for and about children, how grave could incidents be? Very, as it turned out! Sure, it’s still a children’s book, and issues do get worse because some people just happen to be that blind to reality, and some solutions are in fact quite simplistic … however, I was really not expecting such a downpour of ill luck from a fatal fire, to homelessness, to life with a very evil caretaker whose actions ranged from making children do excessively hard household chores to hanging infants from tower tops just as ransom. The book’s very dedication sets up this dark tone, addressed as it is to Beatrice: “darling, dearest, dead”.

My favourite part of this story was its story telling! Lemony Snicket has not written a tale for us to read; he is sitting there with you and telling you a story that comes alive as you listen to him. He describes houses, he talks about habits, he asks you questions and he makes you think about things. It was a lovely experience!

I also really liked the two children, Violet and Klaus, a lot. Children in books or movies can so easily become so annoying, but these children never did. Good but not pious, smart but not wiseacres, they went through a lot, learning and growing as they did.

Oh, and I must mention a small but really interesting part - at one point in the story, Klaus was reading a book on law through the night and was getting sleepy - “The book was long, and difficult to read, and Klaus became more and more tired as the night wore on. Occasionally his eyes would close. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over. He found himself reading the same sentence over and over.” Did that get you too?!

Overall, this was quite an enjoyable read! A good story, very well told! I am on the library’s waiting list for the remainder of the books and will, over the next few weeks, review this series of (very) unfortunate events!