Sunday, August 25, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, the short story by Washington Irving about Ichabod Crane and his ghostly encounter under the lightning-stricken tulip tree, was both a good and bad experience.

Set in the quiet countryside of the remote Tarry Town, the secluded glen of Sleepy Hollow is renowned for its ghosts, most famous of which is the Headless Horseman, said to be the ghost of a Hessian trooper who had his head shot away in a war. The scene was certainly set beautifully. All the characters and their gossip, the place and its reputation and its very atmosphere certainly created a haunting experience. From describing the haunted town to illustrating the rich farmhouse of Van Tassel, the imageries in this story were really alive and created a fascinating backdrop indeed.

The character sketches were also done very well. A short story does not give limitless space to build characters, but Irving does it beautifully. “Balt Van Tassel … loved his daughter better even than his pipe, and, like a reasonable man and an excellent father, let her have her way in everything. His notable little wife … sagely observed, ducks and geese are foolish things, and must be looked after, but girls can take care of themselves” - right there we have an entire picture of two parents and what the end product - their daughter - very likely is.

Unfortunately, for such a famous work, this story was a bit of a disappointment - or perhaps because of the fact that this is such a famous work, I had some very high expectations of it and did feel a bit let down. I was under the impression that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was a horror story. While it certainly started off as one, and while all the signs seemed to point towards it being one, in the final analysis it was not so. Yes, the ending was open to interpretation, but Brom Bones’ “exceedingly knowing” look quite ruined that effect.

That said, while the story in its entirety failed to impress me, I certainly felt that it was a very good idea, set in a very convincing world.

Postscript: I just read on wikipedia that “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” was first published in 1820 … now there’s a true time-tested classic for you!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Wild Cards”

Till I discovered this book, I had associated George R.R. Martin only with “A Song of Ice and Fire”; what a lovely surprise this has been! This science fiction / modern day superhero series has been edited by Martin, who is also one of the writers of this anthology. Wild Cards, the first of the series which is still being published currently, contains 12 short stories which establish the Wild Cards universe and introduce the main characters and on-going themes.

I was fascinated by this story from beginning to end because it is like nothing else that I have read before. In an alternate Earth, on September 15, 1946 an alien virus, xenovirus takis-A, from the planet Takis is unleashed in the skies over New York. The virus, which has the power to rewrite the human DNA’s genetic code, immediately kills the majority of the population. With far more deadly and everlasting effects, is its ability to mutate the survivors into horrifying beings with little or no resemblance to their original forms. This is the weird world of tragic superheroes and twisted super villains, which forms the backdrop of Wild Cards - the term borne out of the unpredictable effects of the virus.

Aces and Jokers. Superpowers from flying to shape shifting, and deformities from a transparent skin to a trunk-like nose tipped with fingers. The characters of Wild Cards were really fascinating. It wasn’t just the fact that they were so imaginative - it was that their creation came of so much helplessness, their existence was coloured by so much pain, and their stories were so very, very memorable.

This will have to be one of those rare occasions where I cannot name just a few favourite characters … I loved ‘The Four Aces’ - the team of superheroes comprising of The Envoy, who can make others agree to his thoughts and actions; The Black Eagle, who helped capture Nazi war criminals and saved Gandhi from an assassin’s attack; Brain Trust, who has the power to absorb another’s mind and gain their knowledge; and Golden Boy, whose force field grants him immunity from every kind of attack. I loved Dr. Tachyon, the alien from Takis, who originally helped create the Wild Card virus, but, realizing the catastrophe, uses his telepathy to help people. I was fascinated by the Great and Powerful Turtle - especially his back-story and how a bullied child came to become the superhero in an invincible shell. I actually looked up to Yeoman, a victim of dirty politics, who later uses his superior martial arts skills and Zen archery to fight against evil and wrongdoing. I was in awe and fear of Puppetman, whose secret identity and mysterious powers created so much havoc. And I loved the ongoing reference to Jetboy, the real live superhero version of the heroic Robert Tomlin.

I also really liked the narrative style. This book is a collection of short stories - by different writers. However, at no point did I feel any kind of break going from one story to the next. This has to be to the credit of the editor, that each story was an integral and unbroken part of the book. What was truly fascinating was the manner in which each story seemed to start off with no relation to its predecessor, only to suddenly establish a link - small at first, and then growing to create an even bigger and better tale. Just to take one example, we read about a homeless, drunk man in a park. A bit of newspaper flies over to where he is sitting. News about the death of Blythe Stanhope Van Renssaeler happens to be face up. The following section ignores this incident completely and takes us to a story about Dr. Tachyon and his attempts to help victims of the virus. We read about his meeting with the abused woman who comes to be known as Brain Trust. We read of their doomed love for each other, ending with her forceful admittance in a mental asylum. Finally we are brought back to the scene in the park and see the grieving ‘homeless’ man.

What was really interesting about Wild Cards is that it is a universe where there are superheroes, sure, but superheroes stuck in the real world of dirty politics and questionable Government polices and day-to-day mundane questions of choosing between the use of powers for petty theft or living morally and dying of starvation.

And in this universe a very bright light is thrown on human nature in general which treats with derision and suspicion anyone that is remotely ‘different’, and move from fear to loathing to brutally attacking all those ‘freaks’. A society where a policeman can say that the rape of a Joker woman is a lapse of taste, and not so much a crime, shows just where human nature can drop. It is small wonder that such a society creates people like Judas Ace. The highlight of that base human nature was, for me, the horrific tragedy of Jokertown’s Parade. “We are not a race, we are not a disease, we are not contagious”, and yet the bigotry continues.

The story was told through some fantastic dramatic and action scenes, such as the spectacular rescue of Angel Face by Dr. Tachyon and the Great and Powerful Turtle. It was a story rich with intense imagery, from the horror of the funhouse in Jokertown to the sensuality in Lenore’s apartment. Above all, it was a story filled with amazing experiences, from Fortunato leaving his body and going out in astral form to unearth the murder of Erika to - one of the highlights of this book - the series of events in the subway from the attack to the grand clue in the coach marked “CC”.

The fact that events in this story move through the decades - and we get to see the whole backdrop of the aftermath of the war of the 40s, through the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll of the 60s, to the crime and the mafia of the 70s, to the widespread post-apocalyptic paranoia of the 80s - gives Wild Cards such an epic feel.

Books like this are the reason why I read so much - this complete transportation to a whole new world of wonder and discovery!

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Cat’s Pajamas”

Ray Bradbury is one of my favourite writers of all time, and this collection of short stories once again showcases a brilliant sense of imagination brought to life with the sheer passion of creation. As always, the stories are set anywhere from down the street to some distant planet in some distant future. And as always, each story gave me something new to think about, something new to wonder at. Here are my favourites:

“Chrysalis” starts with an innocent enough question that may have crossed many minds: does a black person get sunburned? From there the story goes on to explore - over the course of a summer break - racism. This was a brilliant story that laid bare a culture that was brutally racist, and featured a friendship that was refreshingly colour-blind.

“Sometime Before Dawn” - stories like this are part of the reason I am in awe of Bradbury. A boarding house somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Two travelers whose mannerisms and words are just a little unsettling … This really is an experience you should discover on your own, so I will say no more.

“We’ll Just Act Natural” - and stories like this are the other part of my ever-increasing respect for Bradbury. He has this amazing ability to dip into one ordinary little event, and draw an entire mural of the human nature from it. This is the story of a black woman who is waiting for a visit from a white man, whom she had raised as a child. Very touching.

“The Mafioso Cement-Mixing Machine” is about a man who decides to go back in time to save Scott Fitzgerald so that he can finish writing ‘The Last Tycoon’. This was such a fantastic idea, and its execution was also so brilliant: the way the man creates his ‘time machine’, added to the fact that there was no “cop-out” and we do get to see the end result, made this a very interesting read.

“A Matter of Taste” - this was absolutely fantastic! It was about a group of astronauts that lands on a planet inhabited by a race of intelligent spiders. Set in a sci-fi setting, this was such a scathing comment on human beings’ repetitive tendency to fear and then murder anyone or anything that does not fall with their limited walls of acceptance.

“I Get the Blues When it Rains (A Remembrance)” - although this story was really all about Ray Bradbury describing a very special night, when he and a group of writers got together and sang songs, it touched me on a very personal level. It was a poignant reminder of the fact that even when life moves on to bigger and better things, there is always one cherished part that is forever left behind.

I can’t end this blog without mentioning the “Epilogue: The R.B., G.K.C., and G.B.S. Forever Orient Express” - this was a final tip of the hat to the great writers that were and probably never will be again. Bradbury often mentioned his deep respect for writers such as these and expressed his deep desire for his work to be put on the same bookshelves … I do hope he knew that his work is of the same greatness, and has opened up innumerable worlds of awe and wonder in countless hearts.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Shining”

For thousands, perhaps millions of readers out there, Stephen King has been, and will continue to be, a great writer. Not counting Richard Bachmann, this is this author’s third book I have read (after ‘Dreamcatcher’ and ‘The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon’, the latter being positively the worst book I have read in my life), and I have come to the conclusion that Stephen King is perhaps not for me.

In my experience, this is what Stephen King is all about - on the plus side, there is always an unquestionably good idea at the root of it all; on the minus side: firstly, it surprises me that he is considered the master of horror, as - beyond one or two short scenes here and there, there is absolutely no sense of terror in his works; secondly, I keep losing interest in the story because of his repetitive sentences and chapters that meander on and on; and finally, I am so put off by his terrible comedy that is always embarrassingly cheesy, consistently ill-timed, and jarringly out of character.

The central concept of the ‘shining’ - a psychic ability to see glimpses of the past, present and future - is really interesting. This is how that idea is dealt with: “The Shining” is the story of the Torrance family - Jack, whose life is all about alcoholism, a frightful temper, and failure as a teacher and a writer; his wife Wendy, an insipid woman who continues to stay with her husband despite the fact that his rage-induced beatings have included deliberately breaking their 3-year old son’s arm when he spilt beer on his papers; and their son Danny who despite his mother’s love and his father’s shockingly poor treatment of them, shows a clear preference for his father over his mother. It is the story of this family’s move to the Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies, an isolated resort where the hotel’s mysterious past acts upon Jack’s own alcohol withdrawal symptoms and an inherently violent nature, leading him to go insane and brutally attack his family.

The narrative for the large part is very dull, owing to the fact that the author tends to either be repetitive or say things that are unnecessary. (Yes, we get it, Jack is the alcoholic son of an alcoholic father, and the deep social significance of him beating up his son is the fact that his father used to beat him up). There are pages and chapters where nothing happens. Don’t get me wrong - it is not that I demand high action or high drama from every sentence. The majority of the reading I have done in my life is from the classic era, when writers would take their time getting to the heart of the matter. But when Charles Dickens, just to take one example, talks at length on peripheral matters, his writing is of such high calibre, one reads on just for the sheer pleasure of reading. Stephen King of course can lay claim to no such excellence, and the mind often wanders.

The author also has a mild tendency to ‘talk down’ to the reader. Any time he makes a remotely clever comment, he immediately follows it up with a detailed explanation (in parenthesis, no less), making it quite clear that there was no way the reader would have understood the subtle nuance.

For a novel categorized as ‘horror’, there was a sad lack of the element of horror or even a mildly fearful tone in this story. That said, there were three interesting scenes: in the elevator, where scenes of the hotel’s opening midnight ball come to life, Danny’s experience in room 217, and the garden’s topiary animals coming to life. (This scene was unfortunately ruined by the fact that the exact same scene was narrated twice, with just Jack substituted for Danny, almost as if the author really had only the one good idea and then decided to make the most of it).

Also for a novel categorized as ‘horror’, there was an overload of comedy - not witty comic relief to break the tension and keep the flow going, but pathetic attempts at being funny. Here is one example: When student George Hatfield loses a debate he had worked long and hard for, it is a moment of great loss and embarrassment for him. His stammer comes out, increasing his sense of shame at - what he considers - a painful personal weakness. He looks to his teacher Jack Torrance for help - who makes fun of him in front of all the other students. It was an intense moment, filled with drama and pathos. And this was the moment S. King decided to insert a joke about how “you really couldn’t offer a tongue an extra fifty a week and a bonus at Christmas if it would agree to stop flapping like a record needle in a defective groove.” Here’s another example: when Wendy sees Danny with a swollen lip and Danny tries his best to be brave about it, Wendy (who, by the way, knows that it was most likely the result of another attack by her husband) says, “he is like a Timex, takes a licking and keeps on ticking”. (Ignoring for the moment the silliness of the comment) is that really something a worried mother would say at that precise moment? Or is that, once again, the voice of comedian Stephen King?

And finally a note about the characters. (None of the three main characters are worth mentioning); I really liked Dick Hallorann - through his conversation with Danny, he explains what the ‘shining’ is, and is the one who, after receiving a telepathic call for help from Danny, rushes to the Overlook and heroically saves mother and son from the possessed Jack. It’s a pity he only appears briefly in the beginning, and then again towards the end.

While I agree that three books are not enough to judge a writer’s life’s work (which is undeniably large), the three books do show the exact same style of writing, and it seems improbable that his basic writing style changes. It truly amazes me that the mind behind this work is the same mind behind Richard Bachmann’s fantastic “The Long Walk”.