Sunday, September 29, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Tenth of December”

‘Tenth of December’ is a collection of short stories by George Saunders. This is the first time I have read (and, honestly, heard of) this author, and quite liked the stories. While not all stories were equally memorable (ironically, I cannot remember the theme of the title story), some really stood out.

One of them was ‘Sticks’, the story recounted by a child of his father’s bizarre habit of decorating a pole in the front yard. In a very short and tight story, we see the entire arc of a man’s life from normal, happy times to a descent to oddity and eventually, madness.

Another really good story was ‘Exhortation’. Describing a lengthy memo from Todd, the boss of a group of employees of Room 6, this story will find resonance with anyone who works at a set job, in a set office environment, doing work that is questionable at best and detestable at worst, reporting in to one who is the epitome of all the fake clichés that make up the typical less than ideal, low-level manager.

‘Escape from Spiderhead’ was another remarkable story. It is the story of Jeff, who has been sent to an experimental prison where inhabitants are used to test new pharmaceuticals. Through an experiment to determine the strength of love, a very touching tale of humans and their humanity unfolds. From complete apathy to an all consuming love to an ultimate self sacrifice - under varying degrees of influence of very potent drugs - the tragic satire of this story was a sharp eye-opener.

The story that really drove home a point rooted in current social and moral decadence was ‘The Semplica Girl Diaries’, my absolute favourite in this collection. Brilliantly narrated through diary entries, this is the story of a 40-year old middle class man, and his twisted efforts to do the best for his family … I say ‘twisted’ because this is a brutally frank picture of, and a scathing comment on society at its materialistic worst.

Spurred by a sudden lottery win, the man decides to emulate the ‘Joneses’ and upgrade his family’s lifestyle. In the series of events that follows, every act is seen to have a deeper aspect lurking in the shadows. “I, Gropius”, the reality TV show is as funny as it is at a ridiculous nadir of social decadence. Of course the most brutal example of this is the lawn ornament where girls - immigrants / foreign workers - are exhibited on front yards, literally joined at the heads by a surgically inserted microline that runs through their brain. This is a society where such a brutal practice is considered the height of wealth and class. This is the society that rises in righteous indignation against “foreigners taking away our jobs”. And when the girls escape, this is the society that actually wonders at the shortsightedness of women who thus squander the chance at a good life.

The story raises a lot of very contemporary concerns, and this short blog cannot hope to justifiably address them all.

A very good read.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Night Circus”

The circus arrives without warning.

I almost don’t feel like telling you anything about this story other than “please read it” for fear that I will ruin that magical experience I’ve had reading every line and every chapter of this fantastical fairy tale by first time author Erin Morgenstern.

It is difficult to describe - or, quite honestly, ‘rate and review’ - a book that caters purely to the senses. This was a powerful tale of pure magic presented in a rich physical and metaphorical creation. Right from the prologue, “Anticipation”, the tone was set, and I knew I had stumbled on to something unique. The Night Circus is the story of Le Cirque des Rêves (the Circus of Dreams) the circus that is open only from sunset to sunrise. At the core of this circus is a deadly contest between two rivals (who, interestingly enough, do not even know of each other’s identities till much later in the game) - their real magic being showcased as the tricks and illusions that create this impossible circus.

The inception and birth of the circus, the fantastic clock where each hour creates a whole new drama in and around the clock, the magical cauldron of fire lit on opening night by 12 archers, the labyrinth in the sky, the bedtime stories in jars, the pool of tears … every chapter brought countless magical moments and surprising events.

Creating this circus, where (barring one mysterious exception) no one is born, no one ages and no one dies, are such memorable characters as Chandresh Christophe Lefevre, Herr Friedrick Thiessen, the Murray twins Poppet and Widget, and - the greatest fan of all - Bailey.

Amid all the enchanting mists we are never allowed to forget the main plot: the challenge - what is it? who is it between? who will decide the winner? based on what points? … The underlying mystery, started by the man who “has no shadow” is something that we, along with the chosen contestants, must slowly discover with time. For when that realization dawns, and the Circus begins to disintegrate, we truly see the powerful darkness that abounds all around.

Of course the crowning glory of this magical experience is the narrative structure of The Night Circus: it is not written in a linear timeline, rather the tale is woven through flashbacks to the beginnings of the circus, current experiences, and - almost a ‘flash-forward’ - as we follow the adventures of Bailey.

“The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.”

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Long Goodbye”

I know that ‘The Big Sleep’ is more famous amongst his works, however since I have seen the movie, for my first Raymond Chandler book I decided to make a fresh start. Centred on his famous detective Philip Marlowe, ‘The Long Goodbye’ is the story of the brutal murder of socialite Sylvia, daughter of millionaire Harlan Potter, and the mysterious suicide of her husband and chief suspect Terry Lennox, a random drunk that Marlowe met outside a club one night.

I absolutely loved the character of Philip Marlowe. He was such an epitome of the cool detective of the 1950s era. I loved the way he conducted himself, the beliefs he held, his sense of loyalty, his sense of right and wrong. And it wasn’t that he didn’t get his share of pounding - at the hands of cops and goons alike - in standing up for his beliefs. I mean, it is easy to act cool when you know the whole world loves or fears you, and there is no danger of any opposition to anything you might say or do; to stand up for your ways, however big or small, even when it is dangerous to do so - now that’s really cool.

The writing was very well paced and made for easy reading. The plot constantly moved forward and I always got the feeling that I was ‘listening’ to someone tell a gripping story in the most interesting manner. There were times when the story did slow down a little, but just as I was reaching the point of wondering where it was all going, suddenly something would happen to swoop it all back up. Generally speaking, the twists in the story were not of the earth-shattering heart-stopping variety, but gentle turns and curves that kept the flow going. That said; there were some things that I did not see coming at all - such as the events that occurred after Marlowe’s meeting with Grenz!

I also really liked the insertion of social comments; every now and then the story features a short paragraph where Chandler goes a little deeper. While this story is more commonly known for its comment on the decadent society of the rich American, one of my personal favourites was the section on life inside a prison cell. It wasn’t anything heavily didactic or dramatically deep … it was just a short paragraph that made me stop for a moment and think. Also brilliant was the final verbal face-off between district attorney Springer and Henry Sherman, managing editor of The Journal - Sherman’s remarks were such a great slap on the face of the influential yet uncultured man that sits in Power.

I liked the ending a lot too - besides the factor of a surprise ending (always a must for a murder mystery) Marlowe’s final decision gave me a very ‘nice’ feeling too. Eileen Wade’s comment to Philip Marlowe, that “The tragedy of life, […], is not that beautiful things die young but that they grow old and mean” - added great significance to the final denouement of this story.

(One comment in conclusion: I was quite irritated by the constant use of the horribly distorted terms, “must of” and “could of”. Since I only read e-books, this could be the fault of the ‘proofreaders’ involved in the digitizing process and not the author’s lack of knowledge of basic English. Either way, it was a very annoying experience).

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Gods Themselves”

A science fiction novel by Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves is the story of a matter-exchanging project started by aliens in a parallel universe, with a view to creating an alternate source of energy.

Based on Friedrich Schiller’s famous quote, “Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain”, the story is divided into three parts: Against Stupidity - which takes place on Earth and traces the discovery of plutonium 186 and the creation of the Electron Pump; The Gods Themselves - which takes us to the world of the aliens in the parallel universe; and Contend In Vain? - which takes place on the Moon and looks at a whole new population.

Without question, the first part was brilliant. An element that does not exist, aliens who are trying to establish contact, a parallel universe that is dying … this was science fiction in its purest form. From imagining a road that is downhill both ways to the concept of water running uphill, this was the section that destroyed the very basic understanding of the laws of the universe. Lamont’s questioning of Frederick Hallam’s Pump and raising the possibility of the sun becoming a supernova takes that undermining to a whole new level, climaxing of course with the incoming message “FEER”.

Unfortunately, the story really did not continue in that high vein in its second and third parts. The second part was all about the aliens, chiefly told through the story of the Triad of Odeen, Dua and Tritt. While it was certainly interesting reading about a life form where all creatures are either ‘hard ones’ or ‘soft ones’, with the latter having fixed roles of (left) Rationals, (mid) Emotionals and (right) Parentals, I felt that there was just too much discussion on the social and sexual lives of the aliens, with the core business of the story forgotten for the most part. (Without giving anything away, I will say that the one incident concerning Estwald, which occurs at the very end of this section, was absolutely brilliant!)

The third and final section on the moon - although it still meandered through a guided trip of the moon and all its extra curricular activities - did bring some of the story back on track and gave it some sort of a denouement. Assisted by Lunarian Selene Lindstrom, Denison revisits the potential catastrophe posed by the Electron Pump as he taps into a second parallel universe that exists in a pre-big bang state as a cosmic egg.

When in future I think of this story, I think I will remember that one-third of it was awesome, and I will find that I have faint or no memory of the remaining two-thirds!

Sunday, September 01, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “At the Mountains of Madness”

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”. ‘At the Mountains of Madness’ by H. P. Lovecraft is the narrative of Professor William Dyer, based on his discovery of a horrific secret on an expedition to Antarctica.

Let me start today’s blog with my last thought on this story: a brilliant idea that was quite ruined by a repeated insistence of labelling as ‘horror’ something I can only term ‘fascinating’.

I have always been fascinated by thoughts of where and how it all started, what was going on before the Big Bang, what is beyond the edge of Space, if in fact it does ever end … It was awesome reading about the discovery of ancient life forms - creatures that had features of plants and animals, man and fish - yet at an advanced stage of development impossible for the ancient era to which they belonged. From those curious fossils, the expedition goes on to discover the abandoned stone city, and finally uncovers the secret of the history of the ‘Elder Things’. Elders and Shoggoths, Cthulhu and Mi-go, and blind six-foot-tall penguins. And finally, Danforth’s unexplained insanity.

This was a fascinating tale that was pure science fiction. Yet at every step of the way, sometimes with exasperating persistence, the author felt compelled to ominously proclaim things like, “I could not help feeling that they were evil things - mountains of madness whose farther slopes looked out over some accursed ultimate abyss. That seething, half-luminous cloud background held ineffable suggestions of a vague, ethereal beyondness far more than terrestrially spatial, and gave appalling reminders of the utter remoteness, separateness, desolation, and aeon-long death of this untrodden and unfathomed austral world”.

It wasn’t like anything ‘horrific’ happened - it was just the fact that aliens existed, that came to be called the “monstrous chapter of pre-human life”. (Could it perhaps be a reflection of the times that this was considered horror - ?) Topped off by a very long and dull history lesson towards the end, this story turned out to be quite a disappointment.