Sunday, December 29, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The Book Thief”

Set in Nazi Germany, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is the story of Liesel Meminger’s life with her foster parents shortly after her father abandons the family, her mother gives her up, and her brother dies en route. Narrated by Death, this flawless story has been one of the greater reading experiences of my life; one that I dare not ever re-visit for the sheer horror and grief it evoked, yet one that is unlikely to get out of my memory any time soon.

One of the things that really set this story apart was its unique narration - by Death itself. Even more unusual is the occasional humour and the sheer poetry that envelops everything Death says and does. Before we even get into the story, we are surrounded by warm evocative colours: Europe is grey, kindness is soft silver melting … into this visually enigmatic world crashes the heart-wrenching tale of Liesel Meminger, of Rudy Steiner who only ever wanted to be Jesse Owens, of Hans Hubermann who ‘dared’ to give a Jew a piece of bread, of Max Vandenburg who lives a large part of his adult life crouching in a basement covered by old paint cans and dirty drop sheets, fantasizing about ring fights with Hitler or painting over books and writing his own stories, and of scores of other people, whose destinies were decided by the actions of one “strange, small man” who - in the words of Max - decided: “1. He would part his hair from the opposite side to everyone else. 2. He would make himself a small, strange mustache. 3. He would one day rule the world”.

Amid all the tragedy, Death does not let up for even a moment as it talks about people and situations and gives a glimpse into an uneasy future with such words of doom as, “For now though let’s let him enjoy it, we’ll give him seven months and then we will come for him”. While this style does not leave room for any twists or surprises, it certainly ensures a constant presence of fear that never lets up; we are not even afforded the luxury of a false sense of security.

Book-ended by The Grave Digger’s Handbook and The Word Shaker, 33 Himmel Street sits at the core of so much terror, so much sorrow, and yet so much resilience … I prayed for Max and I cheered for Hans and I cried for Rudy, and - like Death - I will be haunted by the book thief for a long time to come. A powerful story. And not just because the writing was so brilliant. But also because this is not fiction.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Love Among the Chickens”

What do you do when life’s tensions really start to get you down? You turn to P. G. Wodehouse of course.

Preposterous people with ridiculous names working on ludicrous schemes - all the trademarks of the inimitable Wodehouse come together once again to form yet another joyous reading experience.

Writer Jeremy Garnet recalls the time when his friend Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge decided to launch a chicken farm. As Garnet is bulldozed into moving in with Ukridge and his wife in the capacity of an adviser, his initial apprehensions are quickly realized as Ukridge reveals himself to know absolutely nothing about chickens. And as one disastrous incident after the other occurs on the farm, starting with the arrival of a huge consignment of assorted chickens and the overwhelming task of getting them organized into coops and fences, we find ourselves thick in the middle of yet another bizarre tale; this time with cats stuck in chimneys, sick chickens, drowning professors, croquet, tennis and golf games, and of course, a crowning glory of angry creditors. A tale that - as always - still manages to include a love story where all ends well!

Wodehouse is one of the classics I find myself returning to every so often - not just to relive happy memories, but to discover anew the power of wit and humour that can really brush the poisonous cobwebs of life’s stresses away.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared”

“Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann”

A birthday party is planned at the retirement home where Allan Karlsson has just turned 100. The grand event is also graced by the presence of the Mayor and the press.

In no more than his brown jacket, brown trousers and pee slippers, this is the moment that the centenarian decides to escape. You think that’s odd?

At the bus station Allan, entrusted with a suitcase while its owner takes a bathroom break, takes off with the suitcase upon the arrival of the next bus. You think that’s weird?

You have no idea what’s to come! Jonas Jonasson tells us the ludicrous, yet fascinating story of a man who has been present at the most key moments in the last 100 years of human history. Actually, most of these key moments occurred precisely because he was there. As Allan hobnobs with all the world leaders from the President of the United States to the Shah of Iran, from Stalin to General Franco, from Mao Tse Tung to Kim II Sung, an extraordinary series of world events unfolds as he fuels diplomatic alliances and world wars with equal disregard.

Explosives expert. Eternal optimist. Swears by vodka. And could not care about religion or politics. This is the man who, on his 100th birthday, takes off with a stolen suitcase. To meet petty thief Julius Jonsson, eternal student Benny Ljungberg, Gunilla The Beauty Bjorklund, elephant Sonya, dog Buster, Bosse, Chief Inspector Aronsson, gangster Per-Gunner Gerdin … And with each larger than life character, the story gets just a little more interesting.

There is violence; not just in Gustavsson’s being blown up by dynamite or in Bolt being crushed to death by an elephant, but mainly - as Allan puts it - in his teaching the West how to make a bomb, and then giving the same information to the East. But the sheer over-the-top quirkiness makes this story a brilliant satire of all the crime and corruption in the world. “My name is Dollars. One Hundred Thousand Dollars.”

I also really liked the narrative style: on one hand we follow the 100-year-old Allan’s adventures starting from 2005 Malmkoping; on the other - through flashbacks - we catch up with the story of his unbelievable life starting from the 1920s, till the two timelines meet up on the day the 100-year-old man climbed out the window.

A ludicrous story (the title should have been a hint of things to come) filled with a lot of fun, a lot of laughter, and an ending that was such a ‘feel good’ moment. Like it said in the misprinted Bible, “They all lived happily ever after”.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Sacré Bleu”

“What is the standard when you are doing something that’s never been done? What kind of muse inspires that? Exactly.”

Sacré Bleu! What an awesome story! Christopher Moore’s tale follows friends Lucien Lessard, a young baker-painter and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec on a quest to unravel the mystery behind the supposed “suicide” of Vincent van Gogh. The French ‘curse’ word for “sacred blue” (which refers to Christ’s mother, Mary - often depicted in art in a blue dress) their journey undercuts the whole concept of the immaculate conception (it is Moore!) while unravelling a mystery that leads them to one of the oldest stories in human history.

“… Madame’s mother, who, upon a sunny day, when the twin locomotives of her bosom toward her cumulous skirts through the market at Louveciennes, was followed by children and dogs seeking shade” … “He tried to assume the beatific look he’d seen on the Renaissance Virgin Marys in the Louvre, but he only succeeded in looking as if he were being touched inappropriately by the Holy Ghost.” Yes, Moore is still very funny, but - unlike ‘Lamb’ (the book I read prior to this) - this story was really an absorbing mystery; sometimes comical, sometimes irreverent, but always a fantastic mystery, steeped in intrigue and passion, set in the gorgeous art scene of 19th century Paris.

After shooting himself in a cornfield, van Gogh walked a mile to see Dr. Gachet before dying. Was this really a suicide as history reports? In attempting to answer that question, Moore brings to life all the greats such as Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gaugin, Jean Renoir, Monet, Manet, Pisarro and Michelangelo (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was my absolute favourite character - and not just in this book) endowing rich details to their lives and mannerisms, and making the reader look at their paintings with a whole new perspective (is it The Bath or is it Luncheon on the Grass?)

A very visual experience, this mysterious story weaves in and out of the world’s most famous paintings and most renowned artists; the passion of Juliette and the beauty of Carmen; the timeless Virgin Mary and of course the ethereal Colorman. And it creates a fascinating tale, drenched in the colour blue.

(Oh, and that tiny reference to Oscar Wilde towards the end made me so very gleeful!)

Not counting sci-fi, which is by default all about unique subject matters, this was one of the most unique concepts I have ever read, told by one of the more engaging storytellers of our time. No pun intended, but this book really came out of the blue and grabbed me quite completely! The extraordinary story of Art and its Muse.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Rashmi bookmarks “Death of an Expert Witness”

This mystery, featuring Scotland Yard’s Commander Adam Dalgliesh, was my first introduction to crime writer P. D. James, and it was such a great read that I am a little regretful at not having started sooner.

The body of a young girl is discovered in a field, and the forensic team from Hoggatt’s Laboratory East Anglia is called in to investigate. In a surprising twist, the central murder of this story moves from the murdered girl to one of the forensic scientists - shadowed in the macabre killing of a plasticine doll by Nell. I thought it was a brilliant idea to have the murder set amongst forensic experts - we are constantly pitted against a killer who has expert knowledge of the human body, and thereby knows all the ins and outs, what pitfalls to avoid, and how to throw someone off the trail, always avoiding the common mistakes an ordinary killer would be likely to commit.

When the story started off, a lot of people were introduced very quickly, and with all the relations and back-stories, it was actually a little confusing in the beginning. The characters, however, were interesting and distinct enough to become memorable very quickly, and things really started to fall in place. Also, precisely because there were so many characters with so many stories that when wrap up time comes, all those stories click so perfectly into place - making for a far richer experience.

Settings and the atmosphere are very big factors for me, and this narrative had a truly memorable setting in rural England - making a small English village come alive and literally surround me. What was an added stroke of genius (and I don’t come across this very often) was the way the writer described the distinct smells inside each house; it made the reading experience very, very real.

I also really liked the small diversions that the story takes, when conversations turn to some deeper questions about life in general; be it Freeborn’s comment to Dalgliesh on “Management. The new science”, which he sees as pointless and in no way any more useful than general administration; or Copley’s conversation with Middlemass regarding the fallibility, yet, necessity of the jury system; or Massingham’s view of the purpose - or lack thereof - of Life; or Nell’s startlingly deep thoughts on murder and retribution; or (and this one really touched a nerve) the simple yet brutal comment on loneliness - as seen through the eyes of a prostitute … In the flurry of the madness caused by an unnatural death, these brief moments really made me stop and consider.

I’m in two minds as to how I feel about the final reveal. While the identity of the killer was definitely unexpected, I’m not sure I am entirely convinced by the killer’s motive … then again, as they say, the most terrifying weapon is love, not hate, and the ending was certainly bittersweet.

This was a very good story, told superbly, and I will be reading another one of her books very soon.