Musings of a Bibliomaniac

Goodreads immigrant. Another victim of corporate tyranny. I blog at Musings of a Bibliomaniac along with my co-blogger Scarlet.

Review : Collages by Anais Nin

Collages - Anaïs Nin, Jean Varda

Anaïs Nin is my beloved witch, capable of making the nebulous frontiers between imagination and reality dissolve away into oblivion with one well-maneuvered flourish of her metaphorical pen, her personalized magic wand. Or I see her in my mind's eye, as a lovely but shabbily dressed seamstress, patiently weaving a patchwork quilt of exquisite beauty out of the gossamer strands of time. 

Does art imitate life or does the opposite hold true? 
Where does life begin? Where does it end? What lies in between? What does it all mean?
Anaïs Nin attempts to answer these hazy, unanswerable questions by giving us a snapshot of the perpetual movement of time and the phantasmagorical spectacle of humanity caught in its web, establishing without a doubt that there's no end, no beginning and no middle. Life is ad infinitum.

Dreams and reality collide in her writing, exploding in a dazzling array of fireworks illuminating the obscure part of our consciousness, giving us brief flashes of the realm in which the ultimate truth lies cocooned in the protective covering of the mundane, slumbering peacefully - the truth about life and beauty, love and lust, happiness and grief, the extraordinary and the common.

Collages is exactly what its title implies and much more than what our feeble imaginations can conceive upon the utterance of this word. It is not about a nation or a set of natives, a single protagonist or many, one life event or a set of discrete occurrences. Anaïs Nin renders perfect delineation unnecessary, makes clearly visible lines of divide vanish without a trace. Instead, vignettes, eerie and abstract, tangible and solid, merge and fall into each other, clumsily yet seamlessly, to create a surreal painting, a collage of the human consciousness holding the random admirer in thrall, glaringly all-encompassing in its wild, colorful abandon even though the viewer strives to make sense of it. But isn't life just like this baffling, bizarre work of art that Anaïs Nin begets? Comprehension stays forever out of reach. Even when we feel it floats mid-air at arm's length, attempts at trying to grasp it remain thwarted.

As Renate pours her beautiful, meaningless dreams into her empty canvasses, falls in and out of love with Bruce, drifting through space and time, touching the lives of many we get an impression of life's fluid grace and its capacity of encasing the infinite. The diseased, old man who shuns the company of his loved ones, preferring to live in a cave by the sea with a few seals as companions, the heart-broken French consul's wife who grieves for her broken marriage and vindictively contemplates finding a Turkish lover, the clairvoyant film critic who describes for Renate the scenarios written by struggling writers which never saw the light of the day, Nobuko who fights to free herself from the suffocating, rigid civility of the Japanese way of life - these are but a handful among the many myriad shades and facets of humanity shuttling in and out of Renate's life causing vague but perceptible upheavals. The quietly floating gondolas of Venice, the ochre-hued sand dunes of an African desert, the peaks of Peru and palaces of Marrakesh, upscale avenues of New York and streets of Arcadia, California all make fleeting appearances in this stunning collection of interlinked snippets, dismantling in the process all man-imposed barriers between nations and cultures and presenting to the reader an eerily arresting picture of life in all its glory and imperfection.

I don't care about Anaïs Nin being mostly recognized as a writer of literary erotica since I beg to differ on the subject of this categorization. I don't care about the fact that she shared an incestuous relationship with her father. But what I definitely care about is discovering and appreciating more of her splendidly assembled collages.

Review : The Color Purple

The Color Purple - Alice Walker

I give this book 5 stars to spite the myopic David Gilmours and the V.S. Naipauls of the world who think books written by women are irrelevant. I give this 5 stars to make up for the many 1/2/3 star ratings it may receive simply because of Alice Walker's forthright, honest portrayal of unpleasant truths that are often conveniently shoved under the carpet so as not to disturb the carefully preserved but brittle structure of dogma and century-old misconceptions. 
And I award this 5 stars, symbolically on Banned Books Week as an apology for all the cowardly sentiments of the ones who misuse their power by banning books, thereby shutting out many powerful voices which demand and need to be heard.

In my eyes, an author's merit lies not only in their sense of aesthetic beauty, but also in the scope and reach of their worldviews which must reflect in their craft.

Alice Walker's is the voice of one such African American writer that recounts a story which not only breaches the boundaries of an issue like emancipation of women but tries to detect a common pattern in problems plaguing civilizations across continents. She gives us one horrifying glimpse after another into the lives of women ravaged by unspeakable brutalities like rape and abuse, lives searching for meaning and connection and seeking out that elusive ray of hope amidst the darkness of despair. 
And by the end of the narrative, she brings to light with great sensitivity, that misogyny, sexism and blind patriarchal prejudices are as rampantly in vogue in the urban, upscale sphere of American cities as they are in the intractable, untameable African landscapes.

Celie and Nettie. Shug Avery, Sofia and Mary Agnes. Tashi and Olivia. 
All these are but different names and many facets of the same disturbing reality.
If the lives of Celie and Nettie are torn apart by sexual abuse and humiliation from childhood, then Tashi and other unnamed young African girls of the Olinka tribe are victims of genital mutilation and other forms of psychological and physical torture.
If the men of African American families dehumanize the female members to the point of treating them as mere care-givers and sex slaves, then the objectification of African women by the men of their families is no less appalling. And contrary to accepted beliefs, white families in America are just as easily susceptible to misogyny as the African American families are.

But Alice Walker doesn't only stop at opening our eyes to the uncivilized aspects of our so-called civilized world, but also shows us how knowledge of the world and people at large, self-awareness and education can help exorcize such social evils, how it is never too late to gain a fresh perspective, start anew and how empowerment of women eventually empowers society.

Dear David Gilmour, if I were a professor of English literature I'd have taught Alice Walker to my students without a shred of hesitation, because here's an author who may not possess the trademark sophistication of Virginia Woolf's lyrical prose but who, nonetheless, fearlessly broaches subjects many masters and mistresses of the craft may balk at dealing with.

Alice Walker: 5 | David Gilmour: 0

Forgive Me, Matthew Quick. I'm not impressed.

Reblogged from Bibliomaniac Scarlet:
Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock - Matthew Quick

Either this book failed to do what it set out to do, or I went in with the wrong expectations. Whatever the cause, Forgive Me, Leonard Peacock did not have any appreciable impact on me.

You see, I read this book hoping to gain some insight into the mind of a school shooter. Someone like Kevin Khatchadourian, just not so inherently evil. I wanted this book to scare me, stun me, make me question, make me think, maybe break my heart a little. 

What I did not want this book to do (and what it essentially did) was give me a long list of excuses for why this guy was walking around with a gun in his bag.

Now, I'm not trying to undermine the gravity of the situation here. Leonard has had a tough life; has endured some horrible things. He's depressed, he's lonely, he's been bullied, and I understand how difficult that is to get through. But isn't that true for a lot of teenagers?? Not everyone lugs a P-38 to school though. Shouldn't there be something more? Something in the way Leonard's mind works? Something to do with the person that Leonard is rather than the circumstances?

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The Goodreads Killer - Dave Franklin Disclaimer:- Before I begin let me state that the review which follows contains no sarcastic remarks, does not mock or make an indirect statement in context of the subject matter. Oh and there are no nasty comments alluding to the author's behavior or personal life either even though, ironically, he seems to be at perfect liberty to incorporate distasteful imagery and remarks involving Goodreads reviewers in his "book"!

This book did not offend me as much as I thought it would. However, it reminded me of all those unpleasant experiences of receiving comments on some of my 1-star reviews by people asking me whether I have written a best-selling book.

According to this logic-challenged crowd, this means that I need to write a best-selling book before I get to review a best-selling book.
Which makes about as much sense as Hitler's reasoning behind killing Jews did.

And this is precisely what this book tells me -
"They've become an army of super weeds, intent on strangling superior life forms."

Please note that any author is a superior life form just because he/she has published a book and the reviewers are worthless living entities because they have not.
"We all get shit thrown at us by jealous little wannabes. It goes with the territory."

Meaning reviewers are wannabes who actually wish to be as 'successful' as the authors they write negative reviews of and, possibly, they write these negative reviews out of dormant envy.

I was hoping not to mention the new GR review policy since much has already been said and written on the issue, but I can't help mentioning it in this regard since the book under discussion contains the theme of enforcing penalties for the "crime" of writing strongly-worded reviews.

The points of contention in both these cases is the freedom of speech.

There are books like 50 Shades and Twilight which have offended me to death - Twilight which could be conveniently renamed 'Plain Jane's Guide to snagging a rich and attractive man' and 50 Shades which could be renamed 'How to sell away your dignity to a sadomasochist'. These books have given me headaches and infuriated me with their latent misogynistic and sexist overtures (another case in point, in this respect, being the hordes of new adult books which are such a raging publishing phenomenon now and are nothing but modified versions of cheap erotica novels featuring a young adult couple). And yet I have neither imagined hunting down those authors and murdering them nor tying them up and slapping them with pig testicles let alone writing out a silly 'revenge fantasy' involving writers I hate without a shred of humor in it.

Because as much as I believe that young girls of impressionable age should not be allowed to read abominations such as 50 Shades and Twilight (since both glorify extremely disturbing relationship dynamics between a man and woman) and books written in a similar vein, I have never had crazy fantasies of killing their authors or causing them any harm.

Because that is the whole point of this censorship debate which has raged over the last week on Goodreads. Letting conflicting, dichotomous opinions co-exist side by side is the civilized way of doing things.

I hate these books and I despise writers who write about the most cliched, unrealistic, nauseating romantic relationships featuring obnoxious male chauvinists and dumb female protagonists just for the sake of making a quick buck. But I do not for a second question the right of these authors to write whatever they wish to, since apparently they have a market and a reader base.
So why would someone even think of depriving reviewers of their right to say what they want to say exactly the way they want to say it?

And more despicable than these new adult, erotica novels is a book which has the nerve to chastise(threaten?) reviewers for bluntly stating what they really feel - a book which has no redeeming characteristics and is not even remotely funny.

When you are writing a book and publishing it, it is no longer your own. You are letting it out in the world for people to judge and provide you with feedback. Learn to accept that feedback (whatever it is), draw lessons and move on.
And if you can't take it, please keep all the published copies in your personal library for only you to admire for the rest of your life.

2 stars because the writing isn't THAT bad in my opinion.

P.S.:- I read the whole book. Yes I endured all the meaninglessly thrown in badly written sex scenes.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 4: The Heart's Desire - Cliff Rathburn, Charlie Adlard, Robert Kirkman Contains what I think is the most chilling part of the narrative so far -


The Pianist

The Pianist - Władysław Szpilman This is the first time I am reviewing a book that I have tried and failed to rate.

How do I decide on a rating anyway? Should I judge the prose? the content? the author's style of presentation? his narrative voice? the quality of the translation?
Do I even have the right to?

Awarding a star rating to this man's unbelievably harrowing and miraculous tale of surviving a war which claimed the lives of 6 million of his fellow brethren for no reason at all, seems a more sacrilegious act than calling Infinite Jest a bad book on Goodreads.

So I choose not to.

Wladyslaw Szpilman, a pianist working for the Polish radio station, takes us through the years of Nazi occupation of Poland and Warsaw, in particular, and the insensate violence that had the Jewish inhabitants of the city (the ones who were fortunate enough to be spared the concentration camps) living the most brutal and unforgiving of nightmares for a period of almost 5 years.

Wladyslaw Szpilman

Szpilman writes with a kind of unnerving indifference, as if this were someone else's tale of horrors he is narrating and not his own. It is obvious that since he had written this in 1946, immediately after the war, his senses may still have been numbed under the influence of the barbarous acts he had witnessed through the 6 years of the Occupation. His voice doesn't sound sarcastic, debilitated or even a little bit acerbic. Instead, he gives us a neat, uncluttered, unemotional, chronologically ordered account of events which saw him narrowly escaping certain death many, many times.

But this is not just his story. A surprise awaits the unsuspecting reader at the very end, in the form of Wilm Hosenfeld, a Nazi officer who saved Szpilman's life in the last few months of 1944. An astonishingly mild-mannered, generous soul who not only kept the knowledge of Szpilman's existence a secret from the other SS officers, but saved him from certain death out of starvation and the unbearable cold.

But true to the nature of war which justifies countering violence with more violence, Hosenfeld was taken as a prisoner of war when the Soviets finally recaptured Poland. He was tortured to death years later (1952) in some unnamed labor camp in the icy swathes of Stalingrad. His tormentors were especially cruel with him, angered by his claims of having saved the lives of many Jews and Poles during the Warsaw occupation. Which, of course, was nothing but the truth.*

Wilhelm Adalbert Hosenfeld

It goes without saying, while reading this book I had no sense of time or any movement around me, I had no idea whether it was still daytime or whether night had fallen. Turning over the last page, when I finally took note of my surroundings I discovered my pillow was half-wet with tears and that I had a dreadful headache.

Some of the most poignant, haunting and reflective passages of the narrative are in Wilm's journal which was recovered years later and incorporated into Szpilman's memoir -
"Evil and brutality lurk in the human heart. If they are allowed to develop freely, they flourish, putting out dreadful offshoots...."

A mere German officer seems to have had the moral strength to admit -
"Our entire nation will have to pay for all these wrongs and this unhappiness, all the crimes we have committed. Many innocent people must be sacrificed before the blood-guilt we've incurred can be wiped out. That's an inexorable law in small and large things alike."

And yet the "great" Der Führer, in front of whom a vast Empire bowed down at one point of time, could only choose the coward's way out by committing suicide in the end.

A million stars to the courage of Wladyslaw Szpilman, who aided the Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, disregarding the constant threat to his own life. A million stars to his unflinchingly honest attempt at looking back at a terrible past. A million stars for enabling the citizens of the world to read, know and derive lessons from the story of his life. A million stars to Wilm Hosenfeld for holding on to his conscience at a time when morality and compassion were in short supply.

And a million stars to the triumph of the human spirit.

(So you see the correct rating of this book should be 5 million stars which is beyond the scope of Goodreads.)

*Wilm Hosenfeld was posthumously recognized as a Righteous among the Nations in 2009 by Israel.

P.S.:- This review maybe updated after I watch the movie.

Fire in the Blood

Fire in the Blood - Irène Némirovsky 3.5/5

A contemplative novella exploring the contradictions between the fiery ardor of youth and the cold complacency of old age, against the backdrop of a close-knit rural community in the French countryside. The writing lacks polish but it is good enough to warrant further delving into Irène Némirovsky's oeuvre.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera, Michael Henry Heim Rarely do I come across a book which stubbornly evades categorization of any kind, managing to keep the reader behind a veil of mystification till the very end. Like while you were reading, the book kept on giving you one insightful glimpse after another into the convoluted workings of the human psyche. But when it ended, whatever, the narrative managed to encapsulate within the scope of a few hundred pages, vanished in a puff of smoke without leaving any tangible proof of its prior existence.
I will, perhaps, be accused of being desperate about drawing correlations between the title 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' and my own experiences with the book, but as much as there maybe a little truth in that allegation, the book did make me feel exactly the way I stated. It made me experience a sort of dizzying lightness after I was done with it, made my existence seem like an inconsequential matter, as if I am always making more out of my life than what it actually is, just the way Tomas, Tereza, Franz and Sabina did.

Essentially, this is a novel of ideas, so flexible and rapidly altering, that it can easily bend itself to fit whatever shape one's mind is in. In fact I believe, different readers will arrive at different interpretations after reading.
While weaving its way in and out of the lives of its 4 main characters and their individual reflections on various subjects, the narrative manages to capture the throes of a nation caught in the vice-like grip of Soviet persecution in addition to losing its way occasionally in a thread of philosophical rumination.

What constitutes real suffering? Is the threat of Communism spreading over Eastern Europe the real malaise leading up to the continuous cycle of oppression perpetuated by totalitarian regimes or are all political ideologies capable of sowing seeds of future conflict? Are humans inherently averse to status quo or does there exist a general human resistance to both change and continuity? Does romantic love really entrench itself into the Platonic theory of finding the missing pieces of ourselves or is that just a mere attempt on our parts at dramatizing an utterly mundane occurrence? Is love the end-result of a fortunate crossing of two different paths or is it an amorphous entity which rests somewhere in the realm of the incomprehensible and the ineffable? Don't we often mistake commiseration for love, imagine our emotional attachment to people and places rather than actually experience it?

Milan Kundera leaves us with a lot of disturbing existential questions to ponder over but doesn't struggle to answer any one of them definitively, choosing, instead, to leave us in the middle of a fruitful discussion where the reader is as much a participant as the writer. Perhaps because there are no clear-cut answers to these questions. For as much as we strive to fish out meaning from the jumbled mess of our lives, accord some greater significance to each one of our decisions, actions or sentiments, eventually every one of them is steeped in the fundamental need for some deeply personal, even preposterous, wish fulfillment.

"....Because human lives are composed in precisely such a fashion. They are composed like music. Guided by his sense of beauty, an individual transforms a fortuitous occurrence (Beethoven's music, death under a train) into a motif, which then assumes a permanent place in the composition of the individual's life."

P.S.:- I'll never view the word 'kitsch' in the same way again.

P.P.S:- Do read it, if you haven't already.

The Awakening

The Awakening - Kate Chopin Often I have witnessed women, who proceed to talk about misogyny, sexism, or state their views on a piece of feminist literature, starting their discourse with something along the lines of 'I'm not much of a feminist...but'. As if it is best to put a considerable distance between themselves and this feared word at the onset and deny any possible links whatsoever. As if calling herself a feminist automatically degrades a woman to the position of a venom-spewing, uncouth, unfeminine, violent creature from hell whose predilections include despising all males on the planet with a passion and shouting from the rooftops about women's rights at the first opportunity.

Attention ladies and gentlemen! Feminism is not so cool anymore, at least not in the way it was in the 80s or 90s.

Don't ask what set off that particular rant but yes I suppose the numerous 1-star reviews of this one could have been a likely trigger.

So Edna's story gets a 1 star because she is a 'selfish bitch' who falls in love with another man who is not her husband, doesn't sacrifice her life for her children and feels the stirrings of sexual attraction for someone she doesn't love in a romantic way. Edna gets a 1 star because she dares to put herself as an individual first before her gender specific roles as wife and mother.

But so many other New Adult and erotica novels (IF one can be generous enough to call them 'novels' for lack of a more suitable alternative term) virtually brimming with sexism, misogyny and chock full of all the obnoxious stereotypes that reinforce society's stunted, retrogressive view of the relationship dynamics between a man and woman, get 5 glorious stars from innumerable reviewers (majority of whom are women) on this site.

This makes me lose my faith in humanity and women in particular.

Edna Pontellier acknowledges her awakening and her urge to break away from compulsions imposed on her by society. She embraces her 'deviance' and tries to come to terms with this new knowledge of her own self. She desires to go through the entire gamut of human actions and emotions, regardless of how 'morally' ambiguous, unjustified or self-centered each one of them maybe.

And isn't THAT the whole point of this feminism business?
"Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." - Rebecca West

A woman needs to be recognized and accepted as a human being first - imperfect, flawed, egocentric, and possibly even as a bad mother and an irresponsible wife. Just like the way society accepts a bad husband as a bad husband, a bad father as a bad father and moves on after uttering a few words of negative criticism. Somehow being a bad father is reasonably acceptable, but being a bad mother constitutes a sacrilegious act.

Edna's husband is equally responsible for abandoning their children as she is. He limits his role as a father to performing minor tasks like buying them bonbons, peanuts and gifts and lecturing his wife on how they should be raised without bothering to shoulder some of her burden. As if raising children requires the sole expertise of the mother and the father can nonchalantly evade all responsibility while maintaining a lingering presence in their lives.

I have seen readers being empathetic to unfaithful fictional husbands and their existential dilemmas (case in point being Tomas and Franz in 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' which I am currently reading) and even trying to rationalize their incapability of staying in monogamous relationships. But oh heaven forbid if it's a woman in the place of a man! Women are denied entrance into the world of infidelity or casual sex (and in the rare case that they are allowed, they are given labels like 'slut', 'whore', 'tart' and so on). They need to be absolute models of perfection without fail - angelic, compassionate, thoughtful, always subservient, forever ready to be at your service as a good mother and a good wife and languish in a perpetual state of self-denial with that forced sweet smile stuck to their faces. Double standards much?

Edna is a little flawed and hence, very humane. Edna is in all of us. And her cold refusal to let societal norms decide the course of her life, reduce her to the state of mere mother and wife only makes her brave in my eyes.

Her suicide is but a loud 'fuck you' to the patriarchal system. And I can only salute her for her act of defiance.
Life And Times Of Michael K - J.M. Coetzee Ask me to pronounce verdict on a work of literature flaunting self-indulgent wordplay, revelling in its own brand of avant-gardism which stops short of making a powerful statement on our troubled times, and my response to it is likely to be lukewarm.
Ask me to judge a book dissecting the greater human quandary with keen insight but in stilted prose, and my reaction will possibly be more or less the same.

But give me a story capable of dismantling all the divides of race, culture, political/religious indoctrination, time and space, encompassing all the inner contradictions of our existence into a compelling commentary on human follies that elicits a very visceral, emotional response, and my being won over is practically guaranteed.

Reading Michael K's tale took me on one such heart-breaking, metaphorical journey, at the culmination of which I realized that pitying the innocence of Michael Ks of the world who are repeatedly squashed like bugs under the bootsoles of the 'system' is but a foolish thing to do. Instead, I felt pity for the ones who are incapable of recognizing true misery when they see it, the ones who fail to identify the root cause of all human conflict and its futility, who pride themselves on their achievements which are, sometimes, nothing but grave mistakes in the greater scheme of things.

In spite of being born with genetic deformities and other crucial handicaps like the absence of a privileged background, Michael K is a fortunate being in my eyes. Someone who doesn't baulk at staring truth right in the eye, a venerable hero stranded in the midst of cowards. He can summon the moral strength to shun the comforts of life, deprived of which each one of us are bound to wither away and die the pathetic death of an unwatered plant. He can seek refuge in the heart of the inhabitable mountains, combat starvation by feasting on insects and the cherished pumpkins he cultivates with the tender care of a mother. He is brave enough to eschew the path prescribed by the ones positioned on the top most echelons of the social hierarchy. He doesn't know which side to choose during a war. So he chooses life over death, physical suffering over psychological enslavement, creation over destruction. Simply put, he deserts the company of men to embrace humanity.

"You are precious, Michaels in your way; you are the last of your kind, a creature left over from an earlier age, like the coelacanth or the last man to speak Yaqui. We have all tumbled over the lip into the cauldron of history: only you, following your idiot light, biding your time in an orphanage, evading the peace and the war, skulking in the open where no one dreamed of looking, have managed to live in the old way, drifting through time, observing the seasons no more trying to change the course of history than a grain of sand does. We ought to value you and celebrate you, we ought to put your clothes and your packet of pumpkin seeds too, with a label; there ought to be a plague nailed to the racetrack wall commemorating your stay here."

Despite being considered 'messed up in the head', he understands the one thing that others are too afraid or too ignorant to acknowledge. That laying the groundwork for a future way of life through ruthless violence blunts the human intellect to the point where one is only aroused by the urge to draw blood, inflict fatal injury and the application of reason loses its appeal.
Michael doesn't understand what a war is, so he struggles to flee the myriad horrors of it, clinging to the last shred of his dignity and his self-made definitions of right and wrong. As everything falls apart in the cities, in the labour camps, swallowed up by the chaos brought forth during war, Michael busies himself with creating and rebuilding life in the countryside.

Thus, Michael is nothing but a representation of that slumbering voice of reason within each one of us, the voice of the dissenter, the voice of the one putting up a passive but stubborn resistance against the absurd, inhumane demands of society at large. And that is precisely the reason why this world needs more silent revolutionaries like him.

P.S.:- My only grouse with Coetzee is his pedagogical compulsion to launch into a lengthy discourse, expounding on hidden meanings, instead of having faith in the perceptive reader to grasp underlying implications. That caused me to take away that 1 star which I had no intention of taking away otherwise.
The Translator: A Novel - Nina Schuyler I have always frowned upon people who seem to think that reading is a mere pastime, barely suppressing the resentment I felt for those who consider the act of complete engagement with a narrative akin to a childish desire of letting go of reality for a while and stepping into a world detached from our own. I believed them to be ignorant, presumptuous and hopelessly prejudiced.

But after having read The Translator, I feel like I have gained enlightenment, become a more empathetic and thoughtful being blessed with a newer perspective on the matter.
Reading can, indeed, be categorized as a form of escapism. A gateway opening up into another metaphysical dimension we cannot gain physical access to. Or it can be the very best thing about our lives. Reading can be whatever we will it to be or perceive it to be. Because contrary to what we like to believe, our world views and personal preferences end up coloring the judgement we pronounce upon every thing else. Nothing can be classified as the absolute truth. It is not wise to view an opinion as a fact, certainly not our own, since our understanding of the world is forever a work in progress.

The essence of The Translator consists not so much of the life events of one particular Hanne Schubert, who effortlessly navigates the world of various languages, but of the basic human fallacy of failing to understand another, the pangs of miscommunication and the tragedies that transpire as a consequence.

A professional translator, Hanne, eases into the reticent formality of the Japanese language from the confident brusqueness of English within the same heartbeat. She keenly understands the basics of linguistics and elements of a foreign culture, yet struggles to understand her own flesh and blood. As a result, an unbridgeable chasm opens up in the relationship with her daughter Brigitte and this yawning gap stretches across time and space, affecting Hanne in ways she remains unwilling to acknowledge.

She continues to drift through a life revolving around translation assignments, shouldering the burden of repressed grief for her departed husband and estranged daughter without letting it engulf her completely.
But when an accident involving a head injury causes her to lose her mastery of all languages barring Japanese, she is forced to evaluate her true standing in life and embark on a journey of self-discovery, at the end of which she reconciles with her daughter. Although by the time realization dawns on her, it is already too late.

But is it really? Nina Schuyler seems to leave the reader with the message that it is never too late to cast aside reluctance and commence the often difficult, two-way process of communication, to stop speaking for a while and patiently listen to what the other one is saying without offering interruptions. And perhaps, it will not be mere folly to take off the rose-tinted glasses of preconceived notions and glance at the world once again, just so we can see facets of it we have been willfully blind to so far.

As a relatively new author, Nina Schuyler shows incredible promise. Her elegant, understated writing style succeeds in capturing the poignancy of many tender moments. There is something deeply atmospheric about this book and had it not been for the meticulous research that Schuyler must have conducted on Japanese culture and language (even the mention of Japanese tv show 'Long Vacation' holds true since I have seen it), half of the scenarios wouldn't have come to life as they did. Japan, the character of Moto Okuro, the theatre art of Noh could have resembled lifeless replicas but in Schuyler's deft hands, they appear believable.

Hence, a very impressed 4.5 stars rounded off to a 4. This is definitely the best among all the 2013 releases I have had the fortune of reading so far.

**I received an ARC from netgalley in exchange for an honest review**
We Need New Names: A Novel - NoViolet Bulawayo EDIT 10/09/2013:- Oh boy! This has been included in the shortlist despite my misgivings to the contrary. Heartiest congratulations to NoViolet Bulawayo!

Books like this one have me fumbling around for the right approach to review them, because they try to cram in too much within the scope of a regular sized novel and consequently just stop short of resonating strongly with the reader.

It's like Bulawayo had a message to give me, something potent and fiercely honest enough to burn right through all my prejudices and cherished misconceptions and leave me staring right at all the cold, hard facts. But then halfway into it, her voice went off in various tangential directions in an effort to tackle too many issues at one go and lost most of its intensity.
As a result the message that she had set out to deliver, gave off the impression of poor phrasing and ended up sounding half-hearted and rather dubious.

If I try my absolute best, I can only delineate this as a search for identity, a raw account of coming to terms with the after-effects of displacement. Or an attempt at summarizing in a few hundred pages the feelings of being neither here nor there.

But then Bulawayo let me know so much more. She told me about the experiences of surviving on a few stolen guavas, walking barefoot on the burning asphalt of the dusty road and yet enjoying the smug satisfaction of playing 'Find Bin Laden' with equally destitute and miserable kids of your age. And what it feels like to flee from and forget the tattered remains of a land you were born in simply because it could not offer you the promise of a fulfilling life ahead anymore - a land torn apart by strife, ethnic violence and unstable, unsympathetic governments. The irony of silently selling away your dignity in a foreign country in exchange for a life better than what your own motherland could afford to bestow upon you. The feeling of being swept up in the vortex of too many rapidly occurring changes as an illegal immigrant and the utter hopelessness of never really belonging anywhere.

Bulawayo may not be capable of subtlety or stringing beautiful words together into lengthy sentences fraught with imagery, but she has a compelling and unique voice of her own nonetheless.

I will surely look out for her other works in the future.

**A 3.5 stars that could not be rounded off to a 4**

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant - Yu Hua I have anemia and irrespective of what comprises my daily diet or the amount I consume, my body's ability to manufacture blood and hemoglobin remains permanently stunted. Which is why I have no choice but to take iron supplements regularly and without fail.
Once I suspend this routine for a few days, the dizziness, the lack of vigour returns to haunt me with a vengeance.

So perhaps, it is a travesty of the highest order that I will now proceed to empathize with the protagonist's compulsion of selling his own blood away like a commodity to procure a few Yuan for his family's well-being.
I am supposed to wax eloquent about how moving an account this is of the mishaps that befall a family, mainly due to the policies implemented by a cruel, unfeeling administration divorced from the needs of the common man.
I do know a thing or two about being bloodless but then I have no first-hand knowledge of suburban and rural poverty in China preceding and succeeding the years of the Cultural Revolution. Hence, I don't deserve to frame a few pompous sounding sentences in a review depicting the hardships of Xu Sanguan and his family and express commiseration. Because come what may, I'll never be able to experience what it feels like to be in his shoes. Even if my family falls on hard times, I'll promptly be shooed away from hospitals or laughed at if I ever did try and sell/donate my blood.

How can I understand destitution, sitting here inside an air-conditioned room typing away patronizingly at a desktop after having read a book on my kindle? I don't know the first thing about working on an empty stomach in a silk factory. Or being forced to savour a bowl of thin corn flour gruel laced with sugar like the finest gourmet dish in existence during a terrible famine. Or having to sell blood and, in turn, risk selling my life away in order for my family to get over a crisis. Or having my life's basic structure re-modelled according to the whims of a delusional autocrat.

But what I do perceive with shocking certainty is the giant, looming shadow of Chairman Mao's legacy of despotism and how deeply it affects the work of writers from this fascinating country.
It is becoming increasingly hard to imagine coming across literature from and about China devoid of any mention of the Communist Party's history of corruption and the blunt indifference with which they stripped away a generation of people of their dignity as human beings, treating them almost like laboratory mice.

Xu Sanguan goes through life, fights his daily battles with various adversities without knowing the first thing about Communism, Socialism or Capitalism. He only wishes to provide for his family and survive, remaining largely clueless about the political upheavals in his own country or their significance in the greater scheme of things. Forget politics, he only identifies with the English letter 'O' as a circle which denotes his blood group. Such is the extent of his guileless ignorance.

He can only know what being in the throes of starvation feels like and what it is like to be in perpetual need of one thing or another. Concepts like subversion, revolution, agitation or questioning the legitimacy of a regime or higher authority are alien to him.
And yet innocuous as his existence is, ripples of political disturbances outside the realm of his comprehension bring turbulence into his own minuscule sphere of existence. He suffers and we suffer along with him.

Chronicle of a Blood Merchant showcases no instances of ostentatious wordsmithy or lucid erudition. Instead, Yu Hua often resorts to crude metaphors to bring to life the rustic simplicity of the backdrop against which the story unfolds. But what catapults this into the league of great literature is its endearing honesty and its attempt at remaining true to the spirit of an age and a nation caught in a painful phase of transformation. Sanguan's bloodlessness is rife with underlying implications. It is his steady depletion of vitality which symbolizes the silent misery of a generation.

And yet, this book stresses not so much on an anti-communist rhetoric as much as it directs its energies at narrating a tale of blood ties and a family's quest for survival in the face of all imaginable trials and tribulations. A family which couldn't care less about Mao remaining in power or Mao being deposed.

Because to the Xu Sanguans of China, all meaning in life lies embedded in a crock full of bug-free rice and a few Yuan which can buy them the luxury of gorging on fried pork livers and gulping down a few shots of cheap yellow wine.
The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood Consider this not a ground-breaking work of literature. Consider this not a piece of fiction boasting an avant-garde mode of narration.
Consider it not a commentary on the concept of subjugation of the weak by the ones holding the reins. Consider it not a thinly veiled feminist diatribe either.

Instead, consider The Handmaid's Tale an almost physical experience. Consider Margaret Atwood a fearless deliverer of unpleasant news - a messenger unafraid of dishing out the bone-chilling, cruel, unaltered truth and nothing but the truth.

Move over Bram Stoker. Move over H.P. Lovecraft. Fade away into oblivion, Edgar Allan Poe. Disappear down the depths of obscurity, Stephen King. Your narratives are not nearly as coldly brutal, your premonitions not nearly as portentous.
Because Ms Atwood, presents to us something so truly disturbing in the garb of speculative fiction that it reminds one of Soviet-era accounts of quotidian hardships in Gulag labour camps.

Speculative is it?

Aren't the Offreds (Of Fred) , Ofglens (Of Glen), Of warrens (Of Warren) of Gilead equivalent to the Mrs So-and-So-s of the present, reduced to the identity of their male partners? Isn't the whittling down of a woman to the net worth of her reproductive organs and her outer appearance an accepted social more? Isn't blaming the rape victim, causing her to bear the burden of unwarranted shame and social stigma a familiar tactic employed by the defense attorney?
Hasn't the 21st century witnessed the fate of Savita Halappanavars who are led to their untimely deaths by inhumane laws of nations still unwilling to acknowledge the importance of the life of a mother over her yet unborn child?
Doesn't the 21st century have materially prosperous nations governed by absurd, archaic laws which prohibit a woman from driving a car?
Doesn't the world still take pleasure in terrorizing activists like Caroline Criado-Perez with threats of rape and murder only because they have the audacity to campaign for female literary icons (Jane Austen) to become the face of Britain's 10-pound note?
Do I not live in a country where female foeticide is as normal an occurrence as the rising and setting of the sun?

Are we still calling this speculative fiction?

Some may wish to labour under the delusion that the women belonging to this much vaunted modern civilization of ours are not experiencing the same nightmare as Offred and are at perfect liberty to do what they desire. But I will not.
Because when I look carefully, I notice shackles encircling my feet, my hands, my throat, my womb, my mind. Shackles whose presence I have become so used to since the dawn of time, that I no longer possess the ability to discern between willful submission and conditioned subservience.

But thankfully enough, I have Margaret Atwood to jolt me back into consciousness and to will me to believe that I am chained, bound and gagged. That I still need to break free.
I thank her for making me shudder with indignation, revulsion and righteous anger. I thank her for causing bile to rise up my throat.
And I thank her for forcing me to see that women of the present do live in a dystopia like Offred's United States of America. We just prefer to remain blissfully blind to this fact at times.

Disclaimer:- I mean no disrespect to the other writers mentioned in this review all of whom I have read and deeply admire.
A Schoolboy's Diary and Other Stories - Robert Walser,  Damion Searls (Translator),  Ben Lerner (Introduction) Faced with the prospect of reviewing a collection of short stories, which is probably my least favorite writing chore ever, I am choosing the easy way out. I am so taken with the tranquil, understated beauty of Walser's writing that I am most unwilling to disassemble his short stories into separate assessing criteria like style, essence, prose, theme, imagery and so on.
So what I'll do is convince you, dear uninitiated reader, to pick up this little gem, flip through its pages and discover for yourself the treasures embedded within without trying your patience by going into excruciating detail. And I'll let Walser speak on my behalf.

The initial few short stories are written from the point of view of a school boy in the format of short essays on various topics ranging from school, poverty, careers to friendship, politeness, nature and so on.
It is astonishing to note that despite the glaringly trite nature of these subjects, Walser manages to bring something new to the stories by adding a distinct touch of his own. His tone fluctuates between mildly sardonic and wistful to complacent and observant but unassuming.

Sample what he has to say about "School" -
"School is the unavoidable choker around the neck of youth, and I confess that it is a valuable piece of jewelery indeed. What a burden we would be to our parents, workers, passersby, shop owners, if we didn't have to go to school!"

And this is what he says about "Politeness"-
"The more big and important a polite person is, the more benevolence his civility has."

His astute observations on anger and conflict -
"Not only boys can bear grudges against other boys in such a way, so too just as well can grownups against grownups, mature adults against mature adults, and I would venture to say, nations against nations. A vengeance or revenge can collect in the heart of a nation due to self-regard that has been injured in various ways, and it grows and grows, without end, becomes more and more pressing, more and more painful rises up like a high mountain no longer to be cleared away, obstructs any mutual understanding, inhibits warm, healthy, reasonable reciprocal communication, turns into twitching nervous fury, and is so tyrannical and degrading that it can one day no longer be reined in and cries out wildly for bloody conflict."

There are references to nature, changing seasons and vivid descriptions of lush, green landscapes in the Swiss countryside aplenty.
"Autumn was beautiful, with its brownish melancholy that seemed attractive and happily right to me, while in May the blossoming trees and all the singing and wonderful smells plunged into sadness."

The short stories included in the latter half of the book seem to be written from different perspectives like that of modest young men about to enlist in the army or confused, lost writers trying to seek validation in a life fraught with failures and rejections. (This is vaguely autobiographical I believe.)
"Restlessness, uncertainty, and a premonition of a singular fate may have been what led me, in my sequestered isolation, to pick up my quill and attempt to create a reflection of myself."

Here are a few of his excellent ruminations on reading -
"A book bewitches and dominates us, it holds us spellbound, in other words it exerts a power over us, and we are happy to let such tyranny occur, for it is a blessing. Anyone captivated and gripped by a book for a given time does not use that time to initiate gossip about his dear fellow man, which is always a great and crude mistake."

And ahem, book snobs please do take note of the following-
"I have sometimes heard people talk about so-called harmful reading, e.g., infamous Gothic novels. That's another story we shall avoid getting into but we can say this much: the worst book in the world is not as bad as the complete indifference of never picking up a book at all. A trashy book is not nearly as dangerous as people sometimes think, and the so-called really good books are under certain conditions by no means as free of danger as people generally like to believe. Intellectual things are never as harmless as eating chocolate or enjoying an apple tart or the like. In principle, the reader just has to know how to cleanly separate reading from life."

Walser's short sentences gave me the impression of beads of morning dew collecting on blades of grass, the evanescent beauty of which evaporates away before we even have time enough to bask in its resplendence. But for as long as the novelty lasts, it is the most exquisite thing in the world.
He is not overly pedantic yet his writing reflects his keen understanding of nearly every topic under the sun and exudes immense charm and clarity.
"But soon enough he was cheerful again. Love of humanity and the sorrows thereof, a lust for life and the pain therefrom, rose exquisitely up like tall ghostly shapes in the pale, golden air of the summer evening. Softly the figures seemed to wave to him."

To conclude, this is a thoroughly delightful collection but I'll hold out on that 5-star rating until I read a full-fledged novel of his.

**A big thank you to netgalley for the digital ARC**
The Gift of Rain: A Novel - Tan Twan Eng
"Like the rain, I had brought tragedy into many people's lives but, more often than not, rain also brings relief, clarity, and renewal. It washes away our pain and prepares us for another day, and even another life. Now that I am old I find that the rains follow me and give me comfort, like the spirits of all the people I have ever known and loved."

Tan Twan Eng may not be a great prose stylist or even come close to being one. He may falter when it comes to subtlety and fail at inserting appropriate metaphors into his rather direct tone of narration. But he surely succeeds in recounting a moving tale of human triumph with great clarity. Like a wise old man with sinewy forearms sitting in the midst of a group of young, moon-eyed listeners, he narrated a story of times gone by and all I did was lend him an eager ear.
I listened to his voice with rapt attention, I learnt, I understood, I shed tears.

I was transported back in time where I stood somewhere along the sidelines as a helpless spectator witnessing the mute misery of a picturesque but war-ravaged land. So much so I'm still recovering from the fierce onslaught of all the images of terrible beauty that Eng drew before my mind's eye in rapid succession.
I'm going to recall from time to time, the startling greenery of the verdant rain forests in and around Penang, the hustle and bustle of the marketplaces in Istana, the gray-white limestone cliffs of Ipoh, the rich aroma of a pot of steaming coconut rice, the calming effect of zazen and the tale of Philip Hutton's uncommon bravery in the face of madness brought forth by an all-engulfing war. And I'm going to try to make sense of the paradoxical yet deeply human bond between Philip Hutton, a representative of a vanquished and besieged Malaysia and Hayato Endo, a representative of the conqueror Japan.

When the world sinks into chaos of the most fatal kind and all finer human impulses are trampled on over and over again until nothing remains but only the irrational urge to draw blood, burn and annihilate, a handful of people refuse to stray from the path of sanity and compassion at the cost of complete personal ruin.
Philip Hutton, our narrator, was one such person. Born of a British father and a Chinese mother, he was forever an outcast in any world he wished to belong to, all because he was guilty of having a mixed parentage. Perhaps that is why, he imbibed all the great virtues of his British and Chinese heritage and under the tutelage of a Japanese spy of dubious loyalties, familiarized himself with all the tenets of aikijutsu, aikido and other Japanese ways of living, which became crucial to the survival of many later on.

During the trying times of the Japanese Occupation, at the risk of perpetual disgrace, he crossed over to the side of the enemy only to save what was most precious to him. Philip Hutton became notorious for aiding the Japanese in running the affairs of Malay and a collaborator in all the atrocities carried out against the natives, but what didn't become common knowledge was how he saved many, many innocent lives under the helpful guise of betraying the land of his birth.

Even though I am sorely tempted to label The Gift of Rain as a testimony to the greater human predicament during turbulent times, that goes beyond the petty divides of ethnicity, skin color and culture, I will not succumb to that lure. Philip Hutton maybe perceived as a cliched symbol of a stabilizing influence on all conflicting elements of life or he may even be just a reminder of that elusive voice of reason which we often proceed to stifle with brutal force at a time we need it the most. But I will not seek to trivialize his fictitious life in this cold analytical manner.

Instead, I choose to be a random listener who came across the extraordinary story of his courage and withhold judgement. I choose to dignify his existence by not questioning his deeds, his associations, his choices or his existential dilemmas. I choose to empathize with Malay and China, both of which were tormented and ripped apart by another nation nurturing a blind Imperialist zest. But then I also choose to empathize with the aggresor Japan, which didn't escape suffering inflicted by the War either.

I choose not to vilify Philip for fraternizing with the foe and I choose not to indict Endo san for his treachery.
And by doing neither, I choose to side with humanity.
Because as much as it will be easier to pigeonhole wartime human barbarity into convenient labels like repercussions of ruthless nationalist ambitions and pass the buck on responsibility, the lasting truth of the matter is the all-encompassing nature of our collective ordeals through time and space.
In the end, it doesn't matter who or what caused our suffering. It matters that we suffered.

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Padgett Powell
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Margaret Drabble
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Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear
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