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review 2013-12-02 10:02
The Not-So-Secret History
The Secret History - Donna Tartt
"Some things are too terrible to grasp at once. Other things - naked, sputtering, indelible in their horror - are too terrible to really grasp ever at all. It is only later, in solitude, in memory that the realization dawns: when the ashes are cold; when the mourners have departed; when one looks around and finds oneself - quite to one's surprise - in an entirely different world."


Oh this vile bunch of snot-nosed college brats, fattened on their parents' money like ticks on blood. Oh their ennui and way of seeking solace in esoteric practices believing them to be the one-way ticket to some metaphysical dimension which will exclude us mere working class mortals with our worldly woes from entering and interfering with whatever unearthly pursuits they busy themselves with. Well guess what kids? We would like to be rid of over-confident, smug, self-important, world-weary bastards like you too. I almost wish I could go on a mad rampage during an eye-roll inducing, unbelievably ridiculous Dionysian rite and kill every single one of you as well.

The Secret History is one of the best crime thrillers I have ever read. And this is perhaps because this is not a crime thriller in the conventional sense of the term but literary fiction with moral ambiguity and loss of innocence as central themes. The actual crime(s) is a minor part of the narrative and doesn't eclipse the gradual build up to it or the domino effect it triggers subtly, a devastating chain reaction which results in the collective crumbling of the fabric of 5 young lives. And it is the shadow of this crime, the anticipation of its occurrence and the crushing psychological aftermath of it that lends the narrative its true substance. A discrepancy between the occasional sting of conscience felt by the perpetrators of the crime and their previous heinously selfish justification of the act of murder is what makes this book so utterly engrossing and a veritable unputdownable. Because here we aren't dealing with the solution of a complicated police case but instead getting acquainted with a thread of events which also happen to include a murder from the narrator's point of view who is a reluctant accomplice to the crime. 

But then why the conflicted 3-star rating? That's because I foresaw every unimaginative turning point or cliched plot device thrown in for the sake of heightening the drama. A third of the way into the narrative, with the grand revelation (which is not very grand to be honest), the unravelling of the rest of the story becomes very guessable. This is not to mention the'Argentum' fallacy which Manny has pointed out in his review already. Any attentive reader who has a grasp of high school level basic chemistry will realize that 'Aurum' refers to gold,'Argentum' refers to silver. But these aren't even the major irritants. My biggest problem is with the ludicrous contrivances that are passed off in the name of a premise for the story to build itself on. There's a tinge of unreality to the idea of a super close knit fraternity of 5 snobbish students of classical Greek in a college in 80s Vermont mentored by an even more snobbish and elitist professor, the narrator conveniently finding an entry into this brotherhood sort of grouping out of the blue and becoming a passive spectator to the sequence of events which follow. And lastly the main characters are hardly believable, especially the sole female character who remains a vaguely outlined one at best. 

The 3 stars are for Tartt's writing which is never showy or deliberate but graceful and quite excellent. I hope The Goldfinch is more impressive and free of proof-reading errors.

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review 2013-11-10 06:24
To the lighthouse with Virginia
To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf

Oh Virginia! How is it that you make your words spring to life from the barren pages and hit my senses with the force of a gale every time? How is it that you peel off the layers of the banal and reveal the terrible beauty of the core? How is it that you steer my consciousness so deep into the murky waters of uncharted territory that resurfacing takes a toll on my strength?

I wonder what spirit possessed you every time you picked up your pen, brimming over with confidence or maybe unsure of your own craft, to pour every ounce of what weighed on your mind fluidly into the empty pages waiting in anticipation. I wonder if you heard the voices of decades lost in the spiral of time whispering into your ears the truest wisdom of all, as you sat at a desk in a room of your own, pursuing the tail end of some stray thought. I wonder if you ever realized the worth of what you wrote or the gift you have left for generations to cherish after your bones and flesh have been turned to dust and returned to where they rose from. 

I wonder if I have ever known a woman like Mrs Ramsay in person - been enamored of her ethereal beauty and grudgingly admired her command over the hearts of those who lived in her shadow and the way she let go of that same command as and when her whimsies deemed fit. I wonder if nearly every marital bond ever forged between two individuals has been or is a replication of the interplay of words and emotions, spoken and unspoken, between the Ramsays. I wonder if Lily Briscoe is truly a personification of the unified spirit of the man and the woman, their dichotomies conjoining imperfectly in the splotches of color she dabs on to her empty canvasses.

I strive to make sense of the lighthouse and what it illuminates in a rare moment facilitating cognition, when my eyes have become well-adjusted to the darkness. I don't get the purpose of its existence but I do. I see the lighthouse, hazy and sprayed white by the sea imprisoning it on all sides, standing tall in all its majestic grandeur merging with the horizon, out of my reach and I wonder how it looms so large yet recedes into the distance as a mute, inanimate witness to the play acts of life. I see it as I turn the pages, sometimes not understanding what it is that Virginia wants me to grasp and sometimes struck speechless by the impact of a realization in an instant of profound lucidity.

No other book has rendered me so completely helpless in my measly efforts to encapsulate its essence. No other book has required of me such prolonged contemplation. 
Think of the usual quota of trite responses to a question like"How're you?". Think of the quick "I'm fine" or "I'm well, how are you?" that comes without a moment's delay and how untrue and inadequate either response is each time. If somebody asks me to pronounce judgement on TTL, I'd perhaps respond with an equally predictable 'It is the best book I have read yet' and realize instantly how vapid and insincere this answer is, how silly it is to call this Woolf creation merely a "best book".

Currents of erratic thoughts, many of them contradictory in nature, are zipping past each other inside my head this moment and I am unable to articulate into words the fact of their individual existence as I open my mouth or let my fingers move over this keyboard. That is what attempting to dissect To the Lighthouse feels like. Irrespective of what I write or attempt to write, it is sure to be of little significance and ineffective in giving anyone even a teeny glimpse of what Virginia succeeds in capturing so flawlessly.

Sights and sounds and smells and emotions - strong, subtle, indescribable. The ephemeral quality of an instant when a man and a woman watch their little girl play with a ball, a rare moment in time when each of their individual actions and thoughts are somehow in perfect harmony. The resolute constancy of life and it's cautious but sure-footed tread on the newer ground of change and our bittersweet relationship with this change. A melding together of past, present and future in a blur of color and meaning. All of this and much more. A pure cerebral extravaganza, a celebration of the collective spirit of our existence on this ugly and beautiful world of ours, an acknowledgement of both pain and joy. That is what I think it is. 

I dream of going to the lighthouse one day like James, I dream of letting it guide my progress in the lightless, labyrinthine pathways into the heart and soul of this narrative once again. I dream of not allowing any sentence, any word to whiz past me uncomprehended when I read this again some day. 
Till then I only delight in swaying to the rhythm of her words, in her immortal lyrics in the song of life.

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review 2013-10-31 15:06
Review : The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann
The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann,John E. Woods

Imagine being stuck in a place where all sense of time is lost in the web of inactivity, a place which enables people to lead a life devoid of any greater purpose and only focused on recuperation from a queer illness, a place almost hermetically sealed and self-controlled, successfully keeping the repercussions of wars and diplomatic feuds between nations at bay. Imagine being rid of all your earthly woes of finding means of survival and all the elements that stand as pillars supporting the normative structure of life during a sojourn in a special, secluded place. Imagine a miniature diorama of a society thriving on its own, divorced from society at large. 
If you haven't been successful in imagining a real life scenario fitting aforementioned descriptions, do not despair. You can always discover this specially constructed safe haven in a certain fictional sanatorium in the Swiss Alps where our protagonist Hans Castorp languishes for seven whole years.

The experience of reading this book is akin to a painstaking hike up a dangerously steep slope. (Excuse the overused analogy but it happens to be quite apt)
There are long dry stretches requiring ritualistic finding of one footing after the next, ensuring that as a reader you do not slip and tumble headfirst into the gaping chasm of incomprehension. And then there are the moments of perfect clarity when snippets of Mann's wisdom filter in like errant rays of sunshine through the drear of many tedious descriptions of long walks and repetitive conversations, making the long and difficult climb seem worth it all of a sudden.

 

"But he who knows the body, who knows life, also knows death. Except that's not the whole thing - but merely a beginning, pedagogically speaking. You have to hold it up to the other half, to its opposite. Because our interest in death and illness is nothing but a way of expressing an interest in life..."


The summit of this "magic mountain" becomes the location of a metaphorical watch tower from where the spectacle of our collective civilizational march is viewed, dissected and analyzed with precision. The quirky patients inhabiting the sanatorium become mere proxies for some nations or disparate points of view, their inter-relationships often symbolic of some deeper ideological conflict woven intricately into the fabric of existence.
But despite the sheer brilliance of this premise, there's something off about this book. Something that prevented me from according that final star. 
Even if this remains a lengthy and eruditely presented discussion on Europe's inner contradictions, its juxtaposition of progress in all spheres of life and violence brewing under the veneer of that sanctimonious progress, as a work of literature it is somehow imperfect and rough around the edges. Since I was often tempted to believe it would have worked better as a nonfictional philosophical discourse. It's sort of like my eloquent friend Dolors says, 'The book lacks a soul.' How succinctly put. 

The characters are employed as mere mouthpieces, never resembling well-drawn sketches of actual people with their own stories. The situations and backdrops are mere contrivances specifically begotten to tout ideas on life and death. It's as if the whole narrative is an elaborate ruse developed to convey Mann's thoughts on the state of Europe prior to the First World War. During my moments of exasperation with the book I was able to recall a few of Nabokov's thoughts in his article on Lolita- 

 

"...All the rest is either topical trash or what some call the Literature of Ideas, which very often is topical trash coming in huge blocks of plaster that are carefully transmitted from age to age until somebody comes along with a hammer and takes a good crack at Balzac, at Gorki, at Mann."


Clearly a jibe at TMM if I have ever seen one. 
Not that I agree with Nabokov's opinion on TMM being topical trash but it surely gives rise to the suspicion that if you strip the book of all its allegorical significance, almost nothing substantial remains. And with the turn of the last page, it leaves the reader with a sense of indescribable dissatisfaction about having just finished a journey neither very rewarding nor enjoyable. 

Maybe a re-read some time years later on in life will restore the elusive star. Maybe it will not.

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review 2013-10-20 06:41
Review : Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
Ghostwritten - David Mitchell
"I wonder what happened to him, I wonder what happened to all of them, this wondering is the nature of matter, each of us a loose particle, an infinity of paths through the park, probable ones, improbable ones, none of them real until observed whatever real means, and for something so solid matter contains terrible, terrible, terrible expanses of nothing, nothing, nothing..."


Ordinary human lives, sometimes crisscrossing, sometimes briefly touching, sometimes swiftly passing each other by through the fabric of space and time, creating imperceptible ripples on the surface of some invisible lake of our collective consciousness that eventually lead up to an event of cataclysmic significance....

Everything considered, Ghostwritten is an imperfect masterpiece. In the sense it makes its far-reaching ambitions of being viewed as a tour de force of its generation apparent at the onset but when one sets about to allow oneself keener examination of all its narrative intricacies, it smacks of amateurishness. If, at its best, Ghostwritten is a fascinating meditation on the hollowness of human lives, human fallacies, urban alienation, intertwined fates and our unslakable thirst for validation in the 21st century then at its worst it is a rather complicated mess of styles and themes usually identified with two masters of the craft - Calvino and Murakami. I'd, thus, refrain from calling it masterful and call it the work of a master in the making instead.

There is something so blatantly Murakami-esque about this book, that I am tempted to label Mitchell as Murakami Lite and this is supposed to serve more as a mild chiding rather than approbation of any form. It is like Murakami's ghost (excuse the unintended pun) continuously haunts Mitchell's characters and their lives, his voice reverberating in their unvoiced musings, innermost stream of thoughts, conversations and his invisible presence subtly influencing the magical-realist aspects of the book. So much so there's even a minor character who fleetingly mentions spotting his own doppelganger on the streets of London one day. I almost began anticipating the appearance of talking cats or strange sheep men after this point, although thankfully none were found in the end. 
But regrettably enough, this book failed to give me any of those goosebumps-inducing moments of pure intrigue which I have often come to categorize along with the effects produced by Murakami's surrealistic vignettes. 

It is also quite obvious Mitchell has distilled the essence of Calvino's Invisible Cities into his own deconstruction of modern day cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, St Petersburg, London and New York in a 20th-21st century set up. The concept of islets of human existence huddled together in their own miniature niches, disparate yet suffering from similar fates, their ideas of the city they dwell in coalescing clumsily to impart the city its true identity, comes into play here but not under the guise of Calvino's beautifully rendered symbolism. 

Prior to picking up this book, I had heard so much about Mitchell and the widespread adoration he enjoys, I was expecting something life-altering and unforgettable. And despite the narrative sweep and all-encompassing nature of the subjects Mitchell touches upon here, Ghostwritten seems to be neither of the aforementioned. At least not in my opinion. And as the novelty of the interconnection among the short story length snippets wears off with the gradual progress of the narrative, the lack of finesse in Mitchell's writing becomes all the more prominent.

 

"God knows darn well that dabbling in realpolitik would coat his reputation with flicked boogers."


Inclusion of quite a few crude metaphors like the one above just felt jarring to the overall tone of the novel.

I am hoping Cloud Atlas is more accomplished.

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review 2013-10-05 15:59
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

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