Friday, May 27, 2011

The Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

The Literary Blog Hop hosted by The Blue Bookcase is such a great way to meet fellow book-bloggers who 
share an enthusiasm for literary fiction. I’m excited to be joining in. This week’s question is:

Talk about one author that you love and why his or her writing is unique.  

   The answer to this question would probably vary from day to day depending on the particular literary haze I’m floating around in just then. Today, I can’t think of anyone I love more than Ruskin Bond.
I grew up reading his stories for children collected in his Children's Omnibus. Our Trees Still Grow in Dehra, Room on the Roof and Scenes from a Writer’s Life are the best of his books for grown-ups.  In fact I really can’t think of any Ruskin Bond book that I haven’t loved.

  What sets him apart is that most of his stories are set in the small towns and villages dotted about the Himalayas.  His writing style is as unhurried as the pace of life in these places. Every page he has ever written is steeped in his love of nature and compassion for all living things and yet he never sounds preachy. His storytelling is so incredibly gentle, so devoid of pretensions. Reading a Ruskin Bond is almost like having a beloved grandfather tell you a bedtime story. He isn’t trying to impress you or patronise you, he just wants to tell you a good story.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Beastly Tales by Vikram Seth

Years ago, in ye olde pre-baby days, hubby and I did the rounds of a theatre festival whose theme was “Art with a Social Conscience”. Among several heavy duty plays was a dramatic reading of a poem by Naseeruddin Shah. The poem was a satire on environmental insensitivity in general and Big Dams in particular. It was called The Elephant and the Tragopan, written by Vikram Seth. I’d known Vikram Seth only for his novels, mainly the suitable boy, I’d never heard of his poems.  Last year, on a trip to Kolkata, I found a ratty copy of Beastly Tales at a roadside stall and was thrilled to find this poem in it. Along with nine other, equally delightful poems.

I had initially thought that this might be a fun book to read to my son, but it might be a long while before he is ready for this one. It isn’t really aimed at kids and some of the poems are a bit too gory (The Eagle and the Beetle). The Monkey and the Crocodile is an exception and my boy adores it. The author states that these stories in verse are gathered from India, China, Greece, Ukraine and the lastly The Land of Gup, that magical country in Seth’s imagination where ambitious frogs, wise elephants and other such creatures live.  

My favourite poems from this collection are the The Hare and the Tortoise, The Rat and the Ox and of course, the one that started it all The Elephant and the Tragopan. The Hare and the Tortoise is a retelling of the classic parable in the age of reality TV and media created celebrities. So now the hare is a vain society swan who is ‘famous for being famous’ and the tortoise is a cautious accountant. Despite losing, the hare grabs all the headlines and book/movie deals while the tortoise is deemed too boring to make good copy.
“Thus the Hare was pampered rotten
And the tortoise was forgotten”
The Rat and the Ox is a Chinese tale, wittily retold in verse. It tells of the Rat who outsmarts the Ox to earn the top slot on the Chinese Zodiac.

This book would be worth its very meagre price for its Illustrations alone. Each one precedes a poem and beautifully captures its quirky characters. Although these characters are elephants and cats and wolves and mice, their souls are unmistakably human. Seth uses these timeless fables to bare our darkest side to us. There isn’t always a happy ending here and almost never a ‘moral-of-the-story’, yet there is always an amazing insight into the most bewildering of all creatures. Humans.
“I speak to you as one whose clan
Has served and therefore studied man.
He is a creature mild and vicious,
Practical minded and capricious,
Loving and Brutal, Sane and Mad,
The Good as puzzling as the Bad”
                                         ---The Elephant in The Elephant and the Tragopan

Thursday, May 19, 2011

And Thereby Hangs a Tale – Jeffrey Archer

While there may not be a book in every one of us, there is so often a damned good short story.

So says Jeffrey Archer in his introduction to this book and he should know. Though he has written more bestselling novels than I care to count, I love him best for his short stories. A Twist in the Tale is my favorite collection, followed closely by A Quiver Full of Arrows. I finally got down to reading his newest book of short stories, And Thereby Hangs a Tale. Fifteen shorts make up this collection and more than half of them are true stories, or so we’re told. I think it’s better to treat this book entirely as a work of fiction. It’s more enjoyable that way.
 The first story in the book ‘Stuck on You’ immediately takes you in. This is classic Jeffrey Archer. The gentle start, the slow build up of tension, the nail biting suspense and finally his trademark, why-didn’t-I-see-that-coming ending.  I actually liked this story the best, but others like, ‘Where There's a Will’ and ‘Double-cross’ were great too. However, some of the stories seemed very contrived and the writing laboured. I didn’t think much of the last story and I could have sworn that I’d heard or read "Better the Devil You Know" somewhere else. It has the quality of a parable that’s been told and retold several times, in several different ways.
           And Thereby Hangs a Tale is definitely not Archer’s best work.  It has neither the sharpness of A Twist in the Tale nor the intensely engaging quality of his novels. Yet, it is very readable and the bits that are good are really good. Not a classic that stayed with me, but a good way to pass a lazy afternoon.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Mother by Maxim Gorky

                   Mother’s day seems a good time to revisit an old favourite, Maxim Gorky’s Mother. Gorky intended the Mother and her story to be a symbol of the working classes and their journey from oppression to awakening and finally to emancipation.  However, just for today, leave aside all symbolisms and see this simply as the story of a mother and you will find an immensely textured and poignant character.  
                    When we are first introduced to the mother (Pelagea Nilovna) she is recently widowed, but hardly grieving. Her husband was a drunken, wife-beating, factory worker who had terrorized her for their entire married life.  She has mutely accepted every injustice done to her, asking no questions, seeking no explanations.  All her hopes now rest on her only son Pavel.
         Pavel dealt with the brutality of his father by retreating into a shell, closing out his mother too in the process. With his father gone he seems to notice her again and yet, there seems to be discord within him. He studies books that are forbidden and talks of the suffering of the working class. His mother cannot understand most of what he says. His compassion and intelligence make her proud but she is afraid for him too because he alone seems to struggle against a life that everyone else, including her, has accepted. Soon Pavel’s comrades too start to come over and his house turns into an unofficial headquarters for their group. Soon she becomes Mother to them all. She cooks for them, knits for them, cries for them and prays for them.
        In time, almost without her realising it, their cause becomes her own. She stands up to the people who rebuke her son and his friends. When Pavel is arrested, she takes forbidden leaflets to the factory disguised as a peddler. Eventually he is exiled to Siberia and the mother carries on her son’s work. “If our children, the dearest parts of our hearts, can give their lives and their freedom, dying without a thought for themselves, what ought I to do, a mother?”
Whatever your political beliefs may be, Mother will strike a chord because it is the story of mothers everywhere. I know my own mother has often been bewildered by the choices I made, yet she’s struggled to be supportive. I, like all mothers must come to terms with the fact that we cannot protect our children from the world. This is our story too. “Our children will be our judges” says mother in the book. May we all be judged kindly.

To my mother and to mothers everywhere, A Happy Mother’s Day. 

Friday, May 6, 2011

On Writing by Stephen King

In the second foreword to Stephen King’s On Writing, he says,” This is a short book because books on writing are filled with bullshit... I figured, the shorter the book, the less the bullshit.” Perhaps the most significant reason to like this book over other writing guides is that it has very less bullshit. How indicative this is of his usual writing style, I cannot say.  My husband is the great Stephen King fan, not me.  I haven’t read any of his other works; horror just isn’t a genre I’m fond of. However, there’s no denying that Stephen King is a most formidable raconteur. On writing is his homage to his craft.
           The book starts with a brief biography of his childhood and early years as a writer upto the publication of Carrie, his first bestseller. While he does write of a difficult childhood and his struggling days, he doesn’t dwell on the pathos unduly and at no point does this turn into a tearjerker.
 The second part of the book is all about the art and craft of writing. King introduces his concept of a writer’s toolbox and then deals with each of the tools in detail. There is no esoteric mumbo jumbo here. He deals with absolutely identifiable issues that any writer would be up against like the use of adverbs (“The road to hell is paved with adverbs”) or the need for restraint in writing descriptions. Obviously, there can never be any hard and fast rules to writing, but King offers up his technique as a rough guide to help you along. Although this is primarily aimed at writers of fiction, anyone with the intention of yielding a pen would benefit from this master class.
The last and smallest part of the book talks of his near fatal accident, his long, slow recovery and his return to writing. Again, there isn’t any melodrama here, just the facts and his belief that writing was a crucial part of his recovery process. He also includes a reading list of books which he feels are well written.
This book is a must read for all aspiring writers. Even if you don’t agree with all his dos and donts, you will still take away some fresh perspective on how to approach writing. I must also stress that this book is by no means for writers only. Even those who have no intention of writing anything will enjoy this peep inside the writers mind.
Write about what you know is a recurring mantra in this book and Stephen King proves the rule by writing about what he knows best, writing itself.