Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

        Last week we had a discussion on the Literary Blog Hop about socio-political agenda in books. I think most of us agreed that as long as the agenda did not take us away from the story it was acceptable and sometimes even desirable.  In Half of a Yellow Sun the politics is the story.  Adichie doesn’t shy away from taking sides (The title refers to the emblem on the Biafran flag) but she still somehow manages to keep prejudice away.

         Half of a Yellow Sun is narrated from four different perspectives. First there is Ugwu, an adolescent houseboy   with no political views whatsoever. Then there is Olanna, a beautiful and educated woman from a privileged background that she leaves behind. There is also Richard, a British expatriate in Nigeria who is desperate to belong. The fourth perspective is actually a book within the book, hauntingly titled The World Was Silent When We Died.

       The story begins on an endearing note with an innocent Ugwu arriving from a tiny village to the university town of Nsukka to work as a houseboy. He is awed and amazed at everything he sees, especially his Master. The Master (Odenigbo) is in love with Olanna who moves in with him to the chagrin of her wealthy and self absorbed parents. Richard is an aspiring writer who falls in love with Olanna’s twin Kainene.  There is hurt and betrayal, loyalty and immense love. And then the Biafran war rips their lives apart.

War forces these people out of their homes and throws them into a world that gets more hellish by the day.  All concepts of good and bad, strength and weakness are turned on their head. Adichie does not turn this into a war commentary or a history lesson. She never resorts to the rhetoric that most war novels are burdened with. The story stays focused on these characters while their lives, ideologies and personalities change and sometimes come unstuck.

        This was not an easy book to read.  The mellow start does not prepare you for the unrelenting brutality that follows. Parts of the book are absolutely harrowing and you wonder why you’re doing this to yourself.  But you care for these people, you mourn for them and you can feel their helplessness, their terror, their shame and their rage.

Were you silent when we died?”
Did you see photos in sixty eight
Of children with their hair becoming rust:
Sickly patches nestled on those small heads
Then falling off, like rotten leaves on dust?
Imagine children with arms like toothpicks,
With footballs for bellies and skin stretched thin.
It was Kwashiorkor- difficult word.
A word that was not quite ugly enough, a sin.
You needn’t imagine. There were photos
Displayed in gloss-filled pages of your Life.
Did you see? Did you feel sorry briefly,
Then turn around to hold your lover or wife?

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Literary Blog Hop

Literary Blog Hop

It’s time for the Literary Blog Hop again. This week’s question is:

Should literature have a social, political, or any other type of agenda? Does having a clear agenda enhance or detract from its literary value?

        I’m inclined to think that as a writer one has a tremendous opportunity to put forth one’s world view to a large and varied audience. If the writer feels strongly about a social or political issue and is able to use fiction to highlight this, good for him/her. As long as it is entertaining and engaging, I see no reason to complain. Writers like Charles Dickens, Ayn Rand, George Orwell and almost all the Russian Masters have done this very effectively.
        However, when the author turns preachy and starts ranting, it dilutes the impact of the story being told. Literature can be an instrument of change or simply a mirror to existing reality. But in either case, it must be primarily about telling a story and telling it well.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Candide by Voltaire

“What is Optimism?” asked Cacambo – “Alas!” said Candide, “it is the mania for insisting that all is well when all is by no means well”.

        It’s difficult to say what Candide is about. It is the most bizarre book I’ve read lately. But, I mean that in the best possible way.  Perhaps the closest I can come to slotting it is to call it a farce.  Voltaire is supposed to have written this book as a rebuttal of the philosophy of enforced optimism. He believed that the “all’s for the best” theorists tried only to make people endure and accept their misfortunes without complaint. Obviously, optimism is not Voltaire’s strong point.

     Candide is the illegitimate son of a baron in Westphalia. His great hero is his tutor Pangloss who believes that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Unfortunately, Candide’s education is cut short when he is booted out of the Baron’s household for kissing the baron’s daughter Cunégonde. Thus begins an adventure that takes Candide all over the world, to real and mythical lands. He gets flogged, recovers, gets flogged again, finds Cunégonde, loses her, commits murder, escapes, murders some more, finds Cunégonde again, loses her again, finds wealth, loses it, finds it and once more loses it, finds Cunégonde but unfortunately isn't able to lose her this time. And all this in less than 130 pages.

         Candide’s world is filled with characters unlike any you will ever encounter. Almost everyone who is brutally murdered seems to crop up again, alive and well. Kings, pirates, holy men and large red sheep all weave in and out of Candide’s life. Realism is not the name of the game here. Neither is subtlety.  Voltaire’s pen is vitriolic and he uses it to settle personal scores and take pot-shots at everyone from the Pope to his fellow writers.

        Reading Candide is like being on an absurd roller coaster ride that never slackens from the first page to the last. Sometimes irreverent, sometimes gory and sometimes downright obscene. Candide is a fun ride, though it will leave you somewhat breathless.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Play Day: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

      A Doll’s House, written in 1879 is Ibsen’s best known and perhaps most controversial play. Written at a time when women’s liberation was an unheard of concept, its radical final act scandalized the conservative society of the time.  Ibsen based the premise of the play on the life of writer Laura Kieler.

       The play opens on Christmas Eve at the Helmer household where all of the action takes place.  We meet Nora, a vivacious and seemingly frivolous woman. Her husband Torvald patronises her and treats her like a child which she seems to enjoy. She adores her children who are taken care of by her own former Nanny. Then there is Dr Rank, an ailing friend of the Helmers who secretly desires Nora.  Unexpectedly, Nora’s old friend Kristine Linde drops in. There is a general atmosphere of gaiety and well being. This calm is shattered by the arrival of Krogstad. I hesitate to call him the play’s antagonist, but initially he does seem so. Nora’s cheeriness turns brittle and starts to crack.  Her life is hardly the dream she’s made it out to be. Her not-too-distant past and its secrets are closing in on her and her entire world seems likely to crumble. The reckoning when it does arrive, leaves her unbroken but wiser. She finally sees her life, her husband and herself clearly.  The final act is unexpected and powerful. But I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.

      Every character in the play is so richly textured that you can never really pigeon-hole any of them.  Even Torvald who at the start seems like a petty stock figure, reveals a hidden depth in the finale. I’d read a review which called this a feminist play, and certainly there is a strong message of female empowerment here, but I wouldn’t label it as that. Ibsen himself stated that he had meant A Doll’s House to be about self-realisation, irrespective of gender. I think it makes an impact whichever way you look at it.

      Apparently, when A Doll’s House was set to be produced in Germany, it was felt that the original ending would be unpalatable to the audiences and Ibsen was forced to write an alternative ending. He is said to have termed this a “barbaric outrage” but wrote it anyway because he didn’t want it to be rewritten by someone else. The alternative ending is not exactly a cop out, just vague enough to not rock the boat too much.

      Towards the end of the play Nora tells her husband that she has a moral duty to herself as a human being before she can fulfil her responsibilities as a wife and a mother. Today, over a century later, we still struggle to find ourselves amidst all the roles we must play. A Doll’s House is as relevant today as it was in 1879.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Book Blogger Hop and Question of the Week

The book blogger hop is a weekly event usually hosted by Crazy-For-Books, but this weekend it’s being hosted by Lori’s Reading Corner. This is such a great way to meet like minded bloggers and revel in our mutual love of books.

This week’s question is:
“Who is the one author that you are dying to meet?”

It seems like all the authors I would die to meet are already dead. This is the unfortunate result of having my head buried in the classics for too long. Fortunately, I can still dream of meeting Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I remember reading One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in The Time of Cholera back to back, over a weekend many years ago and it was something of a revelation.
I would also love to meet Jhumpa Lahiri because I love the simplicity of her prose and the gentleness of her characters.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Talk to the Hand by Lynne Truss

        I was on vacation en famille and waiting for my husband to finish check in procedures at the airport when a woman coming from the opposite direction, mobile phone firmly stuck to her ear, rammed her luggage trolley into me.  By the time I had gotten by breath back, she was long gone, without the slightest gesture of apology.  When I made my way to the airport bookstore sometime later, I was still fuming. So it seemed like serendipity when I saw Lynne Truss’ book on rudeness Talk to the Hand.
      I had loved her previous book Eats, Shoots and Leaves and assumed that anyone who could make punctuation engaging and funny would probably do even better with rudeness. After all, the subject does lend itself so easily to satire. I expected to be thoroughly entertained. I wasn’t.
       It starts out promisingly. The world is getting ruder. You nod along.  No one feels the need to use the magic words anymore. Quite true, you think.  But then Truss goes into crotchety old geezer mode, going on and on about “kids these days” and “parents these days”.  Her voice gets shriller and what started out as a tongue-in-cheek poke at declining manners becomes a sermon about the whole of civilization going to the dogs.
      To give the devil her due, she does make some valid points. Like an absence of personal accountability being one of the causes for increasing rudeness.  She also points out that politeness, even for those who intend it, is becoming increasingly dicey in a world obsessed with political correctness. If you are a gentleman and give up your seat on the bus for a lady, are you gallant or are you a chauvinist? What about helping a person with disabilities? Is that condescension?
        Talk to the Hand is chock full of anecdotes and quotes on the subject. I liked the one about a woman writing to Tommy Steele to complain that he wasn’t to be seen when she rode the bus past his house and that as a celebrity he had a duty to be visible to the fans who made him what he is. Also mildly funny is the guy who sent sheet metal back to junk mailers in their post paid envelopes. Most of the other funny stories in the book though, are just not funny.
       I felt that very often her complaints against people amounted to nothing more than pointless nitpicking. I certainly wouldn’t consider a friendly waiter impolite just because he/she said “there you go” while serving me my order and I am not offended by anyone responding to my “thank you” with a “no problem”. 
       I didn’t really enjoy this book. With no new insight into the matter and rather forced humour, this feels like one, long, unrelenting rant.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Versatile Blogger Award

The very lovely OEBooks has nominated me for the The Versatile Blogger Award. WOO HOO!!!  Thanks OEBooks. This is wonderfully encouraging.

I hope I get this right because I'm kinda new to the blogging life. I gather that I must now do 2 things.

 1) Admit 7 random things about me, and
 2) Pass it along to 5 other Versatile Bloggers.

Talking about myself is hard for me but I'm going to give this a shot
  1. I am an only child. I am not sure how I feel about that. Some days I'm glad and some days not so much.
  2. I used to write poetry when I was a kid. Rhymes actually. I vaguely remember one about a silly bunny. I haven't tried my hand at writing poems in the past 20 years.
  3. I started my career as a web designer but switched to writing almost instantly. Now I wouldn't know HTML if it hit me on the nose.
  4. I have a diary where I write letters to my 2 year old son. Just random bits about whats happening in our lives and what I feel. I hope to give it to him when he's all grown up.
  5. I used to be very possessive about my things when I was younger. Somewhere along the way I realized that its the people and not the things you need to hold on to. 
  6. I am constantly fighting the temptation to buy more books than I have the time to read. So far I'm not winning the fight.
  7. I tried to learn swimming thrice and couldn't do it. I don't know what it is, but I just cant swim apparently. Which is a pity because I love the thought of being in a pool.
Phew! I'm glad thats done. Now on to the fun part. The 5 other blogs I nominate are:
  1. Owl Reads
  2. Shredded Cheddar
  3. The Reading Life
  4. Thinking About Loud
  5. All Things Jill-Elizabeth
They are all fun and interesting blogs written by friendly and talented bloggers. I definitely reccomend checking them out, for anyone interested in books.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Armchair Travelogues : Scotland

Scotland´s a bit like its whiskey - 
tasting it for the first time 
makes you sit down 
and wonder, a little bewildered: 
am I really going to like this? 
                            -------------- Frank Joussen 

           Scotch Whiskey has never held any attractions for me, but Scotland surely has. Mr Kafkatokindergarten has backpacked over bits of Scotland, climbing mountains and clicking envy-inducing photos. I intend to go there on a long vacation someday. But since that day is not here yet, I must make do with literature that is set in Scotland. Fortunately, there is an amazing lot of it. Scotland has borne so many legendary writers and poets like Walter Scott, W.H Auden, Robert Louis Stevenson and of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes may have been based in London but seeds of the character were undoubtedly sown in Scottish soil. Here, then are my personal favourite books set in Scotland.

The 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith

44 Scotland Street is a block of flats in Edinburgh’s New Town. The series focuses on the motley bunch of people who live there. A lot of the action takes place within these flats, the art gallery and Big Lou’s coffee bar. However, Edinburgh is a constant character in these books. Its streets, its people and its idiosyncrasies are woven into the stories seamlessly. Yet somehow, the characters stay universal, recognizable and likable (mostly). Reach for these books whenever you are in the mood for something mellow and engaging.

The Isabel Dalhousie Series by Alexander McCall Smith

This one is also set in Edinburgh and features the philosopher-sleuth Isabel Dalhousie. The mysteries she encounters take her all over Scotland and are interspersed with her musings on Scotland and the Scottish way of life. Isabel’s love of her homeland and the Scottish ethos are very evident in every book of this series.  She also occasionally plays tourist guide to the Reader, talking / thinking of the historical or cultural significance of a street or region.

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Now this book certainly will not serve as a tourist brochure for bonnie Scotland. There is no glorifying imagery here, quite the contrary. The author seems to delight in breaking down the romantic visions of urban Scotland and showing us the filth behind it. Obviously, I don’t believe that his depiction is the absolute reality of modern day Scotland, all great cities have their dark sub terrain and Edinburgh is probably no exception. However, Trainspotting is a mind-bending, gut-squeezing peek at a Scotland I’d never seen in literature before. Or since. The dialects used in the narratives were a bit taxing to follow but I really can’t imagine it any other way. Here’s a more detailed write-up about Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

While we are on the subject of dark sub terrains, this novel delves into the darkness inside the mind of its anti hero. The Private Memoirs... is thought to be the inspiration behind Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but I find it darker, more sinister. The book is set in the Scotland of the 17th and 18th centuries. I don’t really know how many of the geographical and cultural references are relevant today but it does  give us an insight into the many religious factions of that era. I must do a proper review of this book someday. It paints a picture of a menacing Scotland, full of shadows and mist.

The Poetry of Robert Burns

No literary tour of Scotland can be complete without paying homage to Robert Burns. The Bard is Scotland’s national poet and that is saying something in a country that has borne so many of the great poets. I've read his poems in textbooks and anthologies, heard them sung in musical plays and New Years Eve bashes and I’ve even seen his poems distorted and misquoted to great effect on greeting cards and such. But the magic of Robert Burns’ words never fades. Neither does the lure of Scotland.

YE banks and braes and streams around
The castle o' Montgomery,
Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,
There simmer first unfauld her robes,
And there the langest tarry;
For there I took the last fareweel
O' my sweet Highland Mary.

Scotland image by free-desktop-backgrounds.net