Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Stories from Nigeria

Lately, I have been trying to read more new-to-me writers from different parts of the world. Short stories are obviously the best way to explore an unknown literary terrain since they don’t require you to commit too much time. To that end, I read two Nigerian short stories by writers I haven’t heard of before. Admittedly, that’s not saying much since the only Nigerian writers I have heard of are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Chinua Achebe.  I found these and many other fascinating stories in The New Black Magazine.  

THREE ANGELS by Uche Peter Umez

This story was titled A Very Short Story on the index page of the site and a very short story it is. Just about a page or two in length, it nevertheless manages to pack quite a punch.  It’s about a man whose wife has just delivered triplets. He should be happy but he isn’t because he can’t imagine how he’s going to feed them all on his meagre income. He sees just one, unhappy solution to the problem but it isn’t going to be easy.
I’m going to keep this short or my review will turn out to be longer than the story itself. However, I must say that the writer manages to convey an immense amount of feeling in very few words. This won’t take up more than a few minutes of your time and it is definitely worth that and more.
You can read it online HERE.

ITALIAN VISA by Jekwu Anyaegbuna

Ifenna has just lost his mother and her funeral turns out to be quite the spectacle with Uncle Ibe raining curses and accusations on everyone present. Not to mention the unorthodox burial of the corpse with a broom and a knife. Later, Ifenna is back at his University at Lagos, months away from a degree when his half brother Okezie calls him with the exciting prospect of a factory job in Italy. But nothing is quite as simple and straightforward as it seems.
This was a strange story and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. I don’t mean that it was bad, it wasn’t.  It was actually quite engaging and even funny. It’s just that the first half seemed leisurely while the second half seemed to skid all over the place. Still, I’m glad I read it. It was a peep into a world that I know very little about.
Here it is. If you decide to check it out, do let me know what you thought of it.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Follow Friday

Follow Friday is a weekly event hosted by Parajunkee and Alison Can Read. This week's question is:

Q. In books like the Sookie Stackhouse (True Blood) series the paranormal creature in question "comes out of the closet" and makes itself known to the world. Which mythical creature do you wish would come out of the closet, for real?

Ans: I dont read a lot of paranormal or fantasy fiction. Actually I haven't read any since Harry Potter so my knowledge of mythical beings is very limited. However, I've always loved Unicorns. There is something so beautiful and serene about them. Would be nice if they really existed.

Happy weekend everyone.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: By Anton Chekhov and About Him

You cannot think short stories without thinking of Anton Chekhov. Every single one written by him is a little masterpiece and you need no recommendations or reviews to pick up, at random, any story.  If I sound overly effusive it is because he is among my favourite writers of all time and I think his short stories were the first I ever read. Today I thought I’d share with you one of my favourite stories by Chekhov and a story about Chekhov.

A Chameleon by Anton Chekhov

Hryukin, the goldsmith is chasing a little puppy around the market square. When he finally catches up with the pup, he has every intention of exacting a fitting revenge from the terrified animal. As luck would have it, the police superintendent Otchumyelov happens to be passing by and stops at the crime scene to give the crowd the benefit of his judgement. It unfolds that Hryukin has been bitten by the puppy and wants justice. Obviously the puppy must pay for its aggression. Or not. It all depends on whether or not the pup belongs to General Zhigalov.

The Chameleon in the title refers to Otchumyelov who keeps changing his opinion of the puppy depending on whether or not it happens to belong to the General. Chekhov spins a witty tale that talks, ever so subtly, about Power and the human tendency to defer to it. There is a general impression that most of the Russian masters only write dark and depressing stories about the oppressed proletariat. Well, Chekov can do that too. But he is at his best when he drives home a point and gives you a laugh to go with it.

Errand by Raymond Carver

I have long wanted to read Raymond Carver but never got around to it. So when I heard of this short story he had written about Chekhov, I figured it was the best place to start. Errand is a partly-fictional account of Chekhov’s final days. Chekhov died of tuberculosis at the age of 44 and Carver uses letters, memoirs’, journal entries and his imagination to recreate the start of the illness, the deterioration, the end and the hours immediately after. On the morning after his death, Chekhov’s wife Olga sends a young bellboy to fetch a mortician. That is the Errand.

This is hardly a twist in the tale sort of story. We know exactly how it ends. Yet it never loses its grip on the reader because it is written in such an engaging manner.  There are some wonderful anecdotes scattered through this story like the time Tolstoy visited Chekov in hospital or Dr. Schwohrer ordering champagne for Chekhov while the latter lay on his deathbed. You would expect a story about a man’s illness and death to be grim and morbid, but strangely enough, it is neither. Carver manages to infuse it with humour and inspiration. If you like literary anecdotes, you will love this.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Play Day: The Jewish Wife by Bertolt Brecht

“Character is a question of time.  It lasts for a certain length of time, just like a glove. There are good ones that last a long time but they don’t last forever”

The Jewish Wife is not so much a play as it is a sketch or a vignette. It is part of a series of sketches that form the play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich alternatively known as The Private Life of the Master Race. These sketches are all slices of life in the early years of Hitler’s reign when the horror was slowly beginning to creep into people’s lives. The sketches are actually unconnected to each other except for the time and place they inhabit. The Jewish wife is often performed as a standalone one-act play, and it works brilliantly as such.

When the curtain goes up, we see Judith Keith packing her bags. She’s restless and nervous and cannot sit still. She then goes to the phone and calls a few people to tell them that she’s leaving for Amsterdam for a few weeks. The phone calls done she turns to a chair and starts rehearsing what she is going to say to her husband about the trip. She tells him that she has seen the change that’s come over him lately. They can’t look each other in the eye anymore. We find out that she is a Jew married to an Aryan and Hitler’s propaganda is beginning to infiltrate their lives. Fritz, a surgeon, has been facing some unpleasantness at work on her account and she worries it is all going to get much worse. By now Judith has worked herself up into near hysteria as she lashes out at the powers that have divided the country and its people.

-----Mild Spoiler Ahead----

Fritz comes home and Judith tells him she is going, desperately hoping that he will stop her. But he doesn’t. He claims the change of scene will do her good and she can come back in a couple of weeks when ‘all this has blown over’. She knows, he knows and we know that it will never be. As the curtain falls, Fritz hands her the fur coat that she won’t need until next winter.

The Jewish Wife is a brilliant look at the way in which the politics of hate seeps into the everyday lives of ordinary people. Judith was a beloved wife, a friend, a bridge player and housewife, but now she is only Jewish. Brecht doesn’t portray Fritz as a villain but as a victim. A victim of fear and distrust that gradually distorts him.

This was one of Brecht’s early anti-Nazi plays, written when the full horror of the holocaust was yet to unfold. It is quieter, though just as effective as his later plays like Arturo Ui.... There is no melodrama here; Brecht lets us feel the rot beneath the surface without screaming about it. We all know about concentration camps and the like, but The Jewish Wife is about all the other, subtle ways in which people are broken.


Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

Book Blogger Hop

I'm doing the Book Blogger Hop after quite a while this weekend. Somehow Fridays always seem to be extra busy and I never manage to get enough laptop time. For those of you who don't already know, Book Blogger Hop is a weekly event hosted by and is a great way to 'meet' fellow book bloggers.

This week's question is:
“What’s the LONGEST book you’ve ever read?”
(Note: I’m putting one caveat on this question. You aren’t allowed to say the Bible, Torah, Qur’an, or other religious/spiritual text.)

I think it would be a tie between Les Miserables by Victor Hugo and The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. I feel like I spent half my life reading just these two books and carting them around gave my arms a proper workout :)

Happy weekend everyone and Happy

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade by Edgar Allen Poe

Edgar Allen Poe is the closest I’ve come to reading anything that can be called horror. The Tell-Tale Heart, Raven and Fall of the House of Usher are all Poe classics that always give me goose bumps when I read them. I’ve also read, and with much more relish, his mysteries featuring Auguste Dupin, the big daddy of all gentleman detectives. But I had no idea Poe could do humour and that he could do it so well.

This short story starts where the Arabian Nights tale leaves off. Scheherazade has regaled the king for a thousand and one nights thereby escaping the noose. By now she’s grown quite proud of her storytelling skills and doesn’t want to stop. So she brings back her favourite character Sindbad from literary retirement and decides to spin another adventure for him. Initially the king is excited and all ears but Sindbad’s tale starts to go all awry.  Scheherazade takes the story into strange and amazing lands and each episode gets more fantastic and the king can no longer suspend his disbelief. The footnotes to this tale tell us that some of Scheherazade’s tales may not be entirely fantasy after all.

It’s difficult to believe that the same pen that wrote the Raven could write this too. The satire flows so naturally and lightly that you would think the writer a full time funny man. Sample this: but the king, having been sufficiently pinched, at length ceased snoring, and finally said, "hum!" and then "hoo!" when the queen, understanding these words (which are no doubt Arabic) to signify that he was all attention, and would do his best not to snore any more

I intend to read more of his funny stories like The Angel of the Odd, The Spectacles and Never Bet the Devil Your Head. Meanwhile you can find The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade here.

Image of poe

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote

Until recently, I’ve only ever thought of Truman Capote as the author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Frankly, even Breakfast at Tiffany’s seems to belong less to him and more to Audrey Hepburn who immortalised Holly Golightly on screen. Even when you are reading the book, it’s impossible to keep her persona out of it. However, Other Voices, Other Rooms belongs entirely to Capote.

This semi-autobiographical novel has its roots in Capote’s childhood spent in Alabama. Capote recreates his thirteen year old self as Joel Knox, the protagonist of this story.  Joel lost his mother and was being taken care of by his aunt and her family until one day, a letter arrives from his father, whom he has never seen or heard of before. The letter invites Joel to Skully’s Landing, where his father now lives with his second wife. Joel arrives at Skully’s Landing, a crumbling and isolated, old mansion which is nothing like he imagined it would be. He meets his stepmother Amy, a morose and whining woman and Cousin Randolph, a tragic and dramatic figure.  But no one will tell him anything about his father who is supposedly ill.

While the spotlight stays firmly on Joel at all times, there are other interesting characters that inhabit this strange world he now finds himself in. There’s Jesus Fever, a centenarian, mule driver and his granddaughter Zoo who has a strange obsession with snow. There’s also Idabel, a sullen and tomboyish girl and Joel’s only friend. Capote based the character of Idabel on his childhood friend Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee modelled the character of Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird on Truman Capote).

Other Voices, Other Rooms raked in a lot of controversy for this photograph of Capote on the book’s back cover. It was termed suggestive and debauched although on the face of it there isn’t anything remotely sexual. This is the mood that runs through the whole book. There aren’t really any sex scenes, foul language or violence but there is always something unsettling and suggestive, though it’s never articulated. Capote’s real triumph as a story teller is in the atmospherics he is able to create with so few, well chosen words. One really senses the decay of the Landing and the eeriness of its surroundings.

Capote’s debut effort is a coming-of-age story like no other. It’s also about desolation and loneliness. Every character in the book is isolated, cut off from all the others and fighting to be heard. Other Voices, Other Rooms is brooding and haunting, quite an experience. Definitely read it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Short Stories on Wednesday: Two French Stories

This week I’ve been reading a book, ambitiously titled, The Greatest French Short Stories. While the greatness of a few stories is arguable, some of them are really good. I would definitely recommend this collection to all fellow Francophiles.  Here are two of my absolute favourite stories from the book.

Charity (La Charite) by Charles-Louis Philippe
Old Balthazar is a poor but hardworking man who makes his living by wandering from village to village, selling writing paper. He is disadvantaged by his luxuriant, red beard that covers his entire face and gives him a shifty look. Everyone is wary of him, he has to walk for miles every day in the hot sun and all his labours bring him barely enough money to keep body and soul together. In short, life is hard for poor, old Balthazar. Until one day a kindly old lady gives him some extra money; and life becomes much harder.
I thought I knew where this was headed but I was really tickled to see where it actually went. Written with such understated humour and irony, this was an expertly crafted story. The two characters are well drawn and the ending somehow manages to be, both, poignant and hilarious at the same time. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find this online but I urge you to seek it out and read it.

Putois by Anatole France
Putois had a shifty look about him, squinting eyes and rimless ears. He was unusually strong and could even bend a five-franc piece between his thumb and first finger. A gardener by profession, Putois had gone bad and taken to harassing the village folk. He stole their fruits and cutlery, he seduced their women and foiled the constabulary. He could leap over great distances so that one moment he was before you and the very next moment he was somewhere else entirely. However, the most remarkable thing about Putois was that he didn’t actually exist.
Putois was born as a lie told by a woman to get out of an undesirable dinner invitation.  She could never have imagined the legendary figure he would grow into until one day she almost begins to believe in the lie herself.
The life story of Putois is a fascinating tale of a lie growing all out of proportion and assuming a life of its own.  France is hilarious and thought provoking in equal measure without ever straying into the absurd. Do read and enjoy this story HERE.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Agatha Christie Graphic Novels: Ordeal by Innocence (graphic-novelised by Chandre)

     My acquaintance with graphic novels has so far been limited to V for Vendetta, which I liked well enough but not so much as to make me explore this genre further. Until three days ago when I saw a stack of Agatha Christie graphic novels at my regular bookstore. I picked up Ordeal by Innocence even though I had read it in its original form because I was sceptical about how this would play out and didn’t want to ruin an unread Christie experience, if you know what I mean.

Jacko Argyle, the black sheep of the Argyle family has died in prison where he was serving a sentence for murdering his mother. Despite his protestations of innocence, the police considered this an open and shut case, especially since the alibi Jacko claimed to have, failed to show up.  The family has made its peace with Jacko’s guilt and his death until one day, two years later, Jacko alibi turns up on their doorstep. Arthur Calgary claims that Jacko couldn’t have committed the crime and so it follows that the real murderer is still within the family, undetected. The Argyle’s are shattered, each of them viewing the others with distrust. Calgary must now put the pieces of this puzzle together and find the murderer.

 Ordeal by innocence does not feature any of Christie’s famous detective’s.  The focus here is not so much on detection as it is on the psychology of the innocent and the guilty. This is one of Christie’s darker novels.

I must admit, it took awhile before I was comfortable with the pace and format of the graphic version.  The characters were introduced in a bit of a rush and for a few pages I was struggling to keep pace with it all. I also felt that the emotional connect Christie always manages to create between the reader and her characters was missing here. I didn’t really care very much about any of these people.

Having said all of that, there is a lot to like in this graphic novel. For one, it stays true to the Christie technique of presenting all the facts of the case to the reader. The illustrations are well done and heighten the sombre mood of this story. Especially the final chapters are very nicely executed so as to preserve the mystery while presenting the events as they happen. Ordeal by innocence is not an action heavy book. There is a lot of talking and reminiscing and analysing which can be condensed without compromising on the plot. This is what the graphic novel does and I think the story benefits from the faster pace.

To me, this graphic retelling of a familiar story was a fun ride.  I would definitely recommend it to Christie fans. However, it’s back to the original format for me.  There’s nothing like an Agatha Christie novel in her own words.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Short Story Wednesday: Putting the Kafka in From Kafka to Kindergarten.

It has been pointed out to me that considering my blog is called what it is; it’s strange that I haven’t ever written about Kafka or his works. Honestly, I find it incredibly hard to write about his works only because they are so wide open to interpretation that there is a danger of reading too much between the lines and very little of the lines themselves. I've read reviews of the Trial which made the novel sound like a dystopian thriller and I've read an article which claims that Kafka meant the story to be a metaphor for sexual repression.  Besides which, there is the fact that however much one may love the man and his writings, they aren't easy reads. I've been meaning to read The Castle for ages but with a toddler underfoot, it’s not going to happen anytime soon. I can and did read some of his short stories though. Although Metamorphosis is probably his most famous short story, I think The Great Wall is an easier read so this is how Kafka makes his debut on my blog.

The Great Wall of China

The story is narrated by an unnamed Chinese narrator who is one of the thousands involved in the building of the Great Wall. We learn nothing more about him and this is, I assume intentional, to underline his irrelevance. The narrator explains the social and economic reasons due to which the great wall was built piece meal and not in one continuous line. He also reflects on the absolute disconnect between the Rulers and the people of the land.
If humour is what you want, Kafka is obviously not where you go looking for it. But there is an unmistakeable tongue-in-cheek tone to this story. I consider this one of Kafka’s most accessible works where he doesn’t try at every sentence to shut the door on his thoughts and leave the reader grappling in the dark. However, with Kafka, accessible is a word one always uses with caution.
If you’ve never read a Kafka before, this story is probably the gentlest way to ease into the genre (yes genre, Kafka didn’t write like anyone else, not Sartre not Camus). You could see this as a quasi-historical insider’s view of the building of the Great Wall or as a political allegory.  Either way, I recommend you read it, you can make of it what you will.

Short story Wednesday is an event hosted by Risa at Bread Crumb Reads to encourage readers to explore short stories. You can read this short story HERE.