A Quick Post to Round Off the Year

2015 is on its deathbed: in just over seven days, it will fade into history and the young 2016 will take its place.  As years go, it has been turbulent both nationally and internationally.  India has been at its divisive worst, with Hindu fundamentalists bent on “going back to the roots” on one side and leftists and liberals on the other side: the idea of a secular India is facing its greatest challenge.  Internationally, the rise of Daesh (the ISIS) and the turbulence in the Middle East, wars and atrocities leading to the displacement of millions and the worst refugee crisis in recent times, rising xenophobia in the west and the probable collapse of the European Union all seems to be heralding a period of prolonged unrest.  This, coupled with the falling oil prices and a possible worldwide depression around the corner, does not augur well for the future.

But on the birthday of one prophet and the eve of the birthday of another, I prefer to be optimistic.  After all, there are small rays of hope like the Paris summit on global warming.  Like William Faulkner said, I believe that man will not only endure – I believe that man will prevail.  Because optimism and the dogged determination to go on is all mankind has left: if we lose that too, we lose everything.

On that note, I am signing off for the year with this brief post.  I am going for a short and sweet vacation to India and shall be back on the blogosphere by the first week of January.

Au Revoir!

Christmas_card_Santa_moon

 

 

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A Review of “Willful Creatures” by Aimee Bender

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

― Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis

In an interview with Gabriel Garcia Marquez I read way back in the late eighties, I remember the author saying that this one sentence started him on the road to literature. Until then, he had not known “people were allowed to write like this”!

This is what sets literature apart from all other arts – infinite freedom. The medium lets one create what one wants. Because the written narrative is a meeting of minds – the mind of the writer and that of the reader – imagination is the stage where they come together. They may watch two entirely different shows, and enjoy it all the same. The very abstractness of language proves its greatest strength.

CoverAimee Bender, in this collection of weird short stories, takes off from where Kafka stopped. Where in Kafka’s stories strange things happen in a normal world, here the strangeness is taken for granted. Kafka’s abnormal is the new normal.

A boy born to pumpkin-headed parents, with an electric iron for a head (Ironhead).

A universe in which little men are captured and kept as pets by big men (End of the Line).

A man with a set of keys for fingers (The Leading Man).

Potatoes who attain sentience (Dearth).

These are some of the inhabitants of Aimee’s literary universe.

The prose is economical to the level of terseness. There is no emotion: the narrative is akin to the way fairy tales are told. Some examples are given below:

Ten men go to ten doctors. All the doctors tell all the men that they only have two weeks left to live. Five men cry. Three men rage. One man smiles. The last man is silent, meditative. Okay, he says. He has no reaction. The raging men, upon meeting in the lobby, don’t know what to do with the man of no reaction. They fall upon him and kill him with their bare hands.

The doctor comes out of his office and apologizes, to the dead man.

(“Deathwatch”)

 

The man went to the pet store to buy himself a little man to keep him company. The pet store was full of dogs with splotches and shy cats coy and the friendly people got dogs and the independent people got cats and this man looked around until in the back he found a cage inside of which was a miniature sofa and tiny TV and one small attractive brown-haired man, wearing a tweed suit. He looked at the price tag. The little man was expensive but the big man had a reliable job and thought this a worthy purchase.

(“End of the Line”)

 

Two of us hold Debbie down against the passenger door. Two others grab her feet so she can’t run or kick. The one with rings strikes Debbie several times-a few times hard in the stomach and one fist in the face so it will show, tomorrow. So she will have to explain. Debbie is screaming and crying.

We rip the skirt off with our bare hands and her underwear is almost too much to bear, with that pattern that is the knockoff of the expensive one, and a giant maxi pad weighing down the middle. We rip the skirt into pieces, which is what all the mothers have wanted to do, because it is rags anyway, it is a rag skirt, made of rags. The one with the rings slides her hands down Debbie’s arms and the rings she bought at the street fair cut lines into Debbie’s skin, where drizzles of blood rise freely to the surface.

(“Debbieland”)

bullied-alamy

Photo Courtesy: huffingtonpost

The boy was born with fingers shaped like keys. All except one, the pinkie on the right hand, had sharp ridges running along the inner length, and a point at the tip. They were made of flesh, with nerves and pores, but of a tougher texture, more hardened and specific. As a child, the boy had a difficult time learning to hold a pen and use scissors, but he was resilient and figured out his own method fast enough. His true task was to find the nine doors.

(“The Leading Man”)

By creating strange, unfamiliar worlds and divorcing emotion from the tale, the author succeeds in forcing the reader to look at the big picture. The structure of power within human communities (“End of the Line”), bullying (“Debbieland”), the outcast changeling (“Ironhead”), the stifling nature of religion (“Job’s Jobs”)… this method is Brechtian in its conception and execution, and works very well, as these stories are extremely short. I do not know whether they will hold up in a longer version such as a novel.

“End of the Line”, “Fruit and Words” and “Ironhead” turned out to be my personal favourites in this collection, but I loved all these weird vignettes. If you are a connoisseur of the strange, you will too.

potatoes

A Century in Books

A most satisfying year, reading-wise. For the first time ever, I was able to complete 100 books!

(OK, there was some cheating – some are online stories, some are cartoon collections, and I did not finish two – but in a count of one hundred, some leeway is allowed, no?)

I have rated the books (on Goodreads) as follows:

5 stars – 7
4 stars – 39
3 stars – 34
2 stars – 9
1 star – 11

An average of 3.22 – below my normal 3.47 average. But this does not mean I had a bad year – there were many books I read knowing fully well were awful – Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back and The Politically Incorrect Guide to English and American Literature – just to have the satisfaction of trashing them (mean SOB, aren’t I?). And some, like Love Letter to America and Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion are political diatribes which I read only for the sake of education.
A Tale of Love and Darkness
Coming to the top-ranked seven, I would recommend A Tale of Love and Darkness to anybody – this is a magical book, a memoir of growing up in Israel, in equal parts exhilarating, terrifying and depressing. I still have not been able to formulate a review for this terrific reading experience. Amos Oz is a genius.

Maus, I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History and Maus, II: And Here My Troubles Began are awesome reads; it shows how the medium of comics can be used to tell a serious story in a very effective way.

sainathEverybody Loves a Good Drought, even though excellent, may not be everyone’s cup of tea. I would recommend it to people who think economic liberalisation is the ultimate aim of a free democracy, just to understand the ruins we stand on as we reach upwards. An eye-opening read about poverty in India, though not very edifying.

The other three five-star books are fun reads – What Pooh Might Have Said to Dante and Other Futile Speculations, WTF, Evolution?!: A Theory of Unintelligible Design and What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions.

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Category-wise, my list looks like this:

Fiction: 45
Non-Fiction: 44
Poetry: 3
Graphic Novels: 3
Cartoons: 5

Good balance between fiction and non-fiction there.

Also, I have read three novels by Japanese authors and eight books in Malayalam. I am happy to see that I am branching out into non-English literature, but I need to read more Malayalam books.

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Among the MissingI read three remarkable short story collections this year: Among the Missing by Dan Chaon, Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender and Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser. All three had refreshing approaches to the medium of the short story, which, IMO, is one of the most difficult forms of literature to write.

I also had the opportunity to read a number of good short stories online. There is a goldmine of such stories scattered around the internet. Some sources:

Daily Science Fiction

Tor.com

consciousnessOn the non-fiction front, I discovered the Very Short Introduction series. These extremely thin books open a window on to a wide variety of subjects: encapsulated knowledge for a generation with very little time on its hands. These books are excellent, even though the quality varies from one to another somewhat.

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Looking back, I also see that I have managed to read four of Shirley Jackson’s novels finally. I have become an ardent fan and intends to read all of her novels.

aliceOne terrific genre read was Alice, Christina Henry‘s extremely dark interpretation of the much-loved children’s book. This one is not for those with queasy stomachs – rape, torture and mutilation abound in its pages.

Apart from the one by Amos Oz I mentioned above, there were two excellent memoirs I perused – Maya Angelou‘s famous I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and Lakota Woman by Mary Crow Dog. Both can be called “subaltern” narratives, stories from a lesser-privileged section of the society – and by women. This in turn lead me to reading Maya’s lovely poetry.

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idiot americaI read two extremely funny books – Dogbert’s Top Secret Management Handbook by the inimitable Scott Adams and Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free by Charles P. Pierce. These books demonstrate what an effective weapon humour is – against which you have no defence other than laughter. Verily, it is true that “one horse laugh is worth a thousand syllogisms”!

On the subject of humour, I pondered a moral question at length: is it permissible to laugh at Hitler? This dialogue was prompted by the book Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes. I was attacked for my opinion that laughter is permissible in any situation, for my callous disregard for holocaust victims. This in turn lead me to reading Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany, an excellent book about gallows humour during the Third Reich- and restored my faith in humanity’s ability to laugh in any situation.

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Explaining HitlerReading about the Holocaust guided me to another book: Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil by Ron Rosenbaum. This is a book filled with extensive research on a particular era of our history when a considerable section of the world fell under the spell of a deranged madman. What made him tick, and what was the source of his apparent hold over the populace? These are fascinating questions, especially in a world more prone to racial hatred at any other time than any other time in recent history.

Another exhaustive study on an equally unpalatable topic – rape – is by Susan Brownmiller. In Against Our Will Men, Women And Rape, the author explores various forms of this particular crime in extensive detail and with merciless objectivity. Though tough to get through, I think this is a must-read book.

grimmI must also mention two thrillers written by women authors which seems to have taken the reading world by storm: Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. Even though hyped, I found both these books underwhelming, with some huge plot holes – some as big as craters. The Shadow of the Wind is another hugely praised book which I felt, did not live up to its hype.

And last but not least, I read The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, with all its violence and sex – a project which has been long pending.

A Review of “The Complete Collected Poems of Maya Angelou”

Maya angelouWhat I like about poetry is that it is never completely “read”. Like the Akshaya Patra (“Inexhaustible Vessel”) in the Indian Epic Mahabharata, which keeps on delivering food no matter how many times one approaches it, a poetry book will keep on supplying food for the intellect. In every new reading of a favourite poem, you will find something fresh to appreciate.

I read this book by Maya Angelou after I finished the first part of her biography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, because I was impressed by her boldness and candour. Maya does not try to gloss over the fact that she’s black: she embraces it, along with all the distressing historical baggage that comes with it.

 

Africa

Thus she had lain
sugarcane sweet
deserts her hair
golden her feet
mountains her breasts
two Niles her tears.
Thus she has lain
Black through the years.

Over the white seas
rime white and cold
brigands ungentled
icicle bold
took her young daughters
sold her strong sons
churched her with Jesus
bled her with guns.
Thus she has lain.

Now she is rising
remember her pain
remember the losses
her screams loud and vain
remember her riches
her history slain
now she is striding
although she had lain.

This is remembrance with a vengeance.

The past, with it tales of violence, rapes, lynchings and mutilations is not forgotten, neither is it used as force of blind hatred and revenge. It is absorbed and sublimated in the psyche. What is celebrated here is the endurance of a race forced to live for untold years without even the basic dignity afforded to any human being – their humanity.

Song for the Old Ones

My Fathers sit on benches
their flesh counts every plank
the slats leave dents of darkness
deep in their withered flanks.

They nod like broken candles
all waxed and burnt profound
they say “It’s understanding
that makes the world go round.”

There in those pleated faces
I see the auction block
the chains and slavery’s coffles
the whip and lash and stock.

My Fathers speak in voices
that shred my fact and sound
they say “It’s our submission
that makes the world go round.”

They used the finest cunning
their naked wits and wiles
the lowly Uncle Tomming
and Aunt Jemimas’ smiles.

They’ve laughed to shield their crying
then shuffled through their dreams and
stepped ‘n’ fetched a country
to write the blues with screams.

I understand their meaning
it could and did derive
from living on the edge of death
They kept my race alive.

The race is kept alive by the resilience of a people who refuse to break. As the woman in the poem “Our Grandmothers” says:

Centered on the world’s stage,
she sings to her loves and beloveds,
to her foes and detractors:
However I am perceived and deceived,
however my ignorance and conceits,
lay aside your fears that I will be undone,
for I shall not be moved.

slavery1

This is the power of silent resistance, of suffering converted to strength. This is what empowered Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. And when it’s combined with an unapologetic and fiercely sexual femininity, it becomes almost too hot to handle.

Phenomenal Woman

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Men themselves have wondered
What they see in me.
They try so much
But they can’t touch
My inner mystery.
When I try to show them,
They say they still can’t see.
I say,
It’s in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
‘Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.

This phenomenal woman who represents all of Africa also has a bone to pick with her white sister: of traumas passed down through the generations from myth to the present age, which must be exorcised like dust slowly filling ruts on the road of history.

slavery2

Family Affairs

You let down, from arched
Windows,
Over hand-cut stones of your
Cathedrals, seas of golden hair.

While I, pulled by dusty braids,
Left furrows in the
Sands of African beaches.

Princes and commoners
Climbed over waves to reach
Your vaulted boudoirs,

As the sun, capriciously,
Struck silver fire from waiting
Chains, where I was bound.

My screams never reached
The rare tower where you
Lay, birthing masters for
My sons, and for my
Daughters, a swarm of
Unclean badgers, to consume
Their history.

Tired now of pedestal existence
For fear of flying
And vertigo, you descend
And step lightly over My centuries of horror
And take my hand,
Smiling, call me
Sister.

Sister, accept
That I must wait a
While. Allow an age
Of dust to fill
Ruts left on my
Beach in Africa.

Ultimately, among all the poems contained here, it was old man Willie who really captivated me.

Willie

Willie was a man without fame,
Hardly anybody knew his name.
Crippled and limping, always walking lame,
He said, “I keep on movin’
Movin’ just the same.”

Solitude was the climate in his head,
Emptiness was the partner in his bed,
Pain echoed in the steps of his tread,
He said, “I keep on followin’
Where the leaders led.

“I may cry and I will die,
But my spirit is the soul of every spring,
Watch for me and you will see
That I’m present in the songs that children sing.”

People called him “Uncle,” “Boy” and “Hey,”
Said, “You can’t live through this another day.”
Then, they waited to hear what he would say.
He said, “I’m living
In the games that children play.

“You may enter my sleep, people my dreams,
Threaten my early morning’s ease,
But I keep comin’ followin’ laughin’ cryin’,
Sure as a summer breeze.

“Wait for me, watch for me.
My spirit is the surge of open seas.
Look for me, ask for me,
I’m the rustle in the autumn leaves.

“When the sun rises
I am the time.
When the children sing
I am the Rhyme.”

He stands there with his toothless smile, not only in America, but all over the world, wherever the misery of one class feeds the luxury of another. His smile seems idiotic to shallow minds. Only the perceptive can understand that it actually carries a timeless wisdom.