Category: Book Review

The Riders: A Literary Page-Turner

*spoiler alert – review may contain mild spoilers*

In the first few pages, The Riders by Tim Winton comes across as a simple story of a family migrating from Australia to Ireland. Scully, a young Australian is working hard to restore an ancient cottage in rural Ireland, transforming it into a home for his pregnant wife Jennifer and daughter Billie who are soon to join him. He strikes up a friendship with the postman Pete and through their conversations, it is revealed that Jennifer had made the impulsive decision to sell their home in Australia and relocate to this remote village. Jennifer emerges as an enigmatic figure through these conversations, an educated woman with artistic aspirations who flits across countries and art-forms in search of self-actualization. Scully is the loving husband who believes in her, supports her and follows her.

When the cottage is finally ready, Scully drives to the airport to receive his family and finds that his daughter has arrived alone, traumatised and unable to speak. Father and daughter soon set off on a journey across Europe in search of the absconding mother encountering scary dogs, would have been artists, old friends who sound like they are withholding information and strange women. All along, fresh insights are revealed in fleeting glimpses, subtle hints in the settings, reactions of minor characters and in between the lines of dialogue. Was Scully, whose thoughts project him as a calm, kind and positive man, really a good husband? What appear to be plot-holes – Why wouldn’t Scully report his wife as missing to the police? Why was Billie silent about what she knows about her mother?  The questions fall away as the novel moves towards its surreal conclusion.

The references to the myth of the wild hunt are unclear and open-ended like Scully’s journey in search of Jennifer. There is much inter-textuality in the narrative, with repeated references to The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Billie thinks that her father is like Quasimodo and loves re-reading her old comic version of the novel, while her mother dismisses it as ‘that old thing’. The device of multiple narrators with the points of view shifting rapidly from Scully to Billie to the omniscient narrator to Pete to Irma to even an unknown voice that may or may not have been Jennifer’s, allows the reader to see just a little further into the minds of the flawed characters. Despite the harsh realism, the book is a gripping read and the open conclusion with a touch of fantasy is not unsatisfactory. This is another of those novels that fall into the rare genre of the literary page-turner.

Mini Review: A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry

Over the past year, I have attended a series of lectures, seminars and interactive workshops on drama in my master’s course. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry was on the reading list of the most recent workshops and while reading it, I wished more than once that it had been recommended much earlier. The three-act play about an African-American family living in Chicago in the late fifties was so vividly written that reading it is as good as having watched it on the stage.

In the first scene, the readers are transported to the living room of a two room flat in Chicago, with ‘typical, undistinguished and tired’ furnishings, and they remain there like flies on the wall witnessing the characters live through an experience that changes their lives. It would not be fair to call the dramatis personae as characters for they come alive in each gesture, dialogue and action, from the matriarch Lena Younger to the child Travis. It would be simplistic to state that this is a play about racism – it addresses among other issues that of class, the struggle to rise above poverty, the question of national identity and what it means to an immigrant, the relevance of education and above all, what it means to be a man.

The play commences at a point when the Younger family is awaiting their father’s insurance money of ten thousand dollars. Lena’s children Walter and Beneatha have pinned their hopes on the amount towards securing their respective futures, but Lena has her own plans. From there onwards, the play moves at a rapid pace from scene to scene and as we follow their journey, we learn more about the characters – their dreams, desires, hope, fear and frustration. Like Vonnegut’s glass of water analogy, every character wants specific things. Lena wants her family to be comfortable and see her son as a man worthy of his late father. Walter wants to become a successful businessman, the kind for whom he currently works as a chauffeur. Ruth wants a happy marriage. Asagai wants Beneatha. Beneatha is torn between her need to become a doctor in Chicago and Asagai’s vision of an idyllic return to their African roots. George wants to have a good time. Travis wants fifty cents for school and like the rest of his family members, a more comfortable life. By the end of the play, the main protagonist Walter has transformed from a frustrated chauffeur who longs for a wealthy lifestyle into a stronger man who has started to look objectively at life and stands tall and proud of who he is.

Many scenes stand out in the play. Some of my favourites included the conversation between Beneatha and George – for all his wealth and education, George is revealed as a coarse character who wants a ‘simple girl’ for action more than discussing thoughts and who believes that education means to ‘read books—to learn facts—to get grades—to pass the course—to get a degree’, which has ‘nothing to do with thoughts.’ Lena owns the scenes in which she is present, whether it is admonishing Beneatha against blasphemy, declaring happily that she has bought a house for her family, tenderly handing over the rest of the money to Walter or stating proudly that ‘he had come into his manhood’ like ‘like a rainbow after the rain’.

During class, Professor also recommended the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris which is set in 1959 and 2009 and follows the story of the white couple from whom Lena purchases the house. And it seemed that this is how great literature lives on, passing the torch from one book to another, illuminating minds with fresher insights across the years.

Mini Review: 4.48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane

“This is not a world in which I wish to live.”
Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis

The play could be condensed to this one line which could be a powerful epigraph to the writer, as much as the play itself is. Reading 4.48 Psychosis was painful, knowing that Sarah Kane intended this to be a suicide note. Depression is not an easy topic to read about, even when it is portrayed in compelling formal prose as in The Bell Jar. This play is an open window into the mind of a brilliant writer whose depression has reached a point of no return. The dark lines of the narrative which are often split and fragmented as her thoughts, are beautiful but do not hold the promise of hope for life between their lines.

“After 4.48 I shall not speak again… / I have been dead for a long time / Back to my roots / I sing without hope on the boundary”, she says, and “Fuck you for rejecting me by never being there, fuck you for making me feel shit about myself, fuck you for bleeding the fucking love and life out of me, fuck my father for fucking up my life for good and fuck my mother for not leaving him, but most of all, fuck you God for making me love a person who does not exist”.

There is a tirade against the doctors who failed to treat her except with ‘chemical cures for congenital anguish’: “Inscrutable doctors, sensible doctors, way-out doctors, doctors you’d think were fucking patients if you weren’t shown proof otherwise, ask the same questions, put words in my mouth…Who lied. And said it was nice to see me. I trusted you, I loved you, and it’s not losing you that hurts me, but your bare-faced fucking falsehoods that masquerade as medical notes.
Your truth, your lies, not mine.

The experimental structure with numbers and words scattered around at random and the uneven spaces between words, sentences, and pages reflect the writer’s mind. The play’s form complements the theme and the content, and the random spaces align themselves between the words into an unbearably sad harmony.

There are still, the last flickers of hope within the distracted monologue. ‘I beg you to save me from this madness that eats me‘, says Kane. Like most artists, she is aware of the limiting nature of happiness. ‘when I am charmed by vile delusions of happiness,’ she says, ‘I cannot touch my essential self.‘ In between the moments of struggle, the desires remain, ‘to achieve goals and ambitions’, ‘to be seen and heard’, ‘to excite, amaze, fascinate, shock, intrigue, amuse, ntertain,
or entice others’, ‘to communicate, to converse’, ‘to laugh and make jokes’, ‘to feed, help, protect, comfort, console, support, nurse or heal’, ‘to be fed, helped, protected, comforted, consoled, supported, nursed or healed’, ‘to be forgiven’, ‘to be loved’ and ‘to be free’. It is sad that she had to pay such a terrible price for her freedom.

As a survivor of suicidal depression, I thought that the words were far too familiar, making this one of the most difficult pieces that I have read in a while.

Mini Review: The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco

Even after two careful readings, I was unable to get the point of  Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party and was not sure about picking up yet another play belonging to the theatre of the absurd. But reading The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco was an experience by itself, so much that I could see the play unfold scene by scene through the pages, in spite of the complicated stage settings, the large cast of invisible characters and the disconnected, often meandering dialogue.

The play remains open to a number of interpretations – it is never clarified if the main characters of the nonagenarian man and his wife are the among the last few survivors in an apocalyptic world, or merely two sad souls who regret their uneventful life and long to be accepted, respected and remembered. Thought-provoking, darkly funny and saddening, this is one of those works of literature, the likes of which Yann Martel said makes the reader ‘existentially thicker’.

Mini Reviews: The Browning Version

The Browning Version by Terence Rattigan takes a realistic approach to the teacher-student relationship explored in books like Good-Bye, Mr.Chips, Dead Poets Society, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and To Sir, With Love. In a few powerful scenes, it narrates the touching story of an honest, hardworking schoolteacher whose lack of charisma distances everyone around him. Shortchanged both personally by a wife who openly cheats on him, and professionally by the headmaster who denies his pension and even by his pupils who mockingly refer to him as the ‘Crock’ and the ‘Himmler of the lower fifth’, Crocker-Harris’s redemption in the end which is triggered through a small gesture by a pupil is both realistic and satisfying. The classical references to the Agamemnon are tempered with mild humour, and the sense of pathos which hangs over the entire play lifts it up into a classic in its own right. The 1951 film version is excellent, but I prefer the taut scenes in the play which conclude at the moment of Crocker-Harris’s transformation.

Mini Reviews: The Visit by Friedrich Dürrenmatt

I had to read The Visit and  A Raisin in The Sun for the same drama class. Though these are two very different plays in all other aspects, Langston Hughes’ poem that inspired the latter’s title can also be thought of as constituting the former’s premise. Claire Zachanassian’s eventful visit to the impoverished town of Guellen is about the betrayal of love which then turns into a festering, toxic hate that drains her of humanity as she pursues and extracts her terrible revenge from the judge who declared her a fallen woman, the false witnesses who claimed to have fathered her child, the lover who disowned her for pecuniary gain and above all from the society which passively watched as her life was ruined.

Despite the darkness of the premise, the play reads smoothly, almost like a fable, with dialogue that evokes questions on ethics and morality interspersed with light comic relief. Dürrenmatt implies the inevitable fallibility of human greed through the fall of the townspeople, which triumphs even the voice of morality and reason in the character of the schoolmaster. A play that leaves the viewer with plenty to think and reflect on the nature of society, the concept of morality, and the ultimate meaning of good and evil.

On Dysfunctional Families: This Child and That Face

More mini-reviews of plays read for a recent drama class.

Cet enfant by Joël Pommerat:  This is a review of the English adaptation This Child by Nigel Gearing, a play consisting of ten unrelated scenes, each portraying a different aspect of a dysfunctional parent-child relationship. A pregnant woman sees her child as a reason to turn around her life and redeem it from the less than ideal place where she has been pushed to owing to her mother’s neglect. A small girl who does not care to see her father anymore. A mother who tries to keep her ten-year-old son at home, jealous of his teachers and friends. A sick father deploring his teenage son’s rudeness and a grown-up son reproaching his father’s parenting. A mother nagging her grown up daughter on how to live her life and another mother trying to reason why her grown-up daughter is now avoiding her. Most of the scenes are intense, depicting relationships that have gone horribly wrong. The long dramatic monologues are especially powerful. Including a few positive relationships into the mix would have taken the play to another level.

That Face by Polly Stenham:  This play about how a broken family tries in vain to pick up the pieces after the father deserts them is sad, poignant and realistic. There are many open questions that arise from the scenes, left to the viewer’s imagination and much implied between the lines of dialogue. Disturbing scenes of bullying at a school hostel are followed by surprising insights into the point of view of the bullies. Even the sordid allusions to incest come across as a heartbreakingly sad attempt of a son determined to protect his mother from a complete breakdown. There is some excellent writing in terms of dialogue and characterisation which could have been uplifted further, by at least a hint towards the hope of redemption for the tortured characters.

Mini Reviews: Top Girls by Caryl Churchill

Published in 1982, Top Girls is a dated play in many ways. Yet it raises questions on feminism and women’s emancipation that are still relevant in the present day. The first act in which Marlene invites five women from various periods in history for a celebratory meal sets off the mood for the play. Six women who have lived very different lives which were against the norms of their period, sit down to dinner. Their conversation progresses rapidly, recalling real and fictional incidents across the centuries, voicing notions about the role of women in each period, and shows glimpses into the minds of these women who defied social expectations. The fact that among the six women, only patient Griselda found something like happiness after several years, presents itself as a paradox at the end of the dinner.

The next two acts move from surreal settings into plain realism, going back and forth in time into scenes from Marlene’s personal and professional lives, spelling out the question – do a successful job and financial independence really make a woman successful in life, or do they transform her into a calculative, manipulative person devoid of filial or maternal emotions? While present-day women are empowered to choose one or the other or can easily have both, the above questions still remain significant in the context of changing equations between the genders.

There is no clear plot or character development in the play. The characters are presented fully fleshed out, as they are, and leave the reader with a number of open questions, but no clear answer.

Haroun and The Sea of Stories

A book review that I wrote so many years ago, in what was almost another lifetime…was delighted to see it as the top review against the book in Amazon

Literature often transcends pre-set boundaries of category or genre. Prime examples include the chronicles of Alice and Gulliver originally conceived to satirise society and later metamorphosed into children’s classics, and more recently the popularity of the Harry Potter novels among adult readers. ‘Haroun and the sea of stories’ could be placed in a similar category. It can be read as a fairy tale or as a satire that addresses everyday problems, narrates social conditions and broaches political issues. Regarded by readers and critics alike as one of the master storytellers of the present day literary world, it is not surprising that Mr.Rushdie has conjured up a fantasy based on the world or rather the ocean of stories, named after the ancient Indian treatise Kathasaritsagar.

The protagonist Haroun Khalifa is a young boy who leads a happy middle-class life distinct from the rich, poor, `super-rich’ and `super-poor’ people inhabiting a nameless sad city. Haroun’s father Rashid Khalifa is a famous storyteller – the Shah of Blah with fabled oceans of notions, who often refers to the streams of story water he drinks to keep up the supply of wondrous tales that pour forth from within him. Haroun takes this as an eccentric statement by his father and soon discovers that the ocean of stories indeed exists and that only he could save it from total annihilation.

Haroun’s world is suddenly taken apart when his mother elopes with their neighbour Mr.Sengupta, a mean clerk who had forever questioned the significance of Rashid’s tales (‘What’s the use of stories that are not even true?’) and Rashid loses his gift to spin wondrous yarns. When Rashid is summoned by a politician to campaign through his stories in the Valley of K, the two decide to risk taking the trip which turns out to be both hilarious and fascinating.

On board a peacock-shaped houseboat on the ‘Dull Lake’, Haroun discovers to his surprise and horror that his father is going to cancel his subscription to the streams of the Story Ocean. After a squabble with the water genie Iff who has come to disconnect the story tap, Haroun manages to get a ride on the machine-hoopoe Butt to Kahani, the second moon of the earth that contains the ocean of stories.

Kahani also contains two diametrically opposite worlds, the land of Gup characterised by perpetual light inhabited by the Guppies who love to talk, and the land of Chup that is permanently dark and cold and is home to the Chupwallas who worship Bezaban, the prince of silence. The Guppies and the Chupwallas are mortal enemies, and when Haroun lands on Kahani, there is a terrible crisis looming on Gup – The cult master of Chup, Khattam-Shud has kidnapped the Guppie princess Batcheat intending to sacrifice her to Bezaban and worse, has started polluting the story-ocean to destroy it completely. Accompanied by Iff, Butt, Mali the floating gardener and a pair of loopy fishes called Goopy and Bagha, Haroun sets forth to save the ocean. The rest of the story deals with how he succeeds in this endeavour and is rewarded with a ‘synthesized’ happy ending courtesy P2C2E (Processes Too Complicated To be Explained).

The text sparkles with witticisms concealing thoughts, and thoughts that evoke spontaneous laughter. There is a lot of wordplay as can be expected from a Rushdie novel. The dialogues are characteristic of Mr. Rushdie’s works, with the characters speaking peculiar dialects of Indianised English – Oneeta Sengupta’s consoling words to the Khalifas, the conversation of Butt/Buttoo, the rhyming banter of Goopy and Bagha, the foolish babble of Prince Bolo, the songs of Mali and the petty quarrels between the mud-men and mud-women in Buttoo’s bus are sure to evoke laughter in even the most curmudgeonly reader. A beautiful passage describing the dance of the shadow warrior Mudra who speaks through gestures (Abhinaya) conveys that duality exists even in Kahani, and that creatures of silence and darkness could be as charming as the children of light and speech. So is the abstraction describing how emotions influence the atmosphere, with miserable thoughts causing the atmosphere to stink and brighter ones clearing out the smog. The ridiculous antics of silly Prince Bolo to save Princess Batcheat seem justifiable when he is described as being just like love – dashing, gallant and a little foolish.

Above all these, the main theme of the book is brought forth implicitly – That story-tellers cannot be silenced, and the ocean of stories would continue to surge with its many threads mixing and intermingling perpetually to generate fresh stories that would keep flowing. Looking a little deeper, it conveys that the magic of fiction has the power to soothe, restore, edify and sustain the harried, quotidian protagonists of everyday life.

If you like young adult inspirational fiction, you will love The Reengineers:
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Art for its own sake: The Distance Between Us by Fiona Sampson

How relevant is art when it is indulged in for its own sake? The common sentiment is that books must be written for their own sake, without the writer having to look over their shoulder, without thinking about the invisible critic or reader. But what if the work of art thus created does not reach out to most readers? On the wide spectrum of all fiction, if one extreme corresponds to pulp novels, the modern equivalent of penny dreadfuls which serve no purpose other than a few short hours of distraction, experiments in high art must be at other end, which are too focused on their technique, style or concept that they are unable to transmit the author’s thoughts to the reader. I suspect Ulysses would fall in this range, while The Portrait of an artist as a young man moves further this side, reaching out to the reader and Dubliners would be still further, much more accessible. The Distance between us by Fiona Sampson is a close contender for the extreme range of high art.

Labelled as a verse novel, the book is more verse than novel. Little of the plot or characters comes through the seven chapters. The experimentation with language, the varied sequencing of words on the page, the changing syntax and the surreal images which come through each of the chapters gives the overall impression of a modern art painting. Art for its own sake that rejoices in being itself, irrespective of what, and whether, it communicates. The lines of verse fold within themselves, obscuring the meaning they hold within their layers, or dance to a music that the reader cannot comprehend. I tried reading this three times before I put it away, thinking that it would have been a rewarding experience had it been slightly more accessible, my thoughts echoing the book’s title – there is just too much of a distance between the book and the reader.

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