Monday, May 22, 2006

on "the boy in the striped pyjamas"

I tried describing John Boyne's The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas (spoilers in link) to a friend as we sat on Carter Road, watching the scads of kids that passed us by on dear little unsteady legs, shooting us bold and curious glances. We talked a bit about how much we like kids - why is it impossible, as an adult, to say that without irony? - and he talked about unstudied body language and how interesting it might be to do a drama workshop - he does some theatre (but is unfortunately not the delectable Rehaan Engineer) - with children.

What makes us treat children like a different species? The more I think about it, the more it seems that we objectify this vital component of human society almost indiscriminately. What makes us treat them the way we do? Anxiety, I suppose. And the fact that we have very short memories. It irritated me as I was reading "The Boy...," this constant but near-inescapable tendency to talk down to children, hoping to simplify things.

But I'm not about to start on the question of how to write a good children's book, or a good book about children for adults to read. I guess I'll never know, as my childhood was spent in a glut of Enid Blyton stories, Tinkle comics and other generally unworthy literature. As for "The Boy," the necessity of John Boyne's 'talking-down,' more unwieldy and overt than other masters of the patronising tone (see Tolkien) was, in a literary sense, difficult to deal with. And that was hardly the only thing difficult to stomach.

- some, inevitable sort of spoilers ahead -

This book is a fable about a nine-year-old whose father is transferred to a lonely outback of something that may or may not be the 'countryside'. Nothing moves or grows outside young Bruno's house. But if he peers outside his bedroom window, he can see, at some distance, a fence. One day, in his desire to be an Explorer, he sets off to walk down to the fence. And on the other side he meets another nine year old called Schmuel, the boy who wears striped pyjamas.

For those to whom the setting of this fable is immediately apparent (and note: I thought the dust jacket was an extremely powerful and striking cover), there may come the feeling that something is lost because of our foreknowledge. Yet the book is not about our discovery of the truth of the fence and tiny, sad-eyed Schmuel. It is about Bruno's journey into the heart of the matter with all the directness and affection of a child. Bruno is Everychild, in a sense. He lives in the midst of insane evil and horror and manages to retain his innocence throughout, and what protects him, I think, is one of those few characteristics universally applicable to children: self-involvement. His growing acquaintance with the realities of Schmuel's world are offset by his own preoccupations with the people at home, the obstructions, the anxieties, and the hunger of his own little cocoon.

But is it moving? Is it complex? Does it relentlessly, almost starkly, pursue the tragedy of innocence, or parochialism, or whatever you choose to read it as? Yes, yes, of course it does. The Bruno in the book is not a boy in a journey of self-realisation. He never grows up. He never sees the whole picture. Even the adults in the book seem to have no chance at redemption in spite of Bruno (and Schmuel)'s last journey. That is the tragedy. There is no pity, and no poetry.

As a caution, the inevitable feeling of being manipulated will occur in the reading of this story, regardless of whether you believe Bruno's world is the sort to which fiction cannot do justice, or the easy presumption that the facts will not be questioned irks you.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Summer holiday book update

The holidays started on the 25th, and it's so good to be reading regularly again! The book-a-day thing hasn't happened, but books deserve more than that anyway.

So far I have read:

Guy Gavriel Kay - Tigana
Already wrote about this on both blogs...see previous post.

Robert Holdstock - Mythago Wood
This was a reread of a book that impressed me very much a few years ago. I liked it a lot this time too. D is being all wonderful and ordered the sequel thingy (Lavondyss) online for me. I think this book needs a separate post, so I'll do that next week.

Ursula LeGuin - The Earthsea Quartet
I didn't read these when I should have. As a child I think I would have loved them. As an adult, while I think the stories and ideas are brilliant (and some of the writing's really good) it often feels abrupt, like she's trying to pack too much story into a child-sized book. But. Well. Tis good.

Julian Barnes - Before She Met Me
Terribly amusing. There was much joy at Jai's mass wank line (yes I must insist on naming it after him) and the protagonist's disgust with one of his wife's former lovers who gave her Peake's Gormenghast. Personally, I would've dumped the wife and located this Gormenghast-giver; he is obviously someone I'd much rather be in a relationship with.

Tomorrow I am off to Darjeeling with the parents for a week of tea drinking and reading. I'm taking Sandor Marai's Embers, Joseph Campbell's Primitive Mythology, Nagarkar's Ravan and Eddie, and (rereads) Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and Ripley Bogle by Robert McLiam Wilson, two of my favourite books.

See you next weekend.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


Exams are over, which means that real books can be read again. My last exam was on the 25th, and I started Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana the same evening. I had very high expectations for this book. It's been recommended on the livejournal FantasyWithBite community before, and Agata has been nagging me about reading it for months. Shikha read half of it before she left for Singapore, and she seemed pretty impressed as well.

Which is why I was a little let down when I read the prologue. All very pretty and moving, but it was just another attempt at 'high fantasy', and I couldn't see why they would make such a fuss over it. Then the real story started and things got a lot better.

Eight of the nine provinces of the Peninsula of the Palm have been conquered by two rival wizards locked in a power struggle for the ninth. One of them, Brandin of Ygrath, will not leave the peninsula as it was here that his son Stevan died, killed by prince Valentin of Tigana. Rage and grief caused Brandin to destroy Tigana, scattering its people and (worst of all) stripping the world of the memory of it.

Twenty years later a group of revolutionaries set out to destroy both tyrants and restore Tigana's name. Tigana is about revolution and war and pain and doing what's right and taking responsibility for the people who are hurt in the process. The characters can be judgemental, too sure of themselves, sometimes fanatical, but they're very real. There's no fluffiness, no absolute goodness, but people who have been affected and damaged by the events of the past. There are those who think they're safer and more free under the tyrants, there are those so embittered by years of exile that they'll curse their children.

...which makes this sound like any good fantasy book really. Perhaps. It has sone silly sex scenes as well as the typical *groan* fantasy names. But it is lovely and gripping and it allows for real grief. I stayed up late so I could finish it, and when I did I cried.

More reviews here. Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Nothing to be done

From here

Of elegant females and pigs in the house

Having finally watched the movie version of Pride and Prejudice, I have come to the conclusion that Austen is impossible to ruin. That said, the movie was strangely...wrong.
Matthew McFayden's an attractive man, but to ask any actor to step into the role that Colin Firth played in the BBC adaptation is just cruel. Not because Firth was brilliant (though he was very good), but because he defined the role for so many people. I've never met any straight woman who wasn't at least partially in love with him at that point. McFayden has a lovely deep voice that somehow doesn't sound like it belongs to him. He also has a habit of gawking when Elizabeth is being particularly charming. This makes him look a little like an English football player. (Yes, I adore English football players but they're not exactly known for their aristocratic demeanour, are they?)
Keira's a very pretty girl and a decent actress, but she doesn't work as Lizzie for me. The face perhaps, but the skinniness and the wild hair are just not what I'd imagined. Ah well. She plays her part reasonably well, which is all one could really expect of her.
Rosamund Pike doesn't have that big of a role, but she suits it well.
The guy who played Bingley...good grief, what were they thinking? 5,000 a year and the man can't afford a comb? He looks like the simpering assistant of a mad scientist.
Wickham was better...though he had the kind of weakness about his face that Orlando Bloom has. Not my type.

The scenery is lovely - though a lot of the Derbyshire shots reminded me more of Bronte than Austen.

Some things seemed terribly inaccurate to me. Surely Bingley wouldn't just barge into Jane's bedroom when the'd just met? Surely the Bennets weren't so poor as to have a pig in the household? Etc.

I think the only real problem I have with the movie is its seeming inability to trust Austen. Charlotte's marriage to Mr. Collins and its various pros and cons are brought out in the book without the need for a melodramatic scene in which she cries about how scared she is and how she hates being a burden on her parents. Mr Collins' proposal to Elizabeth is one of the most sublimely funny scenes in all of literature, but what the movie gives us is Elizabeth running away chased by a flock of geese and her mother. The subsequent scenes by the lake ("I won't marry him! You can't make me!") made my friend clutch my arm and whisper "ohmygod. It's a Bengali soap opera!". I am yet to see a Bengali soap opera so am unable to comment on the truth of this statement.

I love how the scenes the audience laughed most at were the ones that use the original dialogue. I realise there are people in the world who don't really like Austen (cretins, the lot of them!) but whether you throw Keira Knightley or Aishwarya Rai into the picture, whereever her dialogue is featured the sheer brilliance of her shines through.

Monday, February 20, 2006

headstones ahoy

Quite apart from the high number of deaths in GRR Martin's fantasy series, those books are as huge as stone grave markers. Remain forewarned, gentle readers: beyond the Wall, there are spoilers.


At some point of time last weekend - the third such of my life I have spent with GRR Martin's A Song Of Ice and Fire - I did not think these books would ever, ever get over. It was annoying. Whatever gave him the idea that having thousands of PoV characters and each of their chapters ending in a cliffhanger would sustain interest over three thousand pages? All through A Game of Thrones, I sat chewing my nails. Halfway through A Clash of Kings, my mind started wandering. It's taken me over two weeks to make any headway with A Storm of Swords because I just can't be bothered.

Having said that, I did finish them. And I am going to read whatever he throws out next. I am intrigued, in spite of the fact that too much plot is no plot at all. It's a bit like reading intricate historical documents of cause before effect before cause before effect. Martin sacrifices the traditional trope of the battle between good and evil to something exterior to the story's bare bones and more central to the reading itself: perception and reality. It's standard fantasy elements put me off. I have come to realise that I do not like dragons or cold dementorish wights. But as all my friends - Martin fanboys to a man - said, the characters keep you going. Wearying as it is to turn a page and see that a chapter in Character A's PoV has been cut off just as something exciting is about to happen, it's difficult to let go once you've begun.

Before I finished the first book, I thought Martin's habit of turning his characters a million shades of grey would never stand him in good stead. The books are all about one long power struggle over Westeros, after all, and power has to have a purpose, which none of these people discernibly have. But its exciting to be challenged in your perceptions as a reader, to see why the Aragorn types shouldn't always win, or why its okay, sometimes, to be a reckless, amoral, incestuous oathbreaker. Martin's strength doesn't lie in worldbuilding - he seems to be depending on straight lines and medieval-English history for the most part. He has some great writing: battle scenes are clearly his forte, as one would expect of any epic fantasy writer, and I thought the Eyrie - a mountain fortress that is treacherously difficult to get in and out of - was conceptualised extremely well.

But his people are what really drive his piece, and he puts them through the wringer, alright. Talking over the books, a friend mentioned that what she loved about them was how a character's strengths could turn so easily into his weaknesses, which is true. I was especially struck by the rise and fall of Eddard Stark, the aforementioned Aragorn figure, in the space of a single book: his unyielding sense of honour that makes him the best man for a tough job at the start of the book is what finally drives him and the kingdom he guards under. There is Cersei Lannister, scheming and beatiful (and, I must admit, one of my favourites), who seems to hold all the cards in her hand, but finds plan after plan backfiring upon her as she underestimates her enemies. And there is the puzzling, brittle Stannis Baratheon, who is simultaneously a king and a pawn.

There are some books, like The Great Gatsby, that you can read and talk about and love, and excuse of all its attitudes towards sex and women by stating, simply, that it is not a feminist novel. I've been trying to decide if that can be said of Ice and Fire. It's a medieval world, its a hard life, women are treated much the way they are in feudal societies everywhere. There's really not much space to break gender stereotypes, and I'll say it for Martin, he doesn't try too hard. There's the Cersei, the evil bitch, the forbearing maternal Catelyn Stark, the tomboyish Arya, the crazy Jocastan Lysa, the irritating-as-hell exotic princess Daenerys (talk about stupid magical names!) and so on. Still, they don't all put me off dinner. I love Catelyn, who is proving rather tough to kill, and I can't wait to see what becomes of Brienne the Maid, a mannish, innocent knight-wannabe who is currently providing a foil to one of the book's central figures, Jaime 'shit-for-honour' Lannister.

I was a Stark supporter at the end of the first book, but the next two have put me firmly in the court of the Lannisters. Honour and righteousness is all very well, but this isn't Tolkien. It's almost Carrollian: remain interesting, or have your head cut off. I can't see Arya or Sansa survive the series, although I would like to see Sansa Stark get a pair of balls and rule the world with Tyrion, who, predictably, I love almost as much as I do Jaime. Other favourites include Davos Seaworth and the likely hero of the series, the somewhat less-than-Aragornian Jon Snow.

The good thing, however, is that there's a lot further to go before we get to the end. And never before have I meant the following words so intensely: anything could happen.

Some predictions:

- Jon Snow and Daenerys meet, make love and tiny dragonwolf babies.
- Cersei meets a sticky end. Jaime has something to do with it.
- I hate to say this because its so damned obvious, but: Jaime and Brienne. Do something.
- Bran becomes something.
- Stannis wins the Iron Throne.
- But Tyrion becomes the Supreme Ruler of the Universe. Because Tyrion rocks beyond belief.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

..because we all love Wendy Cope. Right?

Reading Berryman's Dream Songs at the Writers' Retreat

Wendy went a-swimming. It was dreadful.
One small boy careless under her did surface
and did butt her on the chin.
Of space to swim was hardly any,
fearful shoutings, bodies from the springboard
splash when jumping in.

Why no school? cried agey Wendy
to herself, not loud. Why little beggars
swimming into me on Friday afternoon?
Why not in cage, learn tables?
Out and dress and buy bananas.
Yogurt? No. Need spoon.

Once more to Hawthornden through Scottish fog.
Back up to poet's lair and sit on bed.
Is you bored, Bones, all by youzeself
wif read and write and bein' deep?
Not for a moment.
Now, a little sleep.


Somehow this always reminds me of June. I think it's the combination of Berryman and swimming.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Narnia. (Spoiler warning? No, I expect you to have read the book)

I'm not sure how I feel about the new Narnia movie. It got a lot of things wrong, certainly. I suppose the war scenes were necessary for a number of reasons, but it felt weird having them there. Also, they seemed to be trying to make it into an epic - I think the association of Tolkien and Lewis makes people think Narnia is somehow grander than it really is. It's closer to the fable than the epic form and doesn't really need sweeping landscape shots, battle scenes in slow motion or exciting man-vs-beast psychological struggles on a frozen (though rapidly melting) river. It also does not need hot pouty-lipped Susan contributing almost as much to male guilt as Emma Watson, though I enjoyed that particular addition.

But there's a lot the movie gets very very right. Edmund is actually given a reason to be angry with his family, and it's far more visible than in the book. Most of the casting is perfect. (Does anyone know who plays adult-Edmund? I'm too lazy to check, and he's rather attractive.)
Aslan's death is beautifully done. He has to be brought down completely, made scared and humiliated, that's the only way the glory of the religious analogy will really be felt. This was probably the only point where I was really drawn into the story.

Narnia isn't brilliant, at least not consistently. But there are moments when it blazes through, and even if I don't agree with the Christin subtext I think it's beautiful and I can't imagine Narnia without it.

Friday, January 20, 2006

A Song of Ice and Fire

Addendum: This is very like A Song of Ice and Fire, where everyone is calling people names they don't like and people are killing everyone for the slight. This is like performance criticism.

Edit: Putting this on top of Sups' addition to my review. Never call me 'Ash' again, or I will have to kill you. And that would make me sad.
- Aishwarya

Putting this on top of Ash's review as it is small and quick: I just happen to be one hundred pages into the first book in the series, A Game of Thrones and cannot put it down. Things that would be major irritants for me in the normal run of things - violet-eyed princesses, people wearing clothes that bring out their colour, and stupid women - are just whizzing by because Martin's world is so complex and tangled, and his writing good enough, to make me want to keep reading, to believe that there are reasons for all this. House Stark are definitely the heroes of this story. let's see if GRRM is one, too. Further updates coming up in a separate post.

-- roswitha.

A couple of years ago I asked a friend to get me one of the books in this series because I'd heard George R. R. Martin was really good. He got me the second book, A Clash of Kings. The fourth book, A Feast For Crows was published a few months ago, but I haven't seen it available anywhere yet. However, I did find the third book, A Storm of Swords, in Midland, Aurobindo Place. I finished it yesterday, so I thought I'd ramble on about it here for a while. Please note that my understanding of the story is slightly limited because I haven't read the first book.

Martin isn't particularly original - this is nothing more than conventional fantasy. But it's good, solid writing within its genre. With the death of Robert Baratheon, various contenders come forward to assert their claims to the Iron Throne. Robert's wife Cersei is trying to protect the right of her son Joffrey Baratheon to the throne. Robert's younger brothers (Stannis and Renly) both try to seize power, Robb Stark, king in the North, also steps forward (I'm not sure why this is - I can't see that he has any logical claim) and Daenerys Targaryen, exiled daughter of the previous king Aerys, is on her way back home.
This makes for lots of politics. Anyone who has ever discussed fantasy or science fiction with me must know by now that I love politics in fantasy. Here it works really well with shifting alliances, unforseeable motives, and general unpredictability. I've given up trying to predict who will finally end up in power, though I'd like it to be Stannis Baratheon, he's rather fascinating. Martin seems to enjoy randomly killing off his characters, which is great fun. You never know who's going to go next. (Amazon reviews for the latest book complain of too many new characters. I'm not surprised - he's killed most of the old ones.)
There are the conventional elements of fantasy too - dragons, a bit of magic, and the direwolves (I love the direwolves.) Also, the embarrassingly addictive descriptions of clothes which I'd usually associate with Robert Jordan. I wonder if Martin realises this. He gets away with it though, simply by being a better writer.

I think the only real problem with the series is that there's far too much going on. I can't figure out where people are, most of the time, and I would have thought I'd read enough fantasy to be good at that.

Still. It's solid, it's entertaining, and it's worth a read.

Monday, January 09, 2006

minor thoughts on persuasion and jane austen

I’ve read, or attempted to read, all her work now, except Northanger Abbey and have hemmed and hawed for years over whether I really like her (P and P was so funny) or don’t (but Emma was so insufferable) or if she is really just historical, academic fluff, interesting from a cultural point of view. Certainly different from George Eliot and the Brontes.

In my third ever Literature class in college, our teacher divided us up into groups and asked us to point out to her some ideas that Austen shared with her poet contemporaries, Wordsworth and Coleridge. So we all dove into our Features of Romanticism bullet-point sheet and racked our brains to come up with stuff about long walks among hedges and so on and so forth, and my professor just rolled her eyes at the end of it ‘Fools!’ said she, or something like, ‘Austen isn’t a Romantic at all.’ Which was a great relief.

Not that I’m a die-hard fan of the Romantics, but I think that in Persuasion Austen just outdoes herself with regard to the individuality of her characters. I like Elizabeth Bennett because she speaks her mind, but I love Anne Elliott because she knows her own mind, at least through the course of the novel, and Austen narrates the story of how she got to her moral and intellectual and emotional independence with a tenderness that is a far cry from her youthful lack of compassion for anyone in Pride and Prejudice. Anne has a conversation with Captain Harville towards the end that positively fills the modern feminist heart to capacity with joy: she politely rubbishes all Captain Harville's thoughts about literature handing down the traditional notions of womanly inconstancy and lack of intelligence. Anne has thought about the fact that women have never had the chance to tell stories, and when Wentworth, the man of her dreams, proclaims undying love for her a few short minutes after she makes this observation, you know you have a winning couple. It's enough to make you hop about on one leg in glee.

I’ve never really liked any of Austen’s male protagonists before. But the best thing about the narrative that leads up to this thrilling moment is that throughout the story, I didn’t resent Captain Wentworth at all. It’s easy to be distracted by Darcy’s tallness and darkness and taciturnity, sure, but in the end all her other heroes turn out to be patronising wankers, getting what they want because of authorial indulgence, a conquering of woman if there ever was one. But here is a man who suffers and wins out and makes mistakes and has a mind of his own and would probably offer his wife oral sex. GUH. I’m really not sure what’s up with Austen’s undue affection for the Navy – it’s not even like she makes sailor-boys kiss or anything – but it’s really very tolerable compared with her earlier tendency to crush on men with ten thou a year and an entitlement complex the size of Africa.