Wednesday, November 18, 2015

The Language of The Third Reich: A Philologist's Notebook by Victor Klemperer

The German Literature Month, a favourite bloggy event! We are closing in on the end of November and I have only finished my first read. I stumbled upon it in the Linguistics section of the campus library and would highly recommend it to those interested in this chapter of history, language, etymology and philology. I don't think familiarity with the German language is requisite. The Language of The Third Reich is part memoir, part compilation of diary entries, very insightful and wholly absorbing. 

About the book: The Language of The Third Reich is a book by Victor Klemperer, who after serving in the First World War, worked as a professor of Romance Studies at the Dresden University of Technology.

"Under the Third Reich, the official language of Nazism came to be used as a political tool. The existing social culture was manipulated and subverted as the German people had their ethical values and their thoughts about politics, history and daily life recast in a new language. Originally called LTI – Lingua Tertii Imperii: Notizbuch eines Philologen, the abbreviation itself a parody of 'Nazified' language, the book was written out of the conviction that the language of the Third Reich also helped to create its culture. The book is translated by Martin Brady, a film historian and artist."

My thoughts: Klemperer dedicates this book to his wife, and the crisp dedication ascertains the tone of the book - sincere, heartfelt, with the humourless smile of a survivor. He starts with the word heroic and its nazifierte meaning, how for a whole generation of Germans heroism wears a soldier's uniform. The LTI, as Klemperer calls it, breeds military-worship. Heavily romanticized words like heldenhaft (valient) and kämpferisch (gladiatorial) replace the more accurate and narrow kriegerisch (warlike.) Over and over he ironically quotes Schiller, calling the LTI a language that thinks and writes for you. A poison you inadvertently unthinkingly drink, that runs through your being.

In a chapter titled The Star, Klemperer states how from all the suffering in the twelve years of hell, the single worst day for the Jews was 19 September 1941, when it was made compulsory to wear the Jewish star. Over the following chapters, The Jewish War, The Jewish Spectacles and The language of  the victor, Klemperer describes with growing despair how the LTI enters the speech of those who on the face of it don't support the Nazis and even the Jews, how no one escapes the constant venom that has no antidote.

"In the evening I was on air raid protection duty; the route to the Aryan control room passed just a couple of metres from my seat. While I was reading a book the Frederick the Great enthusiast called out 'Heil Hitler!' as she walked past. The next morning she came up to me and said in a kind tone, 'Forgive me for saying "Heil Hitler" yesterday; I was in a hurry and I mistook you for someone I was supposed to greet in that way.' 

None of them were Nazis, but they were all poisoned."

Kemperer calls the Nazified German a language of faith. He reflects on how, in those days, people would express not a leidenschaftlichen (passionate) belief in things but a fanatischen (fanatic) as if fanaticism were a pleasant mix of courage and loyalty. In I believe in him, one of the best chapters of the book, he notes speeches where Hitler calls himself the German saviour, demanding this exalted status from his followers. Excessively used in the National Socialist vocabulary are words that radiate an aura of permanence, like einmalig (unique,) historisch (historic) and ewig (eternal). It is as if the Third Reich were not only unprecedented but infallible, even holy. Klemperer says, "Nazism was accepted by millions as gospel because it appropriated the language of the gospel." 

And then he talks about the people, the cult of followers. The prefix 'Volk-' enters the LTI vocabulary - Volksfest, Volksgemeinschaft, Volksseele, the people's festival, the people's community, the people's soul and even today we still have the people's car. Klemperer talks about the Nazi leadership herding its followers like cattle. Every message must be simplified and the bold underlined golden rule is not to let the Volk think critically. One direct consequence of this is the introduction of foreign terms into the language. An impressive defamieren (to defame) kicks out the German schlechtmachen (to run down.) The LTI prefers using Terror and Invasion to their German equivalents. Foreign words are scarier, they stupefy and drown out thought. 

In the beginning, Klemperer's diary entries bleed a steady against-all-odds optimism, soon a weary hope and finally you find him clinging on to his intellectual instinct as some form of strict self-preservation. Through the book, he attempts to trace the roots of Nazism, muses on his experiences in the First War, on patriotism, fascism, Zionism, race, identity and ideas that were once exotic and largely impersonal. He mentions how as a boy the term 'concentration camp' sounded colonial to him, utterly un-German, and wonders whether it will now forever be associated with Hitler's regime. 

Klemperer analyses every aspect of the politics of language in a methodical Orwellian fashion. I mentioned the irony already and the humourless smile, that is the pull of his writing. He shares many experiences he had, people he met and was in correspondence with over the years; some bring up terrifying images and others helpless sympathy, most incidents left me shaking in disbelief. But he says it all with this recurring clever dark comedy that made me feel at once intrusive and small, and overcome with awe. I'll leave you with one of the early entries, dated 12 August 1935 -

I received from the Bls the first news since they emigrated. I find it very depressing: I am envious of these people's freedom (...) - and instead of just being happy they complain about seasickness and being homesick for Europe. I have knocked off a few lines of verse to send them:

Thank the Lord with all your might
For furnishing your means of flight
Across the sea from grief and fright - 
To where your woes are truly small;
To spew a little in the sea
From a ship that cruises free
Is hardly worth a word at all. 
Lift your weary eyes to view
The Southern Cross beyond the blue;
Far from all the woes of the Jew
Your ship has bridged the ocean. 
Do you yearn for Europe's shore?
It greets you in the tropics more 
For Europe is a notion!

Friday, October 30, 2015

The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott

I have been awfully out of touch with all things literary, even the latest Robert Galbraith aka JK Rowling release whizzed past my notice. Anyway, here is a long overdue book review. I stumbled upon this book at my new library (best birthday gift ever, by the way.) The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott is an odd book, but one that is right up my alley.

Setting: Paris, July 1815, Wellington has defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. Daniel Connor is a young Englishman, a medical student on his way to Paris to study anatomy under the guidance of Georges Cuvier. He carries with him rare corals and important documents. On the train he meets a strange woman. Lucienne is a follower of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, with shocking views on evolution and species. The next morning, Connor wakes up to find Lucienne gone and his precious specimens missing. In Paris, he enlists the help of Inspector Jagot, a fiendish ex-thief, who convinces Connor to stay away from the dangerous woman. But Lucienne reaches out to Connor himself, with a proposition, that he help her in return for the stolen possessions. Soon Connor finds himself caught up in an uncanny jewel heist and an even stranger tangle of revolutionary ideas and political upheavals.

The Coral Thief is not without its flaws - a naive guileless narrator, characters who aren't active agents but simply let the story happen to them, frequent purple prose. But they cease to matter in the light of Stott's meticulous research and attention to historical detail. A romantic thriller, a scientific mystery, categorize it however you may, this book is an ode to an atmosphere abuzz with change and discovery, and the tumultuous history of Paris.

Deeply woven into the consciousness of its time, the story has a "slice of history" feel. The Coral Thief begins with a quote by Charles Darwin from his voyage of the Beagle. An obvious choice for a book that explores the fresh sprouts of a young theory of evolution. Even as Professor Cuvier disregards the doubters, Connor is drawn to the study of molluscs and tiny organisms and the possibility of an alternate version to his Biblical truth.

'Imagine an arm,' Ramon said, slightly drunk, stretching out his own arm. 'According to the priests, human history starts out with Adam and Eve in the garden up here on the shoulder and reaches down to the tip of the finger - the present - where you are now. Here's Herodotus near the shoulder and here's Napoleon down towards the end of the index finger. But the real truth is that all human history can be contained on a single fingernail. All of this, all of this from the shoulder down to the fingernail here, is pre-human history. So now you have to look for Herodotus and Napoleon with a microscope. And us, well, where are we in all of that abyss of time and where is now? Time doesn't stop for us. La marche.'

I had overheard fragments of conversation about transformism in the coffeehouses and taverns of Edinburgh, where the medical students talked politics. But Erasmus Darwin was mostly ridiculed by the students in Edinburgh; there was a whole set of jokes about whether we had descended from cabbages or oysters. (...) But Fin's friends talked openly about transformism, and rationally, not speculatively, or apologetically, but as if the hypothesis were beyond question. They - the heretics and infidels - now fascinated me. 

The atmosphere is charged with radical new beliefs and questions and Stott has captured this energy on paper. The politics of Lamarck's theory of species transformation, the "dethroning" of man as one of the characters aptly puts it, its interpretation as a shift of power from the royals to the masses, is most intriguing. The book makes it plenty clear that politics was of no interest to Lamarck, whose curiosity only rested in science. But a thought cannot be contained in a bubble, and The Coral Thief shows us this and other waves of consequence that stirred the sentiments of the Parisians.

The book neither criticizes nor picks sides and Connor's perspective of an alarmed outsider works rather well, as you are led through glimpses of the reign of terror, of Bastille and finally Napoleon's abdication, the resilience of a city swarmed with foreign troupes, a shocked city that still whispers of Napoleon's return. Stott's lyrical writing amplifies the drama, certainly, but it is not maudlin.

Connor's story is interspersed with fleeting moments from Napoleon's point of view that in my view it could have done without. Without giving away the plot, I must add, the mystery itself is not entirely stable in its construction either. But these are minor grievances in a magical whole. If you are a stickler for well researched stories and like history, all things French, thought provoking fiction (not a good old carefree airport read) and don't mind the occasional clumsy narrator, do pick up The Coral Thief by Rebecca Stott.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Bring Up The Bodies by Hilary Mantel

All of last week, I have been struggling with a review and disinterestedly reading bits of this novel. A creative block of sorts. I realized why this evening. There is no room for new in my mind since I read this most haunting account of the execution of Anne Boleyn. Wolf Hall was amazing. And Bring Up The Bodies makes a fitting sequel. Wolf Hall is about the tides of religious reform in Europe, and the separation of the English church. Here, the focus shifts to the immediate affairs of the court. But what happens in Bring Up The Bodies will have unalterable consequences across the realm for years to come.

Picture this: The year 1555. England has a new church, and a new queen. Anne Boleyn is finally at the throne. Katherine, the first wife of Henry VIII, is on her deathbed, and her daughter Mary is no longer the princess. But the King is still unhappy. Anne has not yet borne him a son to secure the Tudor line. Following a visit to the Seymours at Wolf Hall, a distraught Henry finds himself falling in love with little Jane.

Enter here, the infamous calculating genius of Thomas Cromwell, our unlikely hero and the King's right-hand-man. With the safety of the nation at stake, Cromwell cooks up a plan that ensures the eventual destruction of Anne Boleyn... 'As he eases a way through the sexual politics of the court, its miasma of gossip, he must negotiate a 'truth' that will satisfy Henry and secure his own career. But neither Cromwell nor Henry will emerge undamaged from the bloody theatre of Anne's final days.'

The first book in this trilogy went out of its way to shine a positive light on Cromwell. In Bring Up The Bodies, the light flickers. His character now casts beastly shadows reminiscent of the stark image historians have built of him - dangerous, ruthless, the man with the face of a killer. The power of this book lies in Cromwell's slipping grace, in how it shows a good man turn into the monster that he will forever be known as. In the months leading up to Anne's arrest, you watch Thomas Cromwell deceive and lie, driven by revenge towards those who wronged his old master, Cardinal Wolsey. He constructs an unshakeable case against the Queen he calls a serpent and seals his own fate as a villain.

He once thought it himself, that he might die with grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone.

And yet, you cannot place the blame on one man. That is the beauty and the horror of Bring Up The Bodies. Cromwell is a puppet master pulling strings and slowly the fiction he spins becomes more real than the truth. There is little good in the world of Bring Up The Bodies, and no one to trust. It is a series of wrong choices, unthinking decisions, and bloated egos that lead up to the fall of the Boleyns, and pave the way to the undoing of the man orchestrating it.

Consider Anne. Coaxed into wooing Henry by her greedy family, wary of being cast aside like her sister, Anne is composed of strength and determination. But it is so hard to summon sympathy for someone so conniving and heartless. The woman rejoicing in the death of Katherine of Aragon. Anne of Wolf Hall was feisty and attractive. In Bring Up The Bodies, she seems old, burdened by the expectations of the King. But the fleeting pity she conjures in you is squashed. Still just as boastful, it is her very spirited coquetry that breaks Anne. After her arrest, Cromwell observes her crumble. He does not consider her guilty of the crime. To him, she suffers not because she has been caught, but because she has failed, lost Henry to another woman. Anne is dead to herself, he says. And Mantel writes about how Anne laughs during her final days, clutches her neck and jokes about being beheaded. Those moments leave you shaken. And her ending builds a lump in your throat.

Henry, though, is in no uncertain terms, excuse the bluntness, a pig. Mantel describes him as imposing, intelligent, handsome, jovial; he exemplifies the entitled brat, revelling in the luxury of having so many at the mercy of his whims. A god-fearing man, Henry never fails to invoke the holy name when it suits his cause. He is used to getting his way, a child who wants a toy and will tell all manner of lies to get it. Mantel brings out his hypocrisy in such funny moments as when Henry accidentally refers to Katherine as his 'first wife', and sheepishly takes it back - the reason for their divorce having been the fact that he did not consider the marriage real. But you see, Henry of the first book was this lost lamb. What he did to Katherine was scandalous, true, but Anne's fall makes him the devil who will go on to destroy every life he touches. The sinking realization is, he is only getting started.

Jane Seymour. There is so much and so little to say about her. The final book should display the fullest intrigue of the third queen, the one Henry VIII is supposed to have truly loved. Till then, I will let Mantel's enchanting writing speak for itself,

He asks Jane, 'Would you do anything you can, to ruin Anne Boleyn?' His tone implies no reproach; he's just interested. 

Jane considers: but only for a moment. 'No one need contrive at her ruin. No one is guilty of it. She ruined herself. You cannot do what Anne Boleyn did, and live to be old.'

He must study Jane, now, the expression on her downturned face. When Henry courted Anne she looked squarely at the world, her chin tilted upwards, her shallow-set eyes like pools of darkness against the glow of her skin. But one searching glance is enough for Jane, and then she casts he eyes down. Her expression is withdrawn, brooding. (...) French hood, gable hood, it is not enough. If Jane could veil her face completely, she would do it, and hide her calculations from the world.

What a solid second instalment. In case you haven't guessed it by now, I highly recommend these books. I cannot wait to read The Mirror and The Light, the end of Thomas Cromwell's tragic story, sadly yet to be published. 

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Ten Questions You Must Stop Asking Book Lovers

(Reposting with minor edits a post from early last year, because it really fits this week's Top Ten Tuesday prompt and because I love it.)

Excuse the generalization. The title could be misleading; I'm not talking about all book lovers here, but me. Which means it's perfectly fine if you aren't annoyed by these questions. But I do think some of you book bloggers and avid readers out there would agree with me on at least a few of these.

1. *Gawping at my bookshelf* But have you read all of these? These askers almost always relax with immense satisfaction when I say no.

Of course not. I have read about half of them and that is the point of owning books: I do not want to run out of reads. It is not as if I have only read three from the three hundred. Like Umberto Eco said, what is the point of stacking your shelves with only books that you have already read? (Not verbatim, naturally.)

2. Which is your all-time favourite book?

I don't really hate this question so much as find it difficult to answer. Um, my favourite horror is The Shining by Stephen King, my favourite romance is Possession by A. S. Byatt. If you catch me on a Wednesday, my favourite fantasy would be Discworld by Terry Pratchett, but Sundays generally see me raving about Harry Potter. So yeah, there is no single all time favourite book.

3. Why do you read?

Okay, tell me this: why do you breathe? Can you help it? Because you would die if you didn't? Right. That pretty much applies here too.

4. What is the point of fiction? / What do you gain from reading novels? / How can reading about imaginary things be useful?

These questions depress, infuriate and amuse me all at the same time. I could give you a hundred instances of fiction being pointy(?) and useful. But the fact is, you can come up with a hundred reasons to eat pizza too or start wearing hats, very logical reasons, but I will do either only if I want to - and no one is making you read fiction unless you want to. All I ask is, do not expect justifications or explanations from those of us who do and stop being so damn pompous about reading useful knowledge-providing non-fiction only.

5. How do you read so fast? Do you skip pages? 

Hey. How dare you accuse me of that. No, I don't skip pages. And I don't speed read either, so don't you go telling me how quality is more important than quantity. Yes, I have a lot of free time on my hands, and when I don't, I make time. No one gets to make me feel guilty about missing a few socializing sessions and other dull chores to finish a book. And after years spent reading, you don't have to aim to read fast - it just happens.

6. No, but seriously, how could you have finished ... in two days?

Fine. I skip pages. Whole chapters, when I am bored. Then I read the SparkNotes summary and scan the Goodreads reviews, rephrase them, throw in a couple of Priya-isms and voila! Review done. Pretending to love reading, skimming through books, all so I can write a book blog is super-rewarding. There. Happy?

7. (so this is more reviewer-centric rather than book-lover related) Are you scared of writing critical reviews? Why are all your reviews so safe and "politically correct"?

No, I just like to make the most of what I read. I am a book lover not a critic. And in all fairness, there is no such thing as a good or bad book, only a certain type of reader. When I don't like a book, I rarely spend precious time ranting about it, never without giving reasons. If I am required to write a review, instead of "Ugh, what a horribly mushy book", I would rather say, "I don't like it, but fans of heart wrenching sagas might." Sarcasm may slip in, but come on, nobody is perfect... at least I try.

8. What do you prefer: ebooks or physical books?

Am I the only one who finds this particular topic over-discussed?  Sure, I like the smell of a physical book and love libraries, but I also like carrying along a teenie device full of books that would have otherwise weighed a couple of kilos. I mean, I like reading. The stories matter. If Rowling publishes her next book only on like eggshells, that is where I'll read it. 

9. You read so much. Is that why you have glasses? / why you are tired all the time (because of no activity, apparently) / why you never call? / why you are such an introvert? / why you *insert unrelated "issue"*?

No, at least... I don't think so. No, I am pretty sure that is not the reason. Maybe I should not read so much, what do you thi...? Wait a minute, you cannot scare me into reading fewer books. What do you know about getting glasses or being an introvert, anyway!? The last I checked, you aren't exactly a doctor. Reading is not a problem, thank you.

10. Do you even have any other hobbies, besides reading?

Erm... Yes?

Written for IndiSpire, a nice little initiative by IndiBlogger, which I can rarely take part in because of the very specific theme of this blog. 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers by Xiaolu Guo

A Chinese woman, Z, moves to England to study English, a language she greatly struggles with. Z carries around her Concise Chinese-English Dictionary wherever she goes. When Z moves in and falls in love with an older Englishman, her struggle deepens. As their relationship grows, Z blossoms from the shy peasant girl into an independent woman. Sent off by her boyfriend on a solo trip around Europe, Z begins to understand and slowly challenge her idea of love.

Written in broken phrases and half baked sentences, a beginner's stumbling English, a foreigner's cautious steps, the novel is a humorous study of language and expression. Not quite a love story, it is a tale of culture shock and sexual awakening. The book was short listed for the 2007 Orange Prize.

Of all the Goodreads reviews I read of this book, I particularly loved one. I am going to model my review on this one. Things I liked and notes I made: 

1. Chinese words are awesome. Often in the book, Z teaches us bits and pieces of her tongue, and they make for a fascinating read. People interest themselves in finding out the roots of modern English words. I found the strange compound words in Chinese far more delectable. Potato literally translates as 'earth bean,' vagina as 'dark tunnel', and dandelion as 'fairy maiden from the water.' This reminded me of one of my favourite German words, the one for light bulb, which literally translates to glowing pear. 

2. Language alienates, brings closer and shapes people. Z learns best when she immerses herself into her relationship, she learns the most English from her boyfriend. That said, he is tired of her simple words, of having to speak slowly to her, of having to explain. In her meagre words, he seems like a silhouette of a real person. His letters and journal entries reveal more of him. You never fully understand Z, because she can't express her real self in the limited language. A couple of times this frustrates her too, and she bursts into Chinese characters that the editor translates for us. 

3. The influence of Chinese does interesting things to Z's English. Strange turns of phrase like, "I feel a concentrate of love for you," or "I breathe in your breath. I inhale your exhale," or "The sunlight is like a knife cutting the earth, half of the world is in the shadow, and the other half is bright. It is like a black and white movie, and everything is in slow motion." Free from the constraints of form, Z's English is fluid and delicate. 

4. Europe from an average Chinese pov is funny. This description of Berlin, 

"The morning wind is washing my brain, and my small body. This is a city with something really heavy and serious in its soul. This is a city which had big wars in its history. And, I feel, this is a city made for man, and politics, and disciplines. Like Beijing."

and this of Venice,

"I am staring at the water. Is this the sea? A real sea? I can't even see the colour of water in the dark. It is very different the sea on pictures or in the film. How could be possible a city still stands here without sinking? I thought a sea is boundless. I am disappointed."

and this of Dublin, 

"When I was in China, I thought Dublin is in the middle of Berlin, because that's how Chinese translated the word 'Dublin.' Also I thought London is in the middle of the whole Europe, because Britain sounds so big: 'the empire on which the sun will never set.' So London must be in the centre of Europe, just like the Chinese character for China, it means a country in the centre of the world."

and every single other one of England. There are a lot of observations on people worrying about weather, and acting confusing like the weather. There is also a lot of tea. 

5. Z's culture shocks never stop. When talking about Z's sexual awakening, from dating a bisexual, buying a condom to watching a strip show, the writing unfortunately falls into corny cliché, with lots of caves and deltas and birds. The other aspects of culture shock are better related, Z's surprise when she learns how the Chinese are perceived by the English. She continually talks about Chairman Mao and has Communism jokes thrown at her, but to this dry English humour, she is wholly oblivious. She learns that her point blank honesty is rude, that her assumption that her lover will pay the bills is improper, that her curious questions make her sound stupid. It is a difficult terrain, and she traverses it delightfully.

6. Z has a tricky relationship with her parents. She loves them and hates them, and you get a mild blast of culture shock every time she talks about them. I could never tell if the straightforward tone was mocking or earnest. 

"My mother had very bad temper. Maybe she hated me because I was an useless girl. She cannot have the second children because we have one child policy. Maybe that's why she beated me up. For her disappointment. Life to her was unfair too. She was beated up by her mother for marrying my father."

7. Biggest takeaway: look beyond the words. "Words are void." Empty space, they are simply the vessel for meaning. Even a crooked pot holds water, and when you're thirsty, that is what matters.  

A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers by Xiaolu Guo is a cool book with frequent dollops of wisdom. A very breezy read, and if not much else, it will make you laugh and smile and learn a little more about this vast culture. 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Mr Mercedes by Stephen King

This review is part of the R.I.P X  Challenge. Visit The Estella Society to learn more.

Bill Hodges was once a detective, one of the finest of the city. Now retired, he is a fat lonely TV-addict going over his mistakes and contemplating suicide. That is, until, Bill receives a goading letter from the perpetrator in his greatest unsolved mystery - the Mercedes Killer. Brady Hartsfield, also known as Mr Mercedes, was responsible for spree killing eight innocent people when he drove into a queue outside a job fair in a massive stolen Mercedes. Today, he is not happy that his glory days are over. Taken by another urge to kill, Brady plans to taunt the ex-cop into killing himself. But what the letter really does is jump start a dead investigation. This time, Brady may not get away so easily.

"Every religion lies. Every moral precept is a delusion. Even the stars are a mirage. The truth is darkness, and the only thing that matters is making a statement before one enters it. Cutting the skin of the world and leaving a scar. That’s all history is, after all: scar tissue."

Mr Mercedes is a very basic mystery. The killer's perspective is introduced early into the book, the crime is long over, the clues are in place, it is up to Bill to figure out what we know. Mr Mercedes will guarantee you a swift exciting afternoon. And I love this grown up Stephen King who has so many master works under his belt, he can  go back to the basic. And nail it. I am reminded of something King said about Rowling's pseudonym, "What a pleasure, what a blessed relief, to write in anonymity, just for the joy of it." 

He may not be anonymous, rather the opposite, but perhaps it is the comfort of knowing he will be read and criticized either way, same old, that gives his writing an honesty. Every line in the book tells you he is enjoying himself. Maybe his books just don't fall prey to editing as frequently now that he is so established. So the book is full of classic Stephen King tricks. Name-dropping taken to a whole new level. He hurls jabs and praises at every crime show you have ever seen, from Dexter and The Wire to NCIS and Bones; I cannot imagine how many legal department people must run around to get Stephen King permissions. At one point, someone mentions the scary ass clown living in the sewer from that TV movie - that's right, one of King's myriad pop culture references is to himself.

Stereotypes abound the novel. The serial killer is an ice-cream man, because "everybody loves the ice-cream man." The fat ex-cop sits on his La-Z-Boy every day, and every day puts a gun in his mouth wanting to off himself. As he gets his life back together, he loses weight, and as he becomes slimmer and more attractive, he starts to believe more in himself. I don't think Stephen King has a problem with fat people. He simply knows how the world thinks, and this sort of stuff resonates, if reluctantly, even with our "ever-ready to prickle in offended indignation" sensibilities. Peter Straub once said that he has a 'connoisseur's appreciation of fear.' Well, Stephen King similarly understands stereotypes, he appreciates their existence so to say, and manipulates them delightfully.

[Edit: adding important afterthoughts] Stephen King usually writes about alcoholics, murderers and crazy fans. The woman who owns the Mercedes the killer used is one of the best characters in this book. This harmless 'good citizen' has to deal with her unwitting involvement in a crime of such great proportions. She is an example of the lengths normal people could go to convince themselves that "such things don't happen to them," that the thing they hit on the road that rainy night was just a dog, nothing else, of course. One of the coolest things in this book is the cop describing how desperately people all want to cling on to the comfort of normalcy.

Another thing that King hits the nail on the head with here is humour - dark sly humour. He makes you chuckle with one-liner-musings, sure, but also with these misplaced comedic situations, like someone accidentally poisoning the wrong victim. Jokes that make you wish you hadn't laughed.

“Hodges has read there are wells in Iceland so deep you can drop a stone down them and never hear the splash. He thinks some human souls are like that. Things like bum fighting are only halfway down such wells.”

A trillion pop culture references, dramatised clichés and forced resolutions make up this story - but what an enjoyable ride it is! Some may call it lazy, cocky even. But some sixty books and a dozen awards into his career, this man has earned his cocky. I realize this review may across as a defence, but it is more than that. I have consistently found it impossible not to fall in love with everything Stephen King writes, and here is why. Even in his smuggest writing, you see a simple yet rare dedication to the craft. Some of his books work and some just don't - this rests somewhere on a fence. But you can see he loves to write and that, to me, makes even his basic cosy mystery far different from a formulaic success on a best seller list.

In a word, Mr Mercedes is cool. I cannot wait to see what its sequel has to offer.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

August in Review: Visiting A Palace

The last month was pretty busy. The posts I had scheduled in July kept the blog up and running. But they do not extend into September. As I am not ready with a review, this post will be about what I have been up to lately.

A few weeks ago, a couple of friends and I visited a cluster of palaces from the middle 1800s called the Chowmahalla (literally, four palaces.) Situated in the heart of the city, this was the official station of the Nizams of Hyderabad. Parts of the palace were unfortunately closed to the general public and some were under renovation. We went on a weekend and among the visitors were loud groups of children on what was obviously a school trip - a fact that made me all nostalgic. The grounds were fairly well maintained for a tourist attraction.

The palace basked in the afternoon light. The durbar hall, or court hall, was majestic, with its marble throne and flooring. It advertised these newly installed Belgian crystal chandeliers, though, which seemed to me a pompous modern addition that took away a little from the authenticity of the place.

The photo gallery adjacent to the durbar hall had both oil paintings and recent black-and-whites from the times of India's British rule, with pictures of the prince and princess at functions, at dinner and with a range of people from Nehru to Buzz Aldrin. You expect a palace to be old and a museum older still. The recentness of the Chowmahalla palace was intriguing, to imagine royalty living there not so long ago. Here are a painting of the court in session and a picture of who I think makes one charming princess. 

My favourites were the galleries, art, craft, weaponry and vintage carts and cars. Photography was charged extra. I took along my phone camera mostly to indulge in pretty petty selfies. But the galleries were full of little curiosities that kept me clicking. 

In the carved wooden furniture section stood this cool basin with four lamb heads, which went well with my fascination for animal motifs in furniture and architecture; though not embalmed animals, mind you. 

My friend spotted this, tucked away among saucers and bowls on the bottommost shelf; a Chinese vase with a tiger lounging on a branch for its handle. The blue was dizzying. 

The mirrors reminded me of a The Three Investigators (who solved only the coolest mysteries) book I had as a kid called The Secret of the Haunted Mirror. The book was about this huge grotesque antique mirror belonging to a dead magician, whose spooky green phantom supposedly lived within the mirror. I love the twisted lion-creature on this particular mirror, poised at the top, ready to pounce on the poor unsuspecting user. 

Our last stop was the vintage cars and carts display, it's main attraction the made-to-order Rolls Royce Silver Ghost Throne Car for the Nizam. I am practically a car-virgin, having only just learned to drive, and I have no trivia on models and makes. So all I will comment on is the colour, which is wow. I might have taken a better picture if not for my baby-level camera skills and the insanely thick glass shielding the car.

The visit coincided nicely with me reading Indu Sundaresan's Mughal tale, The Twentieth Wife. Though the book is set nowhere close to Hyderabad, it was cool to come across terms from the book. At the very entrance, a layout of the palace marked the "zenana," or the women's quarters which we later saw. That is where most of Sundaresan's book is set and I enjoyed finding real life imagery to support that constructed by my mind.