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.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan

"The passing years had not diminished Asmat's beauty. Time had painted some grey in her hair and etched a few lines on her face. But it was the same dear face, the same trusting eyes. She had been brave, giving him strength at night when they lay beside each other in silence, darkness closing around them, and during the day when he was home working or reading and she passed by, her anklets chiming, her ghagra murmuring on the floor. Islamic law allowed four wives, but with Asmat, Ghias had found deep, abiding peace. There was no need to even look at another woman or think of taking another wife. She was everything to him."

I love novels which open with a birth, for what better way to start a story? The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan begins with a small family fleeing from Persia to seek refuge in India. On their way, Asmat gives birth to a baby girl. Ghias Beg, the father, already burdened by three children, decides to give up the baby. He abandons her under a tree but fate brings the baby back to her parents. A delicate child with azure eyes, they call her Mehr-un-nisa. Sun among Women.

Eight years in the future, Mehrunnisa is a sprightly kid, with a sharp mind and a keen interest in the world around her. Her father's favourite, she is stubbornly independent. Ghias has earned a position of respect in Emperor Akbar's court, in Mughal India. Today he is invited with his family to the Royal Palace for the first wedding of young Prince Salim. Little Mehrunnisa is smitten by the prince. When Empress Ruqayya takes a liking to her and commands her to visit the palace regularly, Mehrunnisa fantasises of a possible future with Salim. But before their love can fully blossom, Mehrunnisa is married off to a common soldier. And so begins a lifelong struggle with destiny for Salim and Mehrunnisa - better known to us as the fourth Mughal Emperor Jahangir and his influential Empress Nur Jahan.

Though the first in a trilogy, this novel works as a standalone. Indu Sundaresan has beautifully fleshed out the legendary romance, doing justice to the people and the magic of the late 15th to early 16th century India. She has left no stone unturned in bringing to life Emperor Akbar's court, with his celebrated aura, his many wives and their struggles for the spotlight, his patronage for the arts, his big heart and bigger ambition. Salim is a spoilt prince. He starts out a drunkard and a rebel, coaxed by Akbar's ill-wishers. But over the course of the story, he sobers down to the best version of himself. History tells us that, like Akbar, the fourth Mughal ruler too achieved admirable feats. Sundaresan shows us how.

Mehrunnisa is not without her faults. It would be foolish to expect her to stand as some ideal of feminine empowerment. But she possesses great passion and drive. A large portion of her attraction to Prince Salim has to do with the power that being his wife would grant her. She is grounded in reality, uses her beauty to woo him; then, unconditionally, immorally, supports him through his mistakes. Circumstance requires her to be wily and she is. But later, Sundaresan ensures that we see why Salim loves Mehrunnisa, beyond the looks. What starts out as a Cinderella story progresses into a bonding of minds.

Sadly, the book seems to have been marketed as just a romance, when there is a lot more to it. It is about Salim's transformation from a lazy brat to a good leader - Merhunnisa's from an idle dreamer to a woman who works to get what she wants. They journey on independently until their paths cross once again. More than half the book is devoted to sieges, wars and the conflicts of inheritance between Akbar and his sons. Sundaresan muses on the social and religious demands of the times, the tongues of corruption in the court, the increasing threat of the British colonizers. There is drama, oh yes, but the book is not what people love to scoff at and label "chick-lit," as the cover blurb implies. 

To anyone not already familiar with the cast of this story, though, the names will be confusing. Right in the middle of the book, Sundaresan begins to refer to Salim as Jahangir, the title he adopts. A shortened family tree at the start of the book tells that Salim's son Khurram is actually the future Emperor Shah Jahan. And Mehrunnisa's niece, the one engaged to young Shah Jahan is none other than Mumtaz, for whom he erected the Taj Mahal. Only at the very end of the book are we explicitly told that Mehrunnisa is Nur Jahan. A nice trick, I suppose. Sundaresan's research is evident in her attention to historical detail. But I wish she had stuck to one set of names.

That aside, what a lovely book. Swift, engrossing and richly atmospheric, The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan gives a neat glimpse into one of the most fascinating periods of Indian history. 

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Summary: Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychiatrist and a Holocaust survivor. His book, Man's Search for Meaning, was originally titled, Nevertheless, Say "Yes" To Life, which I think makes a much better title for what the first half of the book recounts - Frankl's experiences during WWII as a prisoner in a concentration camp. The second half is an introduction to Frankl's theory of logotherapy. The basic premise of logotherapy is that the will to find meaning in life is a person's main motivation to go on.

My thoughts: I struggle with books like these, non fictional accounts of tragedy and survival, because I can afford to be impersonal towards them. This does not go well with people. I have ineptly invited criticism on myself before, for instance, by accusing a certain teenage victim of the Holocaust of being too maudlin in her personal diary. This is why, of course, I had some reservations about "reviewing" Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. But now I find myself overcome by a need to rant.

Before I talk about the content of the book, let me say a bit about the style of writing. I went in expecting not to like the book, mostly because of my somewhat disappointing experience with the dramatically tear-inducing Night by Elie Wiesel. Man's Search For Meaning makes for quite a different experience. It is unforgivingly cerebral. In the introduction, Frankl explains how he wrote his account, as a scientist and a memoirist -

To attempt a methodical presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows. His judgments may not be objective; his evaluations may be out of proportion. This is inevitable. An attempt must be made to avoid any personal bias and that is the real difficulty of a book of this kind. 

Frankl consciously tries to be objective and it is this tone that leads to reviews on Goodreads that accuse him of being too clinical. I disagree with the readers who call him dry and unemotional, because it is this very clinical precision that makes his writing visceral and honest. Frankl begins his narrative with a description of how some of them were chosen as prisoners, while others were sent off to be killed, their lives dependent on whims. How, upon arrival at the camp, all sense of dignity was stripped off and how awfully soon they got accustomed to their bare new existence. Much later, Frankl talks about becoming impassive to all the deaths. He adds that he would not even have remembered them now had he not been analysing his own reactions as a psychiatrist. A reader would have to be profoundly obtuse not to recognize how steeped in emotion such a confession is.

There are incidents in this book that I wish I could unread. Dreadful images have now permanently set up home in my mind. The German SS officers and guards in the camps are villains out of distastefully gory thriller fiction and their fiendish sadism is difficult to digest as Frankl's reality. These are things that will keep me away from books of this kind for a long, long time. But he also writes moments of great tenderness worth stumbling around in the darkness for. I keep going back to the parts when Frankl talks about his wife, when he passes by his home town and fights to get a glimpse, when he chooses to stay by a dying patient's side when he could have escaped the camp. I cannot hope to justly convey the treasures these bits carry, so let the words do their work - 

"In front of me a man stumbled and those following him fell on top of him. The guard rushed over and used his whip on them all. Thus my thoughts were interrupted for a few minutes. But soon my soul found its way back from the prisoner's existence to another world, and I resumed talk with my loved one: I asked her questions, and she answered; she questioned me in return, and I answered. A thought crossed my mind: I didn't even know if she were still alive. I knew only one thing - which I have learned well by now; Love goes very far beyond the physical person of the beloved. It finds its deepest meaning in his spiritual being, his inner self. There was no need for me to know; nothing could touch the strength of my love, my thoughts, and my image of my beloved."

The problem arises for me in Part Two, when he begins to preach. This is a man who has lived through a war, writing to men of that age, people who want to hear that their suffering was not for nothing, that having struggled on and survived through it with the right attitude gave their lives meaning. To form a method of therapy out of the undiluted terror they faced and to apply it to the considerably happier masses is rash. Simply put, his suggestion is to find a purpose at every turn in life to feel positively about, which sounds right. But based on the assumption that every happenstance has a meaning, including unavoidable misery, logotherapy is hopeful at best, and dangerously misleading at its worst.

Because, like all self-help books, it is subjective. Disillusionment is the biggest vice to the former prisoner. Yet this disappointment felt when circumstance unchangingly delivers pain can be overcome, the book seems to say. But often, hope is a feeble self-deception in the face of an inevitable loss of control. The diligent search for meaning in everything could prove fruitless to an introspective cynic. And I could not, even if I wanted, apply to my life all the advice Frankl hands out in the latter section (the parts that do ring true and earn my utter admiration are evident in the first half anyway.) Add to this his ample criticism of Freud's psychoanalysis. In an age where questioning Freud is hardly new, Frankl's stubborn defence seems tedious.

The first part of the book, as I have written already, is amazing. This second part is, as it helps, tiny. But I would advise you to read up on logotherapy before you decide to read it. Finally, I don't know if I want to recommend this book to people, it is a rather painful read. If you are interested in history or the war, do read it. For I must say, of the books on the Holocaust that I have read, fictional and otherwise, the memoir-ical half of Man's Search For Meaning by Viktor Frankl is by far the greatest.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt (the movie)

Summary: Roland Mitchell is an American scholar, out of place in the British academic world. He is studying the life of the Victorian poet laureate, Randolph Henry Ash, when he happens upon two letters addressed to an unknown woman, whom Roland suspects to be a minor supposedly lesbian poetess, Christabel LaMotte. Roland begins to suspect a love affair between the two, that if discovered would change the way the world sees both the poets forever. Stealing the letters, Roland enlists the help of Maud Bailey, a fellow literary scholar and distant relative of Christabel LaMotte, to uncover the truth. Together, they become obsessed with the poets' stories, even as they try to keep their research a secret from rival scholars. Possession is a tragic but ultimately hopeful tale.

My thoughts: Possession by Antonia S Byatt is one of my favourite love stories. The movie is different from the book in many ways, the most conspicuous being this whole new and jumpy version of Roland Mitchell in the form of an unavoidably American Aaron Eckhart. This adaptation only grazed the surface of what the story has to offer, and yet, I did like it.

Why? Two words, Jeremy Northam, previously known to me as a rather nice-looking Thomas More on The Tudors. He makes a wonderfully solemn Randolph Henry Ash and Jennifer Ehle is an unbridled beauty with a right-out-of-a-painting look. They are a perfect portrait of the two poets, who get much more 'screen time' here than in the book. In the film, you catch Ash and LaMotte impatiently awaiting the other's letters, staring at each other with that tinge of a smile, making the sort of passionate love that cannot be contained in pages. Neil LaBute has created for them a vivid world that even Byatt did not manage to fully build with her prose. When Randolph Henry Ash talks with that rich voice of his, you want to stop and listen, and the Christabel LaMotte of the movie makes it hard for you to look away from the screen. They awaken the romantic in you. You want them to live happily ever after, which makes it so much harder when they don't.

One of Ash and LaMotte's very first meetings,

"It surprises me, Madam, that a lady, who lives as quietly as you do, would be aware of my modest success."
"Oh, I am very aware the papers herald you weekly. It is you, however, who surprise me."
"And why is that?"
"Judging from your work, I'm surprised you would even acknowledge my existence. Or any woman's, for that matter, since you show us such small regard on the page."
"You've cut me, Madam."
"I'm sorry. I only meant to scratch."

The same cannot be said for Maud and Roland, even though the tension between them is palpable. In the book, Maud is a woman who has been trapped by her own beauty, who has cocooned herself in an attempt to fight men's need to possess her. Roland's struggle is to free her from the uncanny figurative bell jar, that curiously features on the cover of the book. In the movie, it is often difficult to make out what, if anything, lies beyond Paltrow's stony composure. Maud and Roland's on-screen relationship leaves something to be desired. But Possession is more than the two pairs of lovers. It is about the precarious nature of all relationships, about the time it takes for one to collapse and the destruction even momentary happiness leaves in its wake. It is about unrequited passions and unsaid promises, and one of its best played characters is that of Christabel's old lover, Blanche.

The movie is nowhere near subtle. It is a satirical look at the literary world with its grotesquely one-sided cast of academicians. They all fight for recognition, poring over dead writers' lives with a voyeuristic greed and no concern for privacy or emotion. A character I really missed from the book was Leonara Stern, the feminist scholar, who is the living embodiment of wishful conclusions. Often enough to cause alarm, the drama threatens to become a mawkish display that does seem odd in this century, and yet, suited to a world of past-diggers. It begs to be made fun of. In the movie, unlike the book, it is unclear whether the farce is intentional. 

Possession must have been a difficult book to adapt. So much of its beauty and intellect lies in its linguistic nuances. The film is a really good effort, with moments I want to watch over and over, scenes I am so glad I now have visuals for. But to me it was just a three star adaptation of a five star book. Go for it if you have read the book or if you like romance of every kind. Or you can simply watch it, like me, for a swoonful of Victorian charm.