Sunday, April 19, 2015

Identity Crisis: Musings on Changing Reading Habits and Blogging Dilemmas

I never thought I would reach a phase where my blog became so much work. It being a Sunday today, I did my usual weekend-morning round of blog-hopping. Only a few out of a very many favourite blogs had new posts up. All around me I see blogs fading away or slipping into quiet stagnation, for whatever reason, and the strange thing is, a part of me wonders if I would be anything but relieved if I quit trying to make this work.

Blogging is just a hobby, not deserving of so much drama, I am aware of that. But anyone who knew me back in 2010 can attest to the role Tabula Rasa has played in getting me from there to here. And that is not a thing to scoff at, or give up very easily. And yet, the goal for the year was to post five posts every month, and it must say something about me that on most days, I can't summon the energy to do even that.

That being said, one cannot afford to let lack of time lead one to substandard writing. We're better than that, the blog and I. We (yea, I just did that, don't look at me weirdly) have been in kind of an upheaval since I moved away from home, and it is time to face the identity crisis and maybe, shoo it away..

The thing is, lately, I have vehemently avoided looking a certain truth in the eye. I am not a reader any more. At least not in the fixed one-dimensionally passionate way I used to be. The Jess-and-Rory kind of reader who would dismiss reading seven books a week with a, "That's not much..." And that passion played such a big role in driving the blog forward, back in the day. I am not the girl who reads a hundred books in a year any more. On some harrowing days, I would gladly go back to that time and amber-fossilize myself there, because, if not anything else, that was one hell of a year book-wise. But I like who I am now, where I am, and it is silly to resist the blog transforming to go with the new-me. I mean, really, a goal of five posts a month is highly unrealistic for someone who manages to read only four books in three months (oh, how the mighty have fallen.)

I give you, some new truths about my changed reading habits. I still wonder what form these will take up in my blog, but I do hope to come to terms with them. I welcome suggestions for the former...

- I don't insist on completing books any more, but I wrote about that already. There was a time when I would say I owe it to a writer to read his work in its entirety before forming an opinion, now I just feel in this worldful of myriad choices, it is the writer who owes me an impeccably written book. Life is too short to read a boring book.

- I love rereading now. There is so much to glean from a book when you read it for the second, and the third time. For the fresh version of this blog, I already know things I could write about books I reread that frantically-churning-out-posts-Priya did not do justice to.

- I have forty unread books on my shelf, and yet I find myself picking up more and more recommendations from friends and other bloggers. There is a beautiful comfort in buying or borrowing a book someone likes, some assurance of its worth helps me devote it my time.

- I have become less rigid, more eclectic in my tastes now. The firm opinions are dissolving, especially on genre. A weird hitherto-unrealized part of me has come to love cheesy romances, I wonder why. I read more non-fiction these days, mostly on linguistics and teaching, but even politics and pop psychology (she shyly admits.) God, I read poetry too.

- I am a slow reader this year. There was a time when I would read three books in three days, and be okay with that. Today, I see it as a waste of a treasure-chest of experiences. Do you know what I mean? I now get this feeling that I only graze the surface of a book when I read it at that hasty pace. That I miss out on the so much else that it has to offer.

- I am no longer a linear reader, either. I read a page and reread my favourite lines before moving on to the next. I highlight passages and think about them, read ahead and then revisit them to see how reading the next few pages changes my views on the ones before.

All these sound fine, you tell me. But what about this - reviews don't make sense to me any more. I don't like writing them. Just what I call these "random musings." That is the crux of my identity crisis - the so-called indelible dilemma. What do you call a book blogger who doesn't read? Moreover, what must a book blogger do when she can't bring herself to write book reviews any more? Well?

Stop being a book blogger. I was the one who assigned myself the label, anyway. 

Which is not to say I won't write about reading. Only that it won't be quite so strictly defined. Through it all, I honestly would like to believe I have grown up as a reader. It is true that have officially lost the right to say, "I read a lot." But I do enjoy reading still, there can be no doubt about that. So, I will commit to writing one post every month, which will likely not be a proper book review. Just one post. But I will make it a damn good one. Good enough for now?

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Why You Must Read the Death miniseries from Discworld by Terry Pratchett

This post is part of the Once Upon a Time Challenge. I reread the books. That counts!

What do you do when your favourite author dies? When you're done crying, if ever, you read. You read their books. The ones you've read before and any you may not have. You devour every word, like it's their last, because it's their last. And then you spread the word. Nothing I write will suffice to express my immense admiration for Sir Terry Pratchett. I am relatively new to the Discworld series, but I love it and I do believe it is the greatest and most self-aware fantasy writing out there. All I can do is try to explain just why and hope that my gushing recommendation makes you finally add the books to your shelf, or revisit them. I couldn't possibly cover everything I have to say about a forty book series in one post, so I will start with five of my favourite books within it, and my favourite character.

Every time I find someone raving about the character of Death from The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, I kind of want to roll my eyes at them and tell them about Death of the Discworld. He looks much like our Grim Reaper, clad in a black robe and carrying a scythe. He talks in CAPS with a voice which you hear directly in your head and which sounds like two concrete blocks rubbing together. Death of the Discworld rides a horse named Binky, rather preferring it to the usual fiery steed that keeps setting his robe on fire and lives in an endless all-black dimension called Death's Domain in a black Victorian-looking house with a black garden.

Death has the most interesting story arc. Death, you must understand, is not cruel, only good at his job - he does no killing, we do it. Life ends, he is simply in charge of 'what comes after.' As an immortal outside observer, Death is fascinated by humans, puzzled by their stupidity and their intense grit in spite of it. Often out of concern for their well-being, or sometimes simply curiosity, Death attempts to imitate humans, without really understanding them. Needless to say, this leads to to all sorts of disasters which make the five-part miniseries centred on Death. Pratchett spins marvellous stories around ridiculous what if-scenarios.

In Mort, Death takes on a human apprentice, in Reaper Man Death gets fired for having developed too much of a personality and ends up working on a farm instead. Soul Music introduces us to Death's granddaughter, a most amusing girl, who reappears in later books; also, Death rides a motorbike. In Hogfather, when Discworld's Santa Claus goes missing, a curious and worried Death takes his place, to make one incredibly innovative story. In Thief of Time, Time has been kidnapped and Death recruits his granddaughter to rescue it. 

Through the course of five brilliant books, you watch Death learn ever more about humans and grow to sympathise with them. People often talk about Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams in the same breath, I have likely done this too, but all they have in common is they both ingeniously churn humour out of genre fiction. Adams fuels his stories with one-liners and quips of such outrage, that it doesn't matter when he leaves the plot unattended to spiral off in mindless directions - in fact, if anything, it only reinforces the self-fulfilling farce, that nothing goes according to plan, that plans don't matter. Whereas, Terry Pratchett clearly cares about the craft of his stories as much as the message he sends through them. And this is because he does not write simply a zany story of a universe, or a planet, even one as extraordinary as the Discworld - which is a turte swimming through space with four elephants on its back who carry a magical disc-shaped world on their heads. Pratchett's books are about the many endearing oddballs living on the strange planet. Discworld is about people and making a difference; it is not Adams's clever exercise in futility. You can see this in the attention and respect Pratchett gives his version of Death. Discworld arises out of passion, not cynicism. It is satire, biting social critique, but with an unmistakable undercurrent of hope. This is its greatest achievement.

I wanted to make this a clear three-reasons sort of post, but when it comes to the Discworld series, I can't help but ramble on. Anyway, here, as succinctly as I can put them, are three reasons you must read the Death miniseries of the Discworld. Terry Pratchett was a man who redefined death, in more ways than you could imagine, which makes Mort as good a place as any to start reading the Discworld series.

1. Death will make you laugh.

THAT’S MORTALS FOR YOU, Death continued. THEY’VE ONLY GOT A FEW YEARS IN THIS WORLD AND THEY SPEND THEM ALL IN MAKING THINGS COMPLICATED FOR THEMSELVES. FASCINATING. 

2. Death will make you think.

“You're saying humans need... fantasies to make life bearable."

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.


(...) TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET, Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME...SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

"Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what's the point-"

MY POINT EXACTLY.


3. Death will never get old (or, you know, irrelevant.) 

Well, of course not. DEATH IS WHOEVER DOES DEATH'S JOB. 

Did I mention Death likes cats? Seriously, read the books. Any Discworld fans here (hopeful voice) who agree? If you loved Terry Pratchett, and haven't already read this article, you should - There is no Past Tense of Terry Pratchett by Scott Lynch.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

People where you live, the little prince said, grow five thousand roses in one garden... Yet they don't find what they're looking for... And yet what they're looking for could be found in a single rose... It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important.

For years I was convinced I had read this story and did not like it one bit. As it turns out, the story I had been thinking of was The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde, which I do find unpardonably boring. The moment I realized The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a novella, described by many as a children's fantasy that serves as an adult's spiritual fable, I wanted to pick it up. This was about a year ago. I read it today as the first book for my favourite not-challenge, Once Upon a Time, an annual event in its ninth year, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings.

Summary: The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is the story of a little boy who leaves the safety of his own tiny planet to travel the universe, learning the vagaries of adult behaviour through a series of extraordinary encounters. His personal odyssey culminates in a voyage to Earth where he meets our narrator, a pilot crash-landed in the middle of an endless dessert. 

My thoughts: The Goodreads reviews of this book all seem to have one word in common, "metaphor." I hate to be redundant and talk about what a wonderful allegory The Little Prince presents. Most of you have probably read this book and already know all about it. And every new reader of the book will eventually end up on the author's life story, to make sense of the allusions and connect the metaphorical autobiographical dots.  I would recommend you this book mostly because almost everyone who reads it finds in it something to love. It is precious, and honestly, a chunk of its charm lies in its slim size. It demands little of your time, give it that. The thing that I truly like about this book is its sincere duality, of both intention and style.

My fascination with children's books fascinates me. I assume that the fact that children's books can be enjoyed by adults is uncontested. According to this article in The Guardian,

"One explanation may be the way in which they (children's books) are read. They become part of our emotional autobiographies, acquiring associations and memories, more like music than prose.  Another explanation may lie in the fact that children’s books are designed with re-reading in mind. For all children’s writers are conscious that our books may be re-read by children themselves."

I thought that reading The Little Prince would be like getting wholly engrossed in a Roald Dahl book at twenty or delightedly revisiting one of my childhood favourite Enid Blyton stories. It was nothing like that. It may be difficult to write children's books that would give pleasure to grown-ups too. Authors like Neil Gaiman are good at that sort of thing.

The Little Prince on the other hand is something entirely else. It is not a simple children's book that adults would enjoy as well. What makes The Little Prince unique is that it contains in its pages two different stories at once - one for children and another for grown-ups. It reminds me of my experience reading Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, a series of books so adult in its themes and messages, it made me wonder what I would have made of it as a kid. And yet, I am sure, had I read the series when I was twelve, I would have found lovely treasures in the books quite separate from the ones my adult-self found.

I don't know what little-Priya would have made of The Little Prince. Young-me would likely have loved the illustrations, thrilled at the absurd planets, their whimsical inhabitants and the talking foxes, enjoyed the reaffirmation of the importance of being a child. Meanwhile, on the other side of time, today, catching my eye are little fractions of well-composed truth in the writing, like reaching success by "the inspiring force of urgent necessity." I shake my head at the many droll depictions of empty human life. I mull over coming-of-age, the loss of innocence and our place in the great big picture. I contemplate the futility of that exact train of thought... and with the very same logical disinterest the book mocks, find myself dissecting those pesky metaphors!

The book never sounds overtly preachy, that helps. The narrator in his straightforward manner rarely expresses his opinions on the lessons the little prince teaches him. The book remains staunchly bizarre, surreal, to its very end. The original French must be beautifully written, I am guessing, from the admirably seamless translation by Katherine Woods. I should learn French. Out of curiosity, how exactly do you pronounce the author's name? Now that I have read him, it may be time to stop calling him MumbledeMumble-Mumble.

I am happy to have finally read the book. That said, I will not read the book again. I doubt that there is any new insight to be gained from another read, which I must say, is not true of Philip Pullman and his complex constructions. I do however see myself revisiting nice passages, and forcing the book on all my future young-acquaintances, if only as guinea-pigs to satisfy my curiosity about how a child would react to the incongruously dark ending.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Random musings on reading and writing horror fiction

(The image, which doesn't scare me but whatever, is courtesy of hyena reality - good name! - at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.)

Many people seem interested to know if horror writers believe in ghosts. Horror writers are known to skilfully evade such questions. I find the line of thought mostly irrelevant. I don't think one needs to believe in ghosts to write horror. Horror is not about ghosts. It may star ghosts, but so could romance (Have you not seen Ghost?) or any other genre. Horror is about people. To write good horror, I think, it should suffice to believe in fear.

Stephen King says it makes him uncomfortable when people ask him why he writes horror, because it's not a question you'd ask detective fiction writers or romance writers - they ask him that because there's something nasty about horror. In the same interview he says that he sometimes answers the question with a flippant, "I was warped as a child." which of course is not saying anything - many parts of childhood are more or less warped for everyone. (Today I watched a kid take immense pleasure in hurling stones at random pigeons going about their business. My point? Humans are born warped.)

Horror is so tricky to write. No good writer can write a convincing horror story if it doesn't scare them. And imagine that, getting scared of your own writing. (And I don't mean editing-nightmares.) A part of me wants to stop reading interviews and imagine a thirty-year-old Stephen King in a panic, shoving his typewriter (surely he has one?) into the fridge because The Overlook is turning steadily more sinister under his fingers. To create real fear, mustn't you need to feel fear? Not just channel it, but to give in to it and let it guide you?

Peter Straub once described himself as having a connoisseur's appreciation of fear. I found that uncharacteristically suave. (I don't like Peter Straub in interviews, although Ghost Story is a marvellous rumination on fear. Dean Koontz, whom I have never read, gives neat meta interviews; but I feel that his books may not live up to my expectations.)

The term primal fear is interesting. On the face of it, the Lovecraftian (yes, there must have been others who said it) idea that it's the oldest human emotion seems indisputable. One of my favourite blogs, A History of Emotions, talks about how this may not necessarily be true. It sounds very logical, but I want to side with Lovecraft. Fear is all instinct, an emotion you seem to have little control over, so naturally, you'd want to ascribe it to your animal-roots.

I don't write a lot of horror, I much prefer mythology and fantasy. But when I do, I write at night. I arm myself with the cheeriest Gilmore Girls episodes, coffee and when handy, a cat. Then I type, letting the fear and self-doubt build on till I'm at the brink of freaked-out-dom. And just when I'm about to give up and delete everything, I switch to a particularly adorable (like this) Jess-and-Luke scene, pet my cat, take a swig of creamy coffee. I calm myself down, decide I am doing well, take a deep breath and continue. It's torture, and fun. (Yes, I exaggerate, call it narrative license.) At night, it all ends up dramatically overwritten. In broad daylight, I edit. I try to accentuate the deeper messages. Horror, for me, is indeed about fear, but it should be the medium, not the goal. 

I don't know if I'll ever be ready to share my horror writing. Letting people critique your horror particularly puzzles me. How do you deal with reviewers squashing your nightmares? It is hilarious to me that there are brave fears and silly fears, and yet, I have called people silly for being scared of slimy green monsters, spiders, and oh my god, cats. Haven't you?

Monday, March 16, 2015

Postcard, a poem by Margaret Atwood

This year I'm experimenting a little with the blog, and writing about poems is something I want to try. This is not a poem I have spent months dwelling over, reciting and loving. It is a poem I stumbled across the other week, on Poem Hunter, during one of my usual guilty-pleasure John-Donne-reading-sessions. 

Postcard by Margaret Atwood:

I'm thinking about you. What else can I say?
The palm trees on the reverse
are a delusion; so is the pink sand.
What we have are the usual
fractured coke bottles and the smell
of backed-up drains, too sweet,
like a mango on the verge
of rot, which we have also.
The air clear sweat, mosquitoes
& their tracks; birds, blue & elusive.

Time comes in waves here, a sickness, one
day after the other rolling on;
I move up, it's called
awake, then down into the uneasy
nights but never
forward. The roosters crow
for hours before dawn, and a prodded
child howls & howls
on the pocked road to school.
In the hold with the baggage
there are two prisoners,
their heads shaved by bayonets, & ten crates
of queasy chicks. Each spring
there's race of cripples, from the store
to the church. This is the sort of junk
I carry with me; and a clipping
about democracy from the local paper.

Outside the window
they're building the damn hotel,
nail by nail, someone's
crumbling dream. A universe that includes you
can't be all bad, but
does it? At this distance
you're a mirage, a glossy image
fixed in the posture
of the last time I saw you.
Turn you over, there's the place
for the address. Wish you were
here. Love comes
in waves like the ocean, a sickness which goes on
& on, a hollow cave
in the head, filling & pounding, a kicked ear.

First, allow me a moment to appreciate just how post-card-ly the writing is. Crisp, somewhat direct lines and abrupt pacing, the punctuation: look at all the &s, a fitting effect. The poem has this wistful tone I cannot get over. "What else can I say?" I am no expert, but this is how planned letters all sound, don't they? Especially those you write to people who know you the best. You sit down to write and don't know where to start, how to end, and feel a general loss for words that you fill up with routine descriptions till you get into the rhythm of it - and by the time you've finally dug deep enough into the meaning-well, the postcard ends. And short letters are like that, they don't seem to say much at all to anyone except who they're meant for. The poem leaves so much unsaid, so many blanks to fill. 

You know how a postcard hardly ever looks anything like the real place? The palm trees and the pink sand are a rosy delusion. The first lines of the poem remind me of something from, excuse the ill-timed reference, How I Met Your Mother, about how Lily insists on taking these fake "happy" pictures where their dazzling smiles conveniently hide all evidence of the disasters that led up to the photos. The poet is thinking of a lover she's distanced from, both physically and emotionally, and what comes to her in that moment is her rosiest happy post-card memory of him. She draws the comparison herself then and tries to wash it away, brings herself to face the fact that it's only a delusion, eventually gives up and talks about the humdrum of her routine. 

She's on vacation at a beach, in one of those 'poor-country' settings that had I been a little better at geography, I would have been able to name: the heat, the mosquitoes, the pocked roads, that local newspaper, a howling child and rooster and a hotel being built right beside - you get the picture. An extended vacation, it looks like, because she speaks of seasons and as a seasoned resident not a traveller, or maybe it's a permanent temporary-move till she's ready to go back, if ever. She calls the hotel someone's crumbling dream, then remembers her own crumbling wish. Her old relationship seems to her a flimsy facade, like the hotel, that she knows will run out of business as they do in those parts even as it is being built, a failure even if it is physically there. A part of her wonders, "a universe that includes you can't be all bad", what could matter as long as she gets to be with him. And she finds the answer right there in the postcard - one that she might be about to send him, there's the place for the address, but should she? When all she has of him is what she is about to send him - a botched slice of the truth. The postcard will reveal nothing of what she feels, just as her memory shows her only a skewed agreeable "glossy" image of him.  

She concludes with how it still hurts, time comes in waves and she floats on it, not moving ahead, not ready to go back to the past either. And love comes in waves too, she is caught up in them. This is the second time she mentions the rolling waves on her beach, in the middle of nowhere. And so the poem ends hauntingly with images of water, filling and pounding inside her, of drowning. It begs the question, is this her final note?

This was fun for me, a mind-exercise I would love to repeat on the blog. I would also love to know what you make of the poem, your interpretation, if you see something I'm missing? Not to mention, poem recommendations would be very welcome. Happy reading!

Image courtesy of pandpstock001 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Monday, March 2, 2015

Gut gegen Nordwind / Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer

Write to me Emmi. Writing is like kissing, but without lips. Writing is kissing with the mind.

It begins by chance: Emma Rothner, a married woman, accidentally writes a couple of emails to Leo Leike. Being polite, he replies, and Emmi writes back. A few brief exchanges are all it takes to spark a mutual interest in each other, and soon Emmi and Leo are sharing their innermost secrets and longings. (No, it's nothing like You've Got Mail.)

The greatest comfort of the virtual world is the chance to spin yourself constant convenient fictions: an email acquaintance, a Twitter friend, a blogger crush. Emmi and Leo's emails perfectly capture the fun of every online relationship. In the beginning, they are cutely unselfconscious. The initial exchanges are teasing and flirty, both trying to outsmart the other while projecting a tailored image of themselves, not altogether disconnected from the truth, but still only a silhouette of their real self.

Soon, piece by piece, Leo fashions out a fantasy-Emmi from her letters, while Emmi makes wild guesses about the kind of man Leo Leike is from the kind of words he writes. Their letters get increasingly charming and funny. An affair plays out only through email, completely eliminating the physical and yet, has this wonderful simmering sensuality. Even so, as their feelings grow, the casual becomes exhausting. They can't get enough of each other. It begins to take a toll on their lives. Long emails every couple of days turn into short one-liners every few hours, goodnight kisses and wake-up 'calls.' Each tries to fill up the blanks in his life with a seemingly perfect alternative.

Emmi, married Emmi with her husband and her children, begins to act like an infatuated teenager even as Leo Leike conjures up in his penpal a beautiful woman of his dreams to reassemble his recently broken heart. Conversations for the sake of conversations start to spring up, and you wonder when it will appear, the fateful "when shall we meet?" But the story catches you by surprise. Emmi's escapism takes on a whole new level when she tries to set Leo up with her best friend. It is finally time to ask the question - what do they mean to each other? Where do they go from here?

I don't have much to say about this book other than that I am fascinated by its somewhat easy profundity. The interesting thing was that I did not particularly identify with either Emmi or Leo, but I did imagine what I would say and do in their shoes and this revealed to me new uncharted sides to myself. The writer in me was wildly inspired by most of their exchanges. The ending was remarkable, I choose not to read the sequel.

I saw a nice review of this book over at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat, and the book has been on my mind since then. I picked up Gut Gegen Nordwind as one of my usual frantic attempts to stay in touch with German, but halfway through the book I found myself so completely enchanted, I decided to read the English version as well. The German original works slightly better, because: 

1. The letters Emmi and Leo write each other which sound perfectly normal in German are a tad bit too formal in English.

2. The original title and appearance, as Caroline also mentions on her blog, are much more suitable for the content. The English title and cover seem too young-adult or chicklit, so much so that the book could not only disappoint the younger readers it attracts, but keep away a lot of people - like me - who may love it. The title gives the impression that it is a romance, which in the strictest sense, it is not - it is a book about... people. Simply that.

I'd recommend Love Virtually by Daniel Glattauer to anyone who has experienced inexplicable attachment to something fictional, someone virtual, and above all, to anyone who likes to write.

Favourite excerpt:

In what we call "real life"- you're forever having to tailor your emotions to the circumstances, you go easy on the people you love, you slip into your hundred little daily roles, you juggle, you balance, you weigh things up so as not to jeopardize the entire structure, because you yourself have a stake in it.

But with you, dear Leo, I'm not afraid to be spontaneous, or true to my inner self. I don't need to think about what I can tell you and what I can't. I just witter on blithely. It does me so much good!!! And that's all down to you, Leo. That's why you've become so essential to me: you take me just as I am. Sometimes you rein me in, sometimes you ignore things, sometimes you take things the wrong way. But your patience, the fact that you stick with me, shows me that I can be who I am.

Someone out there likes the Emmi who makes no effort to be a good person, who plays up the weaknesses that would otherwise be suppressed. He's interested in Emmi as she really is; he likes her precisely because she's aware that there's so much of herself she cannot reveal to others, this bundle of moods, this harbour of self-doubt, this jumble of contradictions.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Embassytown by China Mieville

Note: This post may look like it contains spoilers, but rest assured, it doesn't. This is not a review. This is a book I do not consider myself adept to review. But I do want to mention it on the blog, if only as a recommendation, and spend maybe a moment here dwelling on its genius. There is so much to say about Embassytown that I wouldn't know where to begin. The world Mieville has created is intense and nearly disorienting in its detail. I have a feeling that just its basic premise would suffice to make you want to read it. Because if it does, you're in for a hell of a ride. I hope it does...

Concept: In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet called Arieka. On the planet of Arieka, humans and other exotic extraterrestrials co-exist with the indigenous Ariekei. The Ariekei are bizarre looking creatures with two wings, many hairy legs and two mouths which they use together to speak. The language of the Ariekei, simply called Language is unique in many ways and comprises speech units that are like two words spoken at once, one with each mouth.

In Language, unlike in our languages, there is complete non-arbitrary sound-meaning correlation, in that:

For humans, say red and it’s the reh and the eh and the duh combined, those phonemes in context, that communicate the colour. That is not how it is for the Ariekei. The sounds aren't where the meaning lives. Language is organised noise, like all of ours are, but for them each word is a funnel. Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen. 

For the Ariekei, a word that is not meant is only noise. So anything that is unknown to the Ariekei cannot be said, because it cannot be meant. With their perfectly referential language, the Ariekei cannot lie, or even speculate. The closest they can come to making allusions is by inducting humans into Language to function as rhetorical devices: making them undergo bizarre ordeals to turn them into human similes that then become part of Language. Lying is a thrill to the Ariekei, who compete at Festivals of Lies to see who can most closely approximate speaking an untruth, an act which is considered impossible and also, highly taboo. 

Embassytown is the story of a revolution. It's the story of Avice Brenner Cho, a human simile, who is "the girl who was hurt in the dark and ate what was given her." It is the story of how the simile turns into a metaphor. Of how the Ariekei learn to symbolise, how the Ariekei learn to write, and how they learn to lie. It is a fable about the power of words. 

My reaction: Normally I like to keep this blog gif-free, but this is hard to resist. His expression does perfectly capture my reaction to this book. I've read it thrice over, cover to cover, since December, and I'm blown away...


On language: As a new linguistics student and a long-time language enthusiast, I am delighted by Embassytown as a rumination on human language. These are rough notes I've made in my diary, often in the last dull minutes of my morphology class, mulling over the book that a part of me hasn't stopped mulling over in months:

Embassytown is sort of an evolutionary story, as the Ariekei go from being vessels of their language to creatures who possess the capacity of self-aware expression. Does lying make us human? A strangely fitting detail in the book is that it is when the Ariekei learn to lie that they learn to write, scratching primitive marks on the ground, even as Avice pictures them soon holding pens in their giftwings. It begs the question - when did humans go from describing what they saw to predicting what they didn't or couldn't actually witness? 

It is fascinating that once the Ariekei understand lies, they can no longer tell the truth like they used to. It changes their perspective of the world, of language, and in a biblical fashion, there appears a shift in their understanding of right and wrong. Embassytown puts forth the most obvious and difficult questions of truth and morality. What, really, is left of the meaning of the word truth without the concept of a lie. 

On weird fiction: Apparently Mieville insists on his writing being labelled as weird fiction. That brings to mind Lovecraft, above all others. Weird is a genre I associate, on an instinct, with fantasy. Kraken would fit that description, it was a strange book that I never particularly enjoyed. Embassytown, if I had to, I would say, is classic old-fashioned science fiction; even though I haven't read enough sci-fi to make that distinction, I have an intuition about this, it has a feel. A linguistics thriller, I saw it called somewhere - what a delicious description. One of my pet words on this blog is genre-defying. Embassytown, rather, is genre-defining, I'd say, a highly recommended read for those of us who love earnest stories that take themselves seriously. 

(from Reveling in Genre: An Interview with China Mieville)
There’s simultaneously something rigorous and something playful in genre. It’s about the positing of something impossible—whether not-yet-possible or never-possible—and then taking that impossibility and granting it its own terms and systematicity. It’s carnivalesque in its impossibility and overturning of reality, but it’s rationalist in that it pretends it is real. And it’s that second element which I think those who dip their toes in the SF pond so often forget. They think sf is “about” analogies, and metaphors, and so on. I refute that—I think that those are inevitable components, but it’s the surrendering to the impossible, the weird, that characterizes genre. Those flirting with SF don’t surrender to it; they distance themselves from it, and have a neon sub-text saying, “It’s okay, this isn’t really about spaceships or aliens, it’s about real life,” not understanding that it can be both, and would do the latter better if it was serious about the former

On book reviews: Every once in a while I come across a book that leaves me breathless, heady, asking questions, wanting more. It is at times like these that a part of me is thankful for places like Goodreads and blogs, where I find other passionate responses to stories and get to share mine. A part of me is also anxious, this is the part that has to summon all my thoughts to one place, organize and flesh them out with coherence before committing words to post. Surely I couldn't possibly do justice to a great book and I'm wary of the idea of me commenting as if an expert on a work of genius. And then I remind myself that Tabula Rasa is a book review blog only for the convenience of the term, when actually it is a book appreciation blog. Thus reassured, I proceed to gush, and swoon, and rant, and end up with posts, like this, that are typically disorganized but on the whole, heartfelt.