Tuesday, June 30, 2015

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver

We Need To Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver is a very frustrating book. It is a compilation of letters Eva Khatchadourian writes to her husband about their son Kevin. Who is in jail. For having shot at and killed seven children, one teacher and one cafeteria worker at his school. The setting is a typical American town, only a little while before Columbine. The mother details her relationship with her husband, leading up to the birth of the son she never wanted to have, a child who is loved and pampered by his father and who grows up hating his mother. She hates him too and, she claims, not without cause.

After much deliberation I have come to the conclusion that I do not like this book. Not only because it is a hard read filled with distasteful characters and events that make you want to throw up, though that does help. It is grossly overwritten, presumably under the pretext of making Eva, a writer by profession, sound appropriately literary. It ends up bogged down by tedious detailing. The writing is hardly plot-driven and focuses more on its human elements, a good choice, I must admit, considering its theme. The problem is, the book sets big fat goals, and fails miserably to reach most of them.

The aim of the book, reinforced by its title, is to force us to think about some of the questions a high school massacre would inevitably raise - misfits and bullying, if it is the parent at fault, can a person be inherently evil, is it wrong to hope for the best as a parent and push the occasional wrongdoing under the carpet, is redemption ever possible. Shriver is right, we do need to talk about Kevin. It is a very important discussion and the book concerns itself with immensely valid arguments, but here is the thing, it adds nothing of value to the discussion. The story achieves nothing new.

I read an interview about the book on The Guardian titled, "Lionel Shriver talks about Kevin." Witty. This is what the author has to say,

"Book clubs have also powered Kevin as he went viral, and I've visited a few, where groups cleave into ferocious camps: one convinced that the boy was evil from day one, the other just as convinced that his mother's coldness was criminally culpable. A fine spectator sport in which I never participate, since what the book means is no longer up to me." 

Spectator sport? How casual. Would it not have been better if Shriver had an agenda? Her own answer to the questions about Kevin. It would be worth talking about if the book wasn't so indecisive. If it did more than show that a hitherto unanswerable question is still, well, unanswerable. If it stated and attempted to prove to us that it is in fact the parent that makes the child criminal. Nurture is the culprit. Or, the other way round. The mother could have been reliably not-at-fault, and Kevin the cold terror she believed he was. The book could have told us preventive counselling can be of no help, for instance. Had Shriver made a statement, picked a side and boldly backed it up, it would have been admirable. A unique perspective to an existing discussion. All it does now is the wasteful job of adding fuel to an already vicious fire.

Incidentally, I was recommended the book at the book club. A club discussion on this book would be a bad idea. As an active participant, I would be on the "she-was-also-at-fault" side. Eva is your classic unreliable narrator. The letter seems like a defence offered by an impassive person now sinking into guilt-driven lunacy; inconsistent and vindictive, at once defiant and helpless. The other camp at the club would be people convinced Kevin was born a sociopath. Neither arguing party would manage to prove their point. Everyone would go home stubborn and drained and somewhere, Shriver would smirk contentedly at all the talking about Kevin she started.

One of the purple, disturbing, discussion-provoking moments,

"Franklin, I was absolutely terrified of having a child. Before I got pregnant, my visions of child rearing- reading stories about cabooses with smiley faces at bedtime, feeding glop into slack mouths- all seemed like pictures of someone else. I dreaded confrontation with what could prove a closed, stony nature, my own selfishness and lack of generosity, the thick tarry powers of my own resentment. However intrigued by a “turn of the page,” I was mortified by the prospect of becoming hopelessly trapped in someone else’s story. And I believe that this terror is precisely what must have snagged me, the way a ledge will tempt one to jump off. The very surmountability of the task, its very unattractiveness , was in the end what attracted me to it."

In contrast, the book began with a promisingly pretty moment that actually made me smile,

“Dear Franklin, I'm unsure why one trifling incident this afternoon has moved me to write to you. But since we've been separated, I may most miss coming home to deliver the narrative curiosities of my day, the way a cat might lay mice at your feet: the small, humble offerings that couples proffer after foraging in separate backyards."

The rest of the letter and those that followed were vague and disappointing.. It is not enough to write about an important topic. A good writer has something new to say. Lionel Shriver, unfortunately, doesn't. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day: Writing, reading and my father

Every father's day I post about my favourite fathers from books. Today I thought I'll write a little something about mine. My father was a writer. Or, at least, writer was one of the things he was. His writing ventures - in my lifetime - include contributions to books on arthropoda and butterflies, his own health and fitness magazine, monthly travel articles for a Marathi magazine, and I must admit, all my science projects. 

One of my fondest memories growing up involves cuddling up in bed as he read out his articles to us, over and over. Editing nightmares ended up as cosy family laughter-sessions in our house. If reviewer-me had to describe his breed of humour today, I would call it slapstick, but endearing. The charm of his writing wasn't the jokes, but his unerring observations on people, not to mention, the way he played with words. He made me, perhaps more than anything else, love my mother tongue.

I have never met anyone who loved to travel quite as much. When I was little, he used to tell me, his idol was Marco Polo. His favourite word was wanderlust (edit: not serendipity, which he only liked for the story of its origin, as my sister graciously pointed out.) There stood this menacingly messy bookshelf in our living room, with an entire section devoted to travel books. Every Lonely Planet ever written? Little-me thought so. He would sit us down every once in a while with this ginormous world map spread out before us and relate world history, down the ages. He loved reading Charles Darwin. My mother tells me he wanted to travel the Beagle route to Tierra del Fuego. And travel Europe like Subhash Chandra Bose. 

He was never a father in the strict-scary-scolds-you sense. He was as much of a kid as me, possibly more than my sister. My friends would testify for this! He believed in freedom. There was no right or wrong thing to read, in his opinion, he had no snobbish ideas of better or worse books. No age bars on reading, every book in my house belonged to all of us - be it the books on medicine or the novels my sister read. And we had none of the no-reading-at-dinner rules, thank God. I remember times when the four of us sat at the dinner table, each nose buried in a different book, in perfect happy harmony. 

I don't know what happened to all his books. There is one still sitting on my bookshelf. All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot. It smells of old paper, slippery fading memory. I never tire of looking at it, always hesitate to read it, for fear it will not live up to its mysterious pull. Maybe this father's day I will give in. 

One Sunday after a butterfly-watching trip, I remember he found eight-year-old me poring over a tome from his collection, Butterflies of the Indian Region by Wynter-Blyth. How he beamed! I did not share his love for newspapers or crosswords, unlike my sister. But memories of our Harry Potter mania still make me teary - eccentrically long arguments on time turners, theorizing about the next book, movie marathons. And that was what made him so amazing. The enthusiasm with which he joined me in my little, big obsessions.

It is very easy to be patronizing to a child, wave the occasional experience-card in their face. I see adults do it all the time! There are few people capable of encouraging and respecting the opinions of a twelve year old the way he could. Even ten years later, every time I read something and find myself bubbling with thoughts and ideas, the first person I want to tell is him. He would have loved my blog. I miss him.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Reading The Tempest by William Shakespeare #1

I have called the post # 1 because it is only some of what the play made me think about. This does not imply that there will be a second post, though there might. 

(Scene from Shakespeare's Tempest by William Hogarth, circa 1735. There's Miranda with Prospero, Caliban sneaking up on her, Ferdinand gazing at her and Ariel hovering above.)

The other day, wide awake at two in the morning and worrying about life, I decided I needed Shakespeare-therapy. Over the past year, I have come to realize there is no quick read like a Shakespeare and he actually has wisdom for every occasion - I kid not. Why The Tempest? It is one of my favourite Shakespeares. It is a curiously unclassifiable play - a blend of tragicomedy, romance and fantasy, perhaps even horror. It is lyrical and in some parts, truly poignant.

Summary: The play begins with a storm and a shipwreck. On the wrecked ship are Alonso, the King of Naples and his son Ferdinand, the prince, who are on their way to Italy after the wedding of Alonso’s daughter. They are accompanied by the rest of the wedding party, who all get stranded on different parts of a strange island.

Meanwhile, a magician called Prospero tells the story of how they came to be on the very same island to the audience and his daughter Miranda. Now this story is critical to the play, so Prospero commands your and Miranda's full attention. She assures him she is listening, as Shakespeare throws your way cheekily self-indulgent lines like, "Your tale, sir, would cure deafness."

Twelve years before the events of the play, Prospero and a three-year old Miranda were put to sea to die by his brother, who usurped his Dukedom. They survived and found exile on the small island.

Now Prospero has forced its only earthly inhabitant, a barely-human savage called Caliban, into slavery. He has imprisoned a cupidlike spirit called Ariel to serve him and it is with Ariel's assistance that he raised the tempest that caused the ship to overturn. Prospero's manipulative plan is to make Ferdinand fall in love with and marry Miranda, and to seek revenge on his brother and the King. Ultimately though, The Tempest becomes the story of Prospero's redemption.

On reading Shakespeare: Shakespeare, I always feel, is wise about a lot of things without the guise of providing solutions. He shows you things as they are, promises and delivers entertainment, and leaves the job of interpretation all up to you. There was a time when I would only read Shakespearean plays in modern-day translation, or pick up copies with word keys, or often, be very doubtful of my opinions on the plays till I binged on academic articles and research papers. Those days are gone. I am the common people he staged his plays for, after all. An MA in Literature doesn't make Shakespeare any more enjoyable.

On the play: Most obviously, The Tempest is a political play on colonization. Prospero is the great big power that has set out to do the world a favour, Caliban the savage monster he means to educate. Prospero enslaves Caliban, tries to civilize him, teaches him to speak and cannot fathom why, after all the help, Caliban loathes him. An old Lit professor had pointed this out once as a favourite dialogue -

Prospero to Caliban, "thou didst not, savage, know thine own meaning."
Caliban's retort, "You taught me language, and my profit on't is, I know how to curse."

Initially, Caliban earns your pity. When he sets himself free, you realize he has gained no insight from his twelve miserable years of captivity. He soon meets two shipwrecked drunkards and even as he celebrates his liberty from Prospero, he has slaved himself to someone new. Caliban has intelligence, no doubt, but no faculty to use it. Your pity for Caliban doesn't take away from the fact that he lets himself be made into a fool. He also lacks conscience, which is essentially a social concept, as is evident in his violent advances on Miranda. And these never allow you to wholly sympathise with him. In a political interpretation, Miranda plays the role of a missionary, helpful and just, but in the end, misguided in her support. She never does care for Caliban, and forgets all her ties to the island once she falls for Ferdinand. The Tempest also talks about noble lies. Politics is deception, Shakespeare seems to say.

But political theory is hardly my turf. And it is only one way of looking at the play. Like with Lord of the Flies by William Golding, my favourite exercise with this allegory involves thinking of the whole cast of characters as conflicting aspects of the mind. The play is set on an island, a fabricated world that exists out of time and space. It may be set within the mind. Dissecting the psychological implications of the events is an unending fascination.

Prospero represents social rationale, a thinking citizen-mind. Ariel the spirit, is ambition, which serves Prospero's motives only with the promise of one day flying free. Miranda is emotion, controlled by civil logic, until she meets Ferdinand, true love, who takes away Prospero's hold on her. And Caliban is primal instinct. It yearns to be set free and you are tempted to let it have its freedom, but it is best held captive. Or rather, when social order is up against natural instinct, things will play out such that eventually somehow the former will triumph - a thought that is echoed in the ending of Lord of the Flies. A thing to note - towards the end, Prospero does recognize his responsibility for Caliban, though he still detests him, saying, "This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine." Is this Prospero reluctantly accepting that the savage is an inseparable part of him?

As for King Alonso and his party, they are mere external circumstance, who play no significant role in the events of the day, no matter how much hatred Prospero bears for them. Circumstance is largely influenced by our mind. And through Prospero's redemption, you see that circumstance is more malleable than it appears. Finally, the external obstacles are resolved only after the internal dialogue reaches its satisfying conclusion.

A few of the quote-worthy lines:

Prospero on Ferdinand and Miranda - They are both in either's powers; but this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning Make the prize light.

Miranda on Ferdinand - There's nothing ill can dwell in such a temple: If the ill spirit have so fair a house, Good things will strive to dwell with't.

Ferdinand on Miranda - Might I but through my prison once a day behold this maid: all corners else o' the earth let liberty make use of; space enough have I in such a prison.

Miranda - I am a fool to weep at what I am glad of.

(Weird. For some reason I have only noted down lines about Ferdinand-and-Miranda. My new fondness for romance may be me making up for the all the love stories I hated for so many years. Anyhow, Part 2 will talk about Prospero's critical concluding monologues. Right now, I will leave you with this little gem and go try to cure my insomnia.)

King Alonso on his inability to fall sleep - What, all so soon asleep! I wish mine eyes would, with themselves, shut up my thoughts.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Five Fantasy Books I'd Like to See As BBC Miniseries

For Top Ten Tuesday @ The Broke and the Bookish. I say miniseries, because, while movies generally prove too short to include all the details, actual TV series are way too long and you end up only watching the first season and wishing it had ended there. (I'm looking at you, Under the Dome.) BBC is good, so so good. If it hadn't been for BBC, this list would just be a lot of squealing... Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell! Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell!!!

(A little purple but I like it.)

1. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman - I know BBC Radio did it, but I want to be able to look at Crowley when I at once smirk and laugh and swoon and turn into a generally happy puddle.

2. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker - So vivid, so magical, this would be good on screen. There is also a wide cast of characters and a myriad stories. Here is my review.

3 The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern - This is one instance where I don't particularly like the book but I think an adaptation can make something really worthwhile out of it. My only problem with the book was that it focused too much on the marvellous descriptions and lost the story along the way. This could be remedied over time in a TV series or it might as well cease to matter if they get the stunning circus imagery right...!

4. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman - Let's face it, the movies were not good.

5. The Chronicles of Chrestomanci by Diana Wynne Jones - The whole series, episodes from it, anecdotes of Christopher Chant growing up, I don't care which parts of the books. Diana Wynne Jones's writing would be intensely enjoyable to watch. The Howl's Moving Castle movie, which did not even attempt to be accurate, proved this already.

I have stuck to fantasy, because when it comes to genre fiction, the argument for making movies is very strong. If done well, fantasy movies can be a thrill to watch. If.

Now, consider this like a sneak preview post. A trailer for some of the things you are sure to find on Tabula Rasa in the following months - movie reviews, musings on book to screen adaptations, rants about genre and popular culture; along with of course, reviews of non-fiction and fiction, feature posts on libraries, books clubs and so on. Maybe a guest post, who can say. Meanwhile, here is a five-year anniversary giveaway for you to enter. Just follow the link and leave a comment on the post to win. Happy reading! 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Reading World Literature + 5th Blogiversary

Tabula Rasa turns five today. I would never have imagined the blog would survive so long. It has come dangerously close to stagnancy quite a few times, the most recent panic ensued last month. As a solution, I decided to write a post a month, but have managed more. What can I say, for all the real life getting in the way, I just love the blogging world.

The only thing killing my blogging spirit these past few weeks has been the terrible heat of the summer. The scorch is now dwindling, and I hope to start the new blog-year with a bang. But as a reluctant goodbye to the glorious mango season, I celebrated this fifth blog birthday with yummy mango pastries from a local bakery.

My greatest takeaway from the blogging world, apart from interacting with the friendliest most interesting people, is expanding my reading horizons, geographically. From events such as the German Literature Month and January in Japan to getting books for review from authors living in Africa, Singapore, Pakistan, Australia, book blogging has continually encouraged me to explore English language- and translated literature from around the world. To experience foreign cultures and learn new ways of thought. I haven't read nearly enough, but I am curious to try more, be it books set in different countries to those written by authors of different nationalities. Of these, I love the most what I like to call "place-books." Place-books have stories that are so tightly woven around their setting that the place itself becomes a character in the book. A few examples come to mind,

the 18th century Vienna of Mesmerized by Alissa Walser,

Do you have any favourite place-books? And which are the books that best portray where you come from? Last year in December I won this beautiful place-book called Letters from Thailand in a giveaway from Delia @ Postcards from Asia. Delia, I hope you don't mind, I sort of borrowed your idea for my giveaway.

That's right. After five years planning and failing to host a giveaway, here it is! I have two books to give away. I will pick two winners, one for each book, using random.org. It was difficult to choose novels that didn't fall into specific genres. I have selected place-books that feature India. Both are popular books written by people of Indian origin. And both have hauntingly beautiful prose and memorable stories. Click for my reviews.
The giveaway is closed.

Happy reading and happy blogging!

Monday, May 25, 2015

Guest Post at Postcards from Asia

Delia who writes over at Postcards from Asia is one of my favourite bloggers.

I love how well she interacts with her readers. "I was born in the land of Dracula..." she introduces herself on her blog, and on cue, the dark atmospheric horror fiction she writes never fails to chill me. But more than anything, her posts on culture and travel inspire me to try new things on my blog. You should really check out her site.

This year she has been posting a series of guest posts, interviewing people about their taste in books and their experiences as bloggers and writers.

When Delia asked me for a guest interview on her blog, I was thrilled and humbled. In the post that went live tonight, I share what books taught me, my favourite writers and more.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford

A long time ago, I read Freakonomics and decided "pop economics" was not my breed of non-fiction. This was a mistake, because my problem with Freakonomics had mostly to do with aesthetics. Dubner's writing was gimmicky, overeager and his cult-like devotion for Levitt was plain creepy. The Undercover Economist by Tim Harford came recommended as a simple but interesting book on economics for people who know nothing about it, i.e. me.

In this book, Harford fancies himself a detective, going undercover to unearth the big stories behind simple daily interactions. But it is his approach that makes the book so appealing, especially to beginners. Like every teacher ought to, Harford steps down from his pedestal, takes your hand and guides you through the investigation. You are the undercover economist. Where Dubner spends the introduction of Freakonomics effervescing with praise about Levitt, Harford makes you the star of his show-

"My aim in this book is to help you see the world like an economist. (...) It's detective work all the way, but I'll teach you how to use the investigative tools of the economist. I hope that by the end, you'll be a more savvy customer - and a more savvy voter too, able to see the truth behind the stories that politicians try to sell you. Everyday life is full of puzzles that most people don't even realize are puzzles, so above all, I hope that you will be able to see the fun behind these secrets."

His writing is witty, engaging and full of life. With non-fiction, I know, writing style faux pas might easily be forgiven. But when an author nails the style, it is worth the mention.

Where Dubner and Levitt show how economics can be fun and wacky, Tim Harford talks about things that are a lot more relevant to people all over and gives you an economics-way of looking at things. The Undercover Economist explains the basics of economics and why you should care. The book is well organized. It starts with concepts smaller in scope, like the cost of coffee and orange juice. The initial chapters discuss price-targeting and the power of scarcity through everything from high rents in London and the price of popcorn at the cinemas to trade unions and resistance to immigration. For instance, have you ever wondered why wine is more expensive in restaurants?

"Because one of the big costs in a restaurant business is table space. Restaurants would therefore like to charge customers for dawdling, but because they can't do that, they charge higher prices for products that tend to be consumed in longer meals, like wine, appetizers and desserts." 

Whenever Harford introduces economic jargon, the technical terminology comes with lay explanations. It is not until the fourth chapter that Harford attempts to define economics, and even then, what he says is comforting, if naive.

"Most economics has very little to do with GDP. Economics is about who gets what and why. There is much more to life than what gets measured in accounts. Even economists know that."

With every chapter, Harford goes on to more macro concepts, from health insurance to globalization, until it ends with an awesome coming-together of all you've learnt till then. He may not do any ground-breaking theorizing of his own, but in the final three chapters, Harford cites the works of other economists, and expands on three globally pertinent topics - the impact of the spectrum auctions, trade barriers and poor countries and a brief history of China under Mao's rule and its later economic reform. The last chapter is attractively titled How China Grew Rich and the book ends on a positive (though fairly controversial) note. 

"In the end, economics is about people - something that economists have done a very bad job at explaining. And economic growth is about a better life for individuals - more choice, less fear, less toil and hardship."

Yesterday I finished another book called The Articulate Mammal by Jean Aitchison. It is a simple and interesting introduction to psycholinguistics to those who know nothing about it. I am not those people. To me, the book is simplistic and biased, Aitchison focuses a lot on Chomsky, and little on his critics. I mention this because the same may happen with The Undercover Economist if you are not new to economics, unlike me. Especially if you are not in favour of some of the things Harford holds an obvious bias for, like free markets, or if it infuriates you that he concludes the book stressing that "sweatshops are better than the alternative". Dear econ-nerds, discount him his stronger opinions and appreciate all the knowledge he has packed into this book. For the rest of you lay people, this is a must read. The Financial Times blurb on the first page says it best, "The Undercover Economist is an excellent Undercover Introduction to Economics. If you think that sounds boring, you probably ought to read it."

(Participate in the 2015 Non-Fiction Reading Challenge over at The Introverted Reader.)