Book Review: Nocturnes

I picked up Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro entirely on a whim. I liked the look of the cover, which had an unclear image of a girl dancing. It was in yellow and blue, and fairly evocative.

Additionally, I happened to be at a wholesale book exhibition, where books were organised according to genre – and that’s it. This book was in the generic fiction section along with thousands of others. As I was browsing through, a girl exclaimed loudly from behind me, pointing out the book in my basket to her companion. “Where did you find that?!” she demanded of me. I was rather bemused by this extreme reaction to a book in the middle of thousands of other books. “From the fiction section,” I said, waving vaguely at the general area in which I had found it. She took off like a bullet, leaving her friend to mutter apologetically, and say that it was unusual to find his work in a place like this.

Suffice it to say, if I wasn’t 100% convinced about buying the book before that incident, I was totally sold after it. Any book that can turn what seemed like a normal person into a lunatic was worth one read at least. [There were classics also, in their own section, incidentally, and those had some real beauts.]

I must say, I am supremely glad I bought the book. Because it was an excellent story, and led me elevate Mr. Ishiguro to the ranks of one of my favourite authors.

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

Story: The books is divided into 5 short stories. The common threads between them are, at least on the surface, music and love. But there is a definite undercurrent of melancholy to them all. Each of the practitioners are musically gifted, and the love is in various stages of being lost. Ultimately, the stories appear to be plucked out of each character’s life in an anecdotal style, and put forward as an experience that changed them to some degree.

In trademark Ishiguro style, none of the stories have definitive endings. They seem to stop with the salient points of the anecdote themselves, and giving the distinct impression that the lives in the stories carry on, and other things happen to them which are not part of the scope of these particular stories. [I know exactly how idiotic this sounds, but it is an ephemeral sort of quality that exists in all the author’s writing.]

Writing: The writing is exquisite. The words are simple, as are the sentences. What shines through, leaving the words behind on the page, is the story. They weave an illusory realm where the reader becomes less of a reader and more of a viewer. It is powerful writing to have such a visual impact. Again the ephemeral quality abounds, and although the reader ‘sees’, they don’t see clearly. The characters are not bounded by the words, nor by the situations. They are incomplete depictions, because people are not meant to fit into definitions. [Again, I know how crazy this sounds. I just have no other way to describe it.]

Characters: Overwhelmingly, the principal characters are caught up in events beyond their control. They seem to be spectators in situations that are centred around them. There is the cellist who is tutored by a mysterious lady, and she calls the shots of that relationship. There is the man whose friend wants him to stay over for his unlikeability and lack of direction in life, whereas the friend’s wife thinks his only value lies in his exquisite musical taste. And three other stories along the same broad strokes. Each character is caught in a maelstrom of emotion, predominantly of confusion, at the unfolding of these events. Understandably so.

Pace: Short stories necessitate rapid momentum. The stories are not rushed, but they do not linger over details. There is no comfortable pause in narrative, where the reader is allowed to flit across without investment. You want a break while reading this book? Stop between the stories. There’s your break.

Conclusion: The tone of this book is infectious. I felt a deep melancholy after reading it, and in someone with a greater tendency to be depressed, it might prove to be a trigger. Having said that, with an abundance of caution, I would wholeheartedly recommend the book to those who enjoy a touch of unreality in their literature. Perhaps that’s my takeaway, and someone else could have had an entirely different experience. Another one of the charms of the book.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

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Movie Review: The Age of Adaline

Blake Lively is the only reason I watched this movie. To be honest, I always thought she was stunning, but after her marriage to Ryan Reynolds, I realised that she is a hilarious being in her own right. I even sat through 6 seasons of Gossip Girl because of it, although that was also partially due to the unbelievable clothes too.

The Age of Adaline has been on my radar for a while, so when it appeared on Netflix, I decided to jump in right away.

Story: Adaline was born a normal baby, grew to be a normal little lady, and reached her 29th year of existence in relative normalcy. She got married to a man, had a baby girl, and their lives proceeded along their natural courses for a few years. Then she loses her husband in an accident, and shortly thereafter she meets with a fatal car crash herself. She is plunged into freezing water, and her heart stops. A bolt of lightning strikes her car, and thus her, in about 2 minutes and her heart is reanimated. She is 29 years old at the time, and the year is 1937.

In present day 2015, Adaline is still 29 years old. She has changed her identity multiple times, and moves from place to place every 10 years, to avoid detection and possibly imprisonment. She is set to move once again, until Ellis Jones enters her life.

Review: The movie’s pace was too slow for my taste. There is very little mystery surrounding Adaline’s fantastical condition, and thus my interest waned after the first half an hour. Essentially the movie is a dramatic love story with a twist of one element; it otherwise retains its immense predicability.

Story: I thought the overall premise of Adaline and her ability not to age (or curse, depending how you choose to look at it) was a fabulous one, and could have been explored in a multitude of ways. There are interesting touches to the narrative: the fact that she continues to dress modestly, well into the 21st century, is one that was immediately apparent. She is anachronistic for this age, and in spite of seeing several decades go by, her core nature remains unchanged. Her mien is laced with a certain unexpressed fatigue, although she doesn’t come across as jaded.

I would have personally liked to see a broader depiction of the story, where her daughter ageing before her is explored in more detail. There is also minimum conflict between any of the characters, and those that do appear are resolved almost instantly.

Characters: Except for Adaline, the other characters are rather like living props. They exist solely to support this central character, and the only one that somewhat exists outside that boundary is Harrison Ford’s William Jones. The others could have been replaced with cardboard cutouts.

Acting: Exactly what I said about the characters, in the paragraph above, replacing Adaline with Blake Lively.

What I liked: The premise was interesting. The elements were also there to make for an excellent story, but were spread somewhat thinly across the movie. Also, I think is worth noting that Blake Lively is a masterful actress, whose approach to this role was betrays incredible intelligence.

What I disliked: Ultimately, it got boring. And predictable.

Rating: ✩✩

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Book Review: Lincoln in the Bardo

The cover, with curling green vines and a sepia photo of a child, is what first attracted my attention to this book. The fact that I didn’t know what a ‘bardo’ was, was the second riveting factor. The third was that it was a Man Booker prize winner, but the clincher was that it was magic realism. I was hooked.

Author: George Saunders

Story: President Lincoln and his wife Martha lose their young son Willie. He is temporarily interred into the crypt of another family, and thereafter the grief-stricken father comes to visit his son’s body a few more times. The story unfolds over the course of one day, and mostly takes place in the graveyard, where departed souls are stuck in a limbo between life and death.

Many of the characters are these departed souls, and their adamant refusal to either move on, or accept that they are dead, forms a large part of the narrative. Many have hideous deformities specific to their thoughts and desires, but all are united in the belief that they are alive; just very sick.

The limbo is bardo, a Tibetan term. The main story is relatively straightforward, but the bulk of the narrative switches between characters, their lives before death, and their decision to remain tethered to life.

Writing: The language was slightly tricky, because I have recently opted to stick to modern fiction, and the styles of Lincoln’s time are vastly different. That being said, the trick was not to get bogged down in the structure of the novel, which is rather strange. It reads a bit like a play, rather than a novel, and for a time I was terribly confused.

I would have thought that the story was peculiar enough without having to structure the writing in the form of dialogues and source/reference quotations. And yet, there it was.

I also found some of the actions of the characters, clearly meant to be deep symbolism, incredibly baffling. I guess I should put that down to becoming more literal in my old age.

Pace: At the end of the book, I thought it could have been massively condensed without losing too much of the main arc. There were so many secondary characters, I lost the ability to keep track of them, never mind their stories. It was fortunate that I was on holiday when reading this, because I didn’t have any distractions to use as excuses to put away a book that was no doubt extremely interesting, but difficult to actually read.

Conclusion: My review may sound quite negative, but I did enjoy the book immensely. Once I got over my discomfort of the unfamiliar structure and the old-timey language, I was quite happy to see the events unfold in front of me. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes new approaches to literature; although I cannot say with any certainty that it is indeed new. Definitely worth a read.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

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Movie Review: Meri Pyaari Bindu

I wanted to watch Annabelle today, but I totally and completely chickened out. I opted instead for what promised to be a comedy-drama from Bollywood, which starred Ayushmann Khurrana and Parineeti Chopra. Both are excellent actors, and thus I figured I was in for a fun ride.

Story: Abhimanyu and Bindu are childhood friends. They go to college together, and are virtually inseparable. Abhimanyu has undeclared feelings for Bindu, who is a wild child of sorts. One fateful day, an accident disrupts the course of their lives, and Bindu moves away. Initially they stay in touch, but life gets in the way.

The story revolves around how Abhi’s and Bindu’s lives intertwine at different points in their lives. Events impact their decisions, and in turn their need for each other changes over time. They are not always in the same place at the same time, and the movie explores that complex relationship.

Review: The movie wasn’t as funny as I was expecting, although the cultural bits were entertaining.

Story: I liked the story. It is a romance, but a complex one which mirrors real-life more than other potboiler romances tend to do. There are so many forces at play in a relationship, and they can affect it so drastically; sometimes for the better, others for worse. I like the way these forces were explored, and the characters were not diminished as a result.

The story also trains a light on the intricate nature of the friendship-relationship boundaries, and how both people do not necessarily feel the same way about each other. In this time and age of the “friend-zone”, it felt refreshing to see that the girl was given agency and not demeaned for her occasional decisions not to be in a relationship with her best friend.

Characters: Relatable characters, with real connections to each other.

Acting: Excellent performances. This is the second Ayushmann movie I have watched, and the guy is immensely likeable, and slips effortlessly into each role he essays. Parineeti has incredible energy, and her vibrancy enthuses the story.

What I liked: I like the Bengali-ness of the movie, foolish as it may sound. I love slices of cultures that are new to me. I loved the performances, and the story. I especially loved Devdas, the dog.

What I disliked: I only wish it was more comedic, not that the movie was bad without it, but because that’s what I felt like watching today.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

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Book Review: Wessex Tales

As a kid, I read a lot of classics. I didn’t understand any of them, but I read them. I skimmed through a lot of the dialogue and vocabulary, and ended up with an impressive read list, but without connecting to the stories or the writing in any meaningful way. I didn’t even understand why these writers (and their works) were so celebrated.

Then, I lost my reading habit, and the few classics I tried to read bored me to tears. I couldn’t get past the first few pages, where the prose is quite tedious, as the story is being set up. I had become accustomed to the Internet’s mantra of hooking the reader in the first 3 seconds, and thus the ponderous, old-fashioned means of setting the stage and the context for a story fell flat.

I had all but given up on ever reading a classic ever again, till I at least regained some measure of my reading habit. While I wouldn’t say I am there 100%, I thought dipping my toe into classic literature with a book of short stories was a good way to begin.

And so I picked up Wessex Tales, read the the blurb saying that it was a mix of tragic and comedic stories by the master storyteller Thomas Hardy. I found the initial resistance to plot setting once again, but after the first few pages? I was HOOKED. I know understand the allure of classics.

Author: Thomas Hardy

Story: There are 7 stories in the book, and they vary wildly in subject. There are those that incorporate the occult, others that play on historical events, and more that have an exciting twist to them.

In short, the stories are completely independent of each other, but on finishing each one, one is left with a wistfulness and a desire to know more. Each story had enough potential to become a full novel in its own right.

Writing: The writing is incredible. Descriptions, characters, dialogues, vocabulary, segues, undercurrents, morals, and so much more besides, flow unstinted from sentence to sentence, paragraph to paragraph, and page to page. I was in awe of this formidable artistry that wove events and characters into such a gorgeous narrative.

Due to the nature of the book, you are able to appreciate the sheer range this writer has, as each story is vastly different from its predecessor. I wouldn’t say there was an economy of words, but I would be hard-pressed to find any superfluous ones either. As a writer myself, I can only aspire to this sort of mastery.

Characters: Unbelievably complex characters, which develop in front of your very eyes. Each story has a few central protagonists, but there is no paucity of secondary ones. And to be able to intertwine each of the characters successfully, without losing any in the narrative or to loose ends is truly remarkable.

Pace: There is no set pace for all the stories. Some span decades, others a few days. The writing is consistent throughout, and therefore even though there are sometime gigantic leaps in time, there is no feeling of disorientation. I sped through the stories very quickly, feeling quite deflated when each was over due to my eagerness to read more.

Conclusion: I feel quite ill-equipped to review a book by an author of Hardy’s stature. It was an enjoyable, if not altogether happy read, but I later learned that his works tended to be either melancholic or downright tragic in style. I do wish some of the stories had ended on happier notes though, even as I enjoyed them thoroughly.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩✩

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Book Review: A Man Called Ove

I had no idea this book existed. And I am eternally grateful to the rather buggy and slow Goodreads for bringing this book into my life at all. Although I don’t participate a great deal in contests (I NEVER participate), I had recently discovered a section called Giveaways. One day, I idly clicked on it, because I needed something concrete to procrastinate to, as I avoided work like the plague. And I picked a giveaway completely at random, and entered.

A week later, I received an email saying I had won. I was astounded. I never win anything, and that’s why I don’t participate in contests. (Not the other way around, really!) And some time after the notification, I received the book.

I was marginally pleased about receiving the book, no doubt, but I hadn’t heard any buzz about the book. So I wasn’t overjoyed or anything. But then I posted a picture of the book on Instagram, and the most surprising person responded. One half of a hipster-style couple, opinionated, artsy, and therefore rather stuck up opinion-wise. Why would he comment, I thought?

So I picked up the book to read it. And fell in love.

Author: Fredrik Backman

Story: Ove is the very definition of a cantankerous curmudgeon. The world rarely meets with his approval, and he is blunt to a fault. He sets himself high standards and has strong principles, and therefore utterly fails to understand the flaws and weaknesses of other people.

He lives in a house, surrounded by other very similar houses. His daily routine is set in stone and his days proceed on a predictable and predetermined course. Until a new family moves into one of the neighbouring houses. And his neatly ordered universe proceeds to get completely upended.

Writing: The writing is exquisite. It is a masterful blend of emotion, pathos, humour, and a myriad other feelings. The characters come to life with vivid descriptions and actions. They grow into real people with real problems and reactions in front of your eyes. There are some villainous characters, but they are very much on the fringes, and only serve to move the plot forward. The true heft of the story is carried on the shoulders of extremely lovable characters.

Characters: Wonderful characters, drawn in exquisite but not exhausting detail. At the end of the book, a reader knows a lot more about each character than they could have ever realised. I found myself chuckling along at a moment, because Parvaneh and Ove were such conspirators.

But more than anything else, I loved that the characters grew. There was so much change in Ove’s life, and how his neighbours affected him against his stubborn will was a beautiful thing to behold.

Pace: There is no getting bored with this book. It shuttles between the present day and Ove’s past, and the chapter blend was perfect. Each glimpse into his past built Ove’s character more, giving it colour and dimension, getting the reader to understand why this person turned out the way he did.

Conclusion: I have been recommending this book to everyone who asks me for a recommendation. I love it. It has become one of my all-time favourites.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩✩

PS: I read a review on Goodreads about how, in the reviewer’s opinion, the writer was biased towards fat people because of how Ove’s reactions to a portly neighbour were described. In the same review, the disgruntled reader waxed eloquent about his cruelty to cats and the incorrect behaviour patterns of the cat. And these two points were enough to get her to hate the book.

I read the review before I read the book, and even though I tried not to be, I was unfavourably disposed towards the book. I saw the bits that gave rise to her comments, but I disagree with her completely. Ove is a bit rough and blunt by nature. He doesn’t do niceties. Yes, he is derisive of fat peoples’ habits, but that’s his character. In fact, in spite of his somewhat mild biases, it doesn’t stop him from doing the right thing by the very same people he appears to disapprove of. That is excellent character depiction. People are not saints, and they have flaws. Ove has too.

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Book Review: I Am Malala

Malala needs no introduction. For the rest of her days, no matter what she does, she will be known as the girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban. Of course everyone was curious about this indomitable girl, who took on the worst kind of people in the world. So was I.

This book has been on my to-read list for some time, although I was dying to read it. I figured it would be an interesting account of the events that led up to the shooting, and the consequences thereof. It is that to some extent, but it is also an autobiography. That, I did not expect. [Stupid, considering the title.]

Author: Malala Yousafzai

Premise: Malala Yousafzai is an education advocate, from the Swat valley of Pakistan. She was shot in the head, on afternoon, when returning from her father’s school. Thankfully she lived to tell the tale, and the incident has catapulted her (and her cause) to international attention. The book tells the story of her young life, and the building tensions that led to the fateful shooting.

What surprised me is the volume of the minutiae of Malala’s quotidian life. There are sections of the prose that talk about her thoughts and behaviour, and how these affect her. We get to see the nice and the not-so-nice parts of Malala’s mental makeup.

Another facet of the prose is the history of Swat valley, and the cultural norms that prevail there. It is a slice of life for a region that no one I know has encountered, and a way of life that was hitherto unknown to me. It was an interesting capsule of anthropology, albeit somewhat narrow, as it is told from the perspective of a young girl who lived and breathed there for almost her whole life.

Granted, there is a sense of egotism about Malala, and perhaps there is a soupçon of arrogance because she is, at the time of writing, a celebrity of sorts. Some of the reviews on Goodreads (from other Pakistanis) reflect their disgruntled view of her take on things in Pakistan. I think that she is entitled to her opinion, and finally it is one person’s personal perspective.

Writing: The writing is average. It is somewhat young and immature, which is to be expected, and lacks finesse. There are times she jumps from point to point and then back again without clear thought. But the narrative is organised reasonably well.

Pace: Again, the pace is average. If one picks up this book for sensationalism, they will be disappointed. It is a peek into the rural life of Pashtuns in the Swat valley of Pakistan, and one girl’s perspective. The histrionics are only at the very end, and just do not really make for a gripping read overall.

Conclusion: I am glad I read this book, and it did stay will me on different levels for a considerable amount of time. However, having said that, I wouldn’t read it again. I also wouldn’t recommend it readily to anyone, and thus it was purely a human interest read.

I do think that reviewers are being unfair to someone who is essentially a young teenager, who has gone through a uniquely life-changing event.

Rating: ✩✩

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