29 October 2009

'He's Just Not THAT Into You'

I happened to read this while casually browsing at a book store, and found it uproariously funny.

It's typically about women's love problems (there are always so many of them no) answered in the most atypical, and succinct manner by two people called Greg Behrendt (he's the deal here!) and Liz Tuccillo. You have women coming up with all kinds of questions relating to men whom they are interested in and Greg answers it with characteristic sauciness and wit. So a woman asks, “I've been overweight lately, so my BF tends to ignore, ill-treat me... What should I do?” So the answer reads, “Girl, the only weight you need to get rid of is that 150 pounds of lump staying with you” or something to that effect.

Yet, too much of brutal honestly does not work, especially if you are pinning hopes on a guy to reciprocate, because this book dissuades all such women. Greg's take is that any man who wants a woman badly will never let her down. He won't do the disappearing act, he won't miss her calls, he won't ignore her, he will introduce her to his friend....all that and more. So a guy who defaults in any of this is simply not THAT into you.

He is merciless with some of the questions and rips apart any illusions you may have of your man...sometimes taking it too far. This could be a problem, because obviously there aren't any perfect guys out there. But the book believes they exist!

It's a wicked, fun read, even if it makes the women look quite desperate and silly. One of the females even asks Greg with some irritation why he didn't consider writing a similar book titled, 'She's just not that into you' that would make the men seem equally foolish.
But Greg rules out any suggestion of chauvinism by saying such a book for men wouldn't sell even 8 copies. Not because men don't fall as violently in love or don't go through heartbreaks. But simply because men have other ways of dealing with love failures. They'd simply hit the bar, he says.

25 October 2009

Rohinton Mistry's Tales From Firozsha Baag

Author: Rohinton Mistry
Published in : 1987
Pages: 303

Neighbourhood nuggets

This was my first introduction to an author who made it to the elite club of NRI writers in the 80s--- all of whom made a definite impression in the world of literature and gave Indian Writing in English the prestige it enjoys today.
Rohinton Mistry is primarily known for two of his works, Such a Long Journey and Family Matters. Yet, I'm glad I was introduced to his writing with Tales From Firozsha Baag - a book of short stories where Mistry recounts life in a middle class Parsi colony in Bombay in the 80s. Reading it makes you believe many of these experiences are the author's own childhood memories, as many of the stories relate to young boys and their growing up days. The author describes inhabitants of Firozsha Baag in splendid details, letting us into their various quirks and living patterns.

There are eleven stories in the book, each one highlights one character or a family in the colony, but essentially all the stories are intertwined. So most of them make a passing appearance in every story. This is precisely what lends a lot of charm and uniqueness to the book. There is such a lived-in feeling about the setting that you almost get the wafting smell the fish fry that is cooked in these homes.

The author does not spend too much time with any character or any one particular story, so as a reader you are not really invested in any one person. In that sense, the book is episodic, offering a slice of life. In this Bombay apartment, there are several colourful characters – and many of the anecdotes and incidents that the author narrates would be familiar to anyone who has lived in a co-operative society.

So in the first chapter, Auspicious Occasion, you are acquainted with the cranky, supercilious Rustamji, who won’t relent to contribute for the painting of the building. The chairman Nariman Hansotia decides to teach him a lesson by getting the workers to paint the rest of the building, leaving out the exterior of Rustamji’s flat alone.

One Sunday introduces you to other occupants of the colony. One of them is Najamai, who is the sole owner of a refrigerator in the colony. Another fine story is The Collectors, that describes the reclusive, shy Jahangir who would rather sit alone with his books on the steps than join the colony’s rowdy boys gang headed by the notorious Pesi. Mistry describes Pesi’s character with great flair and irony.

Another very interesting story is Squatter that talks about a boy from the colony, who goes to Canada and dreams of becoming a foreign citizen in every sense. Except that there is one small problem. He finds it impossible to perform his ablutions in the western manner in a commode. He has to squat on it, treating it like an Indian toilet, which frustrates him no end. It’s funny yet a poignant story of a man who cannot leave behind the baggage of who he really is. The author does not hesitate from sharing extremely intimate details or habits of his characters. And he has a definite penchant for scatological humour, as can be observed from many of the stories.

Exercises is about Jahangir and how he gets caught between the love for a girl in his college and his parent’s objection to the match (for no apparent reason as such).

Rohinton Mistry not only excels in giving the reader a perfect sense of the place and its characters, he describes them pithily with language that is accessible yet immensely rich. Take for example, these lines in Exercises, where he describes Jahangir’s situation at home over the girl he is dating.
“Dinner passed without any real unpleasantry. But not for many nights after that. The dinner-table talk grew sharper as the days passed. At first words were chosen carefully in an effort to preserve a semblance of democratic discussion. Soon, however, the tensions outgrew all such efforts, and a nightly routine of debilitating sarcasm established itself.”

Most of the stories give an acute sense of the increasing gap between the old and the emerging new world. That is essentially the theme of the book. As the younger generation grows older, seeks greener pastures, you see the established order being eroded slowly, thereby causing confusion and conflict. Jahangir’s parents are upset when he chooses his own partner. This is less to do with the girl and more to do with the older generation’s puzzlement over their children charting their own paths. Bombay itself becomes a character in the book, because the city has always struggled to keep its identity and old world charm alive amidst pursuit for progress. Not to forget, Bombay is home to the largest number of Parsis in the world!

All of the author’s stories are about the nostalgia associated with the past and the celebration of the future. Many of the piquant observations of on quotidian life and characters make Tales From Firozsha Baag a highly enjoyable read.

-Sandhya Iyer

13 October 2009

Book review: Purple Hibiscus

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Pages: 303
Published in the year: 2004

The one thing to do before reading Nigerian literature is to take up Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart,  the most definitive book on the country's culture and history.  Prior to Achebe's book, there was no real documentation of Nigerian history ie pre British rule. There was a whole existing culture - very unique and traditional - which swiftly underwent a transformation after the colonial rule. The subsequent generations in the country grew up mostly as Christians (after converting), with little or no memory of their forefathers.

This history is essential to the understanding of Nigerian literature, and proves immensely helpful in the reading of say, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's works, which are closely allied to the past and present concerns of the country. In many ways, Adichie is constantly referred as as the literary daughter of Achebe and rightfully so. Hers has been one of the most assured, passionate voices for Nigeria and its people and all her three books so far, Purple Hibiscus, Half Of a Yellow Sun and her last collection of short stories, That Thing Around Your Neck has forcefully put forth several aspects of the country.

My introduction to Adichie happened with Half Of a Yellow Sun, a deeply affecting piece of work that is set during the civil war (Biafra) that happened in Nigeria in the 60s.
Emotionally provocative and deeply political, the book recounts a watershed period in Nigerian history. Adichie's other two books also vividly capture various important aspects of the Nigerians, for example, That Thing Around Your Neck talks about immigration and life for Nigerians in America (many of them went to the US when life in their country became particularly difficult). Purple Hibiscus also hints at many of these problems, but neither of them comes close to Half Of A Yellow Sun in terms of its stunning emotional and physical expanse and dramatic impact. Which is why if you end up reading this one before the others, you might feel slightly underwhelmed. That is what happened with me, but still Adichie's remains a very important voice.

Purple Hibiscus is a novel that talks of religious intolerance and the coming of age of the shy, tongue-tied 15 year old Kambili. She stays with her brother Jaja, mother and father, Eugene. The latter is an extremely wealthy man, but also highly domineering and fanatical about his Christian faith. When the novel begins, you see him obsessing over different practices and rituals associated with the Church. He's affectionate to his children, but also expects them to comply to a tyrannical set of rules. They are supposed to stand first in class without fail, they are not allowed to close their room for any privacy (fearing they might masturbate), they cannot meet their grandfather often because he has not converted to Christianity and still follows the traditional Igbo ways.
Any failure to adhere to these rules results in the most inhuman punishment. On one occasion, Eugene puts Kambili in a tub and pours scalding hot water over her feet. At another time, he flings the Bible on his wife's stomach. The family lives in dread of the patriarch but they also realize he's an important man and a loving husband and father when his command is closely adhered to.

The political scene in Nigeria --- always very volatile with a culture of military coups – goes through another period of upheaval in the 90s and comes to affect all the characters in the story. Eugene also runs a newspaper – among his other factories – that is known for its courageous news reporting. Under the new regime, his editor's life is threatened and slowly, Eugene too starts to feel the heat. On their aunt Ifeoma's persistent request, Jaja and Kambili are allowed to spend some days at her place, along with her children. Ifeoma is a strong, well-meaning, warm person. A lecturer at the Universitiy, she is single-handledly bringing up her kids after her husband's death. Her brother Eugune refuses to be generous with her, because she won't comply with many of his conditions related to religion. She also despises the way he treats their father who lives in relative penury.

It is in this scenerio that Adichi traces the emotional journey of Kambili, from whose point of view the story is told. Eugene – in an exaggerated sense – depicts a generation that wants to completely erase their past history and what their forefathers stood for. As one knows, the British made a deep impression on the local populace and slowly a large percentage of people converted to Christianity.
But Eugene's character appears particularly unattractive, because the root of his fanaticism is not very clear in the novel. If there indeed was such a class that carried its obsession to this degree, then it probably needed some more explanation. Most of what Eugene does appears irrational and eccentric. The character of Kambili, on the other hand, is too passive for you to ever get invested in her.

Many episodes in the novel are not convincingly done. Eugene repeatedly sending his children to his sister's place in spite of being angry with her or Kambili's relationship with her sulky cousin who suddenly warms up to her in the end or even the last chapter involving Eugene's death, all seem a bit puzzling. Also, incidents leading to Jaja's prison episode do not ring very true. Moreover, Kambili's attraction for the young Father Amanda and their constant need to be in each other's company is awkward and forced.

Yet, there are strengths too. Aunt Ifeoma's warmth and integrity as a person shines through and many of the episodes involving her with the children in her cozy little home are affecting. I also quite like the title, which alludes to a rare colour of the Hibiscus flower in Nigeria and the glint of rebellion it symbolizes for the author.

There are also many issues relating to the Nigerian society that comes to the fore through various instances. The rising cost of food grains, fruits, fuel under the military rule causes great distress to its middle class populace. People are stranded since their cars won't move without fuel. The Gas cylinder is a luxury and Aunt Ifeoma is thereby forced to use it judiciously. It's a time when resentment against the military regime has started to grow. Many start considering a new life in the US, albeit with fear of racism in a new country.

The book also gives vivid details of jail life in Nigeria – this became a full length short story in Adichie's third book.

Purple Hibiscus offers telling glimpses of Nigerian life. It's a short book (300 pages) and even though it gets over in quick time and has its moments, it isn't compelling as a whole. But Adichie reveals her controlled yet dramatic style of storytelling. And to think she wrote this book when she was barely 27.

-Sandhya Iyer

10 October 2009

Somerset Maugham's Ten Novels And Their Authors

Author: Somerset Maugham
Pages: 340
Published in the year: 1954

The one aspect, among many others, that draws one to Somerset Maugham's writing is the elegant simplicity and clear-headedness in them.

He can be a very compassionate writer, as The Painted Veil reveals. And with Ten Novels And Their Authors, it is his analytical abilities as a scholar and critic that come to the fore
This particular book is especially illuminating, as Maugham expounds on the various aspect of fiction writing, giving a fairly detailed analysis of the books and authors he admires. Literary criticism, no matter how challenging and exhilirating both for the writer and reader, often makes for heavy reading. Maugham achieves that rare feat in that he writes a book as engaging as a novel and yet offers you wonderfully original and insightful views on each author's work and craft, linking them closely to their personal lives.
The book is divided into 12 chapters, 2 chapters offer invaluable observations and insights on fiction writing. The 10 chapters are about different authors, where one of their major novels is chosen and discussed by Maugham.

The first chapter, 'The Art of Fiction' discusses various elements of fiction writing - all greatly readable (for me, that has come to be the hallmark of Maugham's works --- he's also that rare writer who does not ramble. This quality helps in an endevour such as this where one needs to be genuinely curious about another author's life and works. Maugham proves to be astute and all his elaborations make a definite point)

This chapters discuss some very important aspects of writing. Why does a reader feel tempted to skip lines or pages from a book? According to Maugham, the responsibility to engage a reader lies with the writer. He daringly points out how even some classic novels are unnecessarily long. He mentions Don Quixote in this regard and says that even if some chapters were to be edited out of the book, it would cause no serious loss to the reader in his/her enjoyment of it.

Then he discusses the advantages and disadvantages of narrative choices. Should it be written from the standpoint of omniscience or in the first person? The assessment shows that it must be done according to the subject at hand.

Maugham's other significant point is on what constitutes a good novel.
There are many aspects that he talks about , but the central one is that of achieving verisimilitude. "A story should be persuable. The episodes should have probability and should not only develop the theme, but grow out of the story"

He then goes on to talk about each author in considerable detail, paying special attention to personality traits and episodes in the writer's life which may have had a part to play in the fiction he/she went on to produce.

He observes how Charles Dickens could never really sketch out a gentleman very well, because he'd never seen many of those kind in his childhood.
Similarly Emily Bronte's "strange, mysterious, shadowy" character permeates through Wuthering Heights. Says Maugham of her, "Emily Bronte disliked men and without exception, was not even ordinarily polite to her father's curates."
She was clearly anti-people and avoided proximity, which could be one of the reasons why she chooses Mrs Dean to be the narrator of Wutherings Heights. Says Maugham, "I think it would have shocked her harsh, uncompromising virtue to tell the outrageous story as a creation of her own. This technique of having the housekeeper tell the story enables her to hide herself behind, as it were a double mask.”

Leo Tolstoy, he describes as "irritable, contradictory and arrogantly indifferent to other people's feelings" even though to Maugham there can never be a greater novel than War And Peace.

He talks of French writer Stendhal's pompous manners and utter desperation to appeal to the fairer sex. “His passions were cerebral and to possess a woman was chiefly a satisfaction to his vanity"

Many authors, like Gustav Flaubert and Balzac had complicated love lives and all of that Maugham describes without the slightest bit of hesitation. They all come across as complex characters, with very many issues relating to money, their lovers and family life. Maugham tends to concentrate a tad too much on each author's sordid personal life, which can be distracting. But
the book's prime appeal is Maugham's rich and masterful observations on the works of these great authors.
Like what he says of Henry Fielding, who started out as a playwright before turning to fiction. According to Maugham, this was a great advantage because "by then the author has learnt to be brief, he has learnt the value of rapid incident"

He has very many interesting things to say about Jane Austen as well, whose Pride And Prejudice he regards as a greatly entertaining and charming novel. According to him, Austen was the most consistent among her contemporaries. "Most novelists have their ups and downs. Miss Austen is the only exception I know to prove the rule that only the mediocre maintain an equal level. She is never more than a little below her best"

He may take from one hand what he gives her from the other, yet, Maugham's appreciation for Austen is genuine. He says of her works, "Her observation was searching and her sentiment edifying, but it was her humour that gave point to her observation and a prim liveliness to her sentiment. Her range was narrow. She wrote very much the same story in all her books. Her experience of life was confined to a small circle of provincial society and that is what she was content to deal with. She wrote only of what she knew. She never tried to reproduce a conversation of men when by themselves, which in the nature of things, she could never have heard."

Among all the authors he talks about, he calls Balzac 'an absolute genius'
"His greatness lies not in a single work, but in the formidable mass of his production he was able to give a vivid and exciting impression of the multifariousness of life, its cross-purposes and confusions. I believe he was the first novelist to dwell on the paramount importance of economics in everybody's life. He would not have thought it enough to say that money is the root of all evil; he thought the desire for money, the appetite for money, was the mainspring of human action" Yet, his criticism of Balzac is that "he never learned the art of saying only what has to be said and not what needn't be said"

Maugham doesn't give a very flattering account of Stendhal's life and says that his works were almost destined to remain under oblivion. However, by a stroke of rare luck, certain intellectuals discovered merit in his writings and they spread the word around. Fortunately, these men became famous enough for their word to be taken seriously. In that respect Stendhal is that rare writer who was rescued from obscurity in which he languished during his lifetime. Maugham praises Stendhal's book, Le Rouge Et Le Noir for his psychological acuteness, his shrewd analysis of motives and the freshness and originality of his opinions.

Maugham while talking about Moby Dick and Melville has something to say about the novel being viewed by several people as an allegory. “Allegories are awkward animals to handle. You can take them by their head or by the tail and it seems to me that an interpretation quite contrary is plausible."

In the concluding chapter, Maugham points out how none of these writers who produced these unforgettable works were particularly intellectual. He believes it was their unique personalities and their emotional instincts/responses that made them so successful at what they did.

Maugham’s most emphatically stated point in the book is that a novelists’ job is to entertain beyond everything else. That is his foremost duty to his reader, he says.

It would be impossible to talk about everything that is part of the book, but suffice it to say that Maugham's Ten Novels And Their Authors offers a wealth of information and is studded with such illuminating commentary, so as to make this literary criticism of the highest order.

-Sandhya Iyer