Slumdog Millionaire (Q&A) is not a masterpiece of prose. But it is a startling and thought-provoking story, rife with social commentary.
The prolog...moreSlumdog Millionaire (Q&A) is not a masterpiece of prose. But it is a startling and thought-provoking story, rife with social commentary.
The prologue is engaging, swiftly establishing the ludicrousness of a waiter from the slums winning a quiz show. It deftly highlights the resignation the residents of Dharavi feel towards their lot in life: the inevitability of the police taking you away; the abuses doled out by corrupt officers; the belief that you summon only misfortune if you challenge the social divide, if you have the audacity to dream of crossing the barrier between the rich and the poor.
This dismal acceptance is a common thread of the novel. A woman thinks death must be exquisite, if the abuse doled out by her lover can be so painful yet so sweet. A group of disabled boys think their life in a Dickensian squat is tolerable as it means food, shelter, and protection from other gangs. A neighbor advises Ram that to reach happiness one must only close his senses and he will no longer have to concern himself with the pain surrounding him. With cultivated ignorance comes peace.
This is not advice Ram Mohammad Thomas can tolerate.
Slumdog Millionaire is a story of an underdog. A boy who rails against injustices, using whatever tools fate provides him. In many ways, he’s a remarkable lead. Ram is confronted with harshness and cruelty at every turn, yet maintains an impressive mindfulness of others and remains open to connectedness. He’s sensitive and empathetic, trusting in the universe without being naïve to its pitfalls. He dares many times to dream of crossing the social divide. But moreso he dreams of staying alive, of connecting, of relieving the burdens of others.
Fate and the interconnectedness of all things play an incredibly strong role. The synchronicity of events is of mythical proportions. Swarup’s positioning of the hero often strains belief – unless you are willing to trust in the power of luck and the idea that all things happen for a reason.
Calling Ram a hero is apt – and double-sided. In each of his retellings, he shows a fierce desire to protect others. At one point I wondered how much of his ability to be at the Right Place at the Right Time was born of a hero complex. But then I considered his many losses as well as the dialogue within his retellings. There’s a flatness to every conversation – an aspect that irked the crap out of me in the beginning. The dialogue comes across as a translation of meaning, not genuine speech suffused with emotion. There’s also a great deal of telling instead of showing.
Perhaps the level tone makes it more credible. This boy is not sensationalist in his memories or in his acts. He’s simply doing the things he perceives need doing and nothing more. If Swarup was flamboyant in his writing, our admiration of Ram’s perseverance might flag. With this flatness, there’s no ego to taint the significance of events.
Ram’s ability to connect to so many people is underlined by his name, Ram Mohammad Thomas – so called to please the members of an All Faith Committee. (He jokes that he’s lucky the Sikh member did not come to that day’s meeting, or his name would be even longer.) Throughout the book, we hear of religiously-motivated riots, hate crimes, and vicious mobs. We also hear of Ram’s experiences living in chawls or at a church, where he learns the rudiments of all religions from people living together companionably. Ram himself never adheres to any one faith. He is all and none, connected to individuals not ideologies.
Swarup’s conceit of the game show questions evoking deeply significant memories is a sound one. It allows us to bounce with Ram through time and circumstances, offering a well-rounded impression of the character. We become invested in Ram’s life, eager for the missing pieces of his time-line. It’s effective. The wrap-around story of the quiz show itself pales in comparison until the literal and figurative big pay-off.
There’s so much more to be considered here: the socio-economic divide; the war between India and Pakistan; the violence born of religious fervor vs. the coexistence of varying groups within the same city; corruption and the abuse of power; deciding whether the author is utterly homophobic; on-screen heroics sparking unrealistic ambitions; Minimally Invasive Education as one of the author’s inspirations; the comparison of the book to the movie. The discussions prompted by this book could be unending. I end this review as I started: Is this novel transcendent in its prose? No. But, damn, will it make you think.(less)
The last book I read ended with the fierce hope that all of us might break free of the prisons of our own making, allowing us to embrace the beauty of...moreThe last book I read ended with the fierce hope that all of us might break free of the prisons of our own making, allowing us to embrace the beauty of the world with open hearts and minds. Interestingly, American Born Chinese expresses a very similar theme - though it does make the message more personal.
Consisting of three distinct stories, Yang’s graphic novel focuses most strongly on the acceptance of self. The main characters of these tales have identity issues galore. Jin, Danny, and the Monkey King yearn to transform themselves into what they perceive as a more revered state. For Jin and Danny that means disassociating from their heritage, rejecting and resenting anything that singles them out as “Other.” The Monkey King also wishes to detach himself from his true form, longing instead to be an immortal deity who’s allowed to play in the realms of the higher powers. In each case, the character’s dissatisfaction with his lot causes him to behave in cruel and selfish ways.
Yang’s stories and characters will resonate with anyone who’s ever felt out-of-place and out-of-synch with his surroundings - children of immigrants especially. Reconciling cultural traditions with American mores presents a challenge, one often found too daunting. In an effort to blend in with the crowd, they often reject vast portions of their essential selves. Jin, Danny, and the Monkey King clearly fall into this category.
As you can imagine, all this inner turmoil doesn’t bear positive results. Yang’s characters have far to fall and hard lessons to learn before they can find their way towards self-acceptance. But they do find it. A final twist reveals the interconnectedness of all things, with the implication that we are who we’re intended to be and it’s damaging to ignore that.
There are many humorous moments in American Born Chinese: I chuckled aloud at some of the teenage antics, and the Monkey King’s hubris results in ludicrous decrees and unbalanced behaviour. On the whole though it’s a rather serious story and I think that’s a good thing. It brings up issues of culture, race, and stereotyping in a forthright manner, hopefully designed to encourage children to consider and discuss their own experiences. Jin and his friends contend with heaps of ignorance (even from teachers), while the Monkey King is laughed at by his would-be peers. Danny, though a bit of a golden boy himself, has a cousin who embodies every bad Chinese stereotype - right down to having a lovely lunch of fried cat gizzards. The latter is horrific in its hyperbole, but Yang does nothing without a specific purpose. I might suggest that parents read this before their child does, if only to prepare for the dialogue American Born Chinese should inspire.
(There are also several references to a God of All Things - an omnipotent, omnipresent creator whose teachings can be summed up as Be True to Yourself and Others. Filtered through the lessons of my RC upbringing, he seemed a bit Christian in tone. However, his message is one expressed across all faiths so I don’t think this will present a conflict for other philosophies(view spoiler)[ except, d’oh, for that one frame involving a visit to baby Jesus…but, hey, that’s just more fodder for discussion (hide spoiler)].)
Yang’s work is entertaining and engaging, offering thought-provoking slices of life. It’s a good example to offer those who haven’t yet bought into the notion that graphic novels can be so much more than pictures on a page. If told through another medium, American Born Chinese might not have the same impact. The story might also serve as a launching point for more reluctant readers, since it echoes the sentiments of many books on children’s required-reading lists.
I can see why American Born Chinese won a host of awards the year of its release; it’s certainly deserving of notice, and I plan to check out Yang’s other works sooner rather than later. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I managed four of the five stories of this collection. Unfortunately, the last was so tedious and silly my patience utterly failed me and I couldn’t b...moreI managed four of the five stories of this collection. Unfortunately, the last was so tedious and silly my patience utterly failed me and I couldn’t bear to read another.
Gogol’s Diary of a Madman is the starting point. Written at first in a conversational tone, it allows for easy entry into the mind of the narrator. He is a shabby man, desirous of acknowledgement, and supposes those around him jealous of the time he spends in the Director’s office sharpening quills.
It seems in the beginning to be a somewhat relatable story: a downtrodden clerk disheartened by the fact that the Haves get what they want while the Have-Nots scrounge for even the smallest success. However, it rapidly transforms into a detailed account of a descent into madness. The man’s antics are comical in many ways, but they are undoubtedly tragic, with Gogol neatly capturing the narrator’s paranoid delusions and frequently manic behaviour. At the conclusion of the story, the reader is further horrified by the abuse the titular madman suffers and the clarity with which he wishes to break fully from reality.
This is followed by The Nose which tells the ludicrous story of an ambitious man waking one morning to find his nose gone - only a flat expanse of skin in its place. While the introduction claims many interpretations for the tale, I must agree with those pinning it as a satire of the civil service officers of the time. The noseless collegiate assessor is so unctuous before this occurrence, and so thoroughly vain and frantic after, that Gogol’s focus seems clear. The assessor cares only for one thing: how the loss of his nose will affect his social standing. While trying to retrieve his wandering body part, the assessor is faced with a variety of unhelpful, cardboard civil servants, further highlighting Gogol’s dislike of the breed. The whole story is told at a frenetic pace and makes as little sense at the end as it does in the beginning. The author himself claims in a final aside that the story is “far-fetched” and “absurd,” but that perhaps there might be a grain of truth in it after all.
The third offering is The Overcoat, a story I attempted to read years ago but never completed. I’m unsure why, as it’s easily the most engaging of the group. Once again centering on a civil servant, this one prompts feelings of pity and sympathy from the outset. A quiet man, content in his role, has his existence shaken when he must scrape together his meager earnings to buy a new overcoat. He manages to obtain this shining new possession, but with disastrous results. It’s a story filled with worry and foreboding, with an ending that implies Gogol wants us to feel sorry for this poor little man who has spent his life quietly enduring the ridicule and dismissal of his peers.
How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich was the story that tried my patience and made me give up. It’s a tedious account of the falling out between two bosom buds. The supercilious Ivanovich and the unpolished Nikiforovich are both tiresome characters (though the latter grated on me a little less). Their feud is based on the most ridiculous of insults and one wonders how deep the friendship could have been for such a non-event to have parted them. Ivanovich plays up the role of the injured party to anyone who might listen, leaving the impression that he enjoys the scandal of it all. The story includes several outlandish plaints presented to the local judge, Gogol’s way of ridiculing the court system of the setting.
The introduction highlights Gogol’s frustration and displeasure with the bureaucracy of St. Petersburg and the Ukraine. Were I capable of examining these stories within historical context, perhaps I’d have a greater appreciation for Gogol’s narrative intentions. As it stands, his political criticisms are by and large lost on me, while his sense of the absurd does not appeal. Although I’m glad I explored a sample of his writing, I can say without a doubt that Gogol is not an author I will return to. (less)
Let the Right One In is a vampire story unlike any I’ve read to date. It’s a story of horror, certainly. But it’s also a tale of loneliness and despai...moreLet the Right One In is a vampire story unlike any I’ve read to date. It’s a story of horror, certainly. But it’s also a tale of loneliness and despair, of love and companionship.
From the onset, Ajvide paints a landscape of a world gone askew. Civilization - to its detriment - sets aside its old superstitions; people live together yet apart; and modernity carries a cold chill that seeps into the body and heart. One of the characters even reflects on it:
“The whole shebang. Blackeberg. Everything. These buildings, the walking paths, the spaces, people, everything is just…like a single big damn sickness, see? Something went wrong. They thought all this out, planned it to be…perfect, you know. And in some damn wrinkle it went wrong, instead. Some shit.
Like…I can’t explain it…like they had some idea about…the angles of the buildings, in their relation to each other, you know. So it would be harmonious or something. And then they made a mistake in their measurements…and it went all downhill from there.” (p. 333)
In the midst of all this wrongness we meet Oskar. He is an incredibly lonely and resentful young man, tortured daily by classmates. Trod upon so many times that he lacks all sense of self-worth. For a boy like this any change in his landscape presents a welcome reprieve. For Oskar, meeting Eli suddenly gives him purpose, allows him to become something more than a quiet, desperate soul.
What develops between them is at the same time creepy and touching. Both the reader and Oskar know there’s something off about Eli, something dangerous that would best be avoided. But she embodies a fragility, a deep need to be liked and needed, that makes it difficult to dismiss her. She is a monster. However, she is also a child. She’s a complicated character who inspires a mix of revulsion and pity. It’s a feat in itself that Ajvide can evoke sympathy for her without downplaying what she is.
As a slew of murders grip the community, Ajvide follows not just Oskar and Eli, but other inhabitants: the police officer who simmers with rage and self-righteousness; the glue-sniffing thief of a teen who shows Oskar kindness; the local drunkards, who are friends, yet not - together yet isolated; Eli’s helper, a perverted man wracked by guilt and obsessed with his beloved. Through the eyes of these characters (and many more) we learn the far-reaching effects of Eli’s presence, the fear her acts inspire. In a way though, it’s the pervading sense of eternal solitude that is most terrifying.
By constantly switching points of view, Ajvide creates a fuller backdrop to the unfolding drama. Although slightly confusing at times, it’s a technique he uses to great effect. It highlights the rarity of the bond Oskar and Eli develop, showing how Oskar benefits whilst the people around him devolve. It also creates heightened suspense and conflict, making us fear for not just the “children,” but for every person directly or indirectly touched by Eli.
Let the Right One In is slow at times. However, there’s a turning point where the tightly strung threads of the plot begin to fall into place, to collapse into each other and meld, and the action zips frantically along to its conclusion. Pages and scenes fly by in eagerness until the final moments where loss - and the desperate acts borne of it - bring even more plot twists. Just when the reader thinks all is said and done, Ajvide throws in more suspense. The result is an ending that is predictable in one way, startling in another, and carries with it a harsh rightness that satisfies.
Let the Right One In is unsettling in its themes. But at its heart, it conveys concepts accessible to every human being. Humanity is a thought-provoking mess, but sometimes the very best thing is to let go - to cast off our burdens and focus on that which makes us feel whole. Time, though it may seem unending, passes swiftly. Grab what happiness you can.
Let the right one in Let the old dreams die Let the wrong ones go They cannot do What you want them to do (less)
I have long touted Rebecca as one of my favorite novels. It is steeped in mystery and unease, and the unseen namesake haunts the reader’s mind as easi...moreI have long touted Rebecca as one of my favorite novels. It is steeped in mystery and unease, and the unseen namesake haunts the reader’s mind as easily as she takes hold of the protagonist’s.
Du Maurier’s talents for the eerie and chilling are once again laid bare in this collection of short stories. Each tale holds a thread of the forbidden, of the wondrous, of the inexplicable, and leaves the reader ill at ease. At the same time, du Maurier’s stories speak of quietude and pleasure — a juxtaposition that makes her thrilling twists all the harder to bear, and more significant.
Of the grouping, The Birds is the most astonishing. (Although Hitchcock based his film on the short, it’s my understanding that his version is quite different; I'm now anxious to view it for comparison's sake.) An idyllic Cornwall landscape, a steady and devoted father, a loving and carefree family — all subjected to siege from an unexpected front. Throughout the story, Nat Hocken likens the situation to the bombings during the war. He sets to stocking up for the duration of the troubles, ensuring that the house is secure and his family provided for as the birds mercilessly attempt entry. While Nat’s quiet steadfastness is comforting, it brings into sharp relief the equally silent, equally determined forces at his door. The result is far more frightening than the mere idea of birds attacking: it’s the standoff, the uncertainty of it all, that inspires real terror.
Monte Verità strikes an odd chord. It begins at the end, really, with the narrator looking back on strange happenings over the course of 40 years. He’s burdened with what-ifs and living a solitary life, unmoved by the success he’s reached. He’s all too aware of the peace he might have obtained had he only the courage to “have done with the trappings of the world” and seek out the truth that called to him. Again, du Maurier places this everyday restlessness in contrast to solitude and understanding, this time using mountainous landscapes as her playground. Of particular note is the reverence with which she treats nature, her characters claiming their respect for each summit, "not as an enemy to be conquered, but as an ally to be won." Oft-repeated is the idea that the mountains require everything of a climber, a theme that follows through to the very end. At the close, the narrator evokes pity — left in a limbo of his own making, never to experience completeness, nor to have the luxury of ignorance.
The Apple Tree and The Little Photographer share a common theme with Monte Verità: dissatisfaction with the life one has chosen. In The Apple Tree, a widower likens a stooped and sickly tree to his recently departed wife. His feeling of newfound freedom is marred by this association, until the tree seems to take on a sinister sentience that haunts him daily. A strange little tale, it is nonetheless thought-provoking. Has his dutiful, weary wife found a way to nag him from the grave, or is his own guilt serving to drive him mad?
The Little Photographer presents perhaps the most reprehensible of characters: a shallow, bored woman who uses her beauty and her position to unravel an overly sensitive young man. Her cringe-worthy, condescending treatment of him leads to even greater tragedy at a seaside resort. Comforting, then, is du Maurier’s sly implication that nature will have its revenge.
Kiss Me Again, Stranger was the most straight-forward of the stories. More modern both in its voice and pacing, it showcases du Maurier’s versatility. She steps away from her more meandering style and yet the scenes still retain a dream-like quality. Speaking of young love, chance meetings, and sudden disillusionment, this is the emotion of The Little Photographer from the other side. Reading the two back-to-back fosters both hope and despair, as if du Maurier believes in love but can’t help be utterly wary of the toll it demands.
The last story, The Old Man, might be the weakest of the grouping. It seems both reality and fairytale, or perhaps the odd interpretation of a mind incapable of separating the two. Again, love is tested, and this time it wins out. But the cost seems so unbearably high to an outsider’s eyes. It leaves the reader feeling that for true devotion to survive, one must be willing to give up everything. Love demands all, just like the peak of Monte Verità.
These stories beckon me to return to Manderley once again. I’d forgotten how adept a writer du Maurier is — how she can take a setting of such beauty and grandeur and surreptitiously work to tear it all down and reveal the rotting foundation beneath. Her tales rely on the relatable, chilling notion that nothing is ever as idyllic as it seems. Horror in its most insidious form, and I look forward to experiencing more of it.(less)
Let the Great World Spin is a novel that takes time. Time to read, time to absorb, and time to make decisions about. McCann’s work is filled with poig...moreLet the Great World Spin is a novel that takes time. Time to read, time to absorb, and time to make decisions about. McCann’s work is filled with poignant lines that you want to scribble down on a piece of paper and thrust in some drawer so that one day you might come upon them again and say “Yes, that’s it. He got that exactly right.”
In 1974, a tightrope walker made an insane yet impressive journey along a wire stretched between the towers of the WTC. This remarkable event serves as McCann’s jumping point--a moment that links a host of people across the city, not just those who stood on the streets below, ignoring their responsibilities to watch in awe.
The characters we meet come from various backgrounds and lifestyles. On the surface, they seem to have little in common. Along the way, however, it becomes clear that each of them struggles with life, they all try their best, they all suffer for their failures. God is mentioned several times throughout, both as a guiding force and as someone in dire need of an ass-kicking. The most common feeling they share is one of sliding. Sliding through life, letting things go, shrugging things off, trying to fit into the lives they’ve created for themselves. The Irish immigrants, the It girl, the hookers on the stroll, the woman from Park Avenue and many more--they all share a desperation to deal with the facts of their present. They’ve all suffered loss and it’s caused them to live in a world that slides on by while they linger on thoughts of how they got to this point and how they can muster up the oomph to carry on.
The tightrope walker serves as a stark contrast. He is free. He lives for this moment where he feels the air above and below, where he can dare to do the impossible and make it his own. He recreates himself through his walks. He isn’t, as one character thinks, making a mockery of death. Instead he is celebrating life and all that’s made possible through sheer perseverance.
It took me ages to get through this book. It’s dense. There are connections to be made and layers to peel away. There are moments that resonate and others I can’t relate to at all. But it was thought-provoking and often felt like a puzzle to be unraveled: Connect the dots, who knows whom, compare and contrast and find the commonality that links all these disparate creatures, ponder their lives and contemplate what would have made them whole. I’m sure there’s a lesson or three to be gleaned from these lives, from McCann’s lovely prose and the naked discussion of failure. At the end though, it all comes down to this: “The world spins. We stumble on. It is enough.” (less)
From the licensing page (Imagine! The licensing page!), I had a pretty fair idea that this writer would amuse me:
This book is distributed under the Cr
...moreFrom the licensing page (Imagine! The licensing page!), I had a pretty fair idea that this writer would amuse me:
This book is distributed under the Creative Commons License (Attribution, Noncommercial, NoDerivs). This means it may not be sold or used in any type of mystic ritual that is not to the benefit of the author and/or his family, or to the detriment of his sworn enemies.
Good. Anyone who considers their sworn enemies very early on has both my attention and my respect. One must always consider one’s nemeses.
This free download (available on the author’s website) opens with the brief story “Sunday Brunch: A weird dream I once had." This reads more like a joke with a strange punch line. It is indeed a weird dream; oddly enough, it’s one I can imagine myself having.
“No Hope for Gomez!” I think this is an excerpt from the book by the same name. If so, I’m rather glad I just added that book to my TBR. Imagine if you will heading to the hospital to visit someone and being told they’re dead. Now imagine the nurse asking if you’d like to see anyone else? Because there are much nicer people than that deceased man in the hospital…and they’d just love to talk to you!
"Clash of the Sissies" is just as twisted and morbid, albeit in a different way. It was utterly short, rather sharp, and a little bit genius. I’m looking forward to seeing what Graham Parke can do with a full-length novel.(less)
I despised the main character of this novel. I found him simply abhorrent.
I forced myself to read through to the end and you know what? Still hated h...moreI despised the main character of this novel. I found him simply abhorrent.
I forced myself to read through to the end and you know what? Still hated him. Still hated the plot. Still hated the side characters. Very rarely do I feel so vehemently about a book, but Choke managed to get my Irish up!(less)