I bought this book because one, the back had the words "wilderness" and "Alaska" on it (I chose to overlook the words "fatally" and "misconceived") an...moreI bought this book because one, the back had the words "wilderness" and "Alaska" on it (I chose to overlook the words "fatally" and "misconceived") and two, the first few pages I read (and I rarely read pages from books before buying them) seemed interesting.
David Vann's writing has a magical quality about it that draws you in, not with clever wordplay but with comforting prose that invites the reader to come in and stay awhile. Even the last line of the acknowledgments had a sort of poetry to it: "She had faced a lot of other deaths in her life and seemed fearless to me then." The stories themselves have a clear, honest quality about them even when the lines between the real universe and the parallel one are blurred. Vann's description of Alaska could well be applied to the book: "Everything was sharply itself and nothing else."
I liked the idea of stories that are connected to almost form a novel, but not quite. There are different versions of the same character, the same events, all of which, whether real or longed for are connected with engaging prose but the threads are never lost: redemption is offered and received. "Sukkwan Island" is the much mentioned highlight but each story stands out, and the last, "The Higher Blue" is a moving, fitting ending to the book.
I am glad to have discovered Vann's writing and look forward to reading his next, "Caribou Island" as soon as I find the cover I want since I do tend to judge books by their covers. (less)
I picked up this book because I had memories of watching the enchanting television series based on these stories in the early 90s. I was too young to...moreI picked up this book because I had memories of watching the enchanting television series based on these stories in the early 90s. I was too young to remember any of the episodes clearly (and it was ages before I learnt to pronounce "Byomkesh" correctly) so I hoped this book would capture some of that magic and re-introduce me to Byomkesh. The back cover describes Byomkesh Bakshi as a sort of forerunner to Feluda, probably the only other fictional detective to have come out of Bengal whom non-native readers would recognise as well, but Byomkesh is clearly for an older audience and his exploits a shade darker than Feluda's.
The book contains seven of his stories with some very colourful characters, from an assassin who advertises his services in the daily newspaper to a dirty old man addicted to tarantula venom. On the other hand, the sparse selection makes it difficult to truly grasp Byomkesh's appeal to generations of readers. The best detective stories have an intriguing protagonist to begin with and there is nothing in Byomkesh's character that makes him stand out from his surroundings, apart from his intelligence of course, but that is almost a prerequisite for any detective. Byomkesh Bakshi is a self-declared "Truth Seeker" rather than a detective, given more to philosophy than ratiocination but I didn't quite see that in these stories.
After finishing the book, I can only guess that it is Byomkesh's ordinariness that makes him unique. Byomkesh is not the kind of misanthropic genius that most detectives aspire to be. He is fairly typical of the educated, middle-class young man common in colonial India; he has friends and eventually, even a wife (is it just me or are most other classic detectives doomed to singledom?). The stories offer an interesting window into India in the early 30s and this is evident in the social mores depicted: young girls are married off at 14, widow re-marriage is something of a scandal, Emile Zola's writings are implied to be less than wholesome. On the other hand, the perpetrators of the crimes are often portrayed in a morally ambiguous manner; sometimes they are mere victims of fate and sometimes they are even artists. It is this that makes me suspect that the original stories are a livelier read and offer more insight into Byomkesh's methods than this translation could.
So my main problems with the book were the meagre collection offered which really didn't let me get a feel for Byomkesh and revel in the old-timey atmosphere of 1930s India that I wanted to, and the translation which was indifferent and unable to really capture Byomkesh and his milieu. I would have enjoyed this book a whole lot more if it contained more stories and a more engaging translation.
One of my favourite words is saudade and I could not help but think of it here. The two stories that make up this book are different in their subjects...moreOne of my favourite words is saudade and I could not help but think of it here. The two stories that make up this book are different in their subjects but both dwell on change and a longing for the past.
In Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell, a generation later than Jane Austen writes of the things the latter does not, or could not: of the wars that left behind villages full of women, of poverty and of loss. Miss Matty might have been an Austen heroine who wasn't swept off her feet and carried off into the sunset; Mr. Holbrook her lost love. It is rather gloomy at times to read of a village full of aging women trying to hold onto a decaying elegance. However, the tragedies of every day life can be beautiful as well. The chapter where Miss Matty and Mary Smith read and burn old letters was one of the most moving scenes I have read in a long time.
I found it a little difficult to really like the characters. They are elderly, often narrow-minded women bound by strict guidelines and a somewhat outdated morality. And yet, they are generous in their kindness. They might look with disdain on Frenchmen and "Red Indians", they might kowtow to aristocracy, but they often go out of their way to help their neighbours whether it is Captain Brown who shocks the good ladies by openly discussing his poverty or the mysterious Signor Brunoni, or even the lame postman of Cranford. There are touches of gentle humour here and there: the literary contest between Miss Jenkyns and Captain Brown over Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson, Mrs. Forrester's lace eating cat, Miss Pole's faltering bravado at facing a phantom.
Cousin Phillis is a short novella that subtly intertwines the changing country landscape with a short-lived romance. There isn't much by way of action here but both the Phillis of the title and her father Mr. Holman are engaging, well-drawn out characters: hard-working and rustic and yet well-read and thirsty for knowledge. One can see a slight similarity to the Goethe quoting Mr. Holbrook in Cranford with his alphabetically labeled cows. Phillis, with her love of Greek and her attempts to read The Divine Comedy in Italian is at the same time a naive, isolated country girl and her painful journey to emotional growth forms the crux of the story. Mrs. Gaskell paints a striking picture of the old way of life slowly giving way to the new with harvests and railways, farmer-priests and engineers.
I liked the down-to-earth, unpretentious tone of both stories and the clarity of Mrs. Gaskell's writing is a delight to read. She manages to convey tragedy without dragging down the tone of the book and her humour never escalates into farce. This is a simple, elegant book, like the times it longs for.(less)
Most of the stories in this collection are meant for children, but that cannot really justify the predictable and somewhat unimaginative writing.
I re...moreMost of the stories in this collection are meant for children, but that cannot really justify the predictable and somewhat unimaginative writing.
I read this mostly for the quaint depictions of northern India and the Anglo-Indian vestiges of the hill stations. The first story A Face in the Dark is reminiscent of the Japanese Nopperabou and I grew up hearing a variation of the story myself. Of the twenty eight stories, I liked The Haunted Bungalow and Ghosts of the Savoy best, but like many others the latter might have been better off inserted as an anecdote in a longer story. Still, most of the stories are readable enough, good for a quick skim to pass the time.(less)
I borrowed this book from my sister, who's the genuine Jane Austen fan (although I did discover it in the first place when out book shopping). I wante...moreI borrowed this book from my sister, who's the genuine Jane Austen fan (although I did discover it in the first place when out book shopping). I wanted to give Pride and Prejudice and Emma another shot, but before that, I thought I'd have a look at Ms. Austen's juvenilia.
Love and Friendship is a wildly over the top, epistolary satire which starts off with a plot hole - why couldn't Isabel tell Marianne Laura's story if she knew it as well? In any case, the letters are a fun excuse for Ms. Austen to plunge her heroines into a series of unfortunate events (I think we might have found the Baudelaire orphans' ancestors).
I wish the other works were more complete. In Lesley Castle, Charlotte's preoccupations with cooking wedding feasts and then disposing of them as well as her usage of random Italian words when applauding her sister's piano-playing were hilarious and I would have liked to read more of it. The Three Sisters would have been a promising story as well. I didn't like Catharine, or the Bower as much as the others but I would have liked to know how it ends: despite James Edward Austen's addition, it feels decidedly incomplete. A History of England was interesting in that it showed that Ms. Austen was capable of writing beyond the insular, social romances that she is best known for. And it was fun to discover what might be early drafts of characters and storylines in A Collection of Letters.
This book makes me wonder what Ms. Austen might have written had she lived longer. Despite the differences I had with her writing in the past, I'm sure that they would have been worth reading.(less)