I've always heard my parents mention Fakir Mohan Senapati whenever I asked them about Oriya literature and this is one of the few books I found that w...moreI've always heard my parents mention Fakir Mohan Senapati whenever I asked them about Oriya literature and this is one of the few books I found that was translated.
I liked the writing to a degree, although I felt like the satire turned into overkill one time too many. It was only when I read the introduction that I found out that the narrator is a character himself, the embodiment of the quintessential Oriya touter. Perhaps it all reads much better in the original, but in that case, a book with four different translators should certainly have been able to capture the subtleties. Not that the author is always subtle himself, sometimes going into rather unpleasant detail. The book meanders far too often: the first dozen or so chapters are more or less sketches and the plot starts abruptly and careens into a conclusion by the end.(less)
The beginning of this book was brilliant, and I was inclined to continue to think so when I got to the first story, If on a winter's night a traveller...moreThe beginning of this book was brilliant, and I was inclined to continue to think so when I got to the first story, If on a winter's night a traveller, where he talks of the smoke obscuring the first paragraph. The story itself didn't interest me so much but I was willing to go on and Outside the town of Malbork was an improvement. Unfortunately, it just went downhill after that, only to be saved by the ending.
The irony is that, one of the driest parts of the book describes this. Nevertheless, when Silas Flannery conceives of a book composed solely of incipits because it is the beginning of the book that captivates the reader, he forgets that even when there are multiple beginnings, there is still going to be a middle and an end, composed of such beginnings. The issue with the book was that of all the stories that appear and disappear, I found only two really interesting - Outside the town of Malbork and Around an empty grave, which seemed like an interesting blend betyween Mario Vargas Llosa's Lituma en los Andes and Cien Años de Soledad by Gabriel García Márquez. The others were either dry or were interrupted by the narration. Those two were the only stories that made me want to read more, to share the curiosity of The Reader and The Other Reader. So in the end, I can only say that I liked these stories and I liked the clever little concept and that is it.(less)
I started reading Perfume about five or six years back and abandoned it a few chapters into the first part, but not because of the book itself. It cap...moreI started reading Perfume about five or six years back and abandoned it a few chapters into the first part, but not because of the book itself. It captivated me from the first, right from where Patrick Süskind spends a page and some more reminding us, in a book about fragrance, of how much everyone stank.
I love the theme of the book and I love Süskind's writing. A translation isn't the best way to do that, and this one does falter at times but you can't help marvel at the sheer luxury of his words. Seriously, I wanted to read it out aloud, just to taste the wealth of nouns in it: "And so he gladly let himself be instructed in the arts of making soap from lard, sewing gloves of chamois, mixing powders from wheat flour and almond bran and pulverized violet roots. Rolled scented candles made of charcoal, saltpeter, and sandalwood chips. Pressed Oriental pastilles of myrrh, benzoin, and powdered amber. Kneaded frankincense, shellac, vetiver, and cinnamon into balls of incense. Sifted and spatulated poudre impermle out of crushed rose petals, lavender flowers, cascarilla bark. Stirred face paints, whites and vein blues, and molded greasy sticks of carmine for the lips. Banqueted on the finest fingernail dusts and minty-tasting tooth powder." I can only imagine how it sounds like in German, which has the perfect music for nouns sometimes.
I also like the way Süskind dances along the very thin line between comedy and horror in this book. Perfume is full of moments such as these: the fate of Grenouille's associates every time he leaves them, the hilariously horrifying denouement at Grasse. Grenouille himself is such a fascinating character: he commands the sincerest respect as much as he repels and bewilders. He is so utterly alien and yet one can understand perfectly his lunatic dedication to his craft. This is a Künstlerroman, because Grenouille is an artist. He doesn't do what he loves because he loves it; it is what he is: there is just no other alternative. He can't change his actions any sooner than he can change his face. And while I was a little uncertain about the ending, there was no better way to go for someone like Jean-Baptiste Grenouille.(less)
I recently read H.G Wells' A Modern Utopia where he seems to spend half the book hating on Thomas More's version of earthly paradise. So when I found...moreI recently read H.G Wells' A Modern Utopia where he seems to spend half the book hating on Thomas More's version of earthly paradise. So when I found Utopia while out book shopping a few days ago, I thought I'd see what the original was like.
There are two reasons that made me like Utopia better. One, it is blissfully short and two, it is far less dry than I expected. I'm not entirely sure, however, how the book is meant to be taken, considering that "utopia" means "no place" (makes you wonder about dystopia then, doesn't it?) and its narrator's name translates as Raphael Nonsenso. It seems that More deliberately treads the line between satire and seriousness for literary as well as political reasons.
Utopia itself is a mixed bag. It's a communist state where there is no money and everyone owns everything. I liked More's idea of the equal importance given to manual labour and intellectual growth. I certainly loved the six hour work day! That and the concept of law being simple enough to be understood by everyone is something that I wish would be adopted in the real world. The death sentence for repeated adultery might be a little harsh but I really have very little sympathy for infidelity unless it arises from domestic abuse, physical or mental. I also liked the Utopian idea of the celebration of death and religious freedom even though I fail to relate to their contempt towards atheists. And the Utopian's attempt to psychologically devalue gold and silver by using them as material for chamber pots was certainly unique.
On the other hand, Utopia is a place where everyone is equal but some are more equal than others. I cannot possibly consider any form of governance ideal if it continues to engage in slavery, even if some of them are "willing" slaves or condemned criminals. The very idea of slaves in Utopia is a paradox. And it is not the only one. The Utopians claim to abhor hypocrisy; they will wage war and try to make it as bloodless as possible and yet they are willing to hire a certain tribe of mercenaries since they think the Earth would be better off without them. Women can train for battle and are expected to fight alongside their husbands but they are still subordinate, they must still go down on bended knee and ask forgiveness in a ritual designed to alleviate domestic tensions. In his book, More allows priests to marry and women to be ordained - but he did not subscribe to these views in the real world. His Utopia veers from impractical idealism at times to a police state of sorts (you cannot leave your city without permission and there is no concept of a vacation because you cannot eat unless you work).
At the risk of being cynical, I have to say that Utopia could never work because a group of human beings, no matter how closely-knit will never agree to the same thing. What if someone were to value gold even if it was used to chain slaves? What if one of the Utopian officials imported to other countries decided that he rather likes having his own property and more than one set of clothes? It is easier to turn cities into identical, bland copies of each other than to do the same with human beings - which is the only way such harmony is possible.
I enjoyed reading Utopia, especially the first book. I think this is a book that I will be reading more than once. I understand that some of More's visions are indeed ideal when contrasted against the grossly unfair social and political reality of his day. However, it is difficult to be passionate about a book when its own author won't back it up in all seriousness.(less)
I think Umberto Eco is writing for an audience more erudite than I here. This book does not try to cater to lay people and you really do need to have...moreI think Umberto Eco is writing for an audience more erudite than I here. This book does not try to cater to lay people and you really do need to have some interest in linguistics to even begin to enjoy it. That said, it is less dry and dreary than I expected.
The five short essays, while decidedly academic, are interesting with a touch of humour (I liked Eco's contemplation on the language that would be spoken were Dante, Abulafia and Adam to convene in heaven) and cover the various aspects of language - religious, political, historical and social. I liked the first chapter, which talks of the way in which lies have shaped the world and the second, describing the quest to find the original language of paradise by people over time, among them Dante Alighieri and the effect this search had on the Divine Comedy.
My grouse is that the title (and the back cover, I might add) is rather misleading. Almost all of the discussion on serendipity is limited to the first chapter. The fourth and fifth chapters were unable to hold my attention as well as the first two. Then again, I suppose this is best appreciated by academics.(less)
I was originally going to splurge on a bilingual German-English edition of the Duino Elegies, complete with an Art Deco cover. Instead, I chose to rea...moreI was originally going to splurge on a bilingual German-English edition of the Duino Elegies, complete with an Art Deco cover. Instead, I chose to read these ten letters that are almost as luminous as the ten elegies.
Rainer Maria Rilke's letters as unfailingly elegant and polite, talking without arrogance on art, solitude, love, nature. They are honest and unpretentious without sacrificing any depth of meaning. I don't think I can offer up any in-depth review for a book that cannot be finished with one reading. This is the kind of book you can read when you want, from the middle, from the end - pick any page. This is the kind of book that makes you want to get up and do something. And that is the best kind of book there is.(less)
I raided Project Gutenberg's collection of books on arts and artists recently and this was one of the books I downloaded. Albrecht Dürer is one of my...moreI raided Project Gutenberg's collection of books on arts and artists recently and this was one of the books I downloaded. Albrecht Dürer is one of my favourite artists and it has been interesting to see him in the most mundane way, removed from the mystique of an artist.
The book is a collection of letters and diaries, and they deal for the most part, with firmly quotidian concerns. Dürer pays bills, receives payments, trades drawings. I would be lying if I said it doesn't get very dry. However, it's also a look at a time when being an artist was first and foremost, being a craftsman, when painting was as much a trade as baking and cobbling and candle-stick making. I enjoyed reading about the artists' guilds and the procession of the tradesmen in Antwerp. I was also reminded that art, like most things at the time, was mainly a man's job, when Dürer commends an illumination by a young girl, saying that, "It is very wonderful that a woman's picture should be so good." I'm taking this positively, though because he comes across as agreeable, witty and appreciative of art in all its forms and origins.
Besides the constant accounts of florins and ducats and angels and stivers, Dürer mentions other things: his escape from a runaway ship, the beached whale in Zeeland, the bridge "where men are beheaded" and all the gifts he gives and receives, from sugar loaves to snail shells. There is also a religious note to Dürer's musings, especially his impassioned support of Martin Luther. The greater presence of religion then is striking, even in the smallest of instances, such as the dates and timings, which almost always mention a feast day or religious holiday of some kind. Of course, this was not extraordinary for the time but a first-person account makes the historical fact come alive. In the end, that's why I liked the book: for its glimpse into the every-day life of a master artist and the fascinating times he lived in.(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.
I don't know how - or if - to review this book. How does one review a life? And yet these letters are so essential, so needed. Because they tear down...moreI don't know how - or if - to review this book. How does one review a life? And yet these letters are so essential, so needed. Because they tear down the myth of van Gogh, the eccentric, anguished genius and instead show him as he truly is, something infinitely more admirable - a man, a real man, who dreamt.
I have a tattered National Geographic dated October 1997 that features an article on van Gogh's life through his letters. Each time I was down, out of sorts or simply uninspired I turned to the fragments of Vincent's letters sprinkled in red throughout the article and each time, it never failed to strengthen me.
By a strange coincidence, I received this copy of his letters a few days before Vincent's birthday and at a time when I was going through a situation that mirrored his. And an even greater coincidence - both of us had taken the same decision. In any case, I started reading this book on his birthday; slowly, a few pages each night. Interestingly, I see that I finished it on Theo's birthday.
The letters have been an emotional experience; they drained me almost as much as they uplifted me. Vincent is so impossibly real. A few days before I got this book, another artist friend of mine had been putting up videos about Vincent on Facebook, unaware that they would be commemorating his birthday in a few days' time. When I clicked on one of the links, I was struck by the comments; how much everyone seemed to identify with him. One poster even said that he almost believed he was Vincent reincarnated. And honestly, it's not that absurd. It's so easy to see yourself in him. He represents all that is most human in all of us - a desire to be honest to oneself, to do some good in the world, to be understood and to belong. Because after all, he is human. It is easy to identify with him because the intimacy of the letters shows him as he is - flawed, just like anybody else, but with a "great fire" in his soul.
The letters offer insight into his work too, of course. They show his keen understanding of art, of the science of colour. It was also interesting to see the great influence literature had on his art and his letters are often deeply poetic. I especially loved the letter describing his stay in Zweeloo. His output during his stay in France, notably in Arles are well-known but I found his early Dutch years the most fascinating.
Sometimes the letters are too personal and I felt like an eavesdropper: how would Vincent react if he knew his letters were being read by perfect strangers? Even if he himself was greatly influenced by the biographies of other artists and writers? His need to love, and to be loved and his ultimate sacrifice of a hearth of his own are deeply moving. His letter to Theo, describing his attempts to transform his studio in the Hague into a home with Sien Hoornik - "... you are definitely coming, aren't you? ... and Father as well?" - breaks the heart.
But it was easy to ignore these misgivings when I read of van Gogh's passion for art. And yet, it is more than mere passion - his letters show that he worked hard and sacrificed much to get where he did. Vincent spent two years learning to draw before producing the paintings the world knows him for. He isn't some sort of irreverent genius and to label his work as driven by a mere magical inspiration is to undermine the physical, manual labour he devoted to his craft.
It is heart-breaking and unfair that van Gogh is being subjected to this bawdy apotheosis when his letters show his despair at his apparent failure to be recognized as he would have liked, even if there were those who began to see the value in his work, especially towards the end of his life. Perhaps Vincent would have been heartened to know that his letters are as powerful as his other works of art. That he has reached across space and time to prove that failure is never final and that sooner or later, you always realise your destiny.(less)