Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for October, 2010

Darkness Visible: Memoirs of Madness – William Styron

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 25, 2010

I always felt that the value of written word is lost on those who have it in excess. Mindless reading, although supremely better than no reading, comes with a diminished value. Reading ought to be like cud chewing. Gorge first, keep the semi-digested stuff in a temporary storage and retrieve it subsequently for leisurely chewing and absorption. This should be especially true of any writing that deals in fundamental human predicaments. In the limited list of writers who genuinely wedded themselves to such subject matters, William Styron was a prominent one. Needless to say that I have become an ardent admirer of William Styron’s fiction. There is something grand, mature, deep, generous, wise and masterly the way he writes. He is one of those rare writers who by the sheer quality of his work enthuses readers to cover his entire oeuvre. I read “Darkness Visible: Memoirs of Madness” with the intention of covering some ground of his vast output and as usual was amply rewarded

Styron went through an intense period of depression which was mentally debilitating. “Darkness Visible” is the narrative of this turmoil and the gradual convalescence he expereinced. There is an ineluctable serenity, cheerfulness and compassion in the way Styron writes about his battles with depression. Unwittingly it is also an effortless demonstration of the scintillating mind that Styron was. There is not even a single sentence in the whole book where Styron asks the maudlin question: Why Me? He narrates his ordeal (and the ordeal of many of his contemporaries) as it came and as he faced without exhibiting any bitterness, anger or despondency. Styron handles this poignant episode of his life objectively and with a large heart that one cannot but admire him and his capacity for writing. Paradoxical as it may sound, Styron makes this dark and gloomy subject matter and his encounters with it a delightful read. Maybe there in lies the proof of his mastery and the deservedly elevated position he occupies in the world of literature

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One, Two, Buckle My Shoes

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 24, 2010

The laboured notes of the keyboard broke the thick silence of the room without any hurry or violence. It was a nuanced imitation of the first bit of a popular hindi song that had caught the attention of the kids recently. Then the following conversation ensued:

Rajeev: Anna, did I get it right?
Raghav: Uh, hu
Rajeev: Ooooooooooooo! I got it right! I got it right!. Thanks Anna

It occured to me suddenly that the kids have started to grow up. Atleast on some matters of importance to them they are not looking for any parental opinion, approval or involvement. I wondered what happens to kids in single child families in situations like this? Siblings have many utilities: They act as ready sounding boards, punch bags, friends, givers, takers, sharers, competitors, foes, guides, mentors, tormentors and above all a critical part of the small self operating eco system that they unwittingly help build and come to depend on.

Well..One, Two, Buckle  My Shoes

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Black Swan Green – David Mitchell

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 20, 2010

On a late night commute from office, I found myself all alone in a London tube compartment. Alone, not so much on account of lack of co-travellers but on account of lack of any reading material on me. I did what I usually do: wander along the length of the compartment to scavenge any old news papers or magazines to suffice the journey. My eyes fell on a shiny looking two pager left on one of the seats. I picked it up for reading thanking my stars. The article was about an ineluctable psychic phenomenon in which 34 people in a small hamlet in Sweden bought a yellow Beetle on the day of its launch from the same dealer without knowing that others were also doing the same. The village, the article mentioned, did not have more than 100 houses. The author attributed it to an unknown but palpable psychic phenomenon. It did sound a little eerie. Something very similar on a smaller scale happened to me on my reading front. NewYorker, NY Times and Paris Review — all carried reviews, articles and interviews about the writer David Mitchell and his work in a span of two days. It did spook me mildly because Mitchell is not a novice in literary cirlces and what was happening started to suggest something beyond sheer co-incidence – either all the writers colluded to produce coverage that is worthy of Mitchell‘s talent or that each of these writers found Mitchell‘s literary talents on their own and decided to express it all at the same time. Whatever the phenomenon, my own curiosity was stoked sufficiently enough to order his books for readingand I began with Mitchell’s “Black Swan Green

Black Swan Green”  is essentially  a book about adolescence, of pain and fun of growing up, self discovery, becoming aware of the ways of the world. More importantly it is also about finding ones way and place in the world in a manner that is largely natural and mostly inevitable. The story is narrated by Jason Taylor – the stuttering protagonist and a budding poet who will never allow the reader to forget of his stutter (aka hangman) in a gentle, at times humorous but constantly sympathy evoking manner. One gets to witness the microcosmic world of a rural England adoloscent of the eighties through the eyes of Jason Taylor which is absorbing and moving. Unlike the angsty Holden Caulfield  of  “The Catcher in the Rye” or the diminutive Jem Finch of “To Kill A Mocking Bird“, Jason is much more aware child who suffers in the hands of his classmates due to his stutter but manages to put an end to his suffering through a combination of coming of age, providence and maturity. He has the calm equanimity to accept the good with the bad and have a sense of fairness around most of the things he does and that makes him an endearing and memorable character

All adolescents need role models and a majority of the novels that deal with adolescence do provide these role models with an uncanny consistency. While Holden may have a nurtured irreverance to everyone and everything around him, he still has a wisdom giver in Antolini – his school teacher –  whom he likes and reaches out to during his crisis. For a Jem Finch, his father Atticus is a living role model and for Jason it is Madam Crommelynck – who adumbrates a dim vision of what art ought to be and the nature of effort and commitment that an individual has to have to make it relvant to oneself. Mitchell does a wonderful job of painting this give and take that happens between Jason and  Madam Crommelynck. It is my suspicion that this intuitive understanding of a larger vision that provides the admirable stability in Jason despite his age and the difficulties he faces as part of his growing up

One of the appealing features of the “Black Swan Green” is Mitchell‘s consistent and unfailing ability to narrate the story through the eyes of an adolescent. Consequently, every minor and major detail that is germane to a young boy like Jason is depicted making the overall story telling effort realistic. While this dishes out strength to the novel, the real weight provider is the narrative style. Mitchell‘s prose carries it with a verve, flamboyance, abandon and flexibility which makes it a great pleasure to soak oneself in. There is a terrific ear for mimicry and charming ventriloquism. His ability to catch idiosyncratic twangs of his characters and remain consistent with them through the narrative is brilliant

In the personal journey of becoming aware of writers and writing, 2010, will go down as a major milestone for the number of new writers I have come to know and David Mitchell and “Black Swan Green” will undoubtedly be a notable addition to this growing list

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Havanas in Camelot – Personal Essays – William Styron

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 16, 2010

Well crafted personal essays are an absolute delight for reading and second to no other form of writing. However, as an art form this appears to be on the decline for I have not seen many collections being published these days. So I felt grateful when I found a copy of William Styron‘s ” Havanas in Camelot” – a collection of 14 initimable reminisces – for reading.

I am not a novice to the writing of Styron having read his magnum opus “Sophie’s Choice” – a book of staggering range and deeply moving quality. Besides treating the complex topics of thesuffering of Jews and the ignominy of slavery, “Sophie’s Choice” also has strong biographical streaks drawn from various phases of Styron’s life. This aspect of “Sophie’s Choice” has become clearer after reading ” Havanas in Camelot“. The title essay “Havanas In Camelot” is a fond reminscence of Styron’s interactions with President John F Kennedy who loved his cigars and had a high regard for Styron and his work. In a similar vein is the essay “Les Amis Du President” where Styron delves on his invitation to the inuaguration of President Mitterand’s term. Both go on to show that Styron was well regarded on both sides of the Atlantic as an accomplished man of letters. The essays “Celebrating Capote“, “Jimmy in the House” and “A Literary Forefather” are three insightful pieces on Truman Capote, James Baldwin and Mark Twain respectively, all whom Styron held in very high esteem and had a genuine admiration for their contribution to the literary landscape of America. “I’ll Have to Ask Indianapolis” is an entertaining read on the role of libraries and Styron’s struggles with the prudish perceptions around sexually explicit themes and language that he had to encounter not only for his writings but also in reading.   “A Case of The Great Pox” is a warm but poignant account of a mis- diagnosis of Syphilis that Styron was attributed with and the mental taruma that Styron had to encounter as a young marine. For anyone who is allergic to walking, Styron’s views in the essay “Walking with Aquinnah” will undoubtedly be a perfect antidote

Without exception each of these essays comes across as rich, vagrant, sensitive and insightful rambles of a sparkling and capacious mind which had a great felicity with language. Styron remains truthful and unabashedly straightforward in revealing his own personal details in a manner that fits an accomplished man of letters. As I read through them, I felt blessed to be affluent enough to own a copy of this wonderfully delightful book. Needless to say that in the humidor of my mind and the Camelot of my bookshelf, these 14 highest quality literary havanas of Styron will always be carefully preserved

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And Other Stories – John O’Hara

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on October 15, 2010

My introduction to John O’Hara was in the form of a review of his biography published in NYTimes. The review was written by the eternally petulant Michiko Kakutani and was titled “Bending Over Backward For a Well-Known Lout“. The lout being referred to was John O’Hara. The biography itself was titled  “The Art Of Burning Bridges :A Life of John O’Hara” By Geoffrey Wolff. The article was disparaging of the biography and summarized O’Hara as an “interesting but ultimately minor writer”. It is this characterisation that attracted me to explore O’Hara and I began with a collection of his short stories

O’ Hara grew up and lived through a significant part of twentieth century America which went through an unprecedented metamorphosis – great depression, prohibition and its subsequent repealing, great inward migration, second world war, advent of mechanisation in agriculture and manufacturing, the rage of jazz, scientific progress, political turbulence, rise of wall street, a great liberation of sexual mores, world domination through military might and many others. The brilliance of O’ Hara’s writing is that he makes his plots, concerns and characters quintessentially American. When I read a good short story, I look forward to a level of abstraction that is relevant at a generic human condition. I found very minimal in O’ Hara’s writing that I could abstract into a universal concern. Everything is out and out American and America is by any measure no small canvas. Using this vast and rich canvas, O’ Hara produces remarkably brilliant and utterly enjoyable moods, characters, situations and a babel of distinct and diverse voices to life

O’ Hara is a remarkable observer of a changing society and yet his observations are never directly told. The reader gets to see and hear of these changes through the eyes, deeds and matter-of- fact conversations of his characters.         O’ Hara displays an extraordinary ability for mimicry when he makes his characters talk. The entire story of “We’ll Have Fun” is about how the advent of automobiles put paid the horse transportation industry in America but told through the angle of an odd jobs, hang-around-the-town kind of alcoholic, Tony Castello. Similarly, the mechanisation of agriculture has brought in the concept of ranches and the ranch among other things induced enormous loneliness in the farmer and this is brilliantly poured out in the story “Farmer“. In the story “Gangster” – the transformation of a young studious lad into an aspiring gangster is entertainingly told against the backdrop of the prohibition. In the story “A Few Trips and Some Poetry” one gets to read the uninhibited but racy sexual liberation of young Isabel Turner against the backdrop of industrialisation of the coal mining industry and the rise of jazz. In the story “Private People” one gets to see the break up and reconciliation of a once famous actor and his alcoholic wife against the backdrop of Hollywood and its quirks. “Papa Gibralter” is the subtle revelation that the famous actor who was thought to be like the rock of gibralter to his daughter is in real life far moved from that picture of solidity. The story is told against the backdrop of the rich but bygone years of broadway and hollywood.

O’ Hara’s characters come from all over the American society: rich, poor, educated, uneducated, professionals, criminals, perverted, liberals, conservative, sucessful, not so successful, gays, lesbians and straight-  each carrying concerns that are quintessentially American. Yet there is a force and urgency in their concerns that brings an unforgettable gravity to their personas. It is through this sharp focus, American quintessence and ability to express themselves eloquently, O’ Hara brings a richness to his writing which in my view makes him a wonderful story teller worth reading.

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