Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for January, 2012

I am not on an e-reader — not yet

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 27, 2012

Affordability should be the last reason to justify any acquisition. There is a merit in visiting this thought before every single purchase one makes. I think some of the world’s serious ills will get automatically solved if everyone were to follow this. For a while, I have been in a dilemma whether or not buy an e-reader. There were at least two occasions when I visited a couple of popular electronic stores to pick an e-reader but returned empty handed. There is nothing wrong with the current crop of e-readers from a features or capabilities perspective. Almost all of them that are available in the market are true to their promises on the conveniences they offer to provide. The motivation not to buy lies elsewhere. I am by any statistical measure an avid reader and this avidity has only been growing over the last decade making me an ideal proselyte so to speak. Yet in biting the bullet and acquiring one, something kept me in a hesitant mode. I think the single biggest dissuader in not buying an e-reader has been my reading style. At any point in time I toggle between two books. Beyond two books, I am lost. Given a chance, I would like to avoid this two book strategy too. The second book is there mostly as an assurance, an option or means to sustain freshness of reading experience and minimise any monotony that may arise out of a specific writing style, topic, theme or author. In fact, there is fair number of instances where I am with a single book from start to finish. In my reading temperament, I am like a single horse buggy with a penchant for long haul. So even though an e-reader can carry hundreds of books simultaneously, my need for them at a time is very limited. Even the single book that I am reading at any point in time, I prefer to carry on me in physical form. A physical book (with its cover visible to others around me) declares my taste in ways which can never be matched by an e-book reader. A bit of self-expression should not be construed as outright vanity.  Especially while traveling, whether it is a flight or a train, the book I carry has been an effective ice-breaker with strangers in initiating a conversation. I am not sure if an e- reader hidden in leather cover and exuding a mildly geeky aura can ever stand up to a book on that front. Yes, an e-reader can carry a lifetime supply of books and liberate enormous space which physical books tend to occupy and for those my answer is: books are not meant for decoration but they are the best things available for decoration

I am not on e-reader… not yet

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How It All Began – Penelope Lively

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 24, 2012

In our increasingly interconnected lives, a minor incident involving individuals could lead to direct and unexpected consequences for people far removed from them. Unknown to the individual and people who get affected, the whimsical hand of randomness casts the die, the lot gets drawn and consequences unfold. Randomness has its say in the way an individual’s life trajectory gets defined and affected. Plodding on this trajectory people are wont to find their share of unexpected joys and unwanted tragedies. No man or woman can remain an island. That appears to be the conclusion of Penelope Lively’s latest novel “How It All Began”. Written with a poise, maturity and control, this novel is yet another bravura performance from Penelope Lively. I have read her Booker Winner “Moon Tiger” and also her Booker shortlisted “According to Mark”. “How It All Began” is effortlessly in the same league. Actually, I think it is a notch better than both the books

Charlotte, a retired teacher of English is mugged on London streets resulting in her temporary relocation to her daughter Rose and son-in-law Gerry’s house for a period of convalescence. Rose is personal assistant to Lord Henry Peter, an old school English aristocrat, stuck in his notion and views of twentieth century English politics but popular on lecture circuits for his first-hand knowledge of politics and personalities of his era. Charlotte’s presence at home forces Rose to skip a one day lecture tour of Henry resulting in him requesting his niece Marion to accompany him on the tour. To make place for this request, Marion cancels her appointment with her lover Jeremy Dalton by texting a message which falls in the eyes of Stella who is Jeremy’s wife. This enrages Stella who egged by her spinster sister Gill proceeds for a divorce. Marion, an interior decorator by profession meets George Harrington a London banker on the lecture circuit who gives her an assignment which at the outset looks like a much needed support to her sagging business. Execution of that assignment leads Marion deep into debt and forces her to reassess her continuation in her profession. Marion meets her childhood friend Laura who urges her to locate to a leafy little town where she meets Nigel (who is Laura’s brother) and marries him. Lord Henry Peter is humiliated on the lecture circuit and to repair his reputation he embarks on making a TV program with BBC on political quirks of his times. The attempt takes him nowhere but introduces him to Mark who conveniently uses Lord Peter to his personal purposes. Prior to her accident, Charlotte is engaged in adult literacy programs and her continuation of the same from the premises of Rose’s house brings, Anton, an economic migrant from Eastern Europe into the life of Rose. Rose gets attracted to Anton but has the good sense to keep it in control. Stella and Jeremy reconcile, Charlotte convalesces, Marion settles into her new life, Anton makes enormous progress on English language and gets a gainful employment as an accountant, Lord Peter plods through writing his memoirs and Mark continues to sponge and the unnamed mugger who unwittingly sets this chain of events rolling meets his nemesis by being mugged by another gang. As the reader is about to settle down for a happy ending Ms. Lively makes this wonderfully lucid conclusion:      

But of course this is not the end of the story, the stories. An ending is an artificial device; we like endings – they are satisfying, convenient – and a point has been made. But time does not end, and stories march in step with time. Equally chaos theory does not assume an ending; the ripple effect goes on and on. These stories do not end, but they spin away from one another, each on its own course

Penelope Lively employs a writing style that is intimate, easy, having a charming idiosyncrasy and allure of its own. The writing bobs between a careful observation of superfluous detail at one level and sudden plunge into something deep and noticeable at another level. The things she observes and writes so affectingly about are common place, universal and yet have missed the eye of the reader. I especially liked two of her brilliant observations:

She lives in an insistent present. But her thoughts are often of the past. The evanescent, pervasive, slippery internal landscape known to no one else, that vast accretion of data on which you depend – without it you would not be yourself. Impossible to share, and no one else could view it anyway. The past is our ultimate privacy; we pile it up year by year, decade by decade. It stows itself away, with its perverse random recall system. We remember in shreds, the tattered faulty contents of the mind. Life has added up to this: seventy seven moth eaten years

Wow! past as our ultimate privacy… how true it is!! …………………….and

Pain is in residence. Charlotte is a pain expert, or maybe connoisseur is a better term. She can rate pain on a scale of one to ten, as required in the hospital, even slipping in a half on occasion. ‘Six and half this morning,’ and the nurse’s pen falters – the charts do not allow this. But when you have lived for years with pain you are nicely tuned to that extra notch up or down. More than that, she is familiar with the way in which pain chases around the body, popping up where it should not be. Referred pain, this is called, a sly escape from the root site of the problem. Indeed – but Charlotte sees it also pain’s malign capacity to mutate, to advance and retreat, to behave like some bodily parasite with its own agenda, gnawing away when it feels like it, going into deceptive hibernation only to spring back grinning just when you thought the going was good.

Penelope Lively uses a narrative style in which the author herself is the omniscient narrator but she also generously allows Charlotte to act as the omniscient narrator at places. There is an effortless transition between the two narrators. The character delineations are wonderfully done barring Anton’s way of speaking English, which I am not sure reflects reality. There is subtle sense of humour all through the book which adds to the writing quality. Overall, a noteworthy writing effort and a cherishable reading experience

Is it a flawless novel? I am not sure

There is one quarrel I have with this thoroughly enjoyable and well written novel which is its premise: If human destiny is determined by random events, then what is the role of free will? Does it have a role to play at all? Are we puppets reduced to vagaries of the puppeteer? We may not be able to determine our destinies but are we not responsible and accountable for the choices we make? For example; does Rose not know that the growing attraction to Anton and her near physical involvement with him a well-designed powder keg ready to get ignited in time and rock her stable married life? Similarly, the extra-marital affair between Jeffrey and Marion has the potential to derail Jeffrey’s married life. Does Jeffrey not know how his neurotic wife Stella would react if she became aware of this clandestine activity of Jeffrey? Despite knowing it, Jeffrey takes his risks. Is there no truth in the adage: As you sow so you reap?  The role of chance is certainly overrated here. I believe that for random events to affect our lives there have to be enabling conditions and these conditions are created by our conscious choices and some of these choices can lead us to outcomes that can be destabilizing. I am convinced that human affairs and trajectories cannot be completely random as they are made out to be in this novel. The role of an artist, especially writers, is to explore imponderable and quirky themes and present points of view which can be up for silent mulling or heated debates and discussions. Penelope Lively does this brilliantly well.

I am certain that this novel will make it to the longlist of Booker and if it does not…. it deserves to without fail

After thought: No other group of writers are as obsessed with the topics of “memory” and “history” as writers from UK are. I wonder why it is so?

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Rereading Oliver Twist

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on January 16, 2012

I want to read only  what I’ll want to reread—the definition of a book worth reading once – Susan Sontag

Leaving aside the definition of what constitutes a classic, it is my belief that whatever one chooses to define as a classic should be read at least twice (if not more) in one’s lifetime. Rereading books (after a meaningful time gap) which have affected one deeply during the first encounter has its benefits: it gives the reader an opportunity to reassess the relevance of the book in a changed context. It is not the book that changes but the reader who would have changed with time. There is a refreshing joy and a pleasant element of surprise in assessing this personal transformation. It is very similar to the joy we get when we look at our childhood photographs. Looking at a photograph one invariably says “Oh! I can’t believe I looked like that”. Rereading a book one has an opportunity to say “Can’t believe that I liked this stuff as a child” or “I understand now why this appealed to me so much then” or “How impressionable I have been in my younger days” or “The impulses that have affected me as a child continue to affect me even today – not bad at all” or “I am a little surprised that I did not like it then”. These reactions and conclusions are in some sense resultants of our life-experiences and snugly encompass our respective personal transformations or the lack of them

Rereading Charles Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” after a gap of nearly 25 years has given me an opportunity to assess where I stood with respect to this book. I remember liking it a lot then and now, I like it manifold more than I did in the past. It is a marvelous piece of fiction which is worth reading many times over  

Almost all of Dickens’s characters are generously endowed and exaggerated on specific human attributes: Bill Sikes is downright cruel and misanthropic till his last breath, Rose Maylie is all honey and milk without a trace of negativity, Fagin is an epitome of greed, cunning and graspiness, Fang, in his quest for dispensing justice, is impervious to acknowledgment that a human being is standing in front of him in the dock, Brownlow is unwaveringly consistent in holding his moral stance in an equilibrium which is perfect and unflapping, Charlie Bates can never be serious even if he is mortally threatened (barring in one scene in one of the last chapters where he rebels against Bill Sikes with a bitterness and anger that is surprising), Oliver is eternally tending towards honesty and kindness like a limit function in calculus, Noah Claypole is a shrunken version of Bill Sikes in his mental makeup – but complete in his own right, Mrs. Corney (who transforms into Mrs. Beadle) and Mrs. Sowerbury are perfect examples of what raspy shrews and born henpecks can be, Mr.Sowerbury, a role model of a henpecked, Toby Cratchit a perfect accomplice and side-kick. Mrs. Maylie and her son James are perfect mother-son pair – even the airing of their differences of opinions on the subject of Rose is a lecture in manners and civility for the readers. Only Nancy comes out as a real human being: an inherently good person driven to make a living by doing bad deeds forced by her company, association and upbringing – a genuine victim of her circumstances. Time and time again she reminds readers that she is aware of this position of hers and when there is an opportunity to redeem herself, like a majority of real human beings embraces it wholeheartedly. Despite a strong trace of caricaturization, practically all of Dickens characters are unforgettable and there is a puzzlingly inexplicable appeal to them. I think the writerly trick of Dickens lies in his containment of the degree of caricaturization which while being supremely successful in highlighting the targeted human trait, maintains a splendid balance and just does not roll off into excess which in the hands of any ordinary writer could lead to distortion and disbelief. It is this meticulous tightrope walk between purposeful highlighting and successful containment of potential excess the biggest appeal of Dickens’s characters

Dickens brings a wonderfully polyphonic nature to his writing. He dons the most appropriate writing hat depending on the need and situation. There is a chameleon like ability to alter the tone of writing through the book. Depending on the scene Dickens writes like: a zealous journalist – describing the London slums, the sprawling London city and its suburbs with a cinematic lens and haunting imagery; a passionate humanist – producing torrents of words, sentences and conversations with a power to captivate and move the reader; a dispassionate philosopher – gently ruminating the lot of human beings; an ardent reformer with a great sense of urgency and purpose, a natural mimic, an imitator of tones and a shrewd observer of human frailties – all with a wicked sense of comic, irony and sarcasm. There is an extra-ordinary ear for on-the-ground dialect. Oliver Twist is profuse with this variation in writing which is one of the great strengths of this novel. Here are a few superb examples that demonstrate this ability of Dickens to morph his writing to suit the context appropriately:

 Oliver is being prepared to be sent out as an apprentice to the chimneysweep Mr. Gamfield and the unconscionable cruelty of his potential master is portrayed like this:

‘Young boys have been smothered in chimneys before now,’ said another gentleman.

‘That’s acause they damped the straw afore they lit it in the chimbley to make ’em come down again,’ said Gamfield; ‘that’s all smoke, and no blaze; vereas smoke ain’t o’ no use at all in making a boy come down, for it only sinds him to sleep, and that’s wot he likes. Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, Gen’l’men, and there’s nothink like a good hot blaze to make ’em come down vith a run. It’s humane too, gen’l’men, acause, even if they’ve stuck in the chimbley, roasting their feet makes ’em struggle to hextricate theirselves.’

Gamfield is not even remotely conscious of the cruelty he is intending. (It is said that Victorian England was a place which was rampant with child labour, exploitation, prostitution and crime. However, there must have been a period in history when the Victorian society started to temper its vicious instincts to become more humane and inclusive. With 32% of Indian children malnourished and many more going hungry to bed, rampant corruption aided by crony capitalism, withdrawal of state from its fundamental responsibilities and a consistent mockery of democracy, it is urgent that this tempering mood sets in Indian society too. I am quite keen to know more about the impulses, enablers, drivers and mechanics of this transformative process)

 Here is another one as a conversation between Fagin and Noah Claypole (who hides behind a pseudonym of Morris Bolter) on their beliefs in self-interest and self-preservation

‘Every man’s his own friend, my dear,’ replied Fagin, with his most insinuating grin. ‘He hasn’t as good a one as himself anywhere.’
‘Except sometimes,’ replied Morris Bolter, assuming the air of a man of the world. ‘Some people are nobody’s enemies but their own, yer know.’
‘Don’t believe that,’ said Fagin. ‘When a man’s his own enemy, it’s only because he’s too much his own friend; not because he’s careful for everybody but himself. Pooh! pooh! There ain’t such a thing in nature.’
‘There oughn’t to be, if there is,’ replied Mr. Bolter.

 or

There are some promotions in life, which, independent of the more substantial rewards they offer, require peculiar value and dignity from the coats and waistcoats connected with them. A field-marshal has his uniform; a bishop his silk apron; a counselor his silk gown; a beadle his cocked hat. Strip the bishop of his apron, or the beadle of his hat and lace; what are they? Men. Mere men. Dignity, and even holiness too, sometimes, are more questions of coat and waistcoat than some people imagine.

or

It was market-morning. The ground was covered, nearly ankle-deep, with filth and mire; a thick steam, perpetually rising from the reeking bodies of the cattle, and mingling with the fog, which seemed to rest upon the chimney-tops, hung heavily above. All the pens in the centre of the large area, and as many temporary pens as could be crowded into the vacant space, were filled with sheep; tied up to posts by the gutter side were long lines of beasts and oxen, three or four deep. Countrymen, butchers, drovers, hawkers, boys, thieves, idlers, and vagabonds of every low grade, were mingled together in a mass; the whistling of drovers, the barking dogs, the bellowing and plunging of the oxen, the bleating of sheep, the grunting and squeaking of pigs, the cries of hawkers, the shouts, oaths, and quarrelling on all sides; the ringing of bells and roar of voices, that issued from every public-house; the crowding, pushing, driving, beating, whooping and yelling; the hideous and discordant dim that resounded from every corner of the market; and the unwashed, unshaven, squalid, and dirty figures constantly running to and fro, and bursting in and out of the throng; rendered it a stunning and bewildering scene, which quite confounded the senses.

Lastly,

‘Hush!’ said Barney: ‘stradegers id the next roob.’
‘Strangers!’ repeated the old man in a whisper.
‘Ah! Ad rub uds too,’ added Barney. ‘Frob the cuttry, but subthig in your way, or I’b bistaked.’

  (Barney is afflicted with common cold)

 The credibility of the plot is sustained with the help of coincidences which are one too many. The presence of Fagin at Three Cripples during the arrival of Noah Claypole and Charlotte, the journey of Oliver from the parish house to Mr. Brownlow’s house via Fagin’s mephitic den and then onto the comfort of Mrs.Maylie’s household after yet another detour through Fagin’s clutches, Monks as half-brother of Oliver are a little hard to believe. In a sense the plot is the weakest part of the novel

Despite dollops of sustained (and purposeful) exaggeration, caricaturization and theatrics, one comes out on the side of Dickens with a feeling that there is a larger motive to his writing beyond ordinary story telling: He is intentionally poking fun, laughing, shaming and mocking the inequities in Victorian England – all with a sense of large heartedness, authorial purpose and magnanimity which is staggering at one level and admirable at another level. There is a deep concern for the lives of people on the societal fringes: the poor, the destitute and especially the children. The underbelly of criminal London is brilliant in its portrayal. Fagin’s gang, although a microcosm, is a wonderful testimony to that. Dickens is at his best when he takes a dig at some of the institutions of his times and the practices they follow. The pomposity of the parish officialdom, the treatment of children living there, child-labour, the indifference of court officials while dispensing justice, self-importance of the on-duty policemen are simply unforgettable.

 Every age and every society has its peculiar ills and ailments. The role of an artist, among others, is to shed light on these ills and ensure that as many as possible see these ills vividly. As I read ‘Oliver Twist”, I felt that for Victorian England, Dickens upheld this role of an artist supremely well. Given the diversity and size of its ills, India too desperately needs its own Dickens- who can mock and laugh, tease and taunt, pull and poke, name and shame these ills. Wonder if this pressing need will be fulfilled at all!

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