Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails – An essay by David Hall

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 2, 2019

” He worked hard all his life at being himself, but there were no principles to examine when his life was over. It was as if there had been a moral skeleton which had lacked the flesh of the intellect and the blood of experience. The life which he could recall totally was not worth recalling.”
 
From David Hall’s essay “A Hundred Thousand Straightened Nails”. The essay itself is an extract from Hall’s book ” String too Short to Save”…
In portraying an endearing life picture of a resourceful rural busybody viz. Washington Woodward, Hall builds a wonderful picture of the changing rural landscape of New Hampshire over three generations….
I checked on Amazon and find the book too expensive… It is in times like these, I wish there was a big library close by where I can go and browse through the book.. maybe read a couple of essays.. Sometimes it is not the access but the thought that there is freedom/possibility to such access itself which is so hope inducing… Libraries provide that….
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Beaumont’s “Black Country”

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 23, 2019

We are eternal outsiders to a few things. We can see them, feel them, experience them, learn about them but they can never be ours however desirable, admirable and wholesome they are. Race, race relations and some products of culture appear to fit this situation. But men and women being what they are, make attempts to transcend these barriers with varied degrees of success. Beaumont’s short story “Black Country” is an engaging tale of this attempt at transcendence. The transcendence is at two levels: one at a white man’s attempt to get into the heart of Jazz music as part of a Jazz ensemble and the other through a marriage across races…

Spoof Collins (Ol Massuh) is the lead of an accomplished black Jazz group and into that comes Sonny Holmes – a white talented kid. It is the journey, confrontations, challenges of Sonny in moving from the periphery of the group to the center stage along with his attempt to declare and win his love of a black woman member of the group – Rose Ann – the core of the story.

What makes “Black Country” a great read is its atmospherics. Beaumont takes the readers – through a dazzling elliptical narrative – into the heart of Jazz without depending on any technical terms..Here is an example of that…

” Now like a scream, now like a laugh–now we’re swinging in the trees, now the white men are coming, now we’re in the boat and chains are hanging from our ankles and we’re rowing, rowing–_Spoof, what is it?_–now we’re sawing wood and picking cotton and serving up those cool cool drinks to the Colonel in his chair–Well, _blow_, man!–now we’re free, and we’re struttin’ down Lenox Avenue and State & Madison and Pirate’s Alley, laughing, crying–_Who said free?_–and we want to go back and we don’t want to go back–_Play it, Spoof! God, God, tell us all about it! Talk to us!_–and we’re sitting in a cellar with a comb wrapped up in paper, with a skin-barrel and a tinklebox–_Don’t stop, Spoof! Oh Lord, please don’t stop!_–and we’re making something, something, what is it? Is it jazz? Why, yes, Lord, it’s jazz. Thank you, sir, and thank you, sir, we finally got it, something that is _ours_,something great that belongs to us and to us alone, that we made and _that’s_ why it’s important, and _that’s_ what it’s all about… “

The second appealing aspect of the story is the narrative style. Beaumont brings a verbal energy and a pace that is deeply appealing and extremely satisfying. And lastly the story has a twist to it which is a trademark of Beaumont.

Black Country is one of the finest short stories written by a truly talented outsider and succeeds in transcending the barriers.

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The Sentinel – Arthur C Clarke

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 20, 2018

One of the “spiritual” benefits of reading science fiction is that it shows how insignificant we humans are in the grand scheme of things of the Universe. This is not just humbling but also frightening… and in a way this kind of “cutting us down to size” is a wholesome thing to happen to us.

Yesterday, I had read Arthur C Clarke’s “The Sentinel” and realized the mindless tomfoolery we human beings get into. For any ink that blackened paper till date, this would be one of the finest pieces of prose I have encountered… the thought, the fluidity of narration and the overall buildup is very well done.

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Detail in Fiction – Gogol’s Overcoat

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 12, 2018

“Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on. You have only to teach literature to realize that most young readers are poor noticers. I know from my own old books, wantonly annotated twenty years ago when I was a student, that I routinely underlined for approval details and images and metaphors that strike me now as commonplace, while serenely missing things which now seem wonderful. We grow, as readers, and twenty year-olds are relative virgins. They have not yet read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it”                                                   

——- James Wood in “How Fiction Works”

I do not know about others but in my case this exactly how it has worked on my reading and is working even to this day with respect to noticing detail in the fiction I read… I used to be a fairly fast reader but this attention to detail has slowed me down considerably.  In return it has enhanced my reading pleasure. These days, I stop many a time while reading to marvel at instances of brilliant focus on detail and also to pause and wonder about a writer’s ability to spot and outline detail.

The other day and on a friend’s recommendation, I read Gogol’s famous story “The Overcoat” (- no doubt it is a great story but I have read better ones). Here is a fine example of detail which Gogol hurls at his readers:

The first thing that struck Akaky was his familiar big toe, with its deformed nail, thick and hard as a tortoiseshell”

It is a “big toe” – but how big is it? – we do not know… “deformed nail” – but what sort of deformation is it or how ugly it is – we do not know… thick and hard as a tortoiseshell” – ah! now everything starts to fall in place.. imagination starts to concretize the toe and the deformed nail in my own way… ten years back, I would have just rushed past this sentence looking to find what transpired in the end and where Akaky ends up with his overcoat… but now it is different… I know I will reach the end in due course, but I slow down to think and marvel at this kind of rich detailing.

Here is another one:

” To this he was blind as well; and only when he happened to bump into a policeman who had propped his halbred up and was sprinkling some snuff he has taken from a small horn onto his ” wart covered” fist did he come to senses at all….”

… the warts on the fist act as speed breakers and I begin to wonder what was the need for Gogol to highlight the policeman’s fist with such a simple but striking detail and slow me down considerably in what otherwise would have been a smooth flow of page turning…………………………….. Looks like and as Mr.Wood says, I have read enough literature to be taught by it how to read it…or am I assuming things?

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Ray Bradbury’s “The Wilderness”

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on December 5, 2018

It was 2003 and Iraq war was just picking up momentum. We all were trying to understand the motives for the war and ensuing destruction. As reasons, the usual suspects bandied around included: WMD, removal of a dictator, restoration of democracy, oil grab, clash of civilizations etc etc. But a visiting client of mine from UK added an interesting psychological motive: “frontiersmenship”. He went on to explain how it is a ingrained trait in American psyche to push towards unknown frontiers and colonize/conquer them.. he put forth a very cogent argument as to how Americans have pushed within their own country from east to west resulting in domesticating a wilderness, giving birth to Californian and Alaskan gold rush oblivious to the trail of destruction they left along their way. He narrated it quite well and I had no reason either to believe or disbelieve it. It was a psycho history of sorts made an impression on me. Through the length of the conversation which was actually a monologue, I remember, the only statement I offered was that all the earthly frontiers are finite and that space was the final frontier – actually it is a deep sentence which I borrowed from Star Trek and offered without a second thought. The conversation ended with the way world is and how things go continuously from bad to worse…

Much later I encountered this concept of frontiersmenship at a very unusual place : In a essay titled “Two Young Men Who Went West” by Tom Wolfe. The essay is all about how California was settled as the tech mecca of the world and the rise of the semi conductor industry in California and the men behind it… a fascinating piece of modern history brilliantly outlined by Wolfe. The reference to frontiersmenship is very casual but the innuendos are unmissable and concrete.

After a long time I have encountered frontiersmenship again in a brilliant story by Ray Bradbury called “The Wilderness”. It is about the last night of two women who are leaving earth for good to meet their respective men on Mars who have gone there a few years ahead to homestead the red planet. Bradbury contrasts two kinds of “frontiersmenship” – the one that was experienced in America on earth and the other that is taking place in the solar system. The sense of history, nostalgia, apprehension, excitement and longing that Ray evokes is one the finest pieces of haunting prose I read till date. Since yesterday I have not been able to shake the story off my head… some days it is like that…

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On reading Emily Dickinson’s Poetry

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on November 30, 2018

I first encountered the depth of Emily Dickinson’s poetry in a article written by Hari Kunzru in The Hindu. I do not remember what the article was about but he quoted this mesmerizing poem of Dickinson:

THERE is a solitude of space,
A solitude of sea,
A solitude of death, but these 
Society shall be,
Compared with that profounder site,
That polar privacy,
A Soul admitted to Itself:
Finite Infinity.

It was love at first sight !!

A search on Google gave me a well printed and well organised version of her complete poems counting to about 1600+ in number. But Dickinson is not an easy poet. She makes you mull. For an untrained reader there is no instant rhapsody…one has to struggle to come to grips with the layered metaphors, brilliant juxtapositions, flora, fauna, Greek and Christian mythological references and the setting of her time. Initially it was difficult and I was on the verge of giving up..but as luck would have it I found Susan Kornfield’s dedicated website on her interpretations of Dickinson’s poems – which has become my Dickinson’s poetry crutch. The most telling aspect of her site is the lack of pedant-ism. On the contrary, she writes her interpretations as if she is a co-explorer struggling to find meaning like I was doing. It has been more than 3 months since I have been slow reading her poems, and boy, the joy is inexpressible…

I do not remember if it was Aristotle or Plato, who expounding on the nature of poetry tell us that poetry is something that reaches our hearts even before it reaches our minds. Every single poem of Dickinson stands testimony to that point of view. A thousand poems behind me, a fount of joy discovered, a lifetime of human paradoxes to mull over, the hypnotic beauty of her words – all available, all to myself in/at what Dickinson calls “the polar privacy” of my soul ( or its equivalent something)….Feeling blessed !!

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On reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 30, 2018

After two months of careful and a slightly exhausting reading, I completed Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina today morning. What a great read it has been !!

This work of Tolstoy can be analysed on multiple fictive dimensions where Tolstoy demonstrates supreme command on every single dimension. But what in my view really elevates the book is Tolstoy’s treatment of “human universals” that we are always trying to grapple with in our individual lives – especially – in those lonely moments when we are face to face with ourselves. Questions like – What defines a good life? How should one conduct oneself in a way that classifies as ideal existence? What should be the relevance of religion, God, scriptures in one’s life? Are such things really important for good conduct of life? How should one view death? – are some of the questions he addresses in the book against the backdrop of carefully tracking the trajectories of two lives viz. Anna Karenina and Konstantin Dimitrich Levin – the former leading her life to utter perdition while the latter finding – through his own thinking and partly with some luck – a fragile/precarious equilibrium which as a reader gave me a great sense of hope, joy and direction…There is a spiritual quality to the book which reminded me of Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” and Thornton Wilder’s “The Bridge of San Luis Rey”….

The strong sense of history that permeates his writing combined with the treatment of a sweep of themes brings a transcendental quality to his writing which leaves me permanently in a state of awe of his writerly abilities and also gives me courage and curiosity to explore his other masterpiece “War and Peace”.

Were I to single out a great peculiarity of his abilities it would be his ability to dwell in the deep layers of the minds of his women characters…so utterly complete and amazing insight/s and attendant charecterization !!

Truly, truly a great book and I am happy that I persisted with it till the end !!

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Initial Encounters with Tolstoy

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on April 15, 2018

Been reading Anna Karenina for the past couple of days. I have read many good prose writers but Tolstoy is of a different order. Extraordinary ! Nothing escapes his gaze. Every minute detail is absorbed and presented as if it is a slow moving real picture. The writing bursts with attention to detail and yet nowhere did I feel bored or suffocated due to the abundance of detail (till now) nor has my attention sagged. Some books, if they have to be understood, enjoyed, internalized and respected ought to be read after a particular age.. Happy to have reached that age.

Terrific job by translators Richard Peavar and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Two of the numerous examples that I have encountered and quite liked:

Vronsky followed the conductor to the carriage and at the door to the compartment stopped to allow a lady to leave. With the habitual flair of a worldly man, Vronsky determined from one glance at this lady’s appearance that she belonged to high society. He excused himself and was about to enter the carriage, but felt a need to glance at her once more – not because she was very beautiful, not because of the elegance and modest grace that could be seen in her whole figure, but because there was something especially gentle and tender in the expression of her sweet–looking face as she stepped past him. As he looked back, she also turned her head. Her shining grey eyes, which seemed dark because of their thick lashes, rested amiably and attentively on his face, as if she recognized him, and at once wandered over the approaching crowd as though looking for someone. In that brief glance Vronsky had time to notice the restrained animation that played over her face and fluttered between her shining eyes and the barely noticeable smile that curved her red lips. It was as if a surplus of something so overflowed her being that it expressed itself beyond her will, now in the brightness of her glance, now in her smile. She deliberately extinguished the light in her eyes, but it shone against her will in a barely noticeable smile

Internal, external, movement, flow everything is captured as if it is a slow moving picture

When Anna came in, Dolly was sitting in the small drawing room with a plump, tow– headed boy who already resembled his father, listening as he recited a French lesson. The boy was reading, his hand twisting and trying to tear off the barely attached button of his jacket. His mother took his hand away several times, but the plump little hand would take hold of the button again. His mother tore the button off and put it in her pocket

Hope to write a full piece after I am done with it…Anna Karenina

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Ennui: Read but not reviewed

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 1, 2015

Ennui: A feeling of utter weariness and discontent resulting from satiety or lack of interest; boredom

Heart of Darkness

Number9dream Thousand acresTraindreams

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A tribute to Ray Bradbury

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on June 8, 2012

In moments of anguish, I ask myself: what is the purpose of man’s need for permanence and what his duty to posterity is?

Well, Ray Bradbury gave me the answer with his writing: Dipped in immense amount of love, fun, affection and generosity he made our world a more joyous, pleasant, rich and optimistic place to live in

Like many other writers whom I have discovered late in life, I came to know of Ray Bradbury and his books through the book section of The Guardian. The first book of his I read was Fahrenheit 451. Instinctively, I knew that here was a great and important writer whose book I was reading. Then followed his collection of short stories “The Illustrated Man” and the fabulous collection of essays on the craft of writing in his “Zen in the art of writing” and an odd story here and there from his abundant output of short stories. From the word go, I was completely captivated by the imaginative quality, zest and the extraordinary richness that he brought to the art of storytelling. Somebody once said that the world is at least 51% in favour of us and that is why we are able to live. And into those 51% favours, I unhesitatingly count the joys of reading Ray Bradbury’s books, stories and essays.

I believe that one should read with calm but mad abandon till about 55, then choose about 200 books from what one has already read and begin re-reading them till one dies. At least that is what I am planning to do.  Into that precious list of mine, I will have the fattest volume of Ray Bradbury’s short stories included

In Fahrenheit 451, Ray set down a tough yardstick for measuring a writer when he wrote

“The good writers touch life often. The mediocre ones run a quick hand over her. The bad ones rape her and leave her for the flies”

Ray not only did touch life but he very often enlivened it. Thank you Ray. May your soul rest in peace

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