Books

The Story of a Stranger

Albert Camus’s French masterpiece, L’Etranger translated into English as The Stranger has an interesting synopsis. It says that it is about ‘The nakedness of a man faced with the absurd’.

The Stranger by Albert Camus #thestranger #mersault #albertcamus #bookedfor100 #100bookstoread #top100bookstoread booked for 100 #blogaboutbooks #bookreview

When I read this, there were a lot of situations that I drew up in my mind; situations which could qualify as ‘absurd’, and I was curious what kind of nakedness would each bring about. But as you read the book and turn the last page, you realise the extent of absurdity that Albert Camus scripted into the life of his central character – Mersault, who finds himself stuck in an irretrievable place in life; a no-turning-back moment. The cause and effect of that moment and the judgment meted out to it. The absurdity stares you in the face.

This novel is a narration of a series of events that happen in Mersault’s life starting with his mother’s death. As you go through the narrative, mostly in his words, you begin to see two sides to the whole story. How he sees it and how the world perceives it. He sees it as it is, as a natural progression of thoughts and events, a logical approach to accept or not accept someone who is seeking to listen or talk. The world, however, perceives it with all the baggage it carries. It is unfair from the start.

Like how when a little kid doesn’t cry when hurt, it is assumed that the wound must not have been deep enough, that the pain must not have been much. Not for a minute, not even for a second do we pause to think that probably this kid has seen much more such that this pain isn’t as much, or the kid is too numb to shed a tear, or the kid is actually strong and is holding back his tears, or plain and simple, the kid is so exhausted from a lot of other things that aren’t going right in his life that he is just too tired to cry. Just far too tired.

But no. It’s always no tears implies no pain. No outward show of sympathy indicates that there is nothing inside.

And having nothing inside is apparently a far bigger sin than having something bad. For good or bad means that the heart is full in some sense of the word. But empty? Oh, so dangerous.

Is it afterall a sin to be aware that everything eventually culminates into nothingness?

You might wonder what is it that I am rambling about. For those who have read the book, they know. They know what I am talking about. And I am sure they resonate.

The Stranger by Albert Camus #thestranger #mersault #albertcamus #bookedfor100 #100bookstoread #top100bookstoread booked for 100 #blogaboutbooks #bookreview

For those who haven’t, please pick it up. And when you do, read it at one go and brace yourself for the end. The end when Mersault’s nakedness is revealed. You can hear his screams. You can feel his resigned breathing. And you can sense the numbness of the finale.

One of those books that stay with you long after you’ve closed it. Pick it up. It’s something you shouldn’t miss.

Books

The Tale of Two Cities

A Tale of Two Cities is a story set during the French Revolution when the oppressed common folk could no longer withstand the apathy of the ruling class and took over the castle and imprisoned everyone who seemed affluent. The latter’s fault being that they were not poor. The charges being that, for generations, they did nothing to better the lives of everyone around them. The accusations being that they abused, physically and mentally, the poor. All those who faced these charges were thrown into the prisons and sentenced to death, with no formal hearing or justification. To be executed. In public. By the strike of the guillotine christened as La Guillotine – a symbol of their freedom. Execution soon becomes the need of the hour, feeding La Guillotine with hundreds of heads becomes the only thing they look forward to every day. Human nature takes a beating. Society as a whole takes a beating.

When humans are suppressed for a long long time and are treated as nothing less than animals, they become that. In fact, they become worse. No sympathy, no law of the land, no compassion, no conscience and most importantly no forgiveness.

And in between this rises a story of love.

Continue reading “The Tale of Two Cities”

Books

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess is a satirical novel about young teenage boys who go on an orgy of violence for the sheer thrill of it and get caught by the state but are ‘reformed’ in a questionable manner. Like a character ponders,

Does God want goodness or the choice of goodness? Is a man who chooses to be bad perhaps in some way better than a man who has the good imposed upon him? 

The novel is split into three parts – His violent escapades, his prison life after he is caught and sentenced for 14 years and his life after he has been ‘reformed’ as part of an experiment. The story starts with a bunch of teenage boys led by Alex, the most deranged of them all, setting out on a series of bludgeoning, fights, brutal rapes, thefts, destruction of property, and other such acts of violence just as a way of entertainment. On one such night he gets caught in the act and is sentenced to a lifetime of prison. There however he puts up an act of goodness and is chosen for an experimental reforms programme led by the government. Though seen by him as an escape route to get back to his life and its thrills, after the programme he becomes incapable of enjoying anything, even music that he unabashedly loved. Is such a life worth it? Can a criminal so mentally disturbed be ‘cured’? You begin to wonder.

Continue reading “A Clockwork Orange”

Books

The Story of a Beloved

A masterpiece. Oh it is a masterpiece!

Toni Morrison in Beloved tells us the story of a slave family during the times when slavery was being abolished; when they’ve lived such a life and didn’t know how to live otherwise or are still living in the aftermath of what they went through. A time, when legally slavery was done with, but society still had a long way to go in terms of realigning ideologies.

Subtle realities hit you in the passing. Brutal realities. Things that happened to them, choices they had to make, blatant hypocrisy they had to accept as normal, everything hits you. When one of the characters talks of freedom as

“To get to a place where you could love anything you chose – not to need permission for desire. That was freedom”

You begin to realise how deprived they were.

Continue reading “The Story of a Beloved”

Books

The Story Of The Animal Farm

Animal Farm by George Orwell is one of the two scariest books I have read. The other being another novel by the same author which I will be writing about later on. Coming back to this one. Scary. Yes. That is the word. But it isn’t a horror story. Nor a thriller. Or a murder mystery.

It is pure and simple facts. A reality that is so bare and true that it scares the hell out of me every time I read it. Published in 1945, this story can be seen playing out for real even now.

Animal Farm is the story of a farm where the animals feel suppressed by the Humans who own the farm and make them toil but don’t given them their labour’s worth of food and rest. So they decide to revolt against the owners, take over the farm and demonstrate how it should be run. With dreams of equal rights and benefits and a bright future, the set out to achieve the same.

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Books

The Story of The Magic Faraway Tree

A children’s fantasy novel like you’d expect from Enid Blyton, though this is the first fantasy work of hers I’ve read. There have been The Famous Fives and The Secret Sevens and the Malory Towers and the like but all of those were real people so to say.

The Magic Faraway Tree is nothing like that. An adventurous tale where three siblings, Joe, Beth and Franny, take their cousin Rick to a magical tree in the forest behind their home which houses strange characters such as Moonface (who obviously has a face as round as the moon), Silky (a pretty little fairy), The Saucepan Man (who is covered in kettles and pans and is short of hearing thanks to the noise his vessels make), Dame Washalot (an old lady who loves washing), Mr. Watzinaname (the perfect nobody character) and The Angry Pixie (name says it all). Together these  embark on a journey that start with them climbing up the tree into the clouds. The tree serves as the pathway into the different mysterious Lands atop clouds which station themselves on the tree every few days.

And the fun begins.

Continue reading “The Story of The Magic Faraway Tree”

Books

The Story of Two Lovers and Mahatma Gandhi

To say that I went into this book with zero expectations wouldn’t be completely untrue. Titled ‘Waiting for the Mahatma’ this book didn’t really boast of a great plot. However, what intrigued me was why then was this chosen by Goodreads as one of RK Narayan’s best work. There is a flavour to his writing which I hoped would see me through what otherwise seems like a plain old story – a coming of age story of a boy who is fascinated by a girl, during the freedom struggle era, complete with Mahatma Gandhi actually appearing in the novel as a significant character and not just an imaginary idol.

Like I said, there is a style of writing that I expected from RK Narayan that would see me through this novel. A la ‘swami and his friends’ mode where you blissfully follow their tales in the land of Malgudi.

Treat this book like you would a new writer’s and you’d be able to see the beauty in its simplicity. The absolute truth that it represents. The real scenario of the impact of India’s freedom struggle on the common man. Common folk who led otherwise normal lives far removed from the play of politics at the centre. For whom The British were just another king who ruled their lands. One they did not see, but whose rules they lived by.

And that probably must have been the reality of hundreds of villages in our country during those times.

Set in the backdrop of such a village is our protagonist – Sriram, who though old enough, is not really mature or serious about life. Then comes in Bharati, a freedom fighter working in Gandhi’s camp, a girl who captures his attention and then begins our story. How he slowly understands Mahatma Gandhi’s words and becomes involved in the freedom movement, all in the effort to impress her forms the rest of the story.

The base plot is cliché. But somewhere behind this story, RK Narayan has drawn out a picture of the other side of India. The unexpected undertones of characters is what you begin to take note of. It is the Indian Sarpanch who takes advantage of the simple village folk whereas a British landowner who has been living in India all his life is the one providing for employment to thousands of people in his plantation. Shopkeepers who sell English biscuits don’t see anything wrong it since it is afterall only a commodity, while people carrying on the fight are often thought to be nuisances who disrupt every gathering with their speeches.

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I guess India is too large a country for each and everyone to be influenced by the need to fight for his own freedom.

And yes, Mahatma Gandhi DOES appear. As a central character. Who the lovers consult with. Whose orders they follow. The real speaking leader. Which I found amusing.

If you can get past the beginning of the novel (which incidentally took me 2 weeks a lot of determination), you will not be disappointed. It isn’t his best work, but RK Narayan definitely doesn’t disappoint.

 

Photos: Remya Nair

 

Books

The Story of Ten Strangers

The first thing you’ll notice about Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None is the author’s note. I rarely read the author’s note. Rather read it after I finish the novel just to see what was going on in their head when they wrote it. But in this case, the note is so short, so crisp and so surprisingly honest that one can just not avoid it. A rare occurrence where the author has been so pleased with herself and has actually gone a step ahead and mentioned it in the author’s note, the absolute thrill she feels in having put to words such a complicated plot.

And what a plot it is.

A book that I finished in one sitting, after long. Of course it is Agatha Christie. So it will be a nail biter till the end, but And Then There Were None is a nail biter even after you finish the book. You are just left stunned at the brilliance of the plot. The perfection of the storyline. And the identity of the killer. A clue which doesn’t spring up till almost the end when a small detail is revealed. The book doesn’t just elaborate a murder mystery but also dwells on the intricacies of the human mind and the transformations in their behaviour caused by the changing situation around them. The slow manner in which each human slowly turns into an animal with only one skill heightened – the need for survival.

The novel starts with a series of character introduction making you want to grab a pen and write down their names and background lest you miss a clue somewhere. Yes, knowing the author, you automatically don a Sherlock Holmes hat. Trust me, you might as well leave it aside. No amount of being alert from the start prepares you for the end.

The ten strangers are called upon a millionaire’s island and forced to stay there for a few days owing to bad weather. Things take an ugly turn when one of them gets murdered in the very first night and then the drama begins. A search to find the killer, the need to trust each other while at the same time being suspicious, the slow piling up of dead bodies and a last ditch attempt to save oneself; the situation only gets more confusing. As the plot unveils itself, the devil within comes out and the least likely suspect obviously turns out to be the criminal.

It is so evident why she loved the book. She should. Anyone would feel proud of themselves. This is the kind of masterpiece that would make even a seasoned thriller author feel like it is their best work. Even someone as accomplished as Agatha Christie.

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I guess there comes a point in every artist’s life when they realise that the work they just completed is the best that can ever come out of them. Something that surpasses their own expectation. Something that makes them lay down their tools and say, “I am done.” They may choose to continue their work or stop right there, but they will know in their heart that it can never get better than this. Artists tend to like all their work, some more than the others. But there is always one work, one piece of art, that surprises them. That makes them its fan. The one piece which is their ultimate work. A moment that every artist dreads and craves for at the same time.

And I quite imagine Agatha Christie smiling smugly after going through the manuscript, sipping her cup of tea, looking out of the window and saying to herself, “You’ve outdone yourself, my girl.”

Pick up And Then There Were None, finish it in one sitting, and don’t bother about the cup of coffee; You won’t find time to sip it.

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Photos: Remya Nair

Books

The Story of Mort

Terry Pratchett is an author whose works I haven’t read, and I must admit, regrettably so, wasn’t even aware of. This whole reading acclaimed authors/books is turning out to be an interesting exercise and I am only at my fourth book. A whole 96 more to go.

Getting back to novel no.4, Terry Pratchett’s Mort was shall I say a surprise. I went into this one with zero expectations but expectations have a strange tendency to create a range between good and bad and when you say zero you intend a neutral stance. You never, however, account for emotions such as surprise in that frame. And that is precisely what this book does to you. Throws out the whole frame and all you knew about expectations right out of the window.

Surprised? Flabbergasted is more like it. And by what you might ask. Well, humour. Yes. Humour. Not the in your face Ha Ha jokes or comic situations, but a blast of wit that hits you out of nowhere like that crazy little pup you just bumped into when you turn around the corner of an otherwise mundane street on an otherwise mundane morning. You jump. You are startled, and you find yourself laughing at your own silliness. Pretty much sums up the interjection of humour in this book. An odd joke or two creeps up at the most unexpected places. Not in a conversation, not a punchline at the end of a chapter, but just some random sentence bang in the middle of a character’s thoughts. Humour writ with wisdom, making it the funniest combination possible. Reminds me a lot of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But that’s an epic for another day.

Mort by Terry Pratchett, Booked for 100, #bookedfor100, #mort, #terrypratchett

Mort is part of the author’s Discworld Series. The Discworld is an amazingly whimsical way of looking at the world we know. A flat world that rides on the back of four giant elephants who stand on the shell of the enormous star turtle Great A’Tuin and which is bounded by a waterfall that cascades endlessly into space. Mindblown at the picture this creates in your head? This is only the beginning.

Mort is the story of an otherwise clumsy fellow, whose behaviour doesn’t fit into the confines of a traditional way of being, and who soon finds himself employed as the apprentice of the oddest of employers – Death himself. And thus begins his adventures in this job and a realisation of how things look from up above or for that matter from beyond.

Throw in a place where time stands still, a name that no one remembers to call him by, a botched up errand, a bunch of wizards, a lonely daughter who surprisingly knows too much, a queen who should’ve been dead but isn’t, a kingdom in chaos, history busy trying to correct itself, reality trying to stitch the lines and Death trotting off on a vacation because he, of all people, is feeling low, and you would have what I call a weekend full of excitement, unpredictability and loads and loads of laughter.

Caution, read this at a place where you suddenly laughing out loud doesn’t necessarily draw unwanted attention or the occasional shush! Not that it bothered me. I was way too deep inside the Discworld.

Taking a line out of the book, May you also be able to see Octarine, the Eighth colour of the spectrum, the colour of magic, the pigment of imagination. Ladies and Gentlemen, presenting Mort by Terry Pratchett.

 

Photos: Remya Nair

 

Books

The Little Girl and her Secret Garden

Frances Hodgson Burnett, in her book The Secret Garden’, paints a pretty picture of the ‘English moors’ complete with a hundred room Manor, Yorkshire country folk and their queer accents and the gardens and orchards that surround those lands. For someone who hasn’t been to such a place, it does set the imagination wild.

But, this book isn’t what I’d call a children’s novel, (not little kids, atleast). Nor does it have an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ charm to it, which I expected (it to have) what with it being a story of a little girl who discovers a whole new world when she chances upon the buried keys to a secret garden shown to her by a bird. Familiar much?

What it does do however, is take you through the transformation of a little sickly girl, who hated people and was miserable, into this bright spirited healthy kid as she tends to her secret garden and watches in wonder as the grass grows and the flowers bloom. The garden slowly comes to life, much to the thrill of this child, and so do the lives of two other inhabitants, of that Manor, who had given up hope altogether.

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Hope, I think is what this book is about. Hope and a childlike way of dealing with problems. For even though it is a plain story, the writing makes you so involved, that you find yourself rejoicing when someone with no hope of tomorrow suddenly exclaims,

“I’ll live forever and ever!”

Is it a sweet read. Yes. Is it something that should be in the top 100 all time must read lists. Not really.

Then again, not all great books are for everyone.

I think the popularity of this book lies in the fact that it was written by a female author in times when women weren’t considered to be proficient enough to earn their bread.

That said, do read it. If you find yourself with this book on a lazy afternoon, turn the pages and stroll through the beautiful countryside, breathe in the fresh spring air and be amazed by the secret garden so delicately detailed that you can almost touch it.

 

Photos: Remya Nair

Books

A Prince and His Tales

The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw this book was, ‘How could something so little have captivated the minds of so many readers across time’. As I turned the pages of the book, I found my answer. This book reaches out to that core instinct in us which makes us treasure something. Our desire to protect. Who, you may ask.

It’s The Little Prince. For he symbolises all that we’ve forgotten to be.

Antoine de Saint Exupéry takes you through his encounter with a little prince who he meets while being stranded in a desert. This little man with golden hair claims to be from another star and engages him in tales of his travel across the universe till he got to the Earth.

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I must admit I found myself searching for the hidden meaning in all those stories that the little prince narrated, of the characters he met on the way. Was there something more that we needed to learn from this? Isn’t this character a reference to someone we know? Do those words from a random animal (he met along the way) have hidden pearls of wisdom in them.

I couldn’t see it.

And then I came across the lines in the book,

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

I stopped reading with my eyes and let myself be immersed in the simplicity of the words of the author. I let myself flow with the poetic beauty that the story has. I let myself be touched by the poignant charm of the little prince.

And then I understood what the author meant when he said, “All grown ups were once children – although few of them remember it.”

I found myself making a promise, that someday when I travel to the African Desert, if I were to come upon that spot under the star, I’ll wait. I’ll wait for the little man with golden hair who laughs and refuses to answer questions.

The Little Prince, Booked for 100, #bookedfor100, #thelittleprince

Thank you, Little Prince. Thank you for reminding me what it is like – to see with the heart.

Photos: Remya Nair

Books

A Bunch of Kids and the Mockingbird

I didn’t know much about this book and honestly speaking expected a typical courtroom drama where the blacks were being pitted against the whites, and you have one lone crusader who is trying to fight for them.

It was so much more.

Harper Lee, in To Kill a Mocking Bird, her first book, beautifully weaves the world of two kids – Jem and Scout Finch – and through their eyes takes us into the lives of their dad Atticus Finch, and the varied characters of Maycomb County, complete with the mysterious neighbour, the nosy old women, the bullying kids, the defiant policeman, the upright reporter, the amusing judge, the helps and the hidden society of the oppressed.

In the course of their adventures and observations, what she skillfully reveals is a refreshing way of seeing the world as it is, a way that remains, still, untainted by the various prejudices and hypocrisies that adults have about them. Makes you think twice on who is actually the wiser.

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Humour sneaks in throughout the book at the most unexpected moments, largely in the thoughts of Jem and Scout, the latter mainly, a little girl with enough doubts and gumption to put any adult in a tight spot. But their doubts only tug at your heartstrings for they show what they really are, just kids, trying hard to make sense of the obvious irrationality of the adult world.

Atticus Finch, a character so steadfast yet amusing, is among the handful in those times that doesn’t believe in racism but is rather fighting the silent war against it, knowing very well that it might seem like a lost cause now but not giving up on the hope that someday it’ll all change. However what he is fighting the most is to be a better example to his children. What he is protecting the most is the free spirited, unprejudiced innocence they possess while at the same time letting them learn the ways of the world on their own.

“Shoot all the Blue Jays you want, if you can hit ‘em. But remember it’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.”

A simple statement by him that reveals the clarity of his thoughts and the gentle manner in which he is nudging his kids to understand the difference between the choices they must make one day.

Read this. Read this to re-live your childhood as you enter the minds of the Finch kids. Read this for the beautiful but painful humour that Harper Lee has deftly used to drive the point home. Read this to understand what it must be like to know someone by standing in his shoes and walking around in them. Read this, because it is one of the most beautiful portrayals of what is wrong in the way we see the world.

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And like in the end when Scout rambles away in her sleep about a character she read or encountered, “… Atticus, he was real nice.”, Atticus replies, “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Well, aren’t they really.

 

Photos: Remya Nair