a blank slate

a blank slate

Month: January 2015

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The book will be published on February 3, 2015, and is available to pre-order on Amazon.
There are still things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them, whether it’s on the web or the word or in the world. They never get easier, never stop my heart from trip-trapping, never let me escape, this time, unscathed. But they teach me things, and they open my eyes, and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change. 
There are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you.
Many of those stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.
Writers being introspective about their writing is pure magic, which is why Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances is a must read, if only for its twenty page introduction. Gaiman writes about how this short story collection came into being, muses on how you need fiction to reveal hard truths to you and to see the world for what it is, and then he generously gives you some back-story on each story.
These are stories that are vivid and evocative and will make you think, for long hours after. The Thing About Cassandra is about a made-up girlfriend, a haunting story that could make you lonely and nostalgic and wonder if reality really is more than hazy wisps of memories. The Sleeper and the Spindle, which was first published as an illustrated fairy tale, is a rich retelling of Sleeping Beauty with a fabulously feminist twist. Down to A Sunless Sea is a short read, but one so filled with defeatist grief that it left me shuddering, and Gaiman’s trigger warning finally made sense. Here are things you don’t want to read about, that can and will horrify you, that are better left unread, that you therefore must read.
Often when I read short stories, I feel like it’s a lifetime badly crammed into a few pages. Every carefully chosen word goes against every haphazard detail of real life. Yet, the way short story plots easily twist and spin also seems unreal. Perhaps there is an art of reading a short story I should learn, a way to add credibility to this package of unreliable oddity bursting at its seams. Jerusalem is a story that could suffer from disconnectedness. It’s not traditional, and reads like something by A. S. Byatt. I think it survives because of its ending, which is refreshingly clear, practical. The story is about love and faith. It’s about unconditional acceptance too. It had something of a hold on me, specially, because the way it is written reassured me there’s more than garbled symbolism to “literary” fiction. 
The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury is a gem, incomparable in its desperate persistence. It’s about a man confronting a gradual loss of memory, of words, and ideas, and it’s an urgent plea to the world to remember the writer who showed us the power of books.

In The Truth Is A Cave in the Black Mountains, Gaiman has taken fairy tale tropes like heroes, quests and lost fathers and put a spin on them. This is a bleak Dickensian tale of cold vengeance. It’s an intriguing story. As is Kether to Malkuth, a delicately woven tale about an old duke and his search of meaning. These are what I know and love Gaiman for, the dire but charming fantasies.
Orange is a story written in the form of answers to a questionnaire. It’s a highly experimental structure and a dark absurd story. A girl answers a top-secret-government-business-sounding questionnaire, detailing an incident where her sister apparently turned into a giant orange blob of light. You don’t know the questions, which would make this an interesting book club read. It would be endlessly fascinating to see every reader fill in the blanks constructing her own unique versions of the events.
Other favourites of the collection: Feminine Endings – a chilling love letter written by a man who poses as a statue, Adventure Story – a quirky whimsical tale that will appeal to everyone with a mother, Click-Clack the Rattlebag – a disconcertingly simple horror tale, and And Weep, Like Alexander, a moral story like no other. It’s a treat to revisit the Doctor and Amy in Nothing O’Clock, and the occasional poem comes as a welcome change. 
But for all the great stories, Trigger Warning is a mixed bag. Sometimes Gaiman’s writing seems so pointless, you have to remind yourself it’s probably not and sieve the text for deeper implications. Not every story in this collection makes me call him, with full conviction, a good writer. Some stories have lost their way, some require too much effort from the reader and others are grand attempts that have ended up, for lack of a better word, flimsy. 
The charm of this collection, which you may call haphazard in style and genre, lies in its variety: it is deliciously eclectic. And that’s the thing about Neil Gaiman: you just cannot nail down his style. He’s the king of unpredictable. There are stories in this collection, fables steeped in mythology, which seem very typically Gaiman until, one unique tale pops up that leaves you stunned and somehow devastated, because you had only just begun to believe that you knew him. 
So, I would recommend this book to those who have read Gaiman, have already once been caught unaware by his genius and are eager for more. Trigger Warning is a must read for fans. It’s probably not the best place to start for curious first-time explorers of his works.

Storm Front (The Dresden Files #1) by Jim Butcher

You know that feeling of utter delight you get when you explore a new fictional world, peek into its depths and corners, try to uncover its secrets, and doing that, spill coffee on yourself, miss classes, forget to talk to people, sleep or eat and in general lose yourself; you do know it, yea? I’ve so missed that feeling.

It’s been a while since I really devoured a book. So when I had a couple of hours to kill between assignments yesterday, I picked up Storm Front by Jim Butcher. The Dresden Files had been on my reading list longer than I remembered, and three pages into the series starter, I was wholly sucked into the world of Harry Dresden, Chicago’s only practising professional wizard and private investigator. The Dresden Files is witty, entertaining and superbly addictive. I’ve only read Storm Front and half of the second book, Fool Moon, so far, and there are fifteen in total and counting. But, I can’t wait to make my way through the series this year.

The thing that I like about the first book, and what I’ve read of the second, is the clean cut precision. Right at the very beginning we know what we’re dealing with. A professional wizard you’d find in the yellow pages, who consults with the Chicago police, assisting Special Investigations officer Karrin Murphy, who is incredibly reminiscent of Buffy and who is an altogether gentleman, mostly. In Storm Front, Dresden tackles two cases, one: two dead bodies with their hearts ripped out, murders committed undoubtedly by a black sorcerer; two: a man reported missing by his wife. 

Butcher also gives you a thorough look at the magic of this world… almost. He mentions a White Council which is a pretty self explanatory title, a realm called Nevernever that I haven’t quite figured out yet but which suffices for the time, he tells you how magic is good, it’s made by your soul and not by objects, it’s made in circles, from chalk circles to circles of people holding hands, there are demons, trolls and fairies hiding in the world, and there are wizards and witches who are basically humans (but not really) and he tells us how if you look in the eyes of a wizard, he can gaze on the secrets of your soul, and you see the darkest depths of his. And all this is revealed over the course of the story, revealing new bits of his world whenever you need them, and like a good narrator, Dresden never bogs you down with details.

Tell you what, though, the book is cheesy. There’s a youngish wizard, Harry Dresden, surrounded by women who all appear to be pointedly attractive and men who don’t, he is a trite mix of strength and rare self-confidence, has a mysterious dark past, cracks cynical jokes in the worst situations, talks to himself, engages in a lot of pop culture name-dropping for someone who is bad with technology, and is, in general, no different from every other noir-ish private detective you have ever read about. The police-procedural parts of it and the chunks of dialogue are very TV. For someone whose staple diet includes paranormal mystery television series, the action seems somewhat predictable too, for instance, love potions always go awry, amateurs know that. Google says there was a single-season show based in this world starring Paul Blackthorne as Dresden (I’d like to see that). So far, the two books have had little emotional depth but deliver full entertainment. I’d call Storm Front an airport read, the kind of book you pick up when you’re bored and finish off within a couple of hours. Except, and here’s what I can’t get over, the writing, when it’s not casually dry, is very lyrical. Well researched, interesting, fun and often startlingly literary, sounds like a good deal to me, see for yourself.

The world is getting weirder. Darker every single day. Things are spinning around faster and faster, and threatening to go completely awry. Falcons and falconers. The center cannot hold. But in my corner of the country, I’m trying to nail things down. I don’t want to live in a world where the strong rule and the weak cower. I’d rather make a place where things are a little quieter. Where trolls stay the hell under their bridges and where elves don’t come swooping out to snatch children from their cradles. Where vampires respect the limits, and where the faeries mind their p’s and q’s. My name is Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden. Conjure by it at your own risk. When things get strange, when what goes bump in the night flicks on the lights, when no one else can help you, give me a call. I’m in the book.

Almost as good as reading the books is reading Jim Butcher’s interviews. He’s given many, it seems. He sounds very honest when talking about his writing process, mentions Buffy a lot (the audiobooks are narrated by James Marsters, which earns the series so, so many brownie points.) I like authors who live up to their books, sound just as fun outside their fiction. I mean, this, I like this interview.

Remembering Babylon by David Malouf

Summary (from the cover): In the mid-1840s a thirteen-year-old British cabin boy, Gemmy Fairley, is cast ashore in the far north of Australia and taken in by aborigines. Sixteen years later he moves back into the world of Europeans, among hopeful yet terrified settlers of Queensland who are staking out their small patch of home in an alien place. To them, Gemmy stands as a different kind of challenge: he is a force that at once fascinates and repels. His own identity in this new world is as unsettling to him as the knowledge he brings to others of the savage, the aboriginal.
Excerpt: David Malouf’s writing is not for everybody. Already having read two of his other books, I had a fair idea of what to expect from this one. There is little plot, but this only enhances the reading experience. I can’t think of a better way to recommend Malouf than to give you a taste of his writing. And to embrace the new for this new year, instead of the usual review, I’ll just share my notes on a couple of pages of the book (they may seem unrefined, I warn you, I prefer not to alter notes after I finish the book; keeps them authentic and spoiler-free, right?) First, a few passages from Chapter 3, describing why the settlers are terrified of Gemmy Fairley, the white boy raised by the aborigines –
Of course, it wasn’t him you were scared of. He was harmless, or so they said, and so you preferred to believe it. It was the thought that next time it might not be him. That when you started and looked up, expecting the silly smile, what would hit you would be the edge of an axe. He made real what till now had been no more than the fearful shape of rumour.

Even in broad daylight, to come face to face with one of them, stepping out of nowhere, out of the earth it might be, or a darkness they moved in always like a cloud, was a test of a man’s capacity to stay firm on his own two feet when his heart was racing.

It brought you slap up against a terror you thought you had learned, years back, to treat as childish: the Bogey, the Coal Man, Absolute Night. And now here it is, now two yards away, solid and breathing: a thing beside which all you have ever known of darkness, of visible darkness, seems but the merest shadow, and all you can summon up to the encounter, out of a lifetime lived on the other, the lighter side of things – shillings and pence, the Lord’s Prayer, the half dozen tunes your fingers can pick out on the strings of a fiddle, the names and ages of your children, including the ones in the earth, your wife’s touch on your naked belly, and the shy, soft affection you have for yourself – weakens and falls away before the apparition, out of nowhere, of a figure taller perhaps than you are and of a sooty blackness beyond black, utterly still, very close, yet so far off, even at a distance of five feet, that you cannot conceive how it can be here in the same space, the same moment with you.

What you fix your gaze on is the little hard-backed flies crawling about in the corner of its bloodshot eyes and hopping down at intervals to drink the sweat of its lip. And the horror it carries to you is not just the smell, in your own sweat, of a half-forgotten swamp-world going back deep in both of you, but that for him, as you meet here face to face in the sun, you and all you stand for have not yet appeared over the horizon of the world, so that after a moment all the wealth of it goes dim in you, then is cancelled altogether, and you meet at last in a terrifying equality that strips the last rags from your soul and leaves you so far out on the edge of yourself that your fear now is you may never get back.

It was the mixture of monstrous strangeness and unwelcome likeness that made Gemmy Fairley so disturbing to them, since at any moment he could show either one face or the other; as if he were always standing there at one of those meetings, but in his case willingly, and the encounter was an embrace. 
With David Malouf, I always find myself peeling back the layers of the narrative. Wondering about the way the book was written, its structure and linguistic detail is new to me, last time I did it and not well was for Blindness by Jose Saramago (and I don’t do justice to the process in this post, either, but I try) because I always look at a novel as a separate entity in itself, and tend to question a character’s motives, not the author’s. But David Malouf’s story reads like it has been built specifically to elicit a certain reaction in the reader and it fascinates me to find myself falling prey to the author’s schemes, and reacting the way I imagine was intended.
I love the wise honesty of Malouf’s writing, but what I love even more is his understanding tone. His words are like an embrace, they hold the reader close, pull him into the story and in a group hug that takes everybody in, even a character you’d rather label away as a villain. Like in the excerpt: a white man describing the encounter with a black with as much distaste and plain horror, the likeness drawn between the aborigines and the Bogey man scream racist injustice, and so does the fact that Malouf addresses you directly, making you the perpetrator of this criminal opinion. He reminds you of your routine realities, like your wife and children, and your money and your gods, and then he tells you your impression of the black man and his darkness. A modern reader would promptly disagree, would consider the white man barbaric for his unthinking cruelty and the facade of moral correctness. You would find it most offensive to be put in the villain’s shoes. Because you wouldn’t call an aborigine inconceivable, surely not, or assign him a personal pronoun intended for the inanimate, or name him absolute night. I can relate better to the native than the white settler, anyway, personally. 
But Malouf doesn’t give up. He goes on to tell you just why you would find the black man inconceivable. He describes, almost justifies in your head, the white settler’s reaction of instant recoil gorily detailing the native’s face as covered with flies. The vivid visual makes you wince, and now the white man isn’t so unjust in his reaction, because you, the informed modern reader, still have it too. This is not to say that he isn’t still in the wrong. The white man’s disgust at the native whose world he is invading does make him a bad guy, but now he is one that you can identify with, which makes him it far less easy to label him bad.
And then Malouf tells you how that hatred comes from fear, which once said sounds obvious, but still needs to be said. And far more importantly, needs to be shown, in the manipulative way that he has where you end up imagining it for yourself. He makes you wonder if, in the white man’s place, you would be as scared of encountering the inexplicable unknown, the new, the frankenstein. And if you did meet, would you shoot at it or let it into your house with a blind do-gooder’s faith that it will not mean you harm? I’m guessing you would choose the latter viewpoint, if not the literal course of action, because you’re the modern reader, aware of the world and your place in it, a little selfless and very thoughtful, comfortable enough in your life to be aware of empathy, but the fact remains that Malouf makes you question yourself. He takes you inside the barbarian’s head. And he manages to make the villain (timid, yes, but) less cruel for one real, if fleeting, moment.
When the author mentions Gemmy Fairley again, you see him in a new light (I love the transparent symbolism, Malouf jumps at every chance to use light-dark visuals throughout the book.) He calls the settlers “them” again, as if returning to his fiction after giving you a brief insider’s glimpse of the European settlers’ plight. Now Gemmy Fairley is the encounter, the white man meeting the blacks, in a more literal sense than running into each other. He is a combination of two peoples who are essentially separate, two ideas and worlds that have so far proved immiscible. The person you had so far into the story only pitied with begins to spell a probably danger. This could be the author giving you a warning, making you wary, to coax you into looking at the following events closely and with less of a self-evident bias. Or it might just be a clever writer putting you in your place by tricking you into sympathising with an antagonist.
There is not much more to the story than playing out a historical-fictional scenario that is a principally clich├ęd plot: a tarzan- or mowgli-like mixing-of-cultures situation in this case, combined with the stranded-and-rescued type backdrop. It is typical, yes, overdone, perhaps, but that’s the beauty of it, because it makes you naturally look for patterns when you read and Malouf strictly organizes the story to help you look at every stereotype with new eyes. He picks surprisingly simple words, some even sound made up, but his prose still rings heavy, laden with meaning, and the long sentences beckon you to reread, dig deeper. An exercise in interpretation, I’d call this book, and I repeat, it’s not for everybody. But if winding introspection interests you, if you like atmospheric imagery, analysing cultures, questioning belief, deep characterization with life histories, and subtle mysteries, Malouf is an author you shouldn’t miss.

“Wonderfully wise and moving… a dazzling fable of human hope and imperfection.” 
– The New York Times

Buffy #1 On Spike and “good” vampires

I start the new year with a TV post because this is a blog about writing, and Whedon is one of my favourite writers. Let me just say that this is based on years of Buffy reruns and I haven’t read the graphic novels. I think some stories don’t need sequels and this is one of those. If what I’ve said gets wholly cancelled out in “Angel: After the Fall” or something, I’m perfectly fine being left in the dark about it. There are spoilers for those who haven’t seen the show (in which case, make it your new year’s resolution: watching Buffy. Seriously.)

Once, in the hopes of getting my sister to watch the epicness that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I retold her the story of Angel, the vampire who was put under a curse and given his soul back, and his “moment of true happiness” with the slayer that took it away unleashing the terror that was Angelus. Angel has a particular charm about him, being Buffy’s first true love and a classic symbol for redemption, even Giles eventually likes him. Angel’s soul-loss story forms the most effectively narrated Buffy (two-part) episode – Surprise and Innocence, which aired way back in January, 1998. And yet, I’ve always rooted for Spike.

It is the romance of his character that makes him particularly delectable, hidden as it is under all the badassery and platinum-blonde screw-all British-ness. Also, Spike’s story is new, so different from your regular ‘good’ vampire. William is harmless as a human, an aspiring poet with mommy issues, bullied by his peers, rejected by his love, he runs into Drusilla, an insane vampire who bites and turns him. Enter: William the Bloody, also known as Spike for killing his victims with railroad spikes. Spike is unusually passionate which, as a vampire, makes him an especially ruthless killer. However, William’s vulnerability remains in the demon. He loves, or he likely remembers love and empathy more than most vampires.

Around season 5, a long winding chain of incidents leaves him in Sunnydale, in contact with Buffy, with a chip in his head that keeps him from attacking humans. Buffy, who has recently been resurrected into a world she no longer believes she fits in, starts a love-hate relationship with the vampire, the only one who knows what it is like to be undead, and back from the grave. When Spike falls for the slayer, becomes addicted to her more like, Buffy states that the vampire is incapable of loving anything but pain. More to prove a point than anything else, Spike goes through terrible hardships to earn back his soul. And when he does, he is the harmless William again, with memories of the evil he’s done. He goes insane. And he does fall in love with Buffy, now faced with the full and terrible understanding that she could never love him back.

Buffy does care for him. But does she love Spike like she loves Angel? I doubt it. She identifies herself with Spike who has always been a misfit. An evil vampire who could love and a powerless vampire with a chip and then, a vampire who cursed himself with a soul – unlike Angel who had it done to him. She understands his misery, empathizes with it. She meets Angel when he is brooding and repentant, but over the immediate shock of what he is and has done, whereas with Spike she is with him at the point when he is hit by his guilt. Knowing what it means to be a vampire and knowing what he must now live with, she understands that she needs to not be the slayer, for once, for him. She pities him for what happened to him, what he did to himself but over the course of the season, does come to respect him for what he attempts to make of it. Buffy forgives Spike because his strength in dealing with all the crap of first the chip, then the soul and the insanity, then the first evil influencing him overwhelms her.
And through her fondness for Spike, we begin to believe, as does Angel, that she is in love. Which is when we get that moment, that dizzying-ly beautiful scene at the end, before Spike goes down with Sunnydale High when Buffy tells him she loves him, and he replies, “No, you don’t, but thanks for saying it,” and their eyes burn into each-others and the world shatters in our hearts. Because, we know he’s right. Spike is pathetic, till the very end. He is a vampire who is not a glorified monster, not a Stephanie Meyer or an Anne Rice anti-hero, but a creature you actually feel sorry for. Because he was a good human who had a bad thing happen to him. He isn’t about how cool or sexy it is to be an outcast but, especially towards the end, brings out the real dilemma of those who don’t belong. Throughout Buffy we are shown how necessary it is to have connections, and Spike understands it the best. He tells Buffy once that the reason she has survived so long is that she is surrounded by people who know and protect her secret. And in Touched, he becomes the best of those and her greatest comfort. Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t celebrate loneliness unlike most popular vampire series, and Spike perfectly illustrates that. His story reinforces what Buffy is all about – slayer: good, vampire: bad, and makes him the most surprising and complex character on the show.

Looking Ahead: 2015

Happy New Year, people. Yay, 2015! The past year was an eventful one for me in real life. I have written, as far as I am aware, A Year in Review posts for every year since I started my blog. But this year, I don’t want to look back. I have been a terrible blogger for the last couple of months, but for that to change, Tabula Rasa needs to reach back to its roots and be that blank slate again.
When I started this blog, I had no clear goal in mind. Or, only one to speak of. That I had to write and see how it went. It went wonderfully. I’ve come to realize that it’s not easy maintaining a blog for so long. I’ve seen people close up shop and leave over the years. Many blogging friends I had back in 2011 haven’t blogged for a while now. I briefly considered giving up on Tabula Rasa entirely, because this busy year I realized the blog had sort of met its purpose: made me open up.
The reason I’d started my blog was that I was too shy, too afraid of confrontation, that I couldn’t express my opinions and trust myself to stick to them. I’d be wrong if I said I’m wholly different now as I realized only the other day, but I have changed considerably. It’s time now either to rewrite the purpose of the blog or to shut it down. It is heart-warming to have everyone I’ve explained this to tell me I shouldn’t do the latter.
So, clean slate. Tabula Rasa is going to be a proper book blog now, more than a string of meandering opinions and realizations. The blog needs to be organized now. I’ve spent the whole of last month mentally charting out a feasible plan. Here’s a basic idea of what every month of 2015 will have me posting (the at least is implied for each:)
1. Two book reviews, fiction or non-fiction
2. One short story (or graphic novel or audio book) review, easier done than novels
3. One books or reading related post, or a Top Ten Tuesday list
4. One TV, movie or radio fiction-related post (this is still kind of in the works)
5. One book review or book related guest post
That’s five posts per month that I have to write and one I have to somehow acquire. That’s not bad for a start, I can’t wait to see how it goes. The key may be to schedule posts in advance. Here are things I won’t do: take part in book tours, participate in all the readalongs and reading events I usually participate in, stop blogging. The last is the most important, I won’t stop blogging. That’s my resolution for the new year: do everything to keep the blog alive, it’s worth it. What are your blog plans this year?