a blank slate

a blank slate

Month: February 2016

BBAW Day 5: How To Fight Reader’s Block

I missed Day 4!! But between job interviews, submissions and classes, I found no time to blog yesterday. Anyway, here is the last prompt for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week, how do you keep things fresh in your reading?
Short answer, I don’t always. If you scroll back through this blog, you will find complainey posts nearly every seven months, about not finding time to read, about being tired of thrillers, bored of fantasy and too swamped to write reviews. I always have phases in reading, the Ayn Rand phase, the horror obsession, the latest is memoirs. But over the years, I have discovered a few ways to make time for reading and make it through lulls. 
1. Visit book stores, book sales and libraries – There is something almost unfairly attractive about paperbacks. Even if they were to lose the convenience argument to ebooks, physical books were the ones that made most of us fall in love with reading. A walk through a bookshop or library can be so inspiring. You never know when a book might pop out at you and open new reading doors. A discount only helps the process.
A couple of favourites I stumbled upon at libraries and book sales: Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice by A.S. Byatt, Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra
2. Bring diversity to where you read – Do you always read in your armchair? Or on the bed? Or in commute? My favourite is lying on the bed, with the book propped open in front me. But I have realized over the years that if you only stick to one place where you read, you will end up in a rut. Read a chapter on the train, sneak in a page in the kitchen, find a cosy spot in a garden, on a bench, in a coffee shop and even in your library. A creative choice of place adds to the atmosphere of the book. 
3. Join a book club – You will meet like-minded people and very different people. The good thing about being in a book club is, it will sometimes literally force you to read books you would never have picked up otherwise. And while that is not always a good thing, you will end up with some cool new reading experiences. Not to mention, get some worthwhile recommendations along the way. 
4. Consider other modes of reading – Seriously. I am not the biggest fan of audiobooks, but they are a real time saver. And a good narrator can do wonders. I know lots of people who most of their ‘reading’ through audiobooks, and I can understand the appeal. At the end of the day, it is the content that matters, not the mode. Graphic novels, similarly, are a whole different treasure, and one every reader should branch out into. (I am pretty much a novice when it comes to these, though, but recommendations are welcome.)
5. Find inspiration wherever you can – Be it books you find mentioned on a TV show or in a movie. Participate in readalongs and reading events. Join Goodreads, follow and interact with other bloggers. Take on book challenges. The list is unending.
My favourite inspiration post – Books I Read Because of Gilmore Girls
And to keep the blog from suffering through your reading ups and downs, post about other things, be it travel, recipes, music, movies or interesting stuff from your daily life.

BBAW Day 3: Thank the Blogger

When I read the prompt for today for the Book Blogger Appreciation Week at The Estella Society, I did not realize we could be talking about bad books. So mine is a politer Thank the Blogger instead of Blame the Blogger. I made a list of some of the books I discovered on my favourite book (mostly) blogs and entirely loved. 
1. The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, discovered in March 2014, on Postcards from Asia. From my own review,
“The Golem and the Jinni meet by accident, and discover, instantly, each others’ true identities. After the initial fear and discomfort, a mixture of curiousity and loneliness brings them together and they become unlikely friends, exploring New York together, strangely free in the dead of the night. The Golem and the Jinni is an absorbing fusion of ordinary and miraculous.”
2. The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson, discovered in March 2012, on Vishy’s Blog. Again, from my own review,
“I think the book is worth reading. It is rather unique. It’s not long, though it sometimes loses momentum. If you like history, magical realism, dark fantasy, mythology, art, specifically grotesques, give The Gargoyle a chance.”
3. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett, discovered in September 2012, on Nylon Admiral
The Uncommon Reader is a charming little book woven around a simple idea – what would happen if the Queen were to fall in love with books? Among many dollops of wisdom on reading, the book gave me one of my favourite quotable quotes – “Authors are as much creatures of the reader’s imagination as the characters in their books.”
4. All short stories by Alice Munro, discovered in January 2014, on Viktoria’s Bookshelf (now One Sketch A Day
This is my favourite discovery. I remember how blown away I was by the first Alice Munro story I read, only minutes after reading Viktoria’s post. I found the story Dimension in the New Yorker. I read it once, twice, rushed to buy a book by Munro, intro-ed her to the book club. Seriously, you haven’t experienced short stories until you have read Alice Munro.
5. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson, discovered in October 2015, on Listen Watch Read Share
When I say You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, I am only saying it to keep the list consistent. What I actually mean is I discovered a lot of really good music on Denise’s blog. So You Have Been Publicly Shamed is a tough, scary book and I did appreciate it; but what you should be checking out is her blog, for all manner of fun things she writes.
The sweetest thing about BBAW is how it is making me stroll down memory lane every day. I have stuck to blogs that are still running here. But I stumbled upon so many I used to follow three and four years, old exchanges and emails and recommendations. I felt like I was in that scene in a movie, where I am standing still and the seasons change around me in fast-forward. Nice, but also sad. (The other thing this post established in my mind is how urgently I need to make a blog roll.)
The prompt also asks which books I keep pushing on people. Oh SO many. And ironically, I can’t think of a review I wrote or book I made someone read that got the anticipated reaction. Maybe three. However. It has not kept me from going on an on, yet!

BBAW Day 2: Interview

The second day of the Book Blogger Appreciation Week is interviews! Those of us who signed up were assigned bloggers as interviewees. I got Heather from Based On A True Story. And got interviewed here at Tea Time with Marce.

I love this day’s task! I perused Heather’s blog, discovered so many new books to add to my shelf, was overcome with guilt by how regularly she blogs (look at my sad attempts at consistency) and got to meet her adorable pets. Do go visit her site! 

Bookish Questions:
1. What is your idea of the perfect book?
It needs to pull me in immediately with the writing. I can usually tell on the first page whether I’m going to DNF a book or not. I can feel myself sinking into the story right away. Choppy sentences or poor grammar will take me right out. The subject matter could be anything. I don’t mind what the topic is as long at the writing engages me and the story isn’t abusive or cruel.
2. Tell us about a book you reacted strongly to and what brought it on?
Throne of Glass. I read it because so many people on my Twitter feed loved it. I didn’t. This might be an instance where being an older reader made a huge difference to the enjoyment of the book. Younger readers think it is romantic but all I could see was abusive relationships because of an uneven power dynamic. Then I went off on a rant.
3. Do you have any quirky reading rituals?
I have to know the publication year before I can read. I’m not sure why. I’ve noticed that a lot of ebooks put the copyright page at the end now and I don’t approve. I have to find it and read the year.
4. Which is your favourite genre and why?
Fantasy is what I read the most of. I love the imagination of it. It can be anything. I’m also getting into the speculative fiction aspect of fantasy which is guessing what the world will be like in the future. One of my favorites last year was Ink by Sabrina Vourvoulias.
Blog Questions:
1. Tell us about your lovely critters and how they feature into the blog!
My URL is spiritblog.net because I didn’t know what I was doing when I was setting up my own domain way back in 2005. I thought it was like setting up a user name and I always used my horse’s name.
This is Spirit, the blog namesake, during his retirement from showing so he was allowed to have crazy hair. He died in 2008 at the age of 33. Since then I’ve gotten out of the horse hobby which is something that I never would have imagined. Now I live with my 11 year old Springer Spaniel/Beagle mix Freckles, a 13 year old cat named Powder, a 11 year old Senegal Parrot named Jules, and a 2 year old cat named Paul. They get to be blog fodder when they do something bizarre.
2. How do you manage to blog regularly? Do you follow a plan?
I don’t really have a plan. I write when I’m inspired. I tend to write in advance of when things are going to post. I like to have a least a few posts ready for the next week at all times. I do read a lot and I review most of the books that I read so that helps make up a lot of posts. I use prompts like Top Ten Tuesday if I like the topic. I use blog events to post ideas too. I’m doing Weirdathon in March about weird books so I have a few post ideas for that ready too.

3. I love your blog design. Is there a story behind it?
Thanks! I get antsy with the design every so often and need a big change. My last theme was pretty white and minimalist and I suddenly got bored with it. This theme is called Nice Blog. I liked having more color and the ability to have big featured pictures. The background is an extreme closeup of a cherry tree in blossom that I took in Washington D.C. I think you just see a solid background if you are reading on mobile though. I can’t figure out why but it looks ok so I’m not going to argue with it.
4. Which has been your favourite blogging experience?

In 2008 I was going to be in LA to be on Jeopardy (end result – I lost big). The mother of one of my blog readers at the time decided to escort me around on a free day I had. She and a friend came and picked me up and showed me around the city and took me to dinner. 

This year I’m going to Book Expo America for the first time. I’m looking forward to that.

Personal Questions

1. If you were an animal, which would you be and why?

I think I would be a whale. I’d be big enough that no one would eat me and I could go see what was going on in the ocean. Maybe I’d be an environmentalist whale and make seals pull sleds of ocean garbage back onto land for people to clean up. Nnedi Okorafor had a pipeline-fighting swordfish in her book Lagoon. That would be my inspiration.

2. What is one superpower you want? What would you do with it?

Teleportation. I’ve thought about this way more often than you’d think. I would love to be able to travel all over the world and be back for work tomorrow so I can afford to eat.

3. Which TV shows or movies do you geek out over?

Doctor Who! I went arranged a whole English vacation in a way to be able to go to Cardiff just to see the Doctor Who Experience. I recently got my husband addicted against his strong objections. He got me a TARDIS nightlight for Valentine’s Day. I also like anything Marvel and Supernatural and any kind of genealogy television show.

Thanks for the fun answers, Heather! A TARDIS nightlight is such a cool Valentine’s Day gift! I would love to meet the environmentalist-whale-you. And thanks for going through how you post regularly, I can sure use some of the tips.

BBAW Day 1: Books That Represent Me

I decided to participate in the Book Blogger Appreciation Week after reading about it on Deepika’s blog. The Book Blogger Appreciation Week is an event hosted by The Estella Society. The first day’s task is to introduce yourself, but creatively, with a list of books that represent you. My favourite authors do not make it to this list, that I love their books is a given. JK Rowling, Terry Pratchett, Stephen King. Here are books that I read at turning points in my life, books that witnessed a new dimension taking shape in me or perhaps the very things that dragged me around a corner into an altered perspective. I think about these books a lot, and here is what each gave me –
“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.”

Life of Pi by Yann Martel. The story of a Pi Patel, an Indian boy who loses his family in a shipwreck, survives 227 days on the Pacific in a lifeboat with a Royal Bengal Tiger. The story revealed creases in the fabric of reality and helped me reconcile with parts of myself that I wished to be rid of. Words fail me when I try to describe what this book did for me all those years ago. The humour, the quirk sprinkled into the terrible horror of it all, the story turned me from sceptic to believer. Not in God, like Pi, but a believer in belief.
“There are things that happen and leave no discernible trace, are not spoken or written of, though it would be very wrong to say that subsequent events go on indifferently, all the same, as though such things had never been.”

Possession by AS Byatt. This book led me to discover the romantic in me. It is a literary mystery, the story of two long-dead poets and a secret uncovered. It is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read. Byatt is a linguistic genius and Possession stoked in me a rare appreciation for poetry. 
“To come to the end of a time of anxiety and fear! To feel the cloud that hung over us lift and disperse – the cloud that dulled the heart and made happiness no more than a memory! This at least is one joy that must have been known by almost every living creature.”

Watership Down by Richard Adams. An epic adventure about rabbits. This book illustrates the utter genius of storytelling. Suspension of disbelief taken to a whole new level, with rabbit languages, rabbit friendships and rabbit mythology. I have yet to find a book written with such unparalleled conviction in the power of fiction. 
“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too.”

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. Another take on one of the craziest, ruthless and most intriguing stories of scandal in English history. The story of Henry VIII and the Anglican Church told from the point of view of one of the key movers of the time, Thomas Cromwell. This book is everything I love about historical fiction and more. It defines and defies history, shows us the gaps in common knowledge, leads us to the dark crevices in truth, and makes us peer in for a look. 
“Somehow, irresistibly, the prime thing was: nothing mattered. Life in the end seemed a prank of such size you could only stand off at this end of the corridor to note its meaningless length and it’s quite unnecessary height, a mountain built to such ridiculous immensities you were dwarfed in its shadow and mocking of its pomp.”

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. A coming-of-age story. A horror, a fantasy, a mythology. Things came full circle for me from when I read Life of Pi to eight years later, two years ago, when I read this. Bad things in my life were just bad things now and I had a choice to either laugh or cry and I came of age. There is no better writer of fantasy or better presenter of reality than Ray Bradbury. This is a must read.

I chose these books off the top of my head. There are others I keep mulling over all the time. The Crucible by Arthur Miller about the Salem witch trials, Embassytown by China Mieville, a sort of linguistic science fiction, Ghost Story by Peter Straub which describes my love for horror and so many more. Which books would you say represent you? 

The Tribes on My Frontier by E. H. Aitken

I have found non-fiction much lighter to read in the past few months than fiction, the best of which is too absorbing, dense and intricate. I was delighted to find this gem in the library, a book called Zoo in the Garden which comprised two of the most popular books by E.H. Aitken. EHA was born in Bombay and was one of the founding members of the Bombay Natural History Society or BNHS, a giant name on the biodiversity research and conservation front in India.
The Tribes on My Frontier is set in what is named Dustypore, which could be just about any place in India. Every chapter of the book is dedicated to the little and big creatures which inhabit EHA’s home and surroundings, be it rats, frogs, birds, even pet fowl, butterflies, mosquitoes (the pride of India!) or some larger mammals. He offers humorous character sketches of the animals, along with factual details wherever required. The book is written in the most disciplined manner. EHA strikes out many common myths people have about animals and pests. For instance, the stinky Asian house shrew is only a harmless shelter-seeker often mistaken for the rat which causes all the trouble in houses. (I had no idea!) EHA has the eye of a naturalist and the words of a poet. And the combination gives you a book of science like few others, one that appeals to both the mind and the heart.
I have never understood how particular books could be more suited for certain places. With The Tribes on My Frontier, the idea makes sense. This is an excellent book to read outdoors. I read it in an afternoon on a bench outside the library. As I sat there, I was alarmed by the sudden and conspicuous appearance of all these tiny tribes engaged in their daily business about me. Crows cawing their lungs out, an occasional bulbul, little black ants scurrying across the ground, tiny beetles, the twitter of many other birds, some I recognized. It was just fabulous. Now, I am fairly naturally-inclined, so I generally notice the odd squirrel on the tree and the tiny butterflies and bugs people miss. But even I was not prepared for this rush of activity. Of course, the book only foregrounded what was hidden in plain sight. Post reading The Tribes on My Frontier, I have noticed so much more life around me, it’s wonderful.
EHA speaks about animals with the very tenderness that I found lacking in my recent read of The Fall of a Sparrow by Salim Ali. It may be a simple reflection of a “gentleman’s upbringing” as opposed to Ali’s slightly more unscrupulous childhood. But it is still curious how two people brought up in the same city, who ended up in the exact same field, the same Bombay Natural History Society, though years apart, viewed their work in such contrasting ways. EHA here makes the same distinction that Ali makes between killing specimens and hunting for sport – only he does it better. He condemns taking life for no purpose and claims that his curiosity is not only to study fellow creatures but to form an acquaintance with them. My personal bias finds EHA’s warmth more readily likeable than Ali’s defence for hunting and the strictly scientific interest.
At times EHA sounds far too imperial and I can’t help my immediate throwing-up-of-defenses in such cases. There are other moments too where I do not quite see eye to eye with him. There is a whole chapter on how insufferable he finds frogs. I would be reluctant to, say, kiss a frog, but I do find them kind of cute. That said, EHA’s distaste stems from an incident which he does mention. The tone of the book borders on pompous but I, for one, am fond of that funny stiff-upper-lip P.G. Wodehouse-y writing style. A favourite passage coolly describes the various ways in which spiders murder their victims, but I’d rather not throw that at you out of context. Here is a taste of something different, not my favourite, but more brooding –
Bats have one lovely virtue, and that is family affection. I shall never forget a captive family of demon bats I once saw, the grim papa, the mother perhaps a trifle more hideous, and the half-grown youngster, not quite able yet to provide for himself. There was something very touching in the tender attachment to one another of three such ill-omened objects. Fruit-bats, too, when they go foraging, never leave the baby at home. 

A friend of mine has communicated to me, for insertion here, a very affecting story of a bat which he found, prostrate and bleeding, with a mob of dastardly crows seeking its life. Running to the rescue, he lifted it up, and discovered, under its wings, a helpless little infant, which it was vainly trying to save from its ruthless prosecutors. The pathos of the story comes to a head at the point where my humane friend, putting his hand into his trousers pocket, draws out two annas and gives them to a native lad, charging him to protect the poor creature and take it to a place of safety. No one who has any respect for his own feelings will press the matter further, and inquire what the native did when he had received the two annas and my humane friend was gone.

As I fluttered through the pages looking for this, I kept finding more and more quotable quotes and now I want to read it all over again. That should tell you something. Here is another bit and then I’m done –

I have seen a posse of ladies almost disappear into raptures over a ‘quite too awfully delicious’ specimen of a Christmas card, and I was constrained to add some corroborative ejaculations with a tepid effort at enthusiasm; but who would put the prettiest conception in which art ever dressed a Christmas greeting beside that exquisite little butterfly which at this season flits over the barren plains of the Deccan, whose wings of velvet black and intense blue are bordered with peacock eyes of the richest red? And every day thousands of them are born and perish; for, like the bouquet on your table, these little decorations are being constantly renewed, so that they may ever be fresh and bright, and the old ones, before they have time to fade, are case away. Few of them live much over a week.

He then goes on to say how butterflies are more than just art, their peculiar characteristics and how they have adapted to survive their tiny lives. And now, as promised, I’m done!

For the love of writing

I miss my book club. A lot of people I know like to write and love to read. But there is something special about those who make time for it on the one free day of the week. My home town was a fairly culturally-active place. I have been missing that sense of intellectual stimulation in this new city, not because of a lack of it, but because I have hardly ventured out of the daily humdrum of the university. This past week was rather stressful for a number of reasons and I really needed that strangers-geeking-out-over-books feeling again. So I tracked down the next best thing, a writing club that was worth it.
As part of today’s activities, I wrote and read out two things that, if not anything else, at least helped get my entirely dried up creativity flowing again. For one, I enjoyed writing in an actual notebook as opposed to the laptop, I think the pen and paper awakened a new side of me. (The picture is sad, my scrawl does the Moleskine no justice.) I wanted to post edited versions of both stories and make it a regular thing, if, that is, I attend more of the meetups. I will explain the prompts at the end of each story. Ideally, it should stand alone. 
1. Untitled
It was a quiet morning. Mary took her usual route to school, but not without an uncanny worry. She felt as if her shadow had been cut away. At school, the children prodded her, “What is wrong, Mary?” The teachers wondered, “Why do you look so forlorn, Mary?” But their probing went unanswered.

Mary walked back home alone, her heart heavy, her mind in a dark place. “But why!” she asked herself, “but where!” At dinner too, Mary was awfully quiet, gulping down her food, stray tears in her eyes, until Mother asked, a mask of concern, “What is wrong, dear Mary, whatever is wrong now?” It is nothing, she replied in quiet voice. “I thought you would be happy today,” said Mother, “considering how Father took care of that wretched lamb.” 

“What do you mean?” Mary looked up. “The silly thing that has been following you around everywhere, what a nuisance. Your teachers gave us a call, you know.” “What did Father do?” Mary’s voice quivered. “Why, we just had it for dinner last night.”
Prompt: Pick a nursery rhyme and kill the main character. People wrote some really good things! Mine turned out weird, and you sort of see it coming. But it was the best I could do in ten minutes. Plots are not my turf. It was a cool warm-up though, for what was to follow.
2. Blinded

The flesh burned slowly and the night air grew thick with the stench. “Only one more left.” The man whispered to himself, “God forgive me, dear Lord, please forgive me.” He dragged the final corpse to the fire, a single high flame. He cut out the heart and threw it in. It sizzled and crackled. The man shut his eyes and crept away from the fire. He began to chant. Something in the forest came alive at his words, the wind rustled and the trees shivered. The man held out his hands beckoning the nether spirits to this world. Goosebumps flowered on every inch of his body, but he stood still. 

For a moment nothing happened. Then the air changed as something stirred to life. Had the man opened his eyes, he would have seen the fire turn crimson and then black. He did not, but he did feel a presence. The wind curled around his fingers and squeezed. A lump built in his throat. The man dared not open his eyes. Sight, the scriptures say, is the pathway to the soul. One look and a nether creature could eat you alive, but there was no other way. He needed them.

“You are here,” he finally whispered, and the wind howled back a yes. “I need help,” said the man, “I need you so much.” A throaty chill reverberated through the forest air, and in his mind, the man heard an echo. “We can help you, Julian Wyllen. We are here to help. You have served us and we are here to help.” “Oh, thank the Lord, thank you, God.” Julian whispered, and the chill replied, “Not the Lord.” The forest laughed, as the man fumbled with the cross on his neck. His heart thudded in quiet desperation.

“Do you have her,” he finally said, “I want her back. I need her back.” The air around his fingers was fluid now, almost liquid, hard and smooth. It curled around his hand and squeezed again, a tiny icy grip. The breath left his body. “Is she here?” Julian asked the forest. “Yes, father. I’m right here,” came a quiet voice from outside his head. A real voice. “Anne?” the man whispered and clutched at the liquid air around his fingers. It hardened and softened and moulded in his hand. Skin to skin. “Oh my Annie,” the man turned to her, then stiffened. The little hand had dissolved into air. The wind thundered with laughter.

The cold voice echoed in his thoughts, “Not so soon, Julian Wyllen. We offer no gifts. What have you for us?” Anything you want, the man said to himself, I shall give you anything you want. “A life in exchange for another,” replied the forest that was his mind. “Open your eyes. Look at us. Look at what you worship. And look at what we have brought you. Once done, she cannot be undone. What have you to lose.” “Nothing,” said the man. He had worked towards this moment, waited for his girl, for ten years. He had sacrificed everything. Now he would give up the only thing he had left. “Forgive me, Lord,” he whispered and opened his eyes.

The first thing Julian saw was the black fire. For a moment he was enraptured, then his focus shifted and he shouted, “Anne, Annie, my darling.” Julian spun around, bending down to hug her, when his mind caught up with his senses. It was dark, but even in the dull gloom he could see the cracks in her eyes. He cringed. She was a pale thing, the face as beautiful as he remembered, but it held no depth. “Oh Lord,” he gasped and gulped, and she opened her mouth. A rasping voice emerged from the pretty lips, “Thank you. You, Julian Wyllen, have served us and given us life. We shall remain grateful.” The wind howled through the forest. Then the voice changed. “Goodbye,” Anne cooed, as her face twisted into a smile. It was the last thing Julian Wyllen ever saw.
Prompt: This again requires a lot of reworking. I have edited it considerably since I returned home, but I stuck to the first idea I had. Forty minutes are too little to pen a story for me. The activity, however, was still interesting. We picked four books each for the character name, setting, mood and plot. My selections were Julian from Famous Five, a forest from the first page of Eragon, the emotion was distaste, though I forget the book, and the action was a passive waiting. 
Our titles came from a list of cocktails, randomly assigned. My pick was Blind Abbot. I did not directly use it as the title of the story, but I did heavily incorporate it into the theme. Google brings up a nice description for the drink, of coffee liqueur, cinnamon syrup, Irish whiskey, froth and cream, which if I did drink, I might even have liked. Then again, the cocktail has no relevance here, I decided to use the more ecclesiastic meaning of abbot. 
For a first attempt, the whole exercise went quite well. Even if I do a little of this every week, I think I will stay happily in touch with writing. Meanwhile, I would love to know what you think. Are you part of any book or writing clubs, virtual or otherwise? Do you find it helpful?