a blank slate

a blank slate

The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

Synopsis: Two men find themselves on the banks of the river Seine one late night in Paris. Both are contemplating suicide, when they cross paths. One, Henry James, is a writer who has often faced depression and whose moderate success in writing has added to his melancholy. The second is an Englishman, who has realised that he may be fictional… Sherlock Holmes.

Neither succeeds in their goal of suicide as a mystery takes the unlikely pair to America – to find the real reason behind the supposed suicide of Clover Adams, the wife of one Henry Adams, historian and a friend of Henry James. This leads them to a maze of secrets and scandals within the high society. From Henry Adams and John Hey to a young Theodore Roosevelt, the narrative is rich with characters plucked out of history’s pages.

Even as James reluctantly allows Holmes to research his group of friends, he discovers that something sinister is brewing inside the mind of Sherlock Holmes – something that makes him question his very existence.
My Thoughts: The book is a bag of tricks. It aims to thrill, please, shock, astonish, but above all… it aims to puzzle. It wants you to scratch your head and wonder… in that sense alone, it is a successful mystery. The puzzle, though, of “How did Clover Adams die?” is the least important bit of the book. As is the case with, “Why is Sherlock Holmes in America?” The biggest mystery of the book that will have you scratching your chins is… “Is Sherlock Holmes fictional?” Wait, did I just say that? Is it possible then that Holmes is real? The book will turn the definition of “real” on its head. If all goes well, you’ll find yourself chuckling at the existential meta-fiction Simmons has spun.
In what is perhaps the best and most self-aware conversation I have read in years, writer Henry James and a certain other literary figure chat about authors “losing” their characters and fiction taking on a life of its own even as it is being written. Simmons makes you understand what makes fiction so compelling and how stories are a blend of events woven together – so that they never start or end but are constantly rewritten from different contexts. He also presents the idea of an author playing god, and suffering the consequences of that self-granted sense of entitlement to play with people’s stories.

“But we’re God to the world and characters we create, James. And we plot against them all the time. We kill them off, maul and scare them, make them lose their hopes and dearest loves. We conspire against our characters daily… Don’t you see, James? You and I are only minor characters in this story about the Great Detective. Our little lives and endings mean nothing to the God-Writer, whoever the sonofabitch might be.”


I’ve not read many Sherlock Holmes spin-offs to compare and contrast; but I appreciate the point of view that is not as stifled as Watson’s. James makes a refreshingly different foil to the detective. He packs more emotional insight into the story than any original Sherlock Holmes narrative. He is also not fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories – this addition compels Simmons to build a wonderful bridge between fantasy and reality.

Holmes tells us his versions of Watson’s writings (the idea being that Watson likes to tidy up the narrative, remove inconsistencies and unpalatable oddities making the stories far more simpler than the original cases solved by them.) It’s the stories of Sherlock Holmes taken a notch darker; delicious, if anything. There is a point in the story when James and Holmes sit crouched in a dark corner of a graveyard, each ruminating in his own way on death and personal loss, that sent chills down my spine.

We go into great depth about what makes America tick and James’s national identity crisis. We look at James’s minor literary successes and major literary plans, and watch through Simmons’s lens as he plans to write The Turn of the Screw, a standout moment for me as that is literally the only novel I have read by James. This book functions as a kind of skewed biography of Henry James; I don’t know how much was real but I do want to know more. The narrator appears often in first person, offering his view on the writing and nature of the book. He is cocky and seems to be having a great time telling the story – I wonder if that is Simmons himself, thoroughly enjoying his writing of the book.

America was a nation that refused to grow up. It was a perpetual baby, a vast, pink, fleshy toddler, now in possession of some terrible weapons it did not know how to hold properly, much less use properly.

A promising mystery, historical drama and a damn well written book… pick it up!
Finally, a review for the R.I.P. Challenge, just in the nick of time. Might even write one more before the end of the month! 

Books by my Favourite Authors I Still Haven’t Read

This list includes book I’ve been meaning to pick up, books I have no intention of reading, and books that I’ll eventually get around to reading. This does not (I repeat, does not) make me any less of a fan, mind you. (Sorry.)
1. Pelican Brief by John Grisham – I have
wanted to read this book for an eternity. I was on high school when I
first picked it up, but for some reason or the other, had to return it
to the library. This topic is a happy reminder to pick it up. 

2.
The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
– The other day a certain someone
told me I’m not a true SK fan until I read his “magnum opus.”
Naturally, I bristled. I like King for his characters, naturally, but I am somehow more drawn to horror.
3.
Sandman by Neil Gaiman
– My book club had a Gaiman-themed meetup once
and that was the first time my curiosity about Sandman was piqued.
Otherwise, I really don’t consider myself a graphic novels-person.
Appreciate the art, can’t get into the read. 
4. 
Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)
– When I saw the topic, I
thought to myself, surely there must be some Cormoran Strike novel out
that I haven’t read yet. Somehow these books never produced that urgency
in me to pick up and read them. I will eventually read it. Meanwhile, desperately awaiting the Fantastic Beasts movie.
5. The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter – I have read about 35 of Pratchett’s Discworld books (of around 50.) I read some non-Discworld stories before his death, including the beloved Good Omens. I do plan on finishing the series, am slowly relishing it. But now, since we lost him, I just can’t bring myself to read a collaboration with another author.. in fact, part of which was published posthumously… there’s something unsettling about it.
6. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain – This is a little silly of me. I love Mark Twain, have read quite a few of his books. I also enjoyed The Adventures of Huck Finn.. I just think I’ve crossed the window of life when I would have actually appreciated this book. There are other books by Twain I have yet to read, which I would like to (like Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc), and I don’t see myself ever going back to Tom Sawyer.
7. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro – I keep meaning to pick this up. I love Ishiguro’s style. I think his Englishness makes his Japanese-ness a tad less incomprehensible for me.. I’m more suited to his style of writing than any proper Japanese translation for instance. I would highly recommend An Artist of the Floating World to get a good taste of this mixed style I’m talking about… and Nocturnes (short story collection) for a snippet.


8. Call of Cthulhu by H. P. Lovecraft – This one makes me laugh! I have no clue how I could have read so many stories by Lovecraft and somehow missed this. I know the story, naturally. In fact, you know what, let me go read it right away. This is awfully embarrassing.
9. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury – I’ve read his novels, his short stories, his book on writing advice and a fantabulous review of Dandelion Wine – but I have not been able to read beyond five pages of this book. I found it a bit to esoteric and lacking in those elements that I personally admire about Bradbury, but mostly, the book left me feeling in “the wrong place, at the wrong time.” Have you ever felt that about a book? You can tell it is great, but exactly how is just out of reach… like it wasn’t written for this version of you.
10. The Sundial by Shirley Jackson – I am not sure I get to claim Jackson as a favourite author when I have only read two of her books (but how delicious they were.) I really want to read The Sundial… I am convinced that it will leave as great an impression on me as We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
And that’s it for today. If you haven’t figured out, this post is part of the Top Ten Tuesday meme. Feels good to be back to blogging! Any books by favourite authors that still haven’t made it to your shelf?

On fantasy writing, immersive worlds and reading The Belgariad by David Eddings

“But there’s a world beyond what we can see and touch, and that world lives by its own laws. What may be impossible in this very ordinary world is very possible there, and sometimes the boundaries between the two worlds disappear, and then who can say what is possible and impossible?”
There should be a word for that feeling of utter joy and sheer satisfaction that comes with discovering a new fantasy series that is just right. And I have come to realize that “my type of fantasy” lies somewhere on the edge between middle grade and young adult. No Veronica Roth, Cassandra Clare, thank you very much, but of course, nothing overly childish either – coming-of-age stories, basically. His Dark Materials, Tiffany Aching, Bartimaeus Trilogy, Earthsea… you see my point? The Belgariad fits that requirement perfectly. It also has that epic quality that makes it even more attractive.
In this post, I mostly focus on the first book, Pawn of Prophecy. This is (a) to avoid spoilers (b) because the rest of the series is one continuous story cut into parts; whereas the first book is more or less standalone. At any rate, one book was enough to have me completely head over heels. So here’s what it is about. 
Story: Prologue… The world was created by seven gods. One of the gods fashioned an orb which contained a living soul. Another god, Torak, attempted to steal this Orb but ended up being destroyed by it. Belgariad was a mighty sorcerer and a disciple of the God who created the Orb. Belgarath recovered the Orb from the evil Torak and, with his daughter Polgara, Belgarath has been protecting the Orb for centuries. 
In the present day, our protagonist, a young boy named Garion, lives on a farm with his Aunt Pol. He has lost both his parents and is unsure of his family history. One day, a mysterious storyteller called Mister Wolf arrives on their farm and warns Aunt Pol of a strange, important object that has been stolen. Much to Garion’s surprise, Mister Wolf whisks them away on a quest to find this stolen object. And as the journey progresses, Garion begins to realize that Aunt Pol may not be who he thinks she is… Family secrets and buried mythologies surface as Garion starts to question his own fate.
Language: This book was written in 1982, which in Fantasy years is not that long ago. Of course, it’s much before books like the Bartimaeus trilogy were penned, but around the same time as Ursula K Le Guin or Philip Pullman’s writing. Naturally, the writing has a bit of that oldsy style; a little wordy and solemn… slightly dated if you will. The latest trend in coming-of-age fantasy seems to be this informal banter (think Rick Riordan), smug, sarcastic, conversational, school-kid-talk. With The Belgariad, I’m glad to read another children’s book that speaks of childhood without trying to sound like a child.
“The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm. For all the rest of his life he had a special warm feeling for kitchens and those peculiar sounds and smells that seemed somehow to combine into a bustling seriousness that had to do with love and food and comfort and security and, above all, home. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen.”

World Building: What makes Neil Gaiman’s writing so appealing? One reason is how he gives us brief, blurry-around-the-edges glimpses into his worlds. Carefully manicured scenes which give the faintest promise of wonders hidden behind his veils. With every new page you turn, you yearn more and more for those quick looks, begging him for scraps of new detail, which he gleefully provides peppered across the story. In her own way, J.K. Rowling also does that – that’s why Pottermore still works or we rush to watch Fantastic Beasts and glow warmly when Hogwarts is mentioned. They let on just enough about their world that we are convinced it’s complex, without ever letting on too much. It’s an accomplished story telling skill. But it’s not world building.

David Eddings does the opposite. While Rowling’s world seems to grow even today and she piles more details every passing year – Eddings’ world is all ready when he tells us this story. Each character has a story, a motive, a place in the world, or a conflict within himself – from the smallest shadow who passes by on the street to the many kings of the empires in this land, even his gods grieve and think and second guess and love – every character matters and earns your sympathy. The history is written. It is narrated throughout the story. And the detail makes it so that the world couldn’t not exist. Incredibly immersive.

Characters: The characters – the hundreds of tonnes of characters – each have a distinct personality, and with it, a voice,
which has so much to do with language. Wolf is old, cheeky, wise
but has grown weary with age; Pol is a formidable creature but at once also
motherly, caring, hence well respected; Garion is curious, innocent and
as if on principal, good. Even supporting characters like Silk and Barak
ooze their own drama and charm.

Initially, Eddings makes a biased narrator and it is quite clear whom you’re expected to like. This is typical in fantasy, so commonplace
that they’re the norm… one might even consider it wrong to expect
more? The characters of The Belgariad do grow over time and by the end
of the series, context will turn these caricatures drawn from Book 1
meaningless.

(Bonus:  the book is also endlessly quotable.) 

“Little jobs require little men, and it’s the little jobs that keep a kingdom running.”


“Why are the people all so unhappy?” he asked Mister Wolf. “They have a stern and demanding God,” Wolf replied. “Which God is that?” Garion asked. “Money,” Wolf said.”


“A day in which you learn something isn’t a complete loss.”

Kashmir in two books Part 2 – A Long Dream of Home by Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma and Our Moon Has Blood Clots by Rahul Pandita

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a growing affinity towards memoirs and autobiographies. Non fiction has never been my cup of tea, but these seem to have slipped through the cracks. The last year and a half has seen me grow increasingly interested in the happenings in and around Kashmir. Perhaps it was a year ago that I published the post – Kashmir in two books Part 1 – Curfewed Night by Basharat Peer and Kashmir: The Vajpayee Years by A.S. Dulat. The former gave an average Kashmiri Muslim’s perspective, the other provided insight into the Gordion knot that is the Kashmir problem and the parties involved, all from the perspective of an Indian Intelligence agent.
The two books in this post are about the 1990 exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus from the Kashmir Valley. Hundreds of pandits were forced to flee their land at the time of the insurgency on or after 19th January, 1990 in an ethnic cleansing and Islamisation of Kashmir.

A Long Dream of Home: The persecution, exile and exodus of Kashmiri Pandits by Siddhartha Gigoo and Varad Sharma

This is a collection of anecdotes from the time of turmoil in Kashmir from 1989-2003, when the Kashmiri pandits were exiled from the region, the years leading up to it and the time that followed. It is divided into four parts: 

1. Nights of Terror – events witnessed in Kashmir at the heart of the exile movement, in the years 1989-91.

2. Summers of Exile – events the horrible decade and a half spent struggling in exile
3. Days of Parting – events leading up to the exodus, including the tribal raiding in 1947 and the long history of the pandits in the Kashmir valley
4. Seasons of Longing – voices of Kashmiri pandits old and young, the former yearning to return home while the latter wanting move on, home a mere fable told by generations past. 

The tone of the book is its defining feature. It has no pretense. It is not a work of literature, it is a nightmare in written form. It takes great effort to read and not turn a blind eye to the things written in the accounts, but it is also difficult to put the book down. Very enlightening. Through the stories is given a brief history of the pandit community and their rich legacy of nearly five thousand years in the valley. Through the myriad anecdotes, Kashmir emerges as a kind of character and her beauty is palpable… the natural beauty of the valley, the close knit communities, the salty tea and houseboats. 

Then, the atrocities of 1989-90 range from bleak to horrific. The chants of creating a place “without the Pandit men, but with their women,” people being forced to set their watches back a half an hour to match the Pakistan time, that story about the man who was shot in a tub of rice and how the rice turned red… the ever menacing ever present death. That nonchalance with which each of the writers talks about people dying (“We heard the news that he was shot outside his house,” “I learnt later that they had got to him,” “That evening they shot him on the street”…) makes you feel ashamed of your safety… the very ability to wake up and leave the house in the morning is a luxury. 
Part 3, Summers of Exile, talks about the years spent by many in camps and apartments across Jammu, suffering the heat and poverty that had been imposed upon them by circumstance. There are families who had put their entire life’s savings into the house they were forced to vacate. How do you define the value of material possessions – lost as well as lacking? Anecdotes have also been given of generations who have been brought up entirely in the camps. Whose very postal address reads “Jagti Camp.” Children whose futures were cut off even before they started. In the eponymous story, Sushant Dhar writes,

“I became friends with the summer, despite the atrocities it unleashed. But I always dreamt of watching the snowfall. I dreamt of snow, of touching it, walking on it. Whenever I heard reports of snowfall in Kashmir, I would dream of leaving my quarters and going back to the distant land, the land of my birth, just to see the snow. I longed for snow. For many years, before sleeping, I imagined myself walking through a land covered entirely with tress and snow, walking through the fields and reaching the top of a mountain; this helped me sleep in the summers.”

“The years that followed brought mere dejection and anguish among the people. The government provided paltry relief and ration, while assuring us of building better shelters. Little did we realise that these were empty and hollow promises. Our condition was being pitied. We were not even a vote-bank. We were merely a liability for the authorities. We didn’t matter. We were as good as the dead.”
Many of the stories mention the network of the Pandits in Jammu kept alive by their newspaper and radio station – how they keep track of familiar faces in the obituaries on these channels. So many details reappear across stories, so many perspectives mix and mesh. This is not a political book, it will not try to give you insight. It is not unbiased or impartial and it’s not analytical. Its beauty lies in a shared narrative and a collective consciousness. It’s simply a recollection and a plea… to be remembered. It’s a protest and a memorial and an epilogue… an attempt to be unforgettable. 
Our Moon Has Blood Clots: A Memoir of a Lost Home by Rahul Pandita 

While it seems wrong somehow to talk about either of these books with a critical eye, I had the advantage of reading this right after the first – so I was a bit seasoned (deadened would be a better word) to the atrocities that were sure to follow. Rahul Pandita’s book is in fact a political statement, possibly because it is one fleshed-out book, and not a series of glimpses. 
From the beginning there is ample clarity on what he hopes to achieve with this book; he also admits to curating history to make his point. He is open about his one-dimensionality, if you can call it that. He doesn’t aim to be objective, he doesn’t seem to care enough. In a long book such as this, as opposed to the stories of A Long Dream, it is conspicuous that the simultaneous tragedies suffered by the average Kashmiri Muslims are not treated with any sympathy. 
An interesting example: One of the stories from A Long Dream talks about the general panic among the Muslims during the exodus. A rumour had been doing the rounds with the Muslims that this was an Indian-government initiative to vacate the Hindus from Kashmir before bombing the area. While the Pandits fled for their lives, their Muslim neighbours were afraid that they would be picked clean once the Hindus were gone. A Long Dream uses this fact ironically, to show how both sides were gravely affected with mass hysteria, and how ridiculously suspicious neighbours had suddenly grown of each other. Pandita mentions the same incident – and scoffs and seethes. He cannot, and will not, try to be “fair.” This isn’t the time, he conveniently feels. 
“Another problem is the apathy of the media and a majority of India’s intellectual class who refuse to even acknowledge the suffering of the Pandits. No campaigns were ever run for us; no fellowships or grants given for research on our exodus. For the media, the Kashmir issue has remained largely black and white—here are a people who were victims of brutalization at the hands of the Indian state. But the media has failed to see, and has largely ignored the fact that the same people also victimized another.”
It’s odd how often Pandita criticises others for being black and white, and proceeds to do the same! But his rage is pure and it burns you. Pandita has fashioned a powerful narrative out of his and his family’s memories. His mother stands out. Throughout the book, his mother reminisces about their house in Kashmir, how it has twenty one rooms. Never mind the fact that they no longer own it, having been forced to sell it while in exile. Pandita describes a point when a few thugs show up outside their house and point to neighbourhood houses, loudly declaring which one they would like to take. That incident illustrated better than any description, the sudden encroachment upon their lives.e Death is everywhere, yet each loss is an unexpected and searing cut. A slow and steady stripping away of humanity.
It seems wrong to scrutinize it so, yet I must say – this is a brilliant, moving, terrifying story of a boy. One boy, plausibly representing many, who has suffered a great injustice, who is stranded in the unfamiliar, torn away from everything he considers his own. I couldn’t stop the tears rolling down my cheeks. I could hardly stop shuddering. Our Moon Has Blood Clots is an intense book. The author’s constant struggle, with his identity, his memory, his history is very evident and this makes it a personal, very emotional book. But both Curfewed Night and A Long Dream of Home capture and subsequently transcend the personal, and make better stories of Kashmir as a whole. 

How to Find a Book to Read for Your Kid

(It’s way past midnight and a stray thought brought this post on. I’m just going with the flow.)
In my last few years of teaching, I have noticed that
parents often ask me to recommend books for their children. I don’t know if
they realise how difficult it is to recommend a book to someone you know only
on the surface – I do try to get to know my students as well as I can, but it’s
hardly possible to remember their every interest and taste. Let’s face it: the
parents themselves are more likely to have a deep understanding of what their
child likes. So how does the choice go to the English teacher? It’s the
assumption that there is something mechanical about choosing a new book.
One of my favourite linguists, Stephen Krashen, oversaw a
study on what he called a “home run book.” That is, a single book that makes a
reader. In a study titled, “Can one positive reading experience create a reader?”
researchers Debra Von Sprecken and Jiyoung Kim along with Stephen Krashen
present findings from a survey of over two hundred Grade 4 students in L.A. Students
were asked just two questions: 1. Do you like to read? 2. Is there one book or
experience that interested you in reading?
The findings were interesting. Nearly all those who said they liked reading admitted that one book had ‘sparked’
their interest. Furthermore, they could name it. However, the book varied across the students, even for those with
similar backgrounds. This led the researchers to conclude that while there is
such a thing as a home run book, the selection differs for every child. The
recommendation the study ended on was this: to spark an interest in
reading in children, the sure-shot way is to expose them to many, different
kinds of books, hoping to get a home run.
Of course, this answer would not satisfy most demanding
parents. And yet, I won’t simply give arbitrary recommendations. I do rant a
lot about books in class, and I see children note down the names of books that
they think they might like. Children also catch recommendations from peers and
usually, once a book is bought by a kid, it doesn’t rest till it has made the
rounds through the entire class. Reading spreads faster than wildfire – I quite
like that. Apart from word of mouth, though, there are other ways to look for
books.
First: Goodreads
lists
. Goodreads has many faults as a social media platform, but it
does offer reading lists curated by thousands of average readers. This makes
them far more accessible and reliable than say the New York Times Bestseller’s
List. Not to mention, you don’t have to be a Goodreads member to view these
lists. It helps that there are Goodreads lists of recommendation for the most
ridiculous things. To illustrate this, I went to the Listopia page on Goodreads
and searched for the tag, “grass.” Three relevant categories (just to name a
few): 1. Books about Plants 2. Meadows and Fields, Savannahs and Steppes 3.
Young Adult books with grass on the cover. So, even if you have a weird kid
with odd demands on your hands, Goodreads would be your friend.
Second: Movies. This
sounds counter-productive. But there are so many great movies out there today
which have been adapted from books that are better. Wonder, Life of Pi, IT, The
Perks of Being a Wallflower, About  a
Boy, To Kill A Mockingbird, Ready Player One – all of these are suitable, if
not excellent, reads for your teen or preteen. But the problem is, once you’ve
watched the film adaptation; the interest in the book is gone. So if you ever
see your kid begging to watch a movie, check if there’s a book version and make them experience it first as a kind of challenge/reward scheme. I’d also
suggest scouring the internet for adaptation trailers to find book
recommendations.
Third: Bookstores
/ Libraries.
An astounding number of kids in my school have Kindles.
The reading rate should then be predictably high. Am I right? Wrong. Kindles
are great, amazing even, for readers; handy, convenient, sleek and shiny (are
they?)… But, here’s the thing – they probably won’t create great readers. I
couldn’t stress this enough, the best way to introduce your kid to a lifelong
bookworminess would be to take them to a bookstore or even better, a library. Once
a month, at least. These establishments, especially bookstores, go to great
lengths to create an attractive ambience. And whether we like it or not, we do
judge a book by its cover.
Make a picnic out of it, spend some time together, let them
take a stroll through the store and find what they like. Model the behaviour
yourself. Read. Your child sees you nose deep in a book often enough, trust me,
they’ll want to do it themselves. Don’t tell them they should read to improve
their language or expression or writing or thinking. Don’t make a medicine out
of it. Tell them it’s FUN. It’s like a mental adventure park. The benefits are
simply a by-product. They need not read a Charles Dickens, even a comic book
would work, or a picture book! You must always remember: a good book is far
more important than great literature. Expose them to a lot of different books
and hope that they find that one book that hits the right chord. There’s no
stopping them then.

Freshly Minted Workaholic Speaking

I’ve never taken a break this long from blogging. I still haven’t finished this book I started in some time May. Let alone written anything for pleasure in a long time. And yet, I’m on a constant creative high.
– freshly minted workaholic speaking.

There are many half written posts lounging in my drafts, never know when I’ll get to them… if ever. And this blog has gone through one too many fake revivals. Yes, it’s finally been one too many. There was once a time when I used to ‘write like no one was reading’ and bask in the anonymity. When this blog became bigger than that, I had to create another one for that purpose. I suppose I want to go back to that kind of messy blogging again. Without the pressure of writing a summary or you know, a disclaimer for not writing a proper review. It’s been three months since I blogged. I don’t particularly miss the super (un)organized book reviews; and I honest to god don’t miss the update plans. But I do miss something about the whole thing. So I will get back to it. This is the first attempt. 

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Not so much a review as an organised rant.

THE WORLD: Shelved as ‘science fantasy’, The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin is the first installment in the series that is built on the premise that humans have so ravaged the world that Father Earth wants revenge. There is only one continent left now called the Stillness which frequently suffers severe unpredictable climate changes – called the ‘fifth season.’ Every fifth season wipes out populations and communities. 
The population is also altered now. Alongside humans are beings called orogenes, who have the ability to harness the power of the earth,
feel shifts in stone and hear vibrations of the ground. And to control the orogenes from harming humans, we have the Guardians, who have been charged with taking care of the orogenes. The Stillness is a ravaged world, made savage through its suffering. Not unlike our world, it uses blind violence to get what it wants.

THE STORY: The book introduces us to three women, at different points in time. Essun, addressed simply as “you”, is the woman of the present day, an orogene who takes us through the latest fifth season that has hit the world. Hiding amongst the humans of a small village, Essun has constructed a lie. She is married and has two children, seemingly happy, except her husband doesn’t know that Essun and their children are orogenes.

One day, a giant rift hits the ground, signalling the start of yet another Season, and demolishes many communities in the Stillness. But this is not the greatest of Essun’s troubles. For the same day, she comes home to find her husband and daughter missing and her little boy strangled to death. And that can only mean one thing: their secret is out. Essun can sense that her daughter is still alive somewhere, a mother’s instinct, and she sets out to find her husband and daughter and avenge her son’s death. But Father Earth has other plans for Essun.

The plot is complicated and the timelines could get confusing. But it will keep on the edge of your seat, that’s for sure.

THEMES: This book and the rest of the trilogy is very intelligently crafted. I had asked friends to recommend books that were ‘unputdownable’ and this series was one of the suggestions. I don’t usually read series especially when I haven’t heard of them, but man, I’m so glad I read this. While I have only spoken about one story here, it is the series I wholeheartedly recommend. It is so well bound together that I cannot think of one book without its companions, an infinity gently split into three narratives. The series is about so many things, it’s about everything – family, life, death, love, forgiveness, kindness, race, politics, discrimination, war, survival, hatred, fear – from bare human emotions to grand worldwide conflicts. And it is about time, and how it affects everything in the most epic proportions…

THE CHARACTERS: It is through Essun’s eyes that we experience this world throughout the series, told largely in second-person perspective. She is a beautiful character and the best thing about this book for me – many fantasy stories today showcase powerful and flawless heroines that seem to exist to make a stand. (Two years ago, I had many speculative fiction magazines reject my first story, The Dew Eagle, because the main character, a tribal woman, didn’t seem strong enough, whatever that means.) Essun is strong. She is also flawed, and not always aware of her shortcomings – her temper, her ideas of motherhood, her selfish pursuits. She is not always in control, of herself or her surroundings. And  the story demands that you relate to her, identify with her, because she is ‘you.’

The Broken Earth Trilogy is reminiscent of Earthsea in its conspicuous lack of whitewashing. The characters, spread across different communities in the Stillness, are of different race, colour and sexuality – Jemisin takes great care in describing the characters as both individuals and representatives of their creed. And she tackles the prejudices present in the characters carefully as well – giving us a truly well-rounded believable world, not without its faults, but overall, understandably so. Perhaps the biggest achievement for Jemisin is that you cannot characterize any of her characters as inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’; that kind of black-and-white judgment absent in her writing. Our characters range from prudent and self important, to impulsive and lacking in faith – and they’re all simply trying to survive, one way or the other. This is not a moral story, not a preaching session. It’s a lot more complicated than that. Any lessons are for you to deduce.

QUOTES: At this juncture, my own words fail me and I resort to good ol’ fashioned quotage:
“This is what you must remember: the ending of one story is just the beginning of another. This has happened before, after all. People die. Old orders pass. New societies are born. When we say “the world has ended,” it’s usually a lie, because the planet is just fine. But this is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. This is the way the world ends. For the last time.”


“But human beings, too, are ephemeral things in the planetary scale. The number of things that they do not notice are literally astronomical.”

“Life cannot exist without the Earth.Yet there is a not-unsubstantiated chance that life will win its war, and destroy the Earth. We’ve come close a few times. That can’t happen. We cannot be permitted to win.”

Friday Phrases #3

A few weeks ago, I decided to post tidbits from my Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable every Friday, in an attempt to keep the blog up and running even during utter shortage of time. I have skipped one Friday already, but I forgive myself for it for it was a week when I was completely sick. 

So, I was surprised to discover that the dictionary actually has a foreword by Pratchett, and he says, “Brewer’s is ostensibly a reference book, and an indispensable one. But it is also an idiosyncratic adventure, pulling you in and saying: ‘This is, in fact, not what you’re looking for; but it’s much more interesting.’ And, of course, it usually is.” Very true.

This week’s phrase is –

of course, definitely looks like a sheep, its uncanny..


ALBATROSS.
(Portugese Alcatraz, ‘pelican’, from Arabic al-ghattas, ‘the white-tailed sea-eagle’, influenced by Latin albus, ‘white’). A large oceanic bird, noted for its powerful gliding flight. It was called the Cape Sheep by sailors from its frequenting the Cape of Good Hope, and it was said to sleep in the air. Sailors have long believed that to shoot one brings bad luck.

In modern usage, the word denotes a constant burden or handicap. This sense is first recorded in the 1930s, but the allusion is to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) in which the Ancient Mariner shoots the albatross, a ‘pious bird of good omen’. As a result, the ship is becalmed, all suffer and his companions hang the bird round his neck as a punishment. 

From The Times (13 October 1999): The Victoria and Albert Museum was founded on radical principal, but then got weighed down by its huge collection, which has become like an albatross around its neck.

In golf, the word is used for a score of three strokes under par.

I’m so eager to squeeze in the phrase “an albatross around the neck” somewhere into my writing. That said, I understand nothing of the golf reference. Bye!  

Friday Phrases #2

Last Friday, I decided to make a weekly contribution to the blog in the form of a phrase or word history plucked out of a dictionary I own. This is the giant Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: 17th Edition revised by John Ayto. It’s a delightful book which provides you with a list of more than a million words and phrases and their roots, along with stories that may be associated with them.

The idea is to open the book to a random page, and select one eye-catching entry to post about, every Friday. I’ll learn something new, the book will do more than sit on my shelf gathering dust and I’ll get to post a little something without spending a lot of time and effort on it – I’m suffering from a serious lack of either of those things.

Here goes nothing, today’s entry is –

FINGER. The old names for the five fingers are: 

(1) Thuma (Old English), the thumb. 

(2) Towcher (Middle English, ‘toucher’), foreman or pointer. This was called the scite-finger (‘shooting finger’) by the Anglo-Saxons. It is now usually known as the first finger or forefinger, or the index finger because it is used for pointing. 

(3) Long-man, long-finger or middle finger. 

(4) Lec-man or ring-finger. The former means the ‘medical finger’ (literally ‘leech finger’) and the latter is the Roman digitus annularis, called by the Anglo-Saxons the gold finger. This finger is used as the ring finger (also annular finger) in the belief that a nerve ran through it to the heart. Hence the Greeks and Romans called it the medical finger, and used it for stirring mixtures under the notion that that it would give instant warning to the heart if it came into contact with anything noxious. It is still a popular superstition that it is bad to rub ointment or scratch the skin with any other finger. 

(5) Little man or little finger: The Anglo-Saxons called it the ear-finger, because it is the one used to poke inside the ear when it tickles or to worm out the wax. It is also known as the auricular finger.

And that’s it for today. Have a happy weekend!

The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng

Summary: Yun
Ling Teoh is the sole survivor of a secret Japanese concentration camp
in Malaysia. From flashbacks, we
piece together that Yun Ling escaped the torture with a maimed hand and a
damaged psyche, while her sister perished in the camp. Over the years,
Yun Ling has tried to find the location of the camp to no avail.
Yun Ling’s had always been fascinated by Japanese gardens. When they were
little, they had visited Japan and been to a
wondrous garden, the memories of which had brought them peace and stupor in the camp. Now, Yun Ling wishes to build a Japanese garden as a
memorial to her sister.
Yun Ling tracks down an elusive Japanese
gardener named Aritomo, rumoured to be the Japanese Emperor’s gardener.
He resides in the mountains where he has built, unknown to most, the
only Japanese garden in Malaya. It is called Yugiri, or the Garden of
Evening Mists. It is a struggle to visit him, for Yun Ling is filled with
burning, seething hatred for the Japanese for what they did to her
family, and her land. Her life after the camp has been devoted to
bringing justice to her sister. When Aritomo merely bows to her the
Japanese way, she can’t stand it. At first, he refuses her request to build a garden, and
she is infuriated. But there is something Aritomo sees in her; and it
may be her passion, his sympathy or some hint of potential that makes
him strike a compromise. Rewriting the course of their lives,
intertwining them in each other; he takes her on as an apprentice.
Leap
to the present day. Many years have passed, and little makes sense to
us – but we know this: Yun Ling has returned to Yugiri after a long
time, Aritomo has disappeared, and Yun Ling now suffers from aphasia. In
a desperate attempt to hold on to her memories as they slip away, Yun
Ling writes this: a chronicle of her life before Yugiri, at and after.
My impression: Recently my sister ransacked (for lack of a better word) my home
bookshelf, found this book and was within days, singing praises. I had
of course forgotten I had it. But then I remembered buying this book. It
was a couple of years ago that I had vowed to myself that I would read
more world literature. This book instantly caught my eye – written by a
Malaysian author, about a Chinese woman and a Japanese gardener. Barely
literate in any of these cultures, I bought the book in the spur of the
moment. (And then shelved it away for a better day.)
So,
the reason for the back story is, this book gave me exposure to the
intricacies of Malaysian history, as a colony, the cultural diversity
residing within the country and the Japanese military invasions and
expansions in the east long before Pearl Harbor. Not to mention, the terrors of the concentration
camps. The book also introduced me to the Japanese art and culture – the
Japanese gardens, tattoo making, the precision of rituals, tea houses – and the revered status these arts enjoy.
This contrast between the worship of the Japanese culture in the foreground of the
treatment of the natives by the army forms the main conflict in the mind
of our heroine; and the tragedy of the book.
Yun Ling
loves Yugiri, the garden of evening mists. It speaks to her; its
utility, its artistic expression. With Aritomo as her mentor, Yun Ling
does physical labour in the garden with the other men and studies about
the different forms of gardening from books. The more she learns, the
more she begins to respect Aritomo – and struggles with her conscience
that has so grown to hate anything Japanese. This is reminiscent of any
colony-colonizer relationship; in mellower tones, the way Indians think
of the English – a combination of exaltation and despise.
I felt
this
very strongly – it caught me by surprise, even – in London; where I was
awed by everything I saw while shuddering to see the remnants of Indian
history displayed in museums as “gifts” from my people. Open secret: they were not gifts, just as the martyrs mentioned all around were not
volunteers. And yet here I am, I read English, teach English and express
adoration
at telephone booths, red buses, Discworld and all things BBC. People around here still sometimes call English the colonizer’s language; I have heard the media, of course, but also my friends call it that. What a strange dilemma to be in, what a strange hatred to have. Of course, in Yun Ling’s case, it is not
strange; for she suffered first-hand. And it must take a long time to reconcile with and face the consequences of such suffering.
But there is always more than meets the eye, and in Yun Ling’s case; it
is a combination of injustice and guilt that fuels the rage.
One
of my favourite things about the Japanese garden was this technique
Aritomo uses called “borrowed scenery.” This involves taking into
consideration the architecture and scenery that lie around the garden
and incorporating them into the design of the garden. Instead of shutting
out the outside world, this technique brings it in and the garden is
more in tune with its surrounding, creating an enhanced setting. The picture below is an example of this technique, from the garden called Genkyu Garden with the Hikone castle in the background integrated into its design.
[[[Tangent: Looking at the picture, and learning about this form reminded me of our
visit to Agra, in India, and the Mehtab Bagh – which is a Mughal garden
situated to the north of the Taj Mahal, on the east bank of the Yamuna.  As you enter the garden, gradually moving towards it centre, you notice the white marble structure in the distance. And when you reach the end of the garden, you realize that it is perfectly aligned with the Taj Mahal, which is like a focal point of the garden; though it lies much further away from it. 
Of course, while making a beautiful view, it’s not a conscious attempt like these
Japanese gardens; the Mehtab Bagh was built long before the Taj came into
existence (built by the first Mughal emperor, whereas the
Taj Mahal was built by the fifth.) 
Nevertheless, the illusion created by this – that the Taj Mahal is part of the garden – certainly multiplies the beauty of the garden and scaffolds the experience of the visit. Why waste perfectly beautiful structures in the background by hiding them, when you can cleverly use their magnificence to your benefit. Here ends my tangent.]]]
And now it’s time for the crowning glory of this book – its prose. The writing brings the book to life. The rich language drips off the page and into your mind and you’re transported  right into the heart of Malaysia. Read this description of Yugiri, the garden of evening mists…

The sounds
of the world outside faded away, absorbed into the leaves. I stood there, not
moving. For a moment I felt that nothing had changed since I was last here,
almost thirty-five years before – the scent of pine resin sticking to the air,
the bamboo creaking and knocking in the breeze, the broken mosaic of sunlight
scattered over the ground.

Guided by
memory’s compass, I began to walk into the garden. I made one or two wrong
turns, but came eventually to the pond. I stopped, the twisting walk through
the tunnel of trees
heightening the effect of seeing the open sky over
the water. Six tall, narrow stones huddled into a miniature limestone mountain
range in the centre of the pond. On the opposite bank stood the pavilion,
duplicated in the water so that it appeared like a paper lantern hanging in
mid-air. A willow grew a few feet away from the pavilion’s side, its branches
sipping from the pond.

In the shallows, a grey heron cocked its head at me, one leg
poised in the air, like the hand of a pianist who had forgotten the notes to
his music. It dropped its leg a second later and speared its beak into the
water. Was it a descendant of the one that had made its home here when I first
came here? Frederik had told me that there was always one in the garden – an
unbroken chain of solitary birds. I knew it could not be the same bird from
nearly forty years before but, as I watched it, I hoped that it was; I wanted
to believe that by entering this sanctuary the heron had somehow managed to
slip through the fingers of time.

I’ve used this and other parts of this novel as literary analysis tools for students ever since I read the book over a month ago. And it works like magic; all the symbols, the imagery, the figurative language… and the effect created is indisputable. This atmospheric writing is the icing on the cake for the experience that is this book. A must read, if ever!

Check out the book on Amazon