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 sheep, its uncanny..

(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.
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.)
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
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
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.
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

Friday Phrases #1

This entire plan to be a regular blog-poster is on the brink of failure yet again. But the other day as I was going through my giant suitcase of books (my room has no place) I found a much beloved tome – the Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable: 17th Edition. I had found this at Crossword of all places at a whooping seventy percent discount a couple of years ago. This book is a delight; gives a whole new meaning to the word dictionary. Amazon describes it in this fashion – “Much loved for its wit and wisdom since 1870, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable takes you on a captivating adventure through its trademark blend of language, culture, myth and legend.”
So what I’ve decided now is a very simple ritual. No matter what I read or do every week, I will return to the blog every Friday to post about one word or phrase or word history from my ginormous dictionary of phrase and fable. The idea is to open the book to any random page and post the entry which most catches my fascination.
Today’s phrase is this: (Page 285)
CLOSE ENCOUNTER: Journalistic jargon for any meeting, whether personal or professional.
Fair enough, this is how I use it, but then it goes to say…
The phrase was popularized by the title of the science fiction film Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), itself referring to contact with extraterrestrial beings from a UFO. A ‘close encounter of the first kind’ is thus simply a sighting of a UFO, while a ‘close encounter of the second kind’ is evidence of an alien landing. A ‘close encounter of the fourth kind’ is an abduction by aliens. The categories were proposed by J Allen Hynek’s The UFO Experience: A Scientific Enquiry (1972.)
Further on, Wikipedia says that there have been extensions to Hynek’s list, so that there are now fifth and six kinds of close encounters to describe even further varying degrees of UFO contact. Another word I learnt today is ufology – the study of UFOs.

Turtles All The Way Down by John Green

I was not about to write a review of Turtles All The Way Down by John Green, until I was asked by a student to explain the main character’s point of view. And that led to a long internal monologue, and as I revisited the pages in my memory, I felt this post coming on. John Green does teenages as well as Rowling does middle grade and Enid Blyton childhood. It’s as if when he writes, for long moments, he becomes unstuck from adulthood and is a teenager himself – the effortless points of view, the angst and rebellion – only to come back to his adult self when structuring his stories. Turtles All the Way Down is a brilliant, if a little esoteric, view at a number of common and uncommon teenage struggles. 

Inside a Compulsive Mind… Aza Holmes is a sixteen year old and an awkward choice for a protagonist of a story. She is the best friend and self-professed sidekick of one Daisy Ramirez, a bubbly girl who writes Star Wars fan-fiction, and aspiring artist Mychal Turner. But Aza is not just any teenager; she suffers from multiple anxiety disorders – and from the very first page, John Green thrusts us right into the complexities of her mind. 

Aza’s main anxiety has to do with human microbiome, the colonies of micro-organisms which reside in our body, and a better part of her life is spent worrying about the many infections she might contract. Aza has this nervous tick where she repeatedly scratches a callus on her finger, rinses it with soap and re-bandages it, only to scratch it open again… never allowing it to fully heal. The tragedy of her troubles is that Aza often seems too self-centered to her only friend Daisy; and this is the most worrisome fact... that we live in so oblivious a culture as to mistake chronic obsession for selfishness.
One is hardly shocked to discover that Green himself has battled obsessive compulsive disorder and it’s not the first time that he has revealed his insights into this struggle. In a number of Youtube videos, Green talks about what it is like to live with OCD.
The “Absent” Parent… The story kicks off when Aza and her friends learn that Russell Pickett, a billionaire businessman, has gone missing and there is a big reward to find him. And it so happens that Aza went to camp with Pickett’s son, Davis. Daisy is eager to use this connection to find out more about the disappearance. And Aza reluctantly agrees to rekindle a friendship with the boy. It doesn’t help that her name is, literally, Holmes. An amateur attempt at sleuthing runs awry as Daisy and Aza walk right into a dangerous mystery.

The cheesiness of the absent dad stereotype is not lost on us, but Green manages to flesh out a run-off-the-mill framework into something substantial. Davis Pickett has lost his mother three years before the story. And he has an odd relationship with his father, the missing billionaire. A part of him is convinced that his father has run off to avoid the many fraud investigations pinned against him; and another part, the little boy inside if you will, imagines the worst and pleads for a miracle. Davis’s younger brother is not as conflicted. Convinced that his father would never leave them, the younger of the two brothers has fallen much farther into a state of depression at his absence. 

Davis struggles with his own feelings while becoming the responsible elder for his brother… all expressed with the restraint that would be typical of a teenage boy dealing with “big” problems – that pressure to seem mature, the anxiety of responsibility, the ever-present rebel, the constant inner struggle, and the finding of comfort in online anonymity… 

Internet… I feel old as I write this, and a little bit of a hypocrite, but the internet is a kicking and screaming entity, a living creature, in the lives of today’s teenagers. Sure, I started a blog when I was seventeen and granted, I “spoke” to more people online than in real life; but I was an exception, not a rule. Today, most kids can’t imagine a life without Youtube and Snapchat and Instagram, it’s weird how strange the children in my class find that Youtube is only as old as them. In this day and age, it is perfect that the better part of the discussions and conflicts in the book stems from Aza online-stalking her boyfriend, someone subtly referencing their girlfriend in a blog, or serious Star Wars fan fiction! It gives this throbbing lifelike quality to the book and goes with the age. Today’s teen is much more connected with the world around him, today’s teen can put up modern art displays in secret underground galleries and we take it in a stride. The oldie that I am notices it, a kid won’t. 

Stuff John Green does… John Green is two people in my head, the author and the youtube guy. John Green the author seems to have become synonymous with “teen tearjerker books” and I expected something of the sort from Turtles All The Way Down. I’m stunned by what I got instead. I was hardly the biggest fan of The Fault in our Stars, a good book, but in this he has definitely taken my expectations by the scruff and carried them all the way to the stars. A stunning book that kills as many tropes as it espouses.

One of the things I love about Green the online persona is that he can talk about anything under the sun and often talks about things I love. People in the book bloggy world talk about a “John Green effect” on teenagers; when John Green recommends something, the interest in said thing skyrockets. I was more than happy to find some of my less common favourite authors and ideas referenced in this book… Terry Pratchett the foremost. Let there be light. 

Lastly, if you’re wondering about the title… it’s a reference to an old joke. So, Bertrand Russell was giving a lecture on astronomy when a woman in the audience accused him of telling lies. The lady said that the world was no sphere, but rather a flat disc resting on the back of a turtle (think Discworld + old Hindu myths apparently) And what was the turtle resting on? This the accuser found funny, and replied, “it was turtles all the way down.”

The fact that we find it laughably impossible that the world may be resting on an endless tower of turtles attests to the fact that we might have no conception of how insane the world can be. Stranger things have happened. And this title brings us to the last thing that Green attempts to ask and answer; or perhaps the first thing; that existential crisis that grips us in our teenages, the question which is Aza’s daily struggle, our place in it all: what’s the point?

One of the best books I read in 2017. Go buy it! I leave you with a quote..

“One of the challenges with pain–physical or psychic–is that we can really only approach it through metaphor. It can’t be represented the way table or a body can. In some ways, pain is the opposite of language. And we’re such language-based creatures that to some extent we cannot know what we cannot name. And so we assume it isn’t real. We refer to it with catch-all terms, like crazy or chronic pain, terms that both ostracise and minimise. The term chronic pain captures nothing of the grinding, constant, ceaseless, inescapable hurt. And the term crazy arrives at us with none of the terror and worry you live with.”

Buy this book on Amazon! 

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

“I’m not saying the kids were doing this in a mean way. They were just being normal dumb kids. I know that. I kind of wanted to tell them that. Like, it’s okay, I know I’m weird looking, take a look, I don’t bite. Hey, the truth is, if a Wookiee started going to the school all of a sudden, I’d be curious, I’d probably stare a bit! And if I was walking with Jack or Summer, I’d probably whisper to them: Hey, there’s the Wookiee. And if the Wookiee caught me saying that, he’d know I wasn’t trying to be mean. I was just pointing out the fact that he’s a Wookiee. It took about one week for the kids in my class to get used to my face.”
– August Pullman, age 10. 
You know, it’s not easy being a high school teacher. It’s nightmarish to be an adult in a child’s world – the gossip, the bullying, the high school politics, the raging hormones, the insecurities and ego surges; when you’re a kid, you think the adults just don’t “get it.” But that’s not it. I get it, I just know that there’s little I can do about it. It’s all so sensitive and difficult. Wonder by R.J. Palacio taught me a lot about teenagers, in fact I borrowed it from one of my students. The book, and the fact that a bunch of teens in my class love it, has made me delve deeper into the teen psyche than ever before. You see, this book is not about a single experience, not about one child having a series of problems, or another creating a series. It’s told from the points of view of many children, different perspectives on the same experience, and it’s about how they all come together to weave that web of nastiness that is any school.
It all begins with August Pullman, a boy born with a facial malformation, called a “mandibulofacial dysostosis” and described as much more drastic in appearance than a cleft palate. August opens the book with narration of his life story with a chilling matter-of-factly tone. Auggie is used to people being frightened of his face, he describes that reaction that people have, of shock and derision, often leading to pity, when people see him for the first time. He knows that some people can never look him in the eye, ever. He knows it, and he says it like he’s accepted it… almost.
August has been home-schooled till Grade 4, when his parents decide it’s time for him to get a taste of the real world, with all its joys and difficulties. They enrol him into a private school, much to August’s dismay. The director of the school, a nice ol’ man comically named Mr. Tushman arranges for a visit to the school for August during the summer holidays. He recruits three prospective classmates to show him around the school. This is where August gets his first nasty surprise. The boys, who are absolutely sweet in the presence of the adults, commence casual snide remarks when alone with August – sample: referring to him as Darth Sidious with his burnt face. 
August is stunned, hurt. But he decides to go to school anyhow, because he likes it, and perhaps because he wants to face that challenge. The first day is no different from what you’d expect. August makes no friends, and the few he does make seem to be talking to him out of some sort of obligation. The meanest of the boys is this popular kid who should have no reason to pick on anyone, seeing as he is already on the highest rung of the social ladder. But somehow, he takes the keenest interest in making Auggie’s life miserable. Come lunch break, when Auggie feels he is about to spend all of the school year alone, one girl, one of the “popular” ones comes up to his table and sits with him. And that makes him survive school for just that much longer.
As August settles in, we take departure from his perspective and flit to his sister, Olivia. Olivia adores August, he is her everything. But it’s hard having a younger sibling who has always been so sick, always been in and out of surgeries. Olivia has had to give up on her childhood quite young, and there is a certain apprehension caused by this, if not resentment. But her relationship with Auggie exudes warmth and she’s fiercely protective of him, sometimes a little too motherly in her worry. You see, for all of August’s troubles, he is not a special needs kid. He is just like a normal child, and quite a bright one at that, so he doesn’t always need the coddling that Olivia imposes on him. Throughout the book, the brother-sister relationship develops in the most natural and beautiful of ways.
We see other points of view as well. We see the story from Summer’s point of view, that one popular girl who befriends August. And Jack, another of his friends. We meet Olivia’s friends and her boyfriend. And in a special chapter at the end of the book, Palacio offers us a glimpse into the deep recesses of Julian’s brain, August’s greatest bully. Why do teenagers act the way they do – enough with the angst, damn it! Why do kids “hate”? How do children perceive loss – how do kids grieve? Can we focus on how deeply rooted peer pressure is? Do you become a bully by accident? Are bullies really also victims – as simple as that? Is it all hormones or do kids have problems as real as ours? If school is a test run for life, does that mean people never change – are we just a bunch of over-sized teenagers, just as mean, forever – no? ever met an angry gossipy parent? 
Now, the book doesn’t give you answers to all these questions. But it damn well comes close. It provides much needed insight into the inner workings of different minds – many rights and wrongs. It readjusts your view on life, by giving you ten others. It tells you somehow that it’s okay to not always be right, and not always be good, but we must keep trying to be both. No one is perfect, but that shouldn’t be our cue to give up on ourselves. It’s GUTTING but it’s also heart-warming. So, after all the struggle and perseverance and the trials and tribunals of school, August, his friends and his enemies do make it through to the light at the end of the tunnel. As we all eventually do. So you might ask, that’s it? Happy ending schmappy ending? Well, it’s not a the-end-will-shock-you type of book, not some mystery that keeps you on the edge of your seat. It’s the journey that matters. And the book takes us on a hell of a ride. 
Can we set aside a moment to appreciate how every teenage coming-of-age story has a teacher figure who majorly influences the main characters? Can I bask in how it’s almost always the English teacher? I guess it’s because we’re not burdened with actual content to teach and can basically just come up with our own. It’s also probably because writers tend to temp as English teachers and that could be where the bias forms. Anyhow, August has an interesting, if a little eccentric, character for an English teacher – Mr. Browne, who, among other things, makes it a point to start every month with a “precept” that he gives the students. Words to live by… These make for some interesting quotes. But what’s more is, he asks the students to write their own precepts and as a finishing touch to this book, Palacio has given us the different precepts handed in by our characters at the end of the year. Yummy.
I don’t know what my students took away from the story. I don’t know how much seeped in. I don’t know if the story will change how they look at someone just a little more timid, a little more whimsical, a little more different. I can only hope that they will try on the boots of the August or Jack or Miranda or Olivia of their class and walk a mile. I can only hope that tomorrow, they will be a little less selfish, a little less ignorant, a little less resentful, a little less impatient – and the world will be a kinder place. 
“But in another book by J. M. Barrie called The Little White Bird … he writes …” He started flipping through a small book on the podium until he found the page he was looking for, and then he put on his reading glasses. “ ‘Shall we make a new rule of life … always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary?’ ” Here Mr. Tushman looked up at the audience. “Kinder than is necessary,” he repeated. “What a marvelous line, isn’t it? Kinder than is necessary. Because it’s not enough to be kind. One should be kinder than needed.”

Updates and Plans

The year is almost over which is something I really cannot wrap my head around. What a weird year 2017 was, and I had gone in imagining it would be one of the bests. I scrolled down to January, which was fairly quick since I have hardly blogged this year. Eleven months and nine posts, quite a pathetic performance I might add. 
Life got in the way, as it usually does, but wasn’t really lived very well either. You know, when a tragedy hits you and you wade through it, you’re left with a false sense of security that anything else that life may throw your way would be a piece of cake in comparison. But I couldn’t have been more wrong. The mundane problems, the adult realities of life, are so much worse to tackle. Dying friendships, money struggles, job politics, each one a small bite, until one day you wake up and realize a large chunk of you is missing. 
I planned to read 48 books this year and Goodreads has ingratiatingly informed me that I can still do it! Except, I’m 15 books behind. Of course it’s not about the numbers, but I can feel it in my bones – I haven’t been reading, or worse writing, like I used to, and it’s affected my curiosity and creativity. I feel drained all the time and the worst is this: I have lost that bubbling enthusiasm in my teaching, I hardly go to class with a crazy smile anymore and no longer pore over children’s books with the eagerness of a ten-year-old avoiding studies. 
There isn’t a lot of time left to fix this year’s numbers, but I have done it before. So I’m going on a personal readathon (without a goal in numbers) and planning to bookworm my way into the new year, feeling much happier than I am right now. And of course, blogging must go hand in hand with reading, as it has for the past (how many would you say) seven years! 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is one of the creepiest stories I have read in a long time. This is my first read for the R.I.P. XII event. I’m alone in the house writing this review, and writing this review is scaring me. Yes, it’s that kind of book. 

The book begins with a creepy mansion at the edge of town. It’s the Blackwood House and it is inhabited by two sisters and their deranged uncle. The Blackwood sisters, Merricat and Connie, have a secret. Six years before the events of the story, the Blackwood family sat down for dinner one night and died of arsenic poisoning. Not only did Connie survive the incident, but waited till everyone was dead, cleaned the utensils, called the police and confessed to the crime. Her younger sister Merricat, who had been punished and sent to her room, also survived, as did Uncle Julian, who lost his mind.

Six years later, Connie has been acquitted of the crime, but refuses to leave the Blackwood House for fear of the townsfolk. The town always hated the Blackwoods for their wealth before, and now wish the sisters would just vacate. Merricat goes to the town to buy groceries every week and gets teased all the way back. They shout at her, point and laugh, even as she thinks of all the ways she would make them shut up, if she could.
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the deathcup mushroom… Everyone else in my family is dead.
This is how the book begins. It seems as though the loss of their family has affected both the sisters quite differently. While in Connie’s case, the result is complete forced seclusion from people, Merricat, who seems otherwise normal, has a stunted growth. Extreme superstitions keep her from doing the most basic things, like cooking and gardening. She is fiercely protective of her sister Connie and still thinks like the twelve-year-old she was when her family died. The story takes an unexpected turn when a cousin arrives, Charles Blackwood, who promises to show Connie the outside world, and threatens to interrupt Merricat’s neatly arranged life. Little by little, she reveals the mystery surrounding the deaths.
The writing is richly atmospheric, very true to the gothic style. There is a lot going on in the story, it is strewn with details which demand attention, analysis, interpretation; the language then is a distraction, but what a beautiful one. It plays with your senses and the imagery alone can send shivers down your spine. I had to read sections of the book again to fully grasp what was going on, sections which seemed like intriguing descriptions until a reread revealed them to hold so much more. What adds to the gothic aura of the novella is the recurring theme of loneliness, fear of being outcast, the exclusion from the normal, the small-minded Salem-trial-like persecution of those who are “different.” The story makes you wonder, what came first – the fear or the monster?
The book is about a madness that stems out of shared trauma. There is a very feminine, possessive, almost motherly quality to the sisters’ insanity. The two “get” each other, it’s almost as if they are two faces of the same person. The bond shared by Merricat and Connie is unnatural for their age, but very sisterly and impossible to break. Charles Blackwood almost manages to get between the sisters, but even he can never take Merricat’s place in Connie’s heart. Together they make a deadly pair, each supporting and aggravating the others’ faults; until you can’t tell apart victim from perpetrator. 
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson is like a ghost story turned inside out. Think of a conventional haunted house. Two kids venture into the grounds, a test of their wits, and encounter unspeakable horrors. We learn the history of the house in flashback. This book does the exact opposite. It completely dismantles your standard introduction-action-climax-resolution structure. The book ends on its climax, that highest most intense point in the story, whereas the resolution has already happened somewhere in the beginning… the “who” done it is one of the first things you discover. It’s hard to explain, but amazing to experience. The ending is quite satisfactory, with neither twist nor cliffhanger, yet you read the last line and realize, the story has just begun.

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Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

“…where’s the skill in being a hero if you were always destined to do it?”

Un Lun Dun. Say it quickly, in one go. UnLunDun. Does it make sense? That’s it. UnLondon. Un-London. Un Lun Dun is a Young Adult Fantasy book by China Mieville, an English writer of weird fantasy.

Un Lun Dun is set in the fantasy world of UnLondon, a city which lies on the brink of London, formed out of the debris of the city, where anything or anyone that is obsolete within London is transported and takes on a life of its own. Every city in the world has one such Un-city or abcity. Paris has Parisn’t, Rome has Romeless and Helsinki has Helsunki. An UnSun shaped like a loop shines its light on UnLondon and at night, the white Loon smiles down on the abcity. Cutting the city cleanly in two parts, the Smeath flows through UnLondon, and its skyline is dotted by many iconic structures, the best amongst them perhaps the Webminster Abbey. It’s a treat for any London-lover and a testament to the bizarreness of the city.
Zanna is a young girl living in London. She’s been having some weird experiences lately, strange people recognize her on the street, animals seem to be staring at her funny and once, her friend Deeba saw a cloud shaped like Zanna’s face. Following her around, whispered in corners and graffiti-ed on walls is a word – “choisi” or “Schwazzy” – French for chosen” as she is called. That’s what she is – the chosen one, but chosen for what? Zanna travels to UnLondon to find out what destiny has in store for her, and she takes her friend Deeba along with her on what turns out to be the most twisted adventure ever.

The Smog has started to take over the city of UnLondon. It is a shapeless entity comprising all the smoke and pollution emitted across the twin abcities of London and UnLondon. It’s a sentient smog, and it is angry, hidden away after being vanquished from London by what was rumoured to be a band of magicians. The Smog is now secretly planning to overthrow the existing powers in UnLondon and take over the world. A prophecy in UnLondon says that no one can stop the Smog, except the chosen one. But when Zanna reaches UnLondon, the UnLonders hopes wane, because the Chosen One is just a clueless young girl, easily squashed by the mighty Smog. What will happen when the Smog defeats Zanna?

Un Lun Dun is a Young-Adult book through and through. It is fast, it is witty in that dry teenagerey way and it has a lot of excitement without the need for explanation and a healthy dose of puns and wordsmithery. It is a plot-driven book which works because its characters are utterly likeable. The main character, Deeba, initially thought to be a sidekick of the chosen one, comes through to be our hero of the book. The book keeps surprising you at every turn of events – the story is nowhere near linear… halfway through the book, you wonder what could happen next, because the resolution seems right around the corner. And bang, you end up in the middle of an all new adventure before you can bid goodbye to the first. An excellent quick read for the bored you.

It is an emotional ride as well, the book takes on all your typical fantasy tropes – hero, sidekick, destiny, prophecies, Chosen Ones and tasks and treasures – and turns them on their head. He surprises you with a depth that you unfairly would not expect from a children’s book. It talks about family also, and friends, and how fickle relationships can be. It shows you the practical problems of being a hero in a fantasy story and in the most fascinating way, shows you how the problems can be done away with. The book knows when not to tug at your heart strings also, and prefers sweet subtleties over maudlin displays. It’s quite an experience, one I would rather not spoil with over-analysis. I recommend this book heartily to lovers of fantasy, magic, urban fantasy, alternate worlds..

Un Lun Dun has the most ridiculous cast of characters – a book of prophecies which is quite opinionated indeed, Propheseers who read the book and generally philosophize on people’s destinies, a man who can control umbrellas, a half-ghost half-human boy, a milk carton which has a life of its own, and armed dustbins called the Binja who are a security force. Some people populating UnLondon are those who were of no use to London, and slipped through the worlds – they are as M.O.I.L, that is, Mostly Obsolete in London…which is why UnLondon has, among its residents, quite a large population of bus conductors and librarians!
A few months ago, I was on a trip to London and got lost underground on the very first day, stranded at Leicester Square with a suitcase and painfully without my passport, money or travel card. It was one of the craziest nights, I ended up in the control room with a bunch of guards trying to call different stations on the Piccadilly line to find my mother, who happened to be on the tube! It was a very Neverwhere thing to happen. I hadn’t read Un Lun Dun at the time, but that night I was pretty much M.O.I.L. myself… mostly obsolete. I just wish I could have ended up in UnLondon. Now that would have been something.

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Whispers From The Wild by E.R.C. Davidar (edited by Priya Davidar)

About a couple of months ago, one of my friends lent me this book called Whispers from the Wild which I had been immersed in for a couple of weeks. A beautiful read, just the perfect one to satisfy my newfound interest in memoir-style non-fiction. Written by an expert and activist, it’s a love letter to the vibrant wildlife of the Nilgiri forests in Southern India.

E.R.C. Davidar was by profession a lawyer. An avid hunter himself, Davidar was in charge of the Nilgiri Game Association in his early career. In a personal journey, that resonates with that of many shikaris from the British Raj, Davidar realized the natural costs of hunting – the loss of habitat for animals, the endangerment of many species. He gave up game hunting and turned into an ardent campaigner for wildlife conservation in India. Through his effort and struggle, the Nilgiri Game Association morphed into the Nilgiri Wildlife and Environmental Association. Some of his major undertakings include the work he put into preserving the elephant migration corridors in Southern India and the extensive census of the Nilgiri tahr. 

This book is set in a forest, quite a beautiful one at that. Possessing what can only be described as the eccentricity of a genius, Davidar, wife and children tagging along, had built himself a house in the forest at the foot of the Nilgiri hills. They christened this place Cheetal Walk, cheetal being the local name for the spotter deer found in these parts, the Indian Bambis if you will. The stories in this book are primarily from his time at Cheetal Walk. 
Throughout the book, Davidar is a combination of naturalist and nature-lover. The scientific aspect of his writing is most evident in the precision of his observations, especially of the elephants, their most frequent guest at Cheetal Walk. Every visit of an elephant is described in detail, every move, each contour on the creature’s face, its colour, its gait, how it fed – Davidar lists everything like a dispassionate observer. Then he tells you the name they have given the elephant, how they have grown to like his frequent visits, how they all stare out the window when he comes plodding along – and the warmth rushes back into his writing. 
This impersonal interest in his subjects which complements Davidar’s deep love for them makes the book most fascinating to read – it provides you information, while still hooking you into his life and stories on a sentimental level. You begin to care about that great brute of an elephant called Bumpty, just as you learn more about the elephant corridors in the Nilgiris and how they have been threatened through encroachment and poaching. Brain and heart, always, both brain and heart. 
“Nature is evocative, provided it finds a response. Responsiveness is born out of love. Once you find the right chord, you are never lonely in nature’s company. Sitting in a jungle environment, you begin to realize you are privileged. The realization rouses your awareness and sharpens your power of observation. You begin to notice little details you had not registered before, and delight in them. And there are a hundred and one simple but evocative things to observe – leaf patterns, the play of light at different angles, the changing facets of nature with the change in seasons, reflections in the pool below and smaller and less glamorous fauna – small animals, birds and reptiles that appear larger than life when you observe them closely. The visuals are accompanied by sound effects – wind playing among the leaves, the stream chattering among the rocks before entering the pool, birdsong (identifying the owners, especially the rarer ones becomes a game) and animal sounds. Your other senses also participate in the experience – especially your sense of smell. Some aromas are subtle and tease you to explore them, and others are raw. Altogether, sitting in nature is a rewarding experience, and soon becomes an addiction.”
Just last month, I taught a poem to my Grade 8 class – The Way Through the Woods by Rudyard Kipling. It’s the haunting story of a man who lives on the edge of a forest and has grown old there. There used to be a way through the forest, he says, which is gone now. But he can’t help but still hear the swish of a skirt and the trot of a horse’s feet as though there is someone moving along that long-gone road. And that keeps him company, though there is no road through the forest.
The children all declared that they would love to live in a forest, away from the city and did so with such confidence that I asked them to reconsider. Imagine there being no sound of whirring fans and fridges, even the lights make soft sounds; imagine not hearing the constant drumming of cars, and trucks, and bikes on the road, the honking. And not a single whisper of a person. That kind of silence will take some getting used to. It could really show you your place in the world.
We have adapted ourselves to the city so well, that being in a forest and being safe in one requires a drastic unlearning and reeducation. Davidar talks about the very same thing. When he describes any romp in the forest, he uses all his senses to produce such evocative descriptions. The taste, smell, the sound of the forest, his descriptions put you right in his worn-down shoes, and make you feel his world a million times more acutely. That perhaps is the best part of reading this book.
“Jungle streams are very communicative. The stonier the bed, the chattier they are. Sigurhalla had a lusty, clear, musical voice when we first made its acquaintance. It was a delight to listen to. Its song was never repetitive. There was a new tune with every change in the water level and the tone varied as the composition of the bed varied. One had only to tune his imagination to the read the music. When in full flow after a series of downpours, the stream roared like an angry tiger and could indeed kill the unwary. When the level fell somewhat, it growled. As the flow fell further, it would moan like a bear, coo like a turtle dove, whistle like a green pigeon, sing like a shama, hiss like a python, gurgle like a happy child of the wilderness. Sometimes, it was like a whole orchestra playing, if you had the imagination of a composer to supply the stops and pauses. We would never have believed that a that would come and that too so soon, when the Sigurhalla would be singing mournful dirges when it sang at all.”