Little, Big by John Crowley

My third read for the Once Upon a Time Challenge is a fairy tale of sorts. Neil Gaiman called Little, Big one of his favourite books in the world and I do know why.

The book is massive, not in size but in scope and delightfully intricate, the kind of book that slowly makes its way into your thoughts, till it’s all you can think of. It took me a little more than a month to reach the last few chapters of the book, and then, just a couple of hours to devour it completely! It’s not a book full of action nor drama. It is quiet, almost lazy, but quite strong.

The book starts as Smoky Barnable journeys by foot to Edgewood to marry Daily Alice Drinkwater, whom he was prophesied to marry long before he knew her. What follows is a story spanning a hundred years, of the lives of four generations of Drinkwaters and their relations in a strange country house situated on the border of Fairyland. Daily Alice, her sister Sophie, her parents and aunts and children are all part of a Tale that is still unfolding and yet, is already written in the cards. Most of the family seem to sense the existence of the other land, and many, like Smoky, though unconvinced, go along with it. The odd creatures from the other world rarely make an appearance in the book, but they’re always there, watching, manipulating. As the story unfolds, the inevitability of the fate which was written by a mere stack of cards only strengthens.

The book is massive, I said, but it’s also small. Little, big, like the title. It’s a small glimpse of something that keeps on spiralling into new things, it’s a young story from an ancient world. It’s Smoky and Alice’s boy Auberon writing scripts for a soap opera and at the same time, it’s His Majesty Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, being resurrected after an eternity to rule a minuscule land.

The book made me think a lot about people. About me, of course, and about loving someone or losing someone and how both the things are in a pathetic way, quite the same. “Love is a myth”, the book tells us, like summer is a myth during a long winter; but it does come and just as surely summer goes away, becoming once again, just a rumour. The book gave me a different perspective on life and a whole new way of looking at destiny: the idea of living without letting the ultimate, total loss of control make you feel helpless. It made me wonder how we automatically assign wickedness to all things unknown, and how wickedness is just a crazy sense of humour. It made me realize how little we are. 

And so, it made me think about the supposed little things, things like the faces in the cracks of your ceiling and the imaginary friends all our parents have caught us talking to, the stories in our head about life, family, goals and jobs and the big secrets that we let rule our thoughts. Little things that make no big difference do make small differences, I guess. The real big things, big enough to be important in this old, wide world are far beyond our reach. And so the little things do matter, because while they may not change the wide world, they’re the things that we control and that change us. We’re all a part of something small and something unimaginably huge and balancing it out, often in vain, is what life’s all about. Right? 

For the first few hundred pages, it felt like I was reading a dream until it occurred to me that I was, in fact, reading a life: the prose, with all its meandering nuances was life, rambling on as it does. The story felt so real, precisely because it was so boundless.

“In the good old
days, when polls were as common as house-to-house searches were now, pollsters
asked viewers why they liked the bizarre torments of the soap operas, what kept
them watching. The commonest answer was that they liked soap operas because
soap operas were like life.

Like life. Auberon
thought “A World Elsewhere,” under his hands, was coming to be like a
lot of things: like truth, like dreams; like childhood, his own anyway; like a
deck of cards or an old album of pictures. He didn’t think it was like life–not
anyway like his own. On “A World Elsewhere,” when a character’s
greatest hopes were dashed, or his task all accomplished, or his children or
friends saved by his sacrifice, he was free to die or at least to pass away; or
he changed utterly, and reappeared with a new task, new troubles, new children.
Except for those whose embodying actors were on vacation or ill, none simply
came to a stop, all their important actions over, haunting the edges of the
plot with their final scripts (so to speak) still in their hands.

_That_ was
like life, though: like Auberon’s.

Not like a plot,
but like a fable, a story with a point, which had already been made.”

Oddly, the book bore an uncanny resemblance to another favourite: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. They are both so richly… magical. It’s odd, because when it comes to the content, they’re very different. The magic itself is vastly different. But both books carry that air of something initially mysterious and incomprehensible and at the end, honest and strikingly witty. Reading both the stories was like trudging through a long winding road, expecting a concrete destination, maybe a final showdown and realizing at the end just what the road was all about. It was when the pieces fell together, so to say, that I realized that they always were together; the picture was always complete, I just hadn’t deciphered it. The experience, though fascinating and intriguing, left me feeling almost silly both times, like when you first notice the faces in Rubin’s vase and wonder how you could have missed them. Perhaps the next time I read such a story, I won’t be fooled. And so, it would, I imagine, be an altogether different journey to re-read either of these books. I am curious to know whether I’d discover, learn everything then, that I’ve overlooked  now.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I wrote a Volume-by-Volume review of this book, with the first two reviews here and here. This would have been a review of Volume 3, had I not realized something.

Picture me sitting at the window, with rain pouring outside, a cup of hot coffee in my hand and my nose buried in the pages of this fabulous book. I read more than a couple of hundred pages in less than an hour and I wished there were a couple of hundred more pages, when I finally finished the book. I know this goes against the whole point of being a book reviewer, but I really have NO words to describe, how amazing I found the book. Clarke has managed to create in one book, what others would need seven books for. My library copy is due tomorrow, but I’m sure I’m not going to be able to resist just buying the book and reading it all over again. Fantasy couldn’t get any better than this, magic couldn’t get any more original.

Coming back to what I realized… I am not going to write a review for this book, because nothing I say will do justice to it. And, I’m definitely not going to recommend it to anyone I know; because I do not want to go through the whole “I tried it because you told me to, but I gave up after Page 4.” or “It’s not as great as you thought it was.” experience again. Not with this book.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke Volume II

A few days ago, I wrote about Volume I of this book.

This book just becomes more and more amazing with every single turn of the page. There were times when I realized I almost wasn’t breathing and had to force myself to relax.

What I like about this book, is that the magic isn’t very organized; which is different from the Harry Potter-like magic, which I am more used to. The magician casts spells and creates illusions and visions and even roads to who-knows-where, for that matter. We know how he does it, but there is still an air of mystery to it. It is still astonishing, and magical. It isn’t broken down to pieces and studied and turned into a sort of science. And I like that.

I remember mentioning my frequent realization, that something BIG was coming. Well: It has arrived, and with a deafening bang. Clarke has masterfully crafted the novel. In the first volume, we get a vague idea about the book. We learn about English magic and the two English magicians; we learn that there is a kingdom of Fairy just like the human kingdom, and that there was once a magician called the Raven King, who ruled these kingdoms, along with Heaven and Hell. In Volume I, the author leisurely builds her setting, introduces us to the main characters and their potentially opposing viewpoints.

We spend the major part of Volume II getting to know Jonathan Strange and what an exciting person he is, entirely at his ease, with his mocking half-smile and his eyes full of smiles and secrets and
 – just as
magicians‘ eyes should be.” 

Clarke takes us on an entirely different journey, with Strange’s antics in the Army and the way he wins wars for the English; by attacking the French with illusions and moving around cities and rivers to his convenience. We get to see a different side of English magic, which is not related at all to the main plot, which is staged in London. But it certainly gives us great insight into Strange’s character and his curious nature. 

The story doesn’t move fast in this Volume, unlike the previous one. Instead the author slips a few bits and pieces of information, that might reduce the suspense, if only we knew exactly what they were; details, that seem important, but we don’t know why. And at the end, when we least expect it, the author hits us with a lightning bolt-shaped chunk of story. I can’t wait to read the rest of the book; you have no idea how hard it was to put it down for the fifteen minutes, that it took me to write this review!
Happy Reading!

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke Volume I

So. I’ve been buried in this book, ever since I got it from the library. And, what an experience that was! I was attending the fiction writing workshop at a library, and after nibbling on a few sandwiches, I spent the rest of the lunch break looking at the books. How can you sit and eat when you’re surrounded my countless magical shelves of old, rich smelling books?
I noticed this huge book and read the title: Jonathan Strange and…. I literally squealed. I wanted this book for ages. A man sitting next to me reading started, and looked up, wide-eyed, as if he thought I was a freak. I plastered a very awkward smile on my face, snatched the book, and sort of ran away. I was carrying a very tiny bag with me, so for the rest of the workshop, I had to keep the book on the table, for everyone to see, smile and question about.

Getting back to the book; it is, as you can see, enormous. I couldn’t write an entire review with all the elements I want to talk about, even if I wanted to. So, I’ve decided to write about each Volume separately and I finished reading Volume I, yesterday. Let me start with appearance. I love the simple black-and-white cover, that lets on so little about the book. My copy looks sort of old (even though the book was released in 2004) and worn and very beautiful; it’s a paperback and I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to read such a huge hardback. The illustrations (by Portia Rosenberg) look like pictures right out of a book of magic.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a book about two English magicians, set in the 19th Century England (with an alternative history; one where magic existed) around the time of the Napoleonic Wars. The writing has a very formal Victorian-ish air to it, but the language is never too heavy to get through. The archaic spellings and that touch of deadpan humour adds a sort of style to the book. Not to mention, the often foot-long footnotes make the world Clarke has created even more real and quite enchanting.

Volume I introduces us to Mr. Norrell, who is seemingly the only practical magician left today (practical magic died out centuries ago.) Mr. Norrell is quite unlike the image, that gets conjured up in your mind when you think of a magician. He is a tiny man, who easily goes unnoticed. He doesn’t like big crowds and lives at the outskirts of a city of York, alone in a big house with an enormous library. When asked to perform magic by all the theoretical magicians of York, to prove that he can, he does it; but on one condition. Once he proves that he can perform practical magic, every theoretical magician must give up his profession. That says a lot about Mr. Norrell. He is proud, wants to keep all the glory to himself and wants to bask in the limelight; but is too anti-social to know how to make people respect him. Our story really begins, when Mr. Norrell, on having made every magician in his town quit magic, leaves to London, intending to revive practical magic in England.

Right from the very start, Clarke builds up the story beautifully; while on the one hand we read about Mr. Norrell’s antics in the city of York and later in London; on the other, we are slowly introduced to the legendary Raven King, a powerful magician who ruled the human and Faerie kingdoms; without whom, arguably, there would be no magic at all. We are also briefly introduced to the other key character of the novel, Mr. Strange. We know that he goes on to become Mr. Norrell’s pupil, but how he gets there and why is quite a mystery; considering how possessive Mr. Norrell is about magic! The book is very Harry Potter-esque, in a way, because I feel the same kind of awe, when reading it, that I felt all those years ago. The descriptions of the magic performed in the book made me almost shiver with excitement. Not to mention, the frequent realization that something BIG is about to happen.

Neil Gaiman calls it the finest English novel of the fantastic written in the last seventy years, and I think I already know why. I can’t seem to be able to put it down…

P.S. – For those of you, who want to get a taste of Clarke’s writing, before taking on a 1000 page book – here‘s a beautiful little short story by her, that you ought to try! Just follow the link.

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

“He remembered a hornbill, which was simply a huge yellow beak with a small bird tied on behind it. The whole gave him a sensation, the vividness of which he could not explain, that Nature was always making quite mysterious jokes. Sunday had told them that they would understand him when they had understood the stars. He wondered whether even the archangels understood the hornbill.”

About the book: The Man Who Was Thursday is a metaphysical thriller written by G. K. Chesterton. It was first published in 1908, and is often considered to be the author’s best work.

Summary: The Man Who Was Thursday is the story of Gabriel Syme. He is a poet-turned- detective from Scotland Yard, who goes undercover to infiltrate the Council of European Anarchists. The Council consists of a group of eccentric characters, whose codes names are the names of the seven days of the week; Syme becomes the new Thursday. It is now up to him to stop the planned assassination of the Czar and the French president, without getting caught in the process.

My Thoughts: The Man Who Was Thursday is less than 200 pages and a quick read. It is also a fun read! I read the book in one sitting. When I was done, I couldn’t exactly form full-sentenced thoughts. The words that popped up in my mind were…. Nightmarish, literally. Wild. Bizarre. Surreal. Intriguing. Witty.
What I found wild was the fast pace, the kind that makes the book seem less like a metaphysical thriller and more like a spy novel. The plot races across the pages. The novel is an allegory, a great one, because it does not even try to convince you that it is literal. It is, at times, strange and eccentric and that makes it even more fun. You cannot miss a single detail and you just have to read between the lines. There are times when you lose track entirely of the many twists and turns in the plot; I’ll admit I was sidetracked a couple of times and I had to re-read a couple of paragraphs, but it’s intriguing how each time you re-read something, the deeper, intended meaning becomes clearer. The language is beautiful, though it does take getting used to. If not anything else, this book lets you experience the author’s way of simply playing with words.
Look at it one way and it’s a mystery novel, otherwise it’s a satire, or even a thrilling fantasy. The emotions involved in the book and the ideas about laws and religion and war, humanity and anarchy are all still very relevant. So whichever way you look at it, though written in 1908, the novel is timeless. I couldn’t write more about the plot or the ideas, without spoiling the book for you. This book is certainly a must read.
This review is a part of the What’s in a Name Challenge for “something on a calendar” hosted by Beth Fish Reads.

On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

(image courtesy: here)

On Writing by Stephen King is actually two books. The first is a vivid description of his childhood and what got him into writing: his autobiography of sorts. In the second part he tells us what, how and how much to write.

The title of the book might fool you into thinking this is “How To” book. It’s not. It’s a memoir. Even if it were, this book is the most refreshingly honest “How To” book I have ever read.

The first part of the novel is as entertaining as an autobiography can get. I don’t particularly like reading autobiographies. What King has written, is a series of anecdotes loosely stringed together. You know where he grew up, you know which schools he went to, you know he went through some pretty bad times(who doesn’t?); but you know all that through a bunch of hilarious exploits! I found the narration in the first part of the book rather spectacular!
In the next part of the book, King takes a broad approach to writing. He doesn’t give you a list of seven things you shouldn’t do – with no further explanation given. No. He writes about his experiences with writing. He talks about the process, not the results. He keeps the book very practical; he tells incidents that help you give that underlying advice to yourself, rather than a numbered list of things to do. Those never work, this will. He tells us how he wrote the book Carrie or The Stand. He writes with much ease about his shortcomings as well. King doesn’t just write about himself – he also tells us about other authors. There is no “sit in a quiet place” and “write five pages a day” here. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ll be disappointed.
I can list down the things he mentions. Writing paragraphs, giving descriptions, adverbs and the passive voice (which happen to be his pet peeves!!) But I think it’s best to read the entire book! I would recommend it to anyone who loves to read and write. It’s awesome!