Thursday, June 15, 2006

Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke

I am almost completing “Capote: A Biography” by Gerald Clarke and my head is still reeling from the after effects. I loved the book. I haven’t seen the movie yet but I know that it is bleak considering the book is not a light read either. Capote’s life has been contained marvelously in this book. It has character and a lot of substance.

I wonder why every genius’s life is so melancholic. Capote’s life was no exception either. Abandoned by his parents at an early age he was forced to stay with his old cousins at Monroeville, Alabama and kept fantasizing about the day his parents would come and take him away. The day did come and Capote met his first love: New York City. Mr. Clarke’s description of the New York Capote grew up in and flourished as a writer is simply outstanding. You can almost see all the sights and inhale its smells. Capote – the name was that of his step-father who eventually adopted him and who Truman grew close to.

One would think that “homosexuality” would run strong in the book considering Truman’s preference; however that is not the case. What is captured brilliantly is his rise from working as a copy boy for “The New York Times” to becoming one of the famous twentieth century writers. His flamboyance, wit, anger, a streak of bitchiness, lavishness, fastidiousness and ultimately is downfall. Everything that Capote stood for is interestingly written about. Right from his affairs to his one-liners to his impulsive behaviour and his kindness [which wasn’t known to all] to the torture a writer goes through while working on a book [it took him six years to finish “In Cold Blood” which is now heralded as a modern classic] and the frustration when the accolades aren’t enough. The book successfully depicts his many friendships with the rich and the known to the downfall when he published a part of “Answered Prayers” [his self-proclaimed masterpiece] in Esquire and the characters were based on his rich friends, who did not forgive him for that.

This is the first time ever that I am reading a biography of a writer’s life and I am so inclined to pick up more biographies of my favourite writers. To want to know more about their lives. I think next on my list has to be either F. Scott Fitzgerald or Anais Nin.

Waiting and Wanting to Read…

Someone once said, “So many books and so little time” and the phrase cannot be more applicable to anyone but me. I have hoards of books to read. There are so many of them. What I fail to understand is the urge in me to read almost every single one. Why do I have this urge? Readers please answer if you know why. I for one have no clue. I have to read every Faulkner and then there is Joyce [whose books are unusually huge], Joyce Carol Oates is no less when it comes to writing volumes, and how can I leave Proust behind in the rat-race? Remembrance of Things Past still stares at me from my bookshelf every time I reach out for something else. I hate myself more for picking up a book, losing interest in it and then moving on to another. I wish I would get over this habit. I hate it. And yes I think it has become a habit now. Nonetheless here is a list [for all the lovers of lists] of books that I plan to finish reading by July 2008. Hope I accomplish the feat

· I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
· Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke
· The Body Artist by Don DeLillo
· Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
· Of Love and Other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
· The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
· The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
· Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates
· Justine by Lawrence Durrell
· The Kingdom By The Sea by Paul Theroux
· Before Night Falls: A Memoir by Reinaldo Arenas
· Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
· East of Eden by John Steinbeck
· City of Glass by Paul Auster
· Ghosts by Paul Auster
· Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Becher Stowe
· The Woman of Rome by Alberto Moravia
· The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
· The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki
· The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin
· Music For Chameleons by Truman Capote
· The Nasty Bits by Anthony Bourdain
· The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
· The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu
· Beloved by Toni Morrison
· What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Stories by Raymond Carver
· The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
· I, Claudius by Robert Graves
· Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie
· Testaments Betrayed by Milan Kundera
· Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
· Don Quixote by Miguel De Cervantes
· Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
· Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote
· The Grass Harp by Truman Capote
· A Tree of Night and Other Stories by Truman Capote
· In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
· Answered Prayers: An Unfinished Novel by Truman Capote
· Lolita by Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov
· The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
· Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
· Ulysses by James Joyce
· Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
· The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
· One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
· The Drowned and the Saved by Primo Levi
· Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
· Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
· Night by Elie Wiesel
· Summer Crossing by Truman Capote
· Palace Walk : The Cairo Trilogy: Book 1 by Naguib Mahfouz
· Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
· The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis
· To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
· Moby Dick by Herman Melville
· Light in August by William Faulkner
· Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton
· Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
· Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
· Blindness by Jose Saramago
· Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
· If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller by Italo Calvino
· The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto ‘CHE’ Guevara
· House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
· The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
· Claudius the God by Robert Graves
· Underworld by Don DeLillo
· Broke Heart Blues by Joyce Carol Oates
· Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang
· The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil
· Terrorist by John Updike
· The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler
· Everyman by Philip Roth
· Mao: The Unknown Story by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
· Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
· Life A User’s Manual by Georges Perec
· Species of Spaces and Other Pieces by Georges Perec
· No One Writes To The Colonel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
· Two Lives by Vikram Seth
· The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
· The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
· The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
· The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
· Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami
· Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
· Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
· A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami
· The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
· The Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier
· The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
· Wittgenstein’s Nephew by Thomas Bernhard
· Rabbit, Run by John Updike
· Rabbit, Redux by John Updike
· Rabbit is Rich by John Updike
· Rabbit at Rest by John Updike
· The Outsider by Albert Camus
· Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain

Monday, June 12, 2006

Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf

I just finished the most amazing book I've read this year (After Sputnik Sweetheart though) and its called "Between The Acts" by Virginia Woolf. This was the last work of a gifted genius and the first that I read of this author. Amazing! Simply Superlative to the core!The story goes like this:Written in 1939 - the year Woolf Died..."Between the Acts" is a masterpiece in its own genre. Lyrical and highly poetic, this is one of its own.

The story goes like this:

On a single day of June, 1939--with the war imminent but virtually unperceived--the action takes place at Pointz Hill, an English country house. It revolves about a pageant played upon the lawns by the local villagers. Despite her necessity, the solitary, thick-legged, masculine Miss La Trobe,who knew how "vanity made all human beings malleable," is not one of the principal characters. The chief actors are the members of the Oliver household. The head of the house is old Bartholomew Oliver, who like so many retired English soldiers has only his India to cling to. He marvels at his widowed sister's orthodoxy. ("Deity," as he supposed, "was more of a force or a radiance, controlling the thrush and the worm, the tulip and the hound;and himself too, an old man with swollen veins.") This aging sister, Mrs.Swithin, who would have become a clever woman is she could ever have fixed her gaze, is the most sympathetic figure in the book. Living with the older Olivers are Isa, the poetry-quoting daughter-in-law, temporarily attracted to a gentleman farmer, and Giles, the stock broker son, handsome, hirsute,virile and surly.
To this special group are added buoyant, big-hearted Mrs. Manresa, "a wild child of nature" for all that her hands are bespattered with emeralds and rubies, dug up by her thin husband himself in his ragamuffin days in Africa. Uninvited she drops in at luncheon, bringing along with the picnic champagne a maladjusted, putty-colored young man named William Dodge, whom Giles contemptuously sizes up as "a toady, a lickspittle, not a downright plain man of his senses, but a teaser and a twitcher, a fingerer of sensations;picking and choosing; dillying and dallying; not a man to have a straightforward love for a woman."

William tries dallying with Isa, and Giles, partly to annoy his wife, pays court to the full-blown charms of sparkling Mrs. Manresa, who confesses she loves to take off her stays and roll in the grass.

The cream of "Between the Acts" lies between the lines--in the haunting overtones. And the best of the show--the part onereally cares about--happens between the acts and immediately before the pageant begins and just after it is over. So the play is not really the thing at all. It is merely the focal point, the hub of the wheel, the peg on which to hang the bright ribbons and dark cords of the author's supersensitive perceptions and illuminated knowledge. It is in her imagery,in her "powers of absorption and distillation" that her special genius lies. She culls exotic flowers in the half-light of her private mysticism along with common earthgrown varieties and distills them into new essences. Her most interesting characters move in an ambiente of intuition. With half a glance they regard their fellow-mortals and know their hidden failures. They care less for the tangible, the wrought stone, than for fleeting thought or quick desire.
"Between the Acts" has no more ending, no more conclusion than English history. The pageant is played out, the guests depart, night falls.

The physical embodiment of Virginia Woolf is no more, but her inimitable voice remains to speak to generations yet unborn. The first line of her last book begins, "It was a Summer's night and they were talking"--The last paragraph ends: "Then the curtain rose. They spoke."
A Must Read for Everyone!!
Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I believe that imagination is the particular faculty artists possess that enables them to create a new reality from the one they live in," writes Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Coming from the Caribbean, though, has made it virtually impossible for Marquez to depart from reality, even with liberal use of his imagination. Marquez claims, " . . . nothing has ever occurred to me, nor have I been able to do anything, that is more awesome than reality itself. The most I've been able to do has been to alter that reality." This seems an awesome claim after reading Chronicle of a Death Foretold, in which some episodes seem completely impossible. That impossible reality, however, is what, according to Marquez, gives Latin American writers the ability to create fantastic stories. The ambiguous Latin American setting of Chronicle of a Death Foretold is what gives Marquez the opportunity to use his imagination to create an altered version of his own magical reality.

The events that transpire in Chronicle of a Death Foretold hinge on the setting. Marquez is purposefully not very specific about the location or identity of the small Latin American town in which Santiago Nasar dies. He reveals that the population is small, which is very important to the plot progression. Marquez would not have been able to create the same story in the middle of a bustling city full of strangers; he needed a small intimate setting that would allow him to twist reality within reasonable bounds. One of the elements of the plot that best exhibits magical realism is the fact that everyone in the town knows Nasar is going to die without Nasar finding out until the last minute. It seems impossible for everyone to know someone is going to die without the future victim having any knowledge of his fate. Marquez has "alter[ed] reality," but made his alterations more plausible by his choice of setting.

First, Marquez presents the town as being very small and intimate. Consisting of many large and intermarried families, the town is filled with friends and family, who would spread news of Nasar's doom relatively quickly. There is also the shop in which the Vicario brothers sit to wait for Nasar. Since the town is small, it is reasonable that many of the town's residents would pass through the same store on their morning's rounds and see the two men. This makes it more plausible that everyone might hear a piece of gossip within a couple hours.

Marquez also chooses to make the residents of the town relatively poor and not disclose the exact era during which the events occur. Through these two choices of setting development, Marquez makes it possible to remove the presence of automobiles, save the one brought in by Bayardo San Romn. This lack of automobiles explains why everyone in the town walks everywhere, and lends further credence to the fact that everyone knew Santiago Nasar was going to die. Marquez's choice of setting has allowed him to create a reality that seems impossible, yet somewhat plausible, all at the same time.

The choice of setting only makes more reasonable a story line that otherwise seems impossible. Marquez may have created a setting in which it is reasonable to believe that an entire town would know a man was going to die soon. Even Marquez, though, cannot offset the mystery as to how Nasar himself could not know his fate. In his essay, Marquez speaks of "Latin America's impossible reality," so in the end perhaps it is enough to know that Chronicle of a Death Foretold is set in Latin America. There is nowhere else that such an impossible reality could be possible.
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Rohinton Mistry manages to bring forth the horror and devastation wreaked by the Emergency in all its vividness through 'A Fine Balance'. The novel is both a commentary on the political and social environment of the time as well as a beautiful tragedy.

The story is based in 1975 in an unidentified city near the sea in India, riddled with poverty and teeming with beggars. Mistry places four pivotal characters in this squalid city. Mrs. Dina Dalal, 40-ish, poor and widowed after only three years of marriage. Determined to remain financially independent and to avoid a second marriage, she takes in a boarder and two Hindu tailors to sew dresses for an export company. Maneck is the son of an old school friend of Dina's who has been sent to college because the family business is failing; and the two tailors are Ishvar and his nephew Om, who have left their village in an effort to escape the repressive caste system.
The novel revolves around the interactions between these four characters. Their dreams and ambitions and the trials that they must face in life in order to achieve these. For four months, these four characters become a family. Eating and sleeping together, sharing their dreams, meals and living space. Their relationships with each other transcend inter-caste problems and barriers of caste, religion and monetary status. The cramped apartment becomes a haven from the political and social turmoil of the time. The four face various unpleasant encounters and are repeatedly saved from these by a quaint character, the Beggarmaster. The backdrop of the novel through all this is the Emergency period and the callousness of Indira Gandhi's government.

After lulling us into a false sense of contentment and security, we are reminded of the turmoil in the outside world by sudden tragedy which envelopes the lives of these four characters. On a visit back home, Om and Ishvar are forcibly sterilized; Maneck, devastated by the murder of an activist classmate, goes abroad. Dina who is unaware of all this is suddenly left all alone. She has no inkling of what has happened to the tailors and does not know why they do not come back from the village. Her immediate reaction is that once again she has been let down by people she has placed her trust in. Dina and the tailors carry on with their lives through all this because they have learnt "to maintain a fine balance between hope and despair''.

Mistry manages to relate the cruelty faced by innocents and untouchables when a "State of Internal Emergency" is declared. The characters are used to represent people from all walks of life in India. The tailors are representative of villagers. Dina Dalal, is living in urban India. The young boy is representative of the youth of India. Through their experiences we realize the implications of a repressive caste system, an intrusive and hostile government and other adversities that must have existed in the India of the seventies.

Mistry also manages to maintain a fine balance of his own. He blends bad luck with a dash of hope, egging us on - only to dash our expectations with a new set of conflicts and troubles. There is always a silver lining for his characters. He creates a masterpiece that is Dickensian in its sympathy for the poor while combining it with a celebration of the indomitable spirit of human desire and hope as well as the despair of unfulfilled dreams. The novel is a symphony of corruption, cruelty, hope, desire, kindness and despair.
1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

This is a splendid and much needed guide - the beautiful illustrations are worth the price. It should be stacked on your shelf next to "The Rough Guide to Cult Fiction" and "The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors" which are also recommended and which take completely different approaches.

"1001 Books" presents you with The Really Great Stuff . Which is where the fun starts - this is a book all readers will want to argue passionately with. Almost at the same time as I'm finding authors I'd never heard of and making "must buy" lists, I'm shouting at the editors - "what's this? You've got three in here by Douglas Adams, and NONE by Roddy Doyle? What's all that about??" I mean, Douglas Adams is good for one, but not three... And if Douglas Adams, then Garrison Keillor... Each book gets about 300 words which editor Peter Boxall describes like this : "What each entry does is to respond, with the cramped urgency of a deathbed confession, to what makes each novel compelling, to what it is about each novel that makes one absolutely need to read it."

1001 books - it's a lot. If you had the time and money to read every one at a rate of one per week, you'd need 19 and a quarter years, so you better get going. But seriously, you aren't going to do that. The pre-1700 section, in particular, is strictly for students of literature - I stick my neck out and say that very few will be reading "Euphues : The Anatomy of Wit" by John Lyly or "Aithiopika" by Heliodorus for fun. And then the dogged reader will be coming up against the rarely-scaled Everests of literature such as Dorothy Richardson's "Pilgrimage" (13 vols, thousands of pages) or Proust (likewise) or "Infinite Jest" (one volume, 1100 pages). Each of which are going to take you 6 months solid.

Odd things abound in this mighty guide. "Like Life" by Lorrie Moore is included - a collection of short stories, not a novel. So okay - why no Raymond Carver, America's greatest short story writer? And sometimes it's hard to see that the reviewer even likes the book in question - "The Secret History" is described as "quality trash for highbrows"! Or take this: "As with his other writing `The Book of Laughter and Forgetting' raises questions about the representation of female characters, and invites accusations of latent misogyny. These are valid objections that may engender fruitful considerations of this novel as a historical document as much as a work of experimental fiction." Well, that's hardly an enthusiastic endorsement. (And while on the subject of misogyny, I'm sad to see the loathsome `American Psycho' in here - the reviewer (and editor) has fallen for the old "it's ironic, it's not actually a book that revels in descriptions of butchering women" line. It may be ironic, but I'm sorry to say that Mr Ellis does, in fact, revel in vile descriptions of butchering women. So it is - extremely - misogynistic.)

Some authors are wildly over-represented, such as J M Coatzee, Ian McEwan and Paul Auster, all of which have more titles in here than Henry James. It's interesting to check if the Booker Prizewinners are included - 20 are out of 37 and there are some strange omissions - no room for "Vernon God Little" or "The True History of the Kelly Gang", "Sacred Hunger" (nothing at all by Barry Unsworth in fact - what's wrong with him?), "The Famished Road" or "Hotel du Lac". So you can see this is a guide with enough in it to annoy everyone - tremendous fun for everyone, but particularly those who have just been sentenced to a long stretch of solitary confinement.