Saturday, December 28, 2013

Halfway Through The Book Thief (Markus Zusak)

Reading The Book Thief, and I'm exactly halfway through it.

It's a great book. But maybe I had been expecting too much of it? To be honest, I'd very well just drop it here and start reading something else. There are a thousand other books that I'd rather be reading.

Things that annoy me regarding The Book Thief.

Style.
It is true there is a lot of substance in the story. The depth of history. The death's of characters. The holocaust. The Nazi antics. Surely, Zusak (the writer) didn't have to resort to cheesy writing style to make sure readers comply in finishing the book! Some would say that the style is very much a part of the story, and The Book Thief couldn't have been told any other way. Though I agree with that, it still doesn't take away the fact that the style of writing is draining and dreary and gimmicky! Extremely annoying!

Stylised writing should be written very prudently. With care. They are like Instagram filters. Don't overdo it, or they become fake and draining to the imagination. The Book Thief style of writing is fine - even enjoyable - for a couple of chapters. But by the time you get halfway through it, I am rolling my eyes with every passing description or a chapter ending statement most of which sound forced and something 'creative writing' students would attempt on their writing exercises.

Death's Narration.
Death is a character in this book, in fact, the main narrator of the story. That's fine. In fact, that's a crazy idea. That in itself is a winner when you're talking of an attention seeking device.

But Zusak makes Death sound like a young adult stream-of-consciousness-poet who writes songs describing snows and feelings and barren winter trees – well, pretty much what I imagine Zusak himself to be.

Is Death trying too hard? Is Zusak trying too hard?

Characters.
Also Zusak seems to be forcing the reader to love and sympathise with the characters a bit too much. Whereas you find that they are not very convincing. In my mind's eye they seem to be like characters from a low budget WWII film with synthesizer-generated orchestra music tugging at your reluctant heart to please cry, please cry and empathise with these poor victims of human terror and Nazi brutalism... poor poor humans, look at them cry calling out Papa! and Mama! and huddling in the dark, as the musical strings rise and the crescendo peaks...

Forced.

Stop telling the story like you're narrating it to a bunch of ADD teenagers. This is a powerful story. Tell it for what it is!

Now, let me read the rest of the book and see what I feel by the end of it. 

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Morphing

George and Caytlin and Melody and Hayden, once my closest friends, once my caravan-mates, with whom we went the whole stretch of South Island in the cold, now become strange people, with nothing to say between us, and the silence between us being drawn out like an elastic string threatening to collapse upon itself anytime now.

Whose fault is it?

Now it is Dino and Sara and Klein and Kimi who are my closest comrades, and tomorrow it may be Carol and Mike. The problem is me. I change face, I morph and become something else every day. Hurtling through tall grass on Canterbury marshlands like a beast without any idea of who he is and where he is going. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Our Gods

When your Rachmaninoff section came in, the rains fell. The clouds broke. Like it had been waiting all this time for you to start playing. When the orchestra lifted me high so that my nose touched the clouds I float with the ravens who called out their noisy welcome to me.

My sins dripped off my chest. They dropped to the earth like black oil drips, merging, colliding with the soil, until the gracious earth ate it, swallowed it.

There's something strangely unearthly about your music. I grit my teeth and try to comprehend it. I soar among the clouds like a wingless demon but in a holy garb, forgiven, accepted by your musical enormity. The thunder claps around me. Or are those the orchestral drums at the back, patiently awaiting their turn and then resounding with flourish when it comes?

Let's now fight our battles. Let's head back down to earth, now that you are replenished and refreshed by the rain and the dripping of Rachmaninoff's piano notes. Let's go to the coffee houses and look our parts again. This miserable human existence. When we need it again, we will soar again.

Our gods, the Rachmaninoffs, the Wagners, they spirit us. They lift us when we are down. For a few minutes perhaps we can avoid being these heavy hearted souls sitting in the rain, holding our arms out to the gods to take us to the skies again. Perhaps the gods will be merciful. 

Under the Snow

Should I be praying instead? I ask the man on the bridge. The snow falling slowly. Softly. It makes everything seem cosy. But cold. The snow fall on the bridge. The snow fall on London. The snow fall on the willow, bare and leafless.

What does your heart tell you? Clint Eastwood replies.

I want to fly away to Tahiti where the sun still shines. I careless tell him, I want to ride the camels and see sphinxes bloating in the Arabian sun. Is that wrong?

What about your papers? Your work? Your typewriter, and your essays to write?

I don't know. Should I be praying instead?

What does your heart tell you?

My heart tells me that I should carry on talking with you even though it's cold. And the river is eerily quiet. 

I have nothing to add. Nor does Clint. He looks away to the city. One day everything will make sense. Your mind cannot understand for now. Your heart longs for something you do not know what it is. 

How long will it be till it makes sense? This alien longing for more. This dark foreboding longing for something beautiful. The nirvana. The shangri-la. The helen. How long will I have to wake up in mornings and snuff out remains of dreams with bitter coffee? How long till I never have to wake up or how long till I never have to sleep?

The man on the bridge who is my father stands near me. I can sense his warmth and his poncho and it is comforting to know he is there. He has answers to everything. And for now the answer is to stand silently under the falling snow watching London houses get cloaked in white.

We remain so quiet we can hear the swish of snow fluffs dropping. We can hear the river passing us by, rippling, sounding like a thousand cats lapping up water with their tongues. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug

Watched The Hobbit - The Desolation of Smaug last night on High-Frame-Rate and 3D.

High Frame Rate and 3D
Obviously HFR and 3D are meant to enhance the film experience. At what expense, though? Film is an optical illusionary device. It fools the viewer into believing unbelievable things, things that are illogical and fantastic. Yes, it was great to be able to see every freckle and contour on Gandalf's face and watch every strand of Legolas' hair dancing in the breeze - but the action sequences and the orcs look copy-pasted from a fantasy game like Warcraft. A certain sense of magic was lost because of Peter Jackson's obssessive pursuit for clarity of sight. Jean-Luc Godard would have schooled Peter Jackson on this with his quote, "There is no point in having sharp images when you've fuzzy ideas."

Now I would not go so far as saying PJ had fuzzy ideas. But he got some things really wrong, in my opinion. Here are some of the things that went wrong:

1. Love triangle!? I can't even write any more on this subject because I can't handle the prospect of a love triangle of the silliest kind happening in Middle Earth as The Hobbit 2 wants us to believe it happened. It is almost unforgiveable.

2. Cirque de Soleil? PJ has always been into circus antics and choreography in fight scenes. I can see why. It may add a sense of magic and fantasy into action sequences. Tintin, the film, had the sequences where things began to feel like a computer game. The Hobbit 1 had many scenes, especially in the underground scenes, like that. This film too has its share of circus and ridiculous antics. To be honest, I don't buy it. But I can sign that off as a 'style' of Peter Jackson. But I have to say I was expecting more of gritty action sequences and not a Super Mario meets Assasin's Creed meets Cirque de Soleil extravaganza.

Now what this film gets right are (in no particular order):

1. Radagast was a little less stupid and more convincing in this film. Maybe because you didn't see much of him at all (and none of his silly bunny chariot, thank God!)

2. Middle Earth felt a lot more like Middle Earth. I liked the way the camera would pan out to show you larger areas of the surrounding to remind you of the scale of the environment that the film was playing out in. Dol Goldur was pretty good. More like Minas Morgul than Tim Burton's made up universe. But in saying that, PJ can ease down a little bit on using green lights. I have never thought green surround lights to be scary. It reminds me of the Grinch.

3. No singing drinking songs around happy dinner tables! What was PJ thinking with The Hobbit 1 and Return of the King (or was it Two Towers?). Singing about eating and having a merry wee time is never ok. Yes, I am sure there was a lot of singing going on in Middle Earth, and yes I have read the books and yes there are a lot of songs in the books. But can we please not having dragging film sequences of Merry or Pippin or Thorin or whoever singing anymore please?

4. Less humour. I have never LOLed (ever!) in a Peter Jackson film. I don't think he has a great sense of humour (for a Kiwi). So when this film turns out to have less of direct humour and instead more of implied/indirect humour, it was great.

5. References to history and backgrounds of Middle Earth. It was awesome that there was a lot of references to history and background story of Middle Earth. It made the film belong to the larger story which the first installment failed to do miserably.

These are not exhaustive list of things I enjoyed in the movie. The film is definitely worth a watch. A great step back into Middle Earth.

I guess the thing however, is that by now, the whole Middle Earth is starting to feel like a massive chain of merchandise and not anymore the elusive fantastic imagined alternate reality that most fans loved it for. Middle Earth, by now is becoming synonymous with bright lights, CGI, characters with bad humour (yes what the heck what the heck what the heck is Stephen Fry, who felt more like Gilderoy Lockhart than whoever he is supposed to be, doing in Middle Earth?!) and circus antics.

I hope Peter Jackson grows up just a little bit for the third installment. I would love to see a little bit more maturity and seriousness, especially if it is (and I hope it is) going to be the final Middle Earth film for good. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

On Timelessness

There's a certain timelessness in every soul, as flawed and as ignorant and little as we all are. A beauty never whole but that is lost to itself, a beauty whose glimpses you see now and then like the sun in a grey morning between clouds, never complete and satisfactory but present nonetheless. 

Images of broken lights which dance before me like a million suns, they call me on and on across the universe. Sounds of laughter, shades of life are ringing through my opened ears inciting and inviting me. 

Never quite there. But always inviting. Always inciting. Always teasing. A bottomless well that you can fall into with experiential traps and sensational nightmares and dreams. 

Timelessness being beautiful is also a scary prospect. 

I saw mists lift like in Avalon. It stayed open for hours. I could stand there for years gaping in wonder at the beauty of its nothingness melancholy. It must have been the song you were singing. It must have been the echoes that returned from the hills. The dipping of minors and the liberation of majors. The sombre verses laying low like they were hiding from the summer's sun. 

Saturday, December 7, 2013

You and your freedom—You and your music

Open your mouth—
Waves they sweep out—
Galaxies and possibilities—
Songs and melodies

Tunes that have rung—
For centuries strung

I used to unbelieve
In songs in music—
In words tumbling—
Held together by notes—
Rising falling—trembling

Until I witness—
The ocean waves—
Colliding to you—
To your song gale blew

Until I stood under—
Trees that thunder—
With wind—
Moved by your singing

On the beach—
You and your guitar—
Enough to change the world—
If you wanted to

You and your guitar—
And the wind in your hair—
Enough lies enough truth—
Enough shit enough good—
You and your accent—
You and your freedom—
You and your music

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Fine Balance - Book Review

Just finished A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. 

Paul & Sally Corwin gave this book to me on my last trip the Southern Alps, and it was in the afternoon as we were about to catch the bus on the Alpine Highway back to Christchurch, Paul said to me, Here, Ning, this is a book for you. It is a fantastic book, but be it will depress you like hell. (or something along the lines of that) So don't read it when you are already depressed, he joked and gave it to me.

I started reading it about four days ago and I crashed through it wanting to make the most of it. 

This book is about a number of characters in the era in India after Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister called a national Emergency, bring the nation to a screeching halt resulting in chaos and revolution. These characters are from the lower rungs of society, with no say in how the politics took over every aspect of their lives. 

The book is depressing - very much so - but also has very funny and lighthearted moments in it. It is very different from Arundhati Roy or Kiran Desai – in God of Small Things, you had the foreboding sense that things were going to go terribly wrong for the characters. In Kiran Desai's Inheritance of Loss (the name gives it away, really) there is a sense of melancholy and beautiful grimness to how the story is told and unfold. With A Fine Balance, there is no such mood. The novel reads objectively and to the point. Rohinton Mistry's sentences are apt, non-floral and black & white. In doing so, the characters come to life in a believable way. You begin to recognise them and they take root in your mind. So much so that I found myself outside my reading time, wondering what would come of them, and whether they would live through tragedies or succumb to them – along with the thousands and thousands of beggars, middle-class citizens, mussalman's, hindu's and sikh's that were murdered by scores during that time in India's history. 

The phrase 'a fine balance' comes from a conversation Maneck (one of the characters) has with a stranger in the train who insists to him that life is a fine balance of hope and despair and one has to live in an awareness of both realities to make the most of life. To me, the novel proves that life does hang on a very fine line. Almost sitting on a tip of a sharp knife - stray but a little to the sides and everything would come crashing down. (That last line comes from Tolkien.) One day the characters were the happiest people on earth, making chapatis and cooking on the verandah enjoying the evening sun and the next they are homeless, sleeping on the streets, their lives under threat from police thugs. One day the family is in tact and plans for celebration are on the way, the next day, they lie half dead on the town square.

In the epigraph, Mistry quotes Honeore de Balzac in Le Pere Goriot:
“Holding this book in your hand, sinking back in your soft armchair, you will say to yourself: perhaps it will amuse me. And after you have read this story of great misfortunes, you will no doubt dine well, blaming the author for your own insensitivity, accusing him of wild exaggeration and flights of fancy. But rest assured: this tragedy is not a fiction. All is true.” 

That sums it all up. This is a true story. Not just for a few people. But for everyone. It seems like Mistry is alluding to the greater fact that no matter how rich one is or how secure one is, life does hang on a fine balance. If life is at the lowest ebb, one is closer to hope that he/she will even realize. If life is at a mountain-peak, all it takes is a slightest tip for it all to bring you down. 

The insecurity of life. The hopelessness of human condition. What a prophet, Rohinton Mistry. 

-

I collected quotes that I liked from the book on to my phone while I read:

"Time has turned the magical to mundane."

"Noises are like people. Once you get to know them, they become friendly."

"Without beggars how will people wash away their sins?"

"But nobody ever forgot anything, not really, though sometimes they pretended when it suited them memories were permanent. Sorrowful ones remained sad even with the passing of time, yet happy ones could never be recreated – not with the same joy. Remembering bred it's own peculiar sorrow. It seemed so unfair: that time should render both sadness and happiness into a source of pain."

"I used to believe that God is dead. But now, I prefer to think that God is a giant quiltmaker. With an infinite variety of designs. And the quilt is grown so big and confusing, the pattern is impossible to see, the squares and diamonds and triangles don't got well together anymore, it's all become meaningless. So he has abandoned it."

"'You know, Maneck, the human face has limited space. My mother used to say, if you fill your face with laughing, there will be no room for crying.'
'What a nice saying,' he answered bitterly.
'Right now, Dinabai’s face, and Om’s, and mine are all occupied. Worrying about work and money, and where to sleep tonight. But that does not mean we are not sad. It may not show on the face, but it's sitting inside here,' He placed his hand over his heart. 'In here there is limitless room - happiness, kindness, sorrow, anger, friendship - everything fits here.'"

"Parents are as confused by life as anyone else. But they try very hard."

"'It's a strange thing. When my Mumtaz was alive, I would sit alone all day, sewing or reading. And se would be by herself in the back, busy cooking and cleaning and praying. But there would be no loneliness, the days passed easily. Just knowing she was there was enough. And now I miss her so much. What an unreliable thing is time - when I want it to fly, the hours stick to me like glue. And what a changeable thing, too. Time is the twine to tie our lives into parcels of years and months. Or a runner band stretched to suit our fancy, stealing your youthful colour and your hair.' He sighed and smiled sadly, 'but in the end, time is a noise around the neck, strangling slowly."

"After all, our lives are but a sequence of accidents - a clanking chain of chance events. A string of choices , casual or deliberate, which add up to that one bug calamity we call life."

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Untitled

You wonder what the lion said to the boy. That boy who wandered off and formed alliances with the enemy camp. That boy who put the army of our side at risk. That boy who followed his whim and fancy and lusted after the fruit that gleamed by the demented river.

You wonder why the lion's voice sounds soothing and why the lion doesn't roar and destroy that brat on the spot. You wonder why the brook that run besides doesn't form into a roaring waterfall engulfing that boy in a fit of unchained fury.

You wonder why the ravens start gathering around the boy, and instead of picking his hair and eyes out of his head, they bring him meat and bread – food to calm his nerves and silence his chattering teeth.

You wonder why the breeze does not start to pick up and turn into a dust storm caking that ungrateful little soul to fall to his knees and die on that spot. Instead the cool breeze fan his hair and quiet the tensions from his face.

You wonder how the eyes of the lion still gleam ever so brilliantly looking at the face of that boy – despite all that he is and all that he has done.

"the world is behind, and home is ahead..."

The repercussions will take all of our lives. Mine. Yours. His. Her's. The trees will groan, so will the mountains tremble, so will the seas quake uneasily, so will all souls shiver until we are all destroyed. The repercussion of the boy's acts. The repercussions of all of our acts. The repercussions of all of our thoughts. It will have our lives.

But now the lion turns his eyes to you. "The world is behind, and home is ahead..." Let's fight to our last dying breath. Let's run right to the edge of this cliff. Let's go down swinging our swords.

Home is only around the corner. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

On Writing

I have attempted writing a novel many times before - but I struggle with continuity and consistency. I struggle to connect one scene from another. I end up putting together a collection of vignettes without any of them helping the progress of the plotline. When I create characters and settings for any fiction writing, I find that I get overwhelmed by the possibilities of unreal characters and the places I have invented that I get lost it in myself - to sit down by the street, to smell the earth and feel the warmth of that imagined sun.

All these to say that in my love for scenes and moments, the plotline gets drowned out, pushed to the background.

With a great fascination for the ordinary, I have often thought what the streets in my books will smell like, or sound like, or if the clouds would bring a welcoming buzz in the bazaar or plant seeds of complains among the busy shopper huddling like moths to the shop lights. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Gladys

(I read Kazuo Ishiguro's 'The Unconsoled' earlier this year, and this short piece is inspired by the style of that book.)

"Have you ever been to India? Is this your first time here?" The woman seated across me on the other berth asks. She looks like an Elizabeth. But her name is Gladys.

"No, I grew up in India. I was born in India actually. But I live overseas now," I reply.

"It's my second time here in the country," she says.

She gazes out the train window, putting her hand on the frame. We are now leaving West Bengal, approaching notorious Orissa and Bihar.. Notorious - atleast that's how the media puts it. And I have no intention of trying to prove whether that is a true assumption or not. Tomorrow I will be seeing the blistering mountains in the blistering merciless Indian summer sun - my favourite part of the country. Sugarcane drinks in the sun. Nothing quite like it.

"Now you have a highly romanticised idea of your home country." Gladys says, her eyes gazing out the window. She is squinting because the sun is harsh.

"What are you talking about?" I demand. She looks at me and smiles.

"You are thinking about the Himalayas. And sugarcane juice in the sun. And birds and dragonflies."

"And am I wrong?"

"You're not wrong." She comes across the aisle and sits beside me. She is in no hurry. She will get off at Mughal-Sarai station on her way to Varanasi. From there she will meet some friends, a couple from Pennsylvania and another couple from Lucknow and maybe one or two mates from Varanasi. She will then retire to a shanty old hotel with no hot water - but overlooking a busy market street that belch a perennial stream of oil fumes and dust. So she will put on a scarf made of Banaras silk and cover her mouth while she closes the window.

"You're not wrong in your reading of me too." She smiles, "I am going to Varanasi and will put up at a hotel overlooking the street."

"What is your name?" I hold out my hand. She takes it.

"Gladys." She replies, almost whispers.

"You're strange. What are you doing in India?"

She laughs.

"I am part of India. The blistering Punjab sun - the cold wasteland of Kashmir - the green fields of Kerala - the tea slopes of Darjeeling - the thundering rains of Meghalaya - I am India."

"Snap out of it. Do you want a drink of tea?"

A tea vendor had appeared calling, "Chai chai chai!"

"Yeah, but I will pay for it. I will not have a stranger pay for my tea!"

So I let Gladys pay for the tea. Five Rupees each.

"So what brings you to India?" I ask her. She takes a long sip and looks out the window again. Thinking she must not have heard my question I open my mouth to ask her a second time when she lifts a finger to silence me.

I remain silent as we pass through the tea estates of Bengal. 

On nostalgia, wanderlust and writing

I wrote this a week ago in a spell of a few minutes trying to capture the sense of wanderlust and nostalgia that sometimes hits you when you're most unaware. 
-
Elijah hadn't thought about it in a long time. He used to hate the idea of going into long bouts when he would not even think of Sirion and Town - but now as he awoke from his forgetfulness, he realized it really had been a long time since he had last thought about them.
He sat down at his writing table, but like vapour, the thoughts and memory of his home vanished. It flickered now and then, but the silence in his room, the rhythm of his routine and the drone in his head drowned them out. Even the memory of five minutes ago slithered away like an insensitive snake regardless of the song of the charmer - regardless of him trying his best to hold it at bay. 
He missed the refuge so much. But that refuge felt now like a lost dream. A lost dream lost to void. Slippery dreams like slippery eels that you get a hold of for a split second and then are gone in another split second. 
-
Maybe in a couple of year's time, I will still travel to a hill town and put down for a few months to finish my book about SIrion and Elijah Emory. The town shimmering in the Himalayan afternoon sun, clamouring of life. And souls brought together there to live, to breath the sepia air, to resurrect past demons, to drown in love, to hear the pines brushing in the moonlight.. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Reading The God of Small Things

I've just finished reading Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things. A book critic on the back cover of the book mentions that Roy has a keen sense of her surroundings that seems heightened compared to the rest of us. They say it took her four years to write this book. I imagine she went to train stations to watch filthy beggars, observe banana trees, try and put to words the flight of grasshoppers in thick Kerala air, delve deep into her own self to conjure language-worthy adjectives to describe the strangeness that dwells in the deepest hearts of every human - from a silly cafe waitress in London to an untouchable caste-man working at a pickle factory in a communism wreaked India to an unexplainable bond between twins who according to Roy are strangers "met by chance before their lives began" in their mother's womb.

I imagine if I spent a four years of my life honestly digging into myself I would drain myself and find myself going mad. Putting my dreams, nightmares, 'afternoon-mares' on paper would again bring to the fore many unsettledness that I had put to rest inside the chest of forgetfulness.

The lake of my soul feels disturbed somewhere within, by something like a churning of a tablespoon. Very minor, very tablespoon-like, but very unavoidably present.

Like a hungering and dread for a potential storm, and a new sense of awareness of my human-ness and its deficiencies.

Friday, February 15, 2013

He looks down from his throne
He who fashions the hearts of man
He who observes their puny little ways
He who knows the actions of every man

He makes the counsel of nations
Come to nothing
He frustrates the plans of men
Of rulers and the influential

By the word that flew out of his mouth
Forests, cedars, ramparts, refuges
Are shattered, as by a mighty sword.
By that same word, life came to being.

He challenges the arrogant
They that speak boastfully, he says to them:
Come and reason with me
Present your case before me

Proof yourself to me
That I may bow to you
That I may declare you
Righteous and blameless

The army and their horses
Are vain hopes in the day of battle
The wisdom of men
Are as nothing and they come to nothing

But behold, the eye of him
Is on those who wait on him
Who clings to him
Who are glad in him

They will never be put to shame
Who looks to him
Who inquires of him
And trusts in him without wavering