Victorian Horror Stories – Book Review

Title – Victorian Horror Stories

Editor – Mike Stocks

Genre – Horror, fiction

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The spook fest continues as our countdown to Halloween grows shorter. “Victorian Horror Stories” is an anthology of some of the scariest short stories from the nineteenth century, featuring a mix of British, French, and American short story writers. The stories range from tales of the supernatural to more explicitly horrific subjects. Some of the authors featured here include Guy de Maupassant, Samuel Savage, W.C. Morrow, Mary Cholmondely, as well as some stories whose writers were never identified. The tagline states that Mike Stocks has selected and retold these tales. In his introduction, Stocks mentions how this compilation targets young readers, while introducing them to the horror genre. The font size is fairly large and the book is peppered throughout with numerous sketches keeping in line with the stories. Stocks also explains the original context for each of the stories when they were written centuries ago, and the significance of their themes.

“Victorian Horror Stories” brings in the chills almost immediately by starting off with Mary Cholmondely’s “Let Loose” , loosely inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s “The Hand” – a horror classic from the greatest French short story writer. When an evil person dies, does evil itself die? What happens when severed body parts of a killer have a life of their own when the killer is killed? Samuel Savage’s “The Cat” is about a cat that might not really be a cat, as its fifteen-year old narrator is left to solve the mystery.

“In that room, at twelve o’clock, something unimaginable happened to me. The room was an ordinary room. The day had been ordinary, too. I went to bed without the slightest reason for thinking something extraordinary was about to happen.” Fitz-James O’Brien begins “The Beast From Nowhere” quite simply, and the narrative turns completely eerie in no time. How do you confront a beast you can’t see? If you can’t see it, does that make it a beast to begin with? A perfect analogy for the things we fear but can’t see, as O’Brien connects physical horror with psychological terrors.

W.C. Morrow ups the ante with “An Original Revenge“. Some of the scariest stories are those without a supernatural element. They prove that reality can be just as horrifying, or even more than fiction. A soldier tormented by a captain to such an extent that he takes his own life. A threatening suicide note left behind. The horrifying demise of Charles Gratmar and its aftermath stays with you much after the story has ended. This was one of my favorite tales from the book.

There are some stories by unknown writers as well, and it is commendable how Stocks dug them up for readers. “One Silver Bullet” , as the title suggests, is about werewolves. “It was the noise of everything that is horrible, a howl of evil, dying out slowly, lingering in the air like a foul stench.”  The narrative draws you in and keeps you guessing till the end, as a nightwatchman takes the onus of destroying a werewolf who might be more than what he believes it is. “The Head of Jean Cabet” is another one from the anthology that stood out for me with its brilliant portrayal of pure horror writing. “One spring evening in the middle of the eighteenth century, a group of villagers stood around a pond. High above, skylarks sang. It should have been a beautiful and tranquil scene. It wasn’t. In the middle of the pond, a body was floating, a dagger plunged into its back.” These haunting opening lines have nothing to do with Jean Cabet, and have everything to do with him. As you conclude reading, the head of Jean Cabet literally haunts you. Such is the atmospheric writing by the, unfortunately, unknown author.

I love anthologies because short stories have much lesser time and space to get to the point, unlike novels. It’s a hit or miss within a few pages. There’s a thin line between scratching the surface and providing depth. Too much too soon gets overwhelming for the reader, and rambling on for too long bores you till you get to the end. “Victorian Horror Stories” is a treat for fans of the horror genre. A brilliantly edited anthology which, in spite of its macabre theme, serves as an introduction for young readers into classic horror, and is equally enjoyable for adults as well. I was hoping to read more of them. Stocks, however, has gone a step ahead and listed down more authors and some of their works readers might be interested in looking up. Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft are some of the more familiar names. Shelley, Stoker and Wells are popularly known more for their novels, but their chilling short stories are worth reading as well. Those interested in art will love the sketches that accompany the writing. Give this one a go if you like the chill factor in reading and appreciate classic literature.

Rating – 5/5

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Happy World Post Day

Today is World Post Day. 9th October is the anniversary of the Universal Postal Union (UPU), which started in 1874 in Switzerland. The UPU signified the start of the global communications revolution, which introduced the ability to write to people all around the world. World Post Day was launched in 1969, to highlight the importance of the postal service, where the 9th of October was first declared as a day of celebration at the UPU Congress in Tokyo that year. The proposal was made by Anand Mohan Narula, a member of the Indian delegation. As we get nostalgic about a time when the world was devoid of email exchanges and WhatsApp messages, I commemorated the day by sending out these postcards for Postcrossing – a postcard exchange community I have been part of since the last four years.

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Sea Prayer – Book Review

Title – Sea Prayer

Author – Khaled Hosseini

Illustrator – Dan Williams

Genre – Fiction

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Finally got my hands on Khaled Hosseini’s long-awaited book – a combined creation with illustrator Dan Williams, to bring to life a story about Syrian refugees. The epistolary book is written in the form of a letter from a father to his child on the eve of their journey out at sea. Rather, it can be called more of a poem or letter, instead of story. The narrator is a father cradling his child, as they wait for the break of dawn when a boat will arrive to take them to a new home. As they stand waiting in the dark night, the father reminisces about the summers of his childhood at his own grandfather’s house in the city of Homs. He speaks to his son, Marwan, about the time when he was a young boy himself, the same age as Marwan. “The stirring of olive trees in the breeze, the bleating of goats, the clanking of cooking pots” seem like another life altogether; a life before the skies started “spitting bombs”. That life is now a dream, a long-dissolved rumor. All Marwan and children his age know now are protests, sieges, starvation, burials. They can identify shades of blood and sizes of bomb craters. They will never know the country of their birth as a place without bombings or ruin.

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As they wait, impatient for sunrise, and dreading the uncertainty of a world that might not invite them in, they still hope to find home. The father assures his child that nothing bad will happen if he holds his hand, but he knows these are only words. The sea is deep and vast and indifferent, and he knows he is powerless in contrast. And that is why he prays. That is the essence of his “Sea Prayer” – that his most precious cargo is protected, and the sea delivers them safely to a new land.

Sea Prayer” was inspired by the incident of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian refugee who had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea and whose body was washed ashore on a beach in Turkey in 2015. In the years after Alan’s death, thousands more died or went missing at sea while attempting to flee their torn country. Hosseini’s response to the current refugee crisis is an attempt to remind us that an incident is not isolated. This is not the story of one child or one parent, but the lives of many more – names and faces we might not always be told about in our corners of the world. The watercolor illustrations are fabulous and stay true to the text – beginning with bright colors as the father thinks fondly of a time long gone by, to dark and dreary shades of greys and browns reflective of the current situation in the country. The transformation from home to war zone is powerfully depicted in both words and sketches, and heartbreaking as you flip through the few pages of this slim volume. A light book which weighs heavily on the reader.

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Sea Prayer” was created as an effort to raise funds to help refugees around the world who are fleeing war and persecution. Proceeds from the sales of this book are said to be donated to UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, and The Khaled Hosseini Foundation. A short but powerful book – the text says a little, the illustrations show a lot, and much more is conveyed in the background, beyond what one is reading. Having read Hosseini’s other works, I had hoped for this one to continue for longer. Nevertheless, it is impactful and evocative in it’s own way.

Rating – 5/5

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This photograph of September 2015 made global headlines. Taken by Nilüfer Demir, a Turkish photojournalist based in Bodrum, Turkey, three-year-old Alan Kurdi became a symbol of the plight of those fleeing conflict in Syria. This haunting image compelled Hosseini to write “Sea Prayer” .

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Bewitching Book Bonanza

“Shadows mutter,

mist replies;

darkness purrs,

as midnight sighs.”

~Rusty Fischer

Brace yourselves for the spook fest! When October is here, you know Halloween won’t be too far behind. Here’s my stash for the upcoming days – from classic horror to contemporary thrillers, my Halloween reading pile is ready. The bookstore even sent Halloween-themed bookmarks. So cool! I’m currently reading Shirley Jackson’s “We Have Always Lived In The Castle” on Kindle. Will move on to these paperbacks soon enough.

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Come Back Stronger Than The Setback

“It’s never too late, it’s never too bad, and you’re never too old or sick to start from scratch once again.”

Post-accident racing mode on! 

The week took off with a spectacular start. I ran my first timed race on Sunday, since the accident last year. For those who are unfamiliar or have recently begun following this blog, I had an accident last August and suffered from nerve damage with subsequent paralysis of the right leg – from hip to foot. I had resumed running earlier but wasn’t yet racing. Sunday’s event marked a comeback to racing. A measly distance compared to the marathon distance I am usually accustomed to, but some start is better than no improvement at all.

The race was tricky, as expected. I had practiced the distance in training runs, but in events one needs to be aware of other racers as well. Some runners overtake you and suddenly stop right in front of you, others sway from one side of the road to the other when they spot photographers, not to forget those who throw disposable water bottles in the middle of the road. Racing throws its own set of challenges, besides the training the body and mind undergo. The weather on Sunday was 34°C, with a humidity of 59% – the monsoons began waning a few weeks ago with some abrupt showers in between, but overall the weather was hot and humid. I did take several walk breaks through the course – the race strategy being more of a walk-jog rather than high speed running. The goal here was to return to race mode and finish injury free. I’m working with distances at the moment instead of speed, having being warned of a possible nerve compression recurring.

Each medal comes with it’s own story, and means much more than merely the name of the place or date of the race. A medal is a reminder of how the run was, the people you met, the challenges you overcame, and your entire journey to get to that place and pace. Another cherished one added to the seven year old collection.

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And of course, one can’t fail to mention the support of the running community, where friends are almost like family. Long distance runners have their own training routes, and events bring everyone on the road together. I had met many people on practice runs, but had missed many others who would usually connect through races. It was great catching up with all. The official race pictures are not yet out – I’ll post some running ones when I get my hands on them. Just a few friendly ones for now.

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September Reading – Monthly Analysis

I haven’t had much time to write lately, but I did get in quite a bit of reading last month. Here’s a compilation of the books I read in September – as usual, a sharp contrast in the genres and themes. Six non-fiction books, three fiction, a collection of short stories, and a poetry book. Two kindle books, with the majority read as paperbacks. There was one Marathi book and one translated book (Bangla to English translation) which added some variety to the month’s literary pile. A large number of the month’s reads comprised regional literature from India. The birthday bookathon is almost coming to an end (about a month and a half to go). I have been a tad busy to write reviews for all of them. Here are a few of the book reviews I managed to jot down; will get to the remaining in the coming days.

1) The Mysterious Ailment of Rupi Baskey – Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar (Review coming up)

2) Murder In The City – Supratim Sarkar

https://curiouscat99.wordpress.com/2018/09/08/murder-in-the-city-book-review/

3) Tell Me Your Real Story – Savita Nair

https://curiouscat99.wordpress.com/2018/09/16/tell-me-your-real-story-book-review/

4) Animals, Inc. – Kenneth Tucker and Vandana Allman

https://curiouscat99.wordpress.com/2018/09/20/animals-inc-book-review/

5) Kudos – Rachel Cusk

https://curiouscat99.wordpress.com/2018/09/22/kudos-book-review/

6) A Year in Himachal – Humera Ahmed  (Review coming up)

7) Nairobi, Then and Now – Stephen and Bhavna Mills  (Review coming up)

8) Islands in Flux – Pankaj Sekhsaria  (Review coming up)

9) Zopala – Va. Pu. Kale  (Review coming up)

10) Run to Realise – Abhishek Mishra  (Review coming up)

11) Bookless in Baghdad – Shashi Tharoor  (Review coming up)

 

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Kudos – Book Review

Title – Kudos

Author – Rachel Cusk

Genre – Fiction

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Sometimes, books find their readers in the oddest of ways. “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk came as a recommendation from someone who said he took over two weeks to read it – while on holiday. Just one book finished on a two-week road trip? He said there were also dance sessions in two towns, over 110 miles biking in various locations, 26 miles spent running on the beach, and riding many many waves on his Hobie. He likes his life well-rounded, he said. At the time, it was the reader himself who stood out, rather than his  book. I love reading, but I also love running, dancing, baking, clicking photographs – in short, indulging in a wide variety of activities, unlike many bookworms who might only read. And when you meet someone from your tribe, you can’t help not paying heed to their recommendations. Rachel Cusk makes words go magic, he said.

Kudos” is the third book from Canadian writer Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy, after “Outline” and “Transit” . It is not necessary to read them in sequence, and they work as standalone reads too. Cusk is renowned for her “shape-shifting” style of writing. There’s no story and no specific narrator or character flow. Imagine someone narrating an incident about somebody else, which was about another person, who in turn was talking about some other experience with something else. The writing is layered, and like peeling an onion, Cusk takes you deeper in – until you no longer recognize what, where or with whom you originally started off. Kudos is one story, and it is many stories. And in each of those stories, people are telling you more stories. These stories are experiences around which the entire novel takes shape. “Respect for literature was skin deep” goes one of the lines in the book, and that’s exactly what Cusk’s writing does.

So, you have a storyteller telling a story about a storyteller. On its surface, Kudos is about a writer travelling to Europe to attend a literary event for promoting her book – taking the reader through her journey right from the time she boards the airplane to get there, till the end of the conference. The stories within this framework could be described as experiences – from generalized ones like striking up a conversation with a co-passenger while flying, chatting with a car driver, listening to gossip about famous personalities, to more specific ones for our writer of the main story like meeting translators, speaking to journalists, interacting with fellow writers and poets. Cusk makes the book seem almost autobiographical, and at the same time something that anyone of us could be going through. These are conversations – about family, friends, love, art, politics, law – questions human beings ask and the discourses which ensue. Out there in the world of strangers, friends, colleagues, family – details are everywhere, and it takes a writer of Cusk’s brilliance to pen all those revelations by being deeply tuned into one’s everyday interactions. Cusk writes with intelligence and wit – numerous passages reveal an author who has gone beyond narrating a story and made the reader stop and think, while you burst out laughing when hilarity shines through in other scenes. On some level, her writing reminds you on Italo Calvino – who made the seemingly mundane so thought provoking.

A difficult book to describe because there’s nothing and there’s everything – depending on what one deciphers as a reader. I might not do enough justice to Cusk’s masterpiece with my review, but I do hope you give it a read. A must-read if you appreciate cerebral books. Those looking for a straightforward storyline might be disappointed, because this book makes you pause to ponder at every step of the way. A short read but not a quick one.

Rating – 5/5

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Every story provides you a window into a new world.

If you haven’t read anything from Rachel Cusk yet, I had written a feature on the author. Here’s the link for those who missed it.

https://tomesandtales365.wordpress.com/2018/08/29/writer-wednesday-rachel-cusk/

Sculpture and Literature

“Sculpture is the art of the intelligence”, said Pablo Picasso. Books lend themselves to more than just reading. The Walk of Ideas was conceptualized as part of a campaign called Deutschland – Land der Ideen (Welcome to Germany – the Land of Ideas). It comprised a set of six sculptures in Berlin, designed by Scholz & Friends, one of Europe’s largest advertising agencies, for the 2006 FIFA World Cup football event in Germany. The sculptures were  were put up between 10th March and 19th May 2006, and were on display until September 2006. They were placed on central squares in Berlin’s city center.

The six sculptures included Modern Book Printing, Milestones of Medicine, Masterpieces of Music, The Automobile, The Modern Football Boot, and The Theory of Relativity. The sculptures were built using neopor – a graphite polysterene foam for construction materials, and coated with a white varnish. The production time for each sculpture was about two months, with on-site assembly spanning three days. Plaques were created in both German and English, with details on the symbolism of each object.

Der Moderne Buchdruck (Modern Book Printing) was installed on 21st April 2006 at Bebelplatz, opposite the Humboldt University of Berlin. The 12.2 meter structure took three days to assemble on the Unter den Linden street. The steel structure held seventeen “book” segments of different sizes, each representing a different author’s name. Inclusive of the stabilizing ballast weight, the overall weight of the “book tower” amounted to thirty-five tons. The seventeen books were stacked, with their spines prominently displaying the names of German poets and writers. The sculpture was said to be erected in memory of Johannes Gutenberg, who invented the printing press in Mainz around 1450 and introduced printing to Europe. Gutenberg had even created the first bestseller in history – the Gutenberg Bible – the first major book printed in Europe using mass-produced movable metal. It marked the age of the printed book in the West.

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Here are the author names displayed on the spines, starting from the topmost:

Günter Grass

Hannah Arendt

Heinrich Heine

Martin Luther

Immanuel Kant

Anna Seghers

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

The Brothers Grimm

Karl Marx

Heinrich Böll

Friedrich Schiller

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Hermann Hesse

Theodor Fontane

Thomas Mann and Heinrich Mann

Bertolt Brecht

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

 

I will be covering the remaining five sculptures in subsequent blog-posts.

Animals, Inc. – Book Review

Title – Animals, Inc.

Authors – Kenneth Tucker and Vandana Allman

Genre – Fiction, Business/Management

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“When was the last time you took a course to make yourself more marketable, and found yourself wondering just what in the world you were doing?” Animals, Inc. is the business world’s take on the allegorical novella, Animal Farm. While Geroge Orwell’s classic was a political satire, Animals, Inc. brings to life major management lessons through a parable.

The story begins on a farm, with every animal carrying on their respective duties under the able guidance of Farmer Goode. Goode has gotten old now and plans to sell off the farm, and move into a retirement home. The animals are given a choice – they can either run the farm themselves, or be sold off to pet owners and petting zoos. A unanimous decision is taken to save their home and care for it themselves. Here’s when our motley crew takes charge – Mo the Pig, Lawrence the Owl, Jesse the Horse, Lily the Lamb, Spike the Cat, and a host of other farm animals from cows, hens, pigeons, mice, even the scarecrow, lend to the proceedings in their efforts to run a successful business as barnyard animals.

The animals read business books, conduct surveys, evaluate competencies, identify strengths and weaknesses, set up training classes, put up motivational posters, and work hard to overcome their natural shortcomings with any new project. But what happens if a horse is prevented from physical labour to operate a computer instead, a shy sheep is made sales representative, a scarecrow is transferred to the production department to lay eggs, cats are made managers of field mice, or a pig declares himself the most important member of the organization? The situations and expected results seem uncannily familiar to the human reader.

The story is simple but the parable is powerful, as the moral provides vital business lessons. Readers from the corporate world will identify with the scenarios faced by the animals in running their enterprise. For those unfamiliar with the business/management field, many terms are presented and explained through the story. Ultimately it comes down to what works best for us to reach our highest potential, and how can every individual employee contribute to the organization as a whole. The insights are not very deep and the book can be seen as more of a primer into business jargon. It is the way the story is presented which makes Animals, Inc. a delightful read. Readers with an interest in word play, witticisms, paronomasia, will love the copious quibbles that abound the book. The authors are at their hilarious best in crafting an entire book by playing around with the English language.

~ “Biggs sat down at his computer and reached for the mouse – and the mouse ran away.”

~ “Mo received more complaints about the Complaint Department than any other department on the farm.”

~ “I know you. You’re Sandra Bullock. No, Sheryl Crow. No, no…Miss Piggy, is that you?”

~ “I’d sure like to find the stool pigeon who told them all this.” (While referring to pigeon spies.)

~ “Lily was poor at sales because she was too sheepish – which is the primary occupational hazard faced by most sheep.”

~ “With whoops and cheers the hens egged each other on.”

~ “Jesse registered for a motivational course, which he wasn’t motivated enough to attend.”

Gallup Organization came out with this book for readers in the business world to discover the keys to effective management, re-energized morale and heightened performance. Among the author duo, Kenneth Tucker is a seminar leader and management consultant with Gallup, who helps develop strategies for improving performance. Vandana Allman is the global practice leader for hiring at Gallup, and consults companies on how to build successful organizations by improving their hiring strategies. Both writers draw on real-life examples, data-driven research, and years of experience in the business field to present this vivid story.

~ “I tried everything. And then one day I realized that the best thing I could be was me.”

~ “It doesn’t matter if a job is big or small. You can be a hero in any role.”

~ “The best self-help books relied on common sense – the sort of things you already knew but didn’t know you knew.”

~ “Just because you’re a bird doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good flyer, or a good singer.”

~ “It isn’t failure that matters, it’s how you deal with failure.”

All in all, a good one-time read if it is a story your’re looking for. But if you’re someone like me who loves word play, this book is a gem. I haven’t come across many books that have employed such fun writing in the entire length of the story. The cover is lovely too – the hand shadow animals are such fun.

Rating – 3/5