The Blind Owl – Book Review

Title – The Blind Owl

Original language – Persian/Farsi

Author – Sadegh Hedayat

English translation – D.P. Costello

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The year takes off with a literary bang! The first book of the year and what a treat it has been. In continuation with my Birthday Reading Goals of reading translated books from languages starting with each letter of the English alphabet, I had selected this literary masterpiece from Iran for Persian.

There are sores which slowly erode the mind in solitude like a kind of canker.” When a book opens with such haunting lines, you marvel at the author’s ability to keep the reader hooked from the start, and at the same time to not discourage one with its morose theme. According to folk lore, screech owls are considered to be harbingers of death. The Blind Owl is considered as one of the major literary works of the twentieth century, and is a story of romance as much as it can be seen as autobiographical. The story opens with an unnamed narrator – a painter of pen cases – who has confined himself to a room, as he lumbers about within its four walls thinking of death, and gives the reader glimpses into his murderous thoughts as he shares his writings with the shadow on the wall. “My shadow on the wall had become exactly like an owl and, leaning forward, read intently every word I wrote. He understood perfectly. Only he was capable of understanding.” The narrator considers only solitude and his shadow as friends, to the extent of believing his shadow to be more real than himself. “The shadow that I cast upon the wall was much denser and more distinct than my real body.” He is in poor health and is waiting to die, while remembering an unrequited love that brought him to this state. Or maybe his ill health caused his love to be unrequited in the first place. Who knows for sure? “Was not my room a coffin? This bed that was always unrolled, inviting me to sleep, was it not colder and darker than the grave?” Is he waiting for death, or considers himself dead already (as he often refers to himself as a living corpse)?  Who are the familiar faces he sees, and what are the experiences he remembers as already having experienced in another life?

The narrative spans different times and eras, but the writing is almost surreal and leaves you wondering whether you’re reading about the same person or different people. We know the unnamed narrator is sinking into despair after the death of a loved one, and his own worsening health. But which one was the cause and which one is the effect? “I would cut up her body, pack it in a suitcase, take it away with me to some place far, very far from people’s eyes.” The writing swirls with memories, dreams, nightmares, a gory past, a fearful future, a confusing present, leaving the reader to figure out what is actually happening and which parts are in the head of a madman. Sightings or hallucinations? Dreams or reality? “It seems as though I have forgotten how to talk to the people of this world, to living people” , writes the narrator. So can we, as readers, be sure of what he writes for us?

Hedayat seamlessly weaves the overlapping narratives, often reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s morbid themes, but makes you read in awe as his writing, without for a moment, causes the book to appear sad. (The novel was originally banned in Iran with the reason that it made people suicidal.) He teases the reader with ironic lines from his narrator like, “How sick I am of well-constructed plots and brilliant writing!” But it is this very writing that makes this book so brilliant and a treat for literary enthusiasts. In spite of the narrator’s obsession with death, the lines are beautifully composed.

Death was murmuring his song in my ear like a stammering man who is obliged to repeat each word and who, when he has come to the end of a line, has to begin it afresh.”

It seemed a miracle to me that I had not dissolved in the bath like a lump of salt.”

The fact of dying is a fearful thing in itself but the consciousness that one is dead would be far worse.”

Some more beautifully constructed figures of speech:

It was more pleasant to sit in the dark, that dense liquid which permeates everything and every place.”

The sun, like a golden knife, was steadily paring away the edge of the shade beside the walls.”

The interlocking trees with their wry, twisted branches seemed in the darkness to be gripping one another by the hand for fear they should slip and crash to the ground.”

The night was departing on tip-toe. One felt that it had shed sufficient of its weariness to enable it to go its way.”

Several lines strike a chord of what haunts us as humans – fear of death, loss of time, soul searching, hope, random musings being universal themes.

I stood in front of the mirror and stared at my face. The reflection was unfamiliar to me. It was frightening.

What do days and months matter? Time has no meaning for one who is lying in the grave.”

If it were possible for my being to dissolve in one drop of ink, in one bar of music, in one ray of colored light…

Silence is a language which we do not understand.”

All my life has passed within four walls.” I read somewhere about Hedayat’s writing – it is meant to be an experience in itself, and not a book about an experience.The themes are dark, but the lyrical prose shines a light on what great writing truly is. The Blind Owl  was originally published in 1937 in Bombay (India), and only released in Hedayat’s native Iran in 1941. The novel was written when Hedayat was a student in Paris in 1930, and ironically, the French translation by Roger Lescot during WWII was what first brought it popularity. The English version by Costello (which I read) was published in 1957. Hedayat committed suicide at age forty-eight, following years of addiction and disillusionment. (He allocated money for his burial, closed up the doors and windows and turned on the gas in his apartment in the heart of Paris city, where The Blind Owl was written years ago.)

Another one of those books where a review cannot do sufficient justice. It needs to be read to be experienced. The book has been translated into numerous languages, and much gratitude needs to be expressed to the translators who make such wonderful literature accessible to readers everywhere.

My rating – 5/5

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Burial Rites – Book Review

Title – Burial Rites

Author – Hannah Kent

Genre – Fictionalized biography

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Picture sourced from the internet. I read the e-book version.

“People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself.”
~Agnes Magnúsdóttir (1828)

When I love a book, I waste no time in talking and writing about it – people need to know, and they need to read. There are very few books which strike such a chord that I’m left dwelling on them long after reading – whatever I say will not be enough; no review would ever do justice. “Burial Rites” falls in the latter category. This book came highly recommended from an online literary forum I follow, and in spite of receiving numerous recommendations I only recently got around to reading it. And what a treat it has been! I usually avoid reading fictional accounts of true incidents, and rather opt for non-fiction books on the same subject, if available. But Hannah Kent’s debut work was highly spoken of and I decided to give the then twenty-eight year old writer a shot. “Burial Rites” is a novelization of a true story set in the early 1800s cold, wintered landscape of Iceland, and is centered around the conviction and final days of a woman sentenced to death for a double murder – commonly known as the Illugastaðir murders, the farm where the killings took place. Capital punishment was abolished in Iceland in 1830, and Agnes Magnúsdóttir was the last woman to be beheaded.

Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a thirty something housemaid, is charged with the murder of her master and his friend. The district commissioner Björn Blöndal has entrusted her to the household of one of the officers – where she needs to be kept until her execution. In his words, death row convicts need to be placed in the homes of upright Christians who would set a good example and inspire repentance in the criminals, and at the same time benefit from the work these prisoners do in and around their farms as they await their judgement. The family is compensated by the government for their contribution to society, and officers are also present on the premises to ensure no harm comes to the locals. A young priest, Assistant Reverend Thorvardur Jónsson is required to visit the household and pray with the criminal to ensure she is repentant by the time of her execution. The family is horrified at the prospect of housing a murderess and avoid interacting with her. The reverend has no prior experience in dealing with murder convicts, and all he can contribute are passages from the Bible. Agnes has nothing to do at the farm since the family is wary of giving her any “tools” – suspicious of what she can use to kill them with. Even a request to knit is almost a plead, with the possible harm she could do with knitting needles. Having to idle away time till her death and no one to talk to, Agnes hopes to be killed then and there itself. “Why not kill me here and now? It is the waiting that cripples.”

The story is narrated through a series of correspondence between the various officials involved in the case – the district commissioner, the priests, the district officer, various clerks and officers handling the criminal records. Not to be confused with an epistolary novel, these were actual letters exchanged at the time which the author has translated and presented to the reader. Each chapter begins with numerous letters, and then follows changing narratives from the third person’s accounts of the happenings in the case, to Agnes herself speaking in first person. And step by step, the reader is led through Agnes’ story – her childhood and adulthood, her parents and siblings, her work life, ultimately leading to the core of the murder mystery that shook Iceland in the early nineteenth century – What exactly happened on the day of the murder that led Agnes to her present state?

“They have strapped me to the saddle like a corpse being taken to the burial ground” , says Agnes, when taken to the farm that will house her till her death. And this is the crux of “Burial Rites” – the entire book is a rite of passage for Agnes as she readies herself for death. Agnes looks forward to living at the farm even when none of the residents want her there (and are only abiding to the district commissioner’s orders), being “grateful that I am returning to the valleys, even if I will die there”. Because living (and dying) in nature is better than “rotting slowly like a body in a coffin” – the atmosphere of the prison she was housed in before being transferred to the farm. Set in the present moment at the farm, the story is narrated in flashback mode through conversations and interactions with various family members – the officer, his wife Margret, the daughters Steina and Lauga, the priest Toti, and Agnes’ thoughts. And as the day of execution nears, the wife, daughters and priest learn of the other side to the sensational double murder story as projected by the authorities and rumor mills. Her final audience to life’s lonely narrative. An absolutely riveting account as Agnes goes from wanting to die to wanting to live, when people finally hear and understand her. “I don’t want to be remembered, I want to be here!” But can they do more? Appeal to the government? Stop the execution?  No spoilers here since we know what finally happened to Agnes Magnúsdóttir – the last person to be executed in Iceland, before the country finally abolished capital punishment in 1830.

Some of the quotes are so beautiful I thought they deserved a mention here:

~I was worst to the one I loved best.

~I will speak in bubbles of air. They will not be able to keep my words for themselves.

~The home had begun to disintegrate, a hovel that had spread its own state of collapse to its inhabitants.

~A tight fear, like a fishing line, hooked upon something that must, inevitably, be dragged from the depths.

~A tremble of exhilaration passes along my skin, like the tremor on the surface of a pot of water about to boil.

~Memories shift like loose snow in a wind, or are a choral of ghosts all talking over one another.

~There was some comfort in talking about death aloud, as though in naming things, you could prevent them from happening.

~There is so much illness in the world…so much that can go wrong with a person.

~A person you love as much as you hate the hold they have on you.

~They said I must die. They said that I stole the breath from men, and now they must steal mine.

Kent’s interpretation of the Illugastaðir murders and executions is based on years of research through accessing ministerial records, parish archives, local publications,  historical records, letters and documents. There are several works of literature and poetry mentioned, highlighting the high literacy rates among Icelanders since the end of the eighteenth century. Some sagas quoted go as far back as 1245. I loved the snippets of Icelandic, and was glad to learn some phrases in the local language. Kent’s meticulously researched and written account is commendable indeed – for a debut writer, and just at twenty eight years of age when the book was published. When you already know how the story ends, it takes a great writer to hold the reader’s attention till the end. In today’s social media age, people’s opinions and judgements of each other are often based on what is read or heard or seen on feeds, posts and pictures. In the early 1800s, Agnes Magnúsdóttir raised the same question – What happens when one’s life is based on the stories told by others? Without speaking to the person, the world claims to know all about them. The fairness of the original proceedings of Iceland’s “most notorious woman” was questioned even centuries later, and reading “Burial Rites” is not for everyone. A difficult story to read but one that needs to be read for the many questions it raises. Kent is a talented writer and efficient researcher, and this is one of the few books where the author and protagonist of his/her story compete for attention – such is the brilliance of this speculative biography, a beautifully haunting, gripping, and outstanding debut work of literature. I read this on Kindle, but plan on procuring a paperback – it deserves a place in the library.

My rating – 5/5

Fred & Rose – Book Review

Title – Fred & Rose

Author – Howard Sounes

Genre – Non-fiction, Crime

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Fact is truly stranger than fiction. I have spent the past month reading a number of horror and thriller books – a spook fest dedicated to Halloween. One of the books I read (Murderabilia – will review in due time), touched upon the theme of serial killers. The names Fred and Rose West led me to discover this book by Howard Sounes. The month ended with “Fred & Rose” , a true account of the serial killer couple who gained notoriety in British criminal history for murdering numerous women and children over a period of twenty five years; their own children being among the victims. Author Howard Sounes was a journalist at the time the crime was uncovered in 1994, and had reported for the Sunday Mirror newspaper in London under the headline “House of Horrors” – the title the case came to be known as (before the Josef Fritzl case of 2008). Cited to be among the most extraordinary murder cases that shocked even police authorities and medical experts, the skeletal remains of twelve young women and children were discovered – all tortured and killed by the West couple. Nine remains were discovered in the house the couple was living in – buried in the cellar, under the bathroom tiles, near the chimney – as life continued normally in the household. The remains of twelve corpses were identified; it is not known how many people Fred and Rose West killed in all during their murderous spree from the late sixties to the early nineties.

In “Fred & Rose” , Sounes has attempted to understand why so many people died in and around 25 Cromwell Street – the House of Horrors. The book begins back in time with the grandparents and parents of both Fred and Rose. A background into their individual childhoods helps us understand what motivated such violence and how they developed into people capable of such behavior. Both Fred and Rose were born to parents suffering from mental illnesses at various points in time, and were abused as children themselves, and didn’t see anything wrong in what they did to other people, including their own children. According to them, pedophilia was a part of family life – something they too went through growing up. (Their grown up children later said they loved their parents, and assumed the abuse was what happened in all families.) To the outside world, they appeared as any normal couple – cheerfully greeting people on the street, helping out neighbors with chores, providing accommodation to lodgers at cheap rates – they seemed to go out of their way to help others. 25 Cromwell Street was in the middle of the city. Numerous visitors went in and out of the house. And yet no one had an inkling of what was going on within.

The targets included hitchhikers, problem children from delinquent hostels, runaways – people whom no one might inquire about if they went missing. Fred and Rose would drive around town together, offering rides to hitchhikers. Sometimes they would take their children along too. Women who might have been suspicious about getting into a car with a single man, did not see any danger with a young woman and/or children alongside. Young women were invited to work as nannies for their children. They provided lodging at cheap rates affordable for poor students. The women who trusted them were abducted, tortured, raped, killed, cut into pieces, and buried within the floors of the house. Some of their own children too met with the same fate. (The ones who survived did so because they ran away.) Pregnant women had their bellies cut up because Fred wanted to check the gender of the babies. (Fetal remains were found next to the remains of the mothers.) The crimes went undetected for twenty five years. Schools didn’t check when a child stopped turning up for classes. Emergency units treated wounds without bothering to inform the police about abuse. Social services did not follow up on pregnant women who were registered under their care. Children who complained to neighbors were answered with, “They would never do something like that” . Lodgers who inquired about screams at night were told the children must have been having nightmares. Out of all the remains found over two decades later, only six women had been reported missing by their families. The rest said they thought their relatives had left home and didn’t want to be bothered. The House of Horrors case was as much about the sadism of Fred and Rose West, as it was about the failure of society as a whole.

The couple did not know the names of all their victims, and barely registered the faces of the ones they picked up at night. Remains were identified on the basis of dental implants and superimposition. Evidence of torture was identified on the basis of cracks in the bones, cords around decapitated heads, tape and fabric around skulls, nails stripped from fingers. There might have been many more victims whose bodies were never located. Before writing the book, Howard Sounes had broken the story and covered the murder trial of the West couple. In an age where the media often plays judge and jury, Sounes has presented the book as plain facts. Beginning from their own childhood, up to the lives of their surviving children as adults, we are provided a case study of a life in crime in forensic detail, showcasing a fascinating and frightening account at the same time. Sounes does not let his own emotions about the killer couple influence the reader, and urges us to read and reflect for ourselves. Whether one chooses to see Fred and Rose as victims themselves on account of their own abusive childhoods affecting their personalities and later behavioral traits, or one feels the punishment they received from the courts wasn’t enough for the depravity of their crimes, this book is a must read for the case details it provides. The discovery and unearthing of the skeletal remains, forensic identifications of the victims, the court trial, police interviews with the couple, media frenzy, people trying to make a quick buck by claiming to be former victims, actual victims and police detectives selling stories to newspapers and book publishers – Sounes has everything covered about the House of Horrors case. Depictions of torture are gory, but however squeamish one feels as a reader, one realizes that people actually went through the sadism of Fred and Rose. Not a read for the faint-hearted, but a book that deserves to be read as an ode to the victims who finally got justice over two decades after their disappearance and death. My rating is for Sounes’ presentation of facts and writing quality of the book. The content is absolutely heartbreaking.

Rating – 5/5

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

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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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/

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

Murder In The City – Book Review

Title – Murder In The City

Author – Supratim Sarkar (Translated by Swati Sengupta)

Genre – Non-fiction, anthology

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As part of my birthday reading goals, this book was picked as a representative from the state of West Bengal in India. Murder In The City is a collection of police case files, sourced from the archives and narrated in the form of stories. A Bengali friend revealed the concept of these “stories” originated as a series of articles written in the Bangla language by Supratim Sarkar, a police officer himself. Translator Swati Sengupta published them as a book in English this year.

~ “Imagine a policeman killing his own brother, and burying the body in a house where he continued to live!”

~ “Everything that a school-going child was likely to have was in place – exercise copies inside a school bag, tiffin box, water bottle. The school boy was there too, his uniformed, lifeless body inside the trunk.”

~ “They opened the packets one after the other. They contained two arms, palms, fingers, wrists, all chopped into pieces.”

A man injected with the Pasteurella Pestis bacteria to be killed off from the plague, a pregnant woman’s body chopped into pieces and wrapped into packets strewn across public spaces (a separate packet for the foetus too), a seemingly docile housewife plotting the murder of a neighbor she suspects of having an affair with her husband, a man killed by his brother and the corpse buried within the wall of a house the accused continues to live in, a child kidnapped and killed by novice abductors who can’t seem to make him unconscious, an off-duty policeman standing up for a woman being molested finds himself attacked and killed by a gang of fellow off-duty policemen, and many more gruesome tales. These are not spoilers. Murder In The City is a compendium of twelve case files of the Kolkata Police, taking the reader across decades and centuries – from as early as the 1930s to the present day. Those who were alive when the murders happened might recall these cases from the news reports of the time. Sarkar frequently mentions how old the victims might have been today were they still alive, or what they might have accomplished in the professional sphere had their lives not been cut short. The Kolkata Police is known as one of the oldest and most illustrious police forces in India. Sarkar has dug deep into their archives and recounted astonishing cases, of which twelve tales have been presented in this book. The writings which were initially in Bengali were widely read and shared among populations who could read the language. The translation here is equally gripping and fascinating. Police officer Sarkar’s writing skills are commendable. Some snippets of his figures of speech:

~ “An ordinary afternoon was quickly taking strides towards evening time, as if it were rushed off its feet.”

~ “His sharp voice cut through the stillness of the night. It could have broken a sheet of glass into shards.”

~ “Those biting cold nights were tough players that refused to let go of the crease.”

Some of the cases selected for the anthology include the first two times “photographic superimposition” was ever used in India to identify a body, cases of murder solved even though the bodies were never found, cases of individual bioterrorism, murder mysteries solved during the early days when DNA testing or mobile phones and CCTV cameras didn’t exist. Murder In The City reinforces the old adage of fact being stranger than fiction, where one shudders to think that these are all true stories. I took a while to finish the book and had to pause after every tale to reflect on the happenings – the level of evilness in the perpetrators, of victims who were tortured and killed, of the tenacity of the police to bring justice, and the author being a policeman himself narrating the efforts of his former colleagues. The book highlights what the police go through in their jobs, the details of investigations, the steps involved in solving crimes, how clues are tracked, evidence is collected – with frequent comparisons drawn to fictional detectives who paint a glamorous picture of case solving, but the reality being far more hard-hitting and not so alluring.

A brilliantly written and translated account of some of the grisliest and most baffling police cases, every story is a spine-tingling experience. A word of caution for readers who cannot stomach gory descriptions – Sarkar has gone all out in explaining the details of each case. Read this book for a real-life account of murder mysteries, and the first-hand information from the forces who solve them. I usually pick my favorite of the lot from anthologies, but it’s hard to do so in this case because “favorite” would translate to most gory or sinister – the levels people can stoop to dispose off another human being makes for brilliant reading but a shocking experience. And if the hallmark of good literature is how it moves the reader, then each of these tales stand out in their own gruesome and sinister way.

My rating – 5/5

The Monsoon Murders – Book Review

Title – The Monsoon Murders

Author – Karan Parmanandka

Genre – Fiction, mystery, thriller

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A quick analysis of a quick read that bodes well on a rainy evening or if you have few hours to spare on an idle weekend. “The Monsoon Murders” is a murder mystery set in Mumbai city that keeps the reader on edge at every one of it’s two hundred pages. Debut writer Parmanandka cuts right to the chase – a high profile murder in a plush housing society in Powai, the victim is killed in his own house with no witnesses, and no visible signs of breaking in or attempts of struggle. A detective hired by the company where the victim was employed feels he is being used as a pawn in the entire game, as he coddiwomples through his investigations. Friends, relatives, colleagues – who is to be trusted? Accusations keep flying, the corpse count increases along with the incessant Mumbai rains. Are the numerous monsoon murders linked to each other or just random casualties?

The fast-paced mystery that keeps you guessing till the last page is said to be inspired from real life cases and meticulously researched forensic investigations. Newbie writer Parmanandka has done a commendable job in this well presented crime thriller. Neither filled with fanciful jargon nor comprising mediocre writing, he strikes the perfect balance in his narrative. The clichéd romantic angle between the investigating officer and the prime suspect caused me to conjecture the book wouldn’t live up to it’s brilliant start, but Parmanandka surprised me by spinning around his narrative every step of the way. The writing is simple but the storyline is unpredictable and it keeps you hooked. I finished the book in a few hours. Not a literary marvel if language development or vocabulary improvement is what one looks for while reading. No philosophical quotes to share, and the cover appears a trifle cheesy too. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a quick read or an edge-of-the-seat thriller, or if you devour the genre of crime fiction.  This is one of the few one-time reads I would give an all star rating. The only glitch was some loopholes I felt were not answered – either the author overlooked certain parts or expected to keep the reader guessing even after the book ended. I would look forward to reading more from Karan Parmanandka post his supremely impressive debut.

I read this on Kindle and it is available on KU (Kindle Unlimited) for e-book users who would like to read it.

My rating – 4/5

MM

Scheherazade – Book Review

Title – Scheherazade

Author – Haruki Murakami (translated by Ted Goossen)

Genre – Fiction, Short story

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“The scene seemed divorced from reality, although reality he knew, could at time be terribly unreal.”

A short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami which narrates the days of one of it’s primary characters, Nobutaka Habara, who for some undisclosed reason is home bound. Habara has been shifted to his new accommodation since a few months, and a woman who serves as his caretaker, entrusted to him by an unnamed company, is his only contact with the world. The woman never tells him her name, and never refers to Habara by his name either. She visits twice a week with all the groceries, books, DVDs, and other supplies he needs, even offering sex and narrating stories. Habara assumes everything is part of the deal with his new lodging and doesn’t ask or protest. He names her Scheherazade, after Queen Scheherazade from “A Thousand And One Nights”, due to her penchant for telling stories after sex.

“Her voice, timing, pacing were all flawless. She captured her listener’s attention, tantalized him, drove him to ponder and speculate.”

They have almost no other conversation in the few hours they spend together during her biweekly visits. Her stories begin and end abruptly, and the narrative takes us through how Habara has to wait for the next visit to know what happens. Whether narrating about her past life as a lamprey, or disclosing her routine break-ins at a former classmate’s house, Habara has no idea whether her stories are fact or fiction.

“Reality and supposition, observation and pure fancy seemed jumbled together in her narratives.”

In typical Murakami style, the reader is never told who Scheherazade really is, why Habara cannot leave the house, or what is the significance of the stories. The narrative is unique, with the backstory forming the main story as Scheherazade’s reminiscences of her past take you along for the ride. She begins abruptly and leaves the endings for the next visit, and every visit ends with something else pending. The reader experiences the same feelings with Murakami as Habara does with Scheherazade – the story doesn’t get anywhere, but the ride is thrilling.

At it’s core, the story is about companionship. Habara cannot move outside his abode and Scheherazade is his only link to the outside world. Scheherazade is a licensed nurse and a mother of two, but offers her storytelling to Habara who seems to be the only one eager to listen to them. With only two characters and an average plot, Murakami leaves us with beautiful imagery and brilliant storytelling, as reflected in the life of a lamprey or a house breaker who is not a thief. Just like Habara, the reader is left puzzled with many questions during and at the end of the story. But read this for your dose of Murakami’s writing, just as Habara cherishes Scheherazade’s stories for her storytelling skills.

Rating – 3/5