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

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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

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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

 

 

Who Goes There – Book Review

Title – Who Goes There?

Author – John Campbell

Genre – Sci-fi, Horror

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John Carpenter’s cult classic of the eighties, The Thing, was one of my favorite horror movies growing up. I recently found out the movie was based on a book by John Campbell titled “Who Goes There” , published in 1938 under the pen name Don Stuart. In the 1970s the book was voted as one of the finest science fiction stories ever written, and was adapted into three films. I haven’t watched the 1951 “The Thing From Another World” , but I loved the 1982 “The Thing” , and didn’t think too much of the 2011 prequel to the 80s movie of the same name. Carpenter’s film is the most faithful adaptation of the book and the most well made, with it’s haunting theme tune.

I picked up the book as soon as I heard about it and finished it over the last two nights. Set in the extreme climatic conditions of the Antarctica of the 1930s, the story follows a group of researchers towards the end of winter and awaiting spring, who happen to discover an alien spaceship crashed and buried in the snow. Assumed to be over twenty million years old, the team attempts to thaw it with a thermite charge, but end up destroying the ship. They do discover the equally frozen remains of the pilot, buried some distance away from the craft – possibly having emerged out to look for warmer climates and succumbed in the harsh new environment. Hoping to not repeat the damaging result of the aircraft, they carry the ice block with the visitor frozen inside, to thaw it “naturally” in their headquarters. And that’s when havoc ensues.

In spite of being a complex organism, the creature’s cells function like those of simple organisms – they revive when thawed and the animal comes to life. The peculiarity of the unwelcome visitor is that it’s cells function as a separate entity from the whole organism. “Every part of it is all of it. Every part is a whole. Every piece is self-sufficient.”  It can latch on to other beings – birds, animals and humans alike – and mimic their cells perfectly to form a  whole new organism that looks, thinks and behaves exactly like the original, and the original organism dies in the process.

The team of pathologists, biologists, meteorologists, physicists, aviation mechanics, and those of varying expertise in their fields must now work together to quarantine the shape-shifter before it takes over all the humans and animals on camp, and moves on from Antarctica to the rest of the world population. But how can the team trust each other when anyone could be a potential threat? “We’ve got monsters, madmen and murderers. Any more M’s you can think of?”  Are people going mad due to cabin fever? Are sane men murdering potential mimics? How do they discern friend from foe, identify who are the real humans and which ones are the clones? Are the sled dogs really dogs or mimics? Are the cows they are milking providing real milk or foreign entities? How does one destroy a creature with no natural enemies? If it can become whatever attacks it, no one or nothing is seen as a threat but as a means of absorption and assimilation into a whole new organism.

The entire book is written in the third person narrative, ensuring the reader is constantly kept guessing about who/what/where the alien could be. Do we look for behavioral signs? Any hint of suspicion in what the characters are saying? Do their feelings, thoughts or dreams identify them as potential aliens? “The idea of the creature imitating us is unreal, because it is too completely unhuman to deceive us. It doesn’t have a human mind.”  As the suspense and paranoia build up slowly, the reader is left questioning one’s own sanity about what and whom to believe. Every one says “I’m human”, but what makes us human? The way we look, our thoughts, our feelings, our ambitions, our will to survive. If all of these are mimicked to perfection, can the mimic be called “human” too? A must-read for sci-fi and horror fans, the book can be described in one word as atmospheric.

~ “Three quarters of an hour, through -37° cold, while the aurora curtain bellied overhead. The twilight was nearly twelve hours long, flaming in the north on snow like white, crystalline sand.”

~ “It was white death. Death of a needle-fingered cold driven before the wind, sucking heat from any warm thing.  Cold and white mist of endless, everlasting drift. It was easy to get lost in ten paces.”

~ “The huge blowtorch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurgingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue.”

~ “A low rippling snarl of distilled hate. A shrill of pain, a dozen snarling yelps.”

~ “The three eyes glared at him sightlessly. He realized vaguely that he had been looking at them for a very long time, and understood that they were no longer sightless.”

~ “An odor alien among the smells of industry and life. And yet, it was a life-smell.”

Very creepy and well written, with a pounding sense of dread that makes one marvel at the era in which the writer produced it. There are references to the first people who ever made it to the North and South Poles, with these memorable expeditions so close to the time when the story was actually written. Antarctica is a harsh continent even today. One shudders to think of the conditions the crew would have to deal with in the 1930s. The plot is riveting, the pace evenly thrilling, and just like the creature, each part of the story adds to the whole. The characterization is excellent, with each specialist’s contribution to the proceedings imperative to the monster being dealt with. A seminal piece of old-school horror and science fiction that was way ahead of it’s time! Go ahead and read it, if you haven’t already.

Rating – 5/5

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I read the book on Kindle. This was the paperback version when the book originally came out. Current cover versions refer to “The Thing” instead of the actual title.

Why Do Buses Come In Threes – Book Review

Title – Why Do Buses Come In Threes?

Authors – Rob Eastaway and Jeremy Wyndham

Genre – Non-fiction

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“We did not invent mathematics, we discovered it. It exists in every aspect of our lives – serious or light-hearted, momentous or trivial.”

This book arrived as a recommendation from my fellow breed of non-fiction readers from my book club. Hardcore non-fiction readers are hard to come by; one usually receives a slew of suggestions for thrillers, historical fiction, and chicklit, and memoirs or autobiographies from non-fiction genres. This peculiar “layman’s” read about mathematical concepts piqued my interest – both for the subjects covered and the audience targetted. In spite of being a maths-phobe, I decided to dive into the sea of numbers and see what Eastaway and Wyndham had to offer.

“Why Do Buses Come In Threes?” delves into the hidden mathematics of everyday life. Those who find themselves fascinated by numbers and solve numerical puzzles as a hobby, will obviously love this book which sheds light on how maths is present anywhere and everywhere. And then there are people like me, who place mathematics on the same pedestal as foreign languages, because that’s how numbers float in front of us – no different from alphabets of a foreign script. The book serves to remind and help us discover how maths is relevant to everything we do, not just numerically, and we will never gain freedom from however dreaded the world of numbers seems to us. The author duo aims to provide new insights and stimulate curiosity.

The book identifies links between nature and mathematics, revealing how the subject rules and enhances our existence. The most beautiful pieces of music can be broken down mathematically, since all notes have a numerical relationship with each other – vibrating in harmony, unison or discord. The more straightforward the mathematical connection, the sweeter the sound. Dotted throughout the book are practical uses for probability theory, applications of tangents while sight seeing, Fibonacci series, Venn diagrams in the predator-prey relationship, prime numbers, matrices and lots more to have you looking at numbers like you never did in school. Even geometry and trigonometry find their way in day to day situations we encounter, but we solve problems so subconsciously we don’t even realize those dreaded math concepts are at work. How do coincidences occur and why are they significant? What goes on behind keeping a secret? How do you cut a cake into equal pieces so your kids don’t squabble about who got the bigger slice? How does the sporting world decipher who the best athlete is when sports are so different? Why do you find yourself waiting at the bus stop for ages, only to see three buses arrive at the same time? Why do you always get stuck in traffic jams when you leave home just ten minutes later, and reach work thirty minutes late? Is the world conspiring against you? From everyday logic, murder mysteries and parliamentary debates, puzzles, card games and magic tricks, even dating and gambling, the book covers a multitude of territories proving you can never really achieve freedom  from the subject you might have assumed you were avoiding since school. There is historical information, general trivia and a horde of interesting facts to help you learn and ponder as you read.

In agreement with the authors, whether you have a degree in astrophysics or haven’t attempted a maths problem since school, this book will change the way you view the world around you and the world of numbers. And no, the writing doesn’t get even a tad boring. The authors humorously provide situations and examples, making concepts easier to follow and have fun with at the same time. To be honest, few concepts took me a while to understand and I’m still working on some more. But that’s because maths has never been one of my favorite subjects. My rating is based on my own experience with this book – I was completely lost at places where I knew nothing about the subject (I doubt I even paid much attention in school), but other parts were amusing and I had fun solving puzzles and imagining scenarios. To sum up in three words, charming, entertaining and insightful.

My rating – 3/5

If A River – Book Review

Title – If A River

Author – Kula Saikia

Genre – Fiction, Short story collection

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The Birthday Bookathon progresses steadily. For the uninitiated, my reading goals for the year have been regional books from India – one (at least) from each of the twenty nine states and seven union territories. I started on my birthday in November last year and have three more months to go. I just finished one from the northeastern state of Assam. “If A River” is a collection of short stories by Kula Saikia originally written in Assamese and translated into Hindi, Bangla, Odia, Marathi and Telugu languages over the years. This is the first English translation which came out in February this year, comprising twenty short stories, translated into English by six writers.

Saikia’s storytelling is thought provoking, his writing simplistic, with stories inspired from day-to-day life. He transports the reader into the minds of his characters, whereby one feels one isn’t merely reading, but thinking and feeling like his characters do. Some of the stories end with a twist, some twist your thinking throughout, but every one of them causes you to reflect on seemingly mundane issues. From the pathos in ‘Well-wishers‘, to the charming ‘Gift‘, the child-like exuberance of ‘If A River‘, to the horror of ‘Birthmark‘, every story invokes myriad emotions that go beyond the actual story and make you live the character’s life, and experience like he does.

Saikia touches on prosaic themes – waiting at a bus stop, attending a school reunion, going for a run, preparing a will, wanting to play a game of football, making new friends. His narrative, however, leaves a deep impact – causing you to reflect long after each story has ended. I read at the rate of two or three stories a day – in spite of being short reads, the author has the knack of making you read and reflect, and take your time through them. Some of my favorites were, ‘In The Rain‘ – about an elderly couple waiting for the rain on noticing their flower bed wilting, ‘Whispers‘ – set at a funeral, where the death of a house owner results in a maid losing the job she was dependent on for her dying child, ‘The Game‘ – featuring a sports coach and his emphasis on the importance of sports, ‘The Final Hour‘ – the difference between what is thought, what is said, and what is done when doomsday arrives, ‘The Will‘ – about a man with dementia pondering over preparing a will, before he forgets the things he owns, and the people he knows.

I loved Saikia’s usage of figures of speech, and was astounded at his seamless weaving of alliterations, metaphors and personifications in a work of prose, which makes it seem almost poetic. Some beautiful lines:

~”Look at this candle. We simply look at its flame that gives light, the molten wax remains unseen to the eyes. The burning candle does not weep for the molten wax.”

~”Tell me about your long journey. Was it the same old countries, same old oceans, same old mountains, or something new? Did you notice any new clusters of stars to show you the way?” (A bedridden old man talking to birds at his window.)

~”Sometimes poems, as yet unwritten, are created in a hidden, secret chamber of the mind.”

~”An annoying boredom gnaws at her in the silence. Noise could become her friend now.”

~”The doors of his mind are open for the winds of knowledge to enter from all directions.”

~”The pleasure of a journey encompasses much more than the mere satisfaction of arriving at your destination. You may assume that the journey always continues, and it will continue till the last step.”

~”Memories stay with us. They cannot be bequeathed through a will.”

~”Every object has a specific use, and is created for a definite purpose. Yet the significance of that purpose may vary from person to person.”

~”Smiles sweep across their faces like barges on a river, and he stands on its side, unmoved as a rock.”

I marked a lot of quotes and excerpts throughout the book, and this collection will stay cherished among my shelves to flip through occasionally. A mention needs to be made of the translators who have done a fabulous job in bringing Saikia’s works to a wider audience of readers worldwide. The “painting” on the cover is beautiful – simplistic and connects with the reader, just like a river connects its banks. The first page of the book is also printed in the Assamese language – providing a connect with the original writer and his writings – something I have not seen in many translated books. I attempted the script on the origami paper boat I crafted to go with the picture. The words are the title of the book, followed by the name of the author. If you like books that make you think, give this one a read. “If A River” is the only collection of Kula Saikia’s works available for English readers.

Rating – 5/5

 

Under The Jaguar Sun – Book Review

Title – Under The Jaguar Sun

Author – Italo Calvino (translation by William Weaver)

Genre – Fiction

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“I climbed into the light of the jaguar sun – into the sea of the green sap of the leaves.”

Under The Jaguar Sun” is a collection of intoxicating stories revolving around the senses, with Italo Calvino attempting to create a story for each sense organ. We begin with “taste” amid the flavors of Mexico’s fiery spices in the titular story, as a couple embarks on a holiday to experience the food and culture of a new country. From one locality to the next, the self-proclaimed “somnambulists in the dining room”  find themselves in varying gastronomic lexicon – new terms to be recorded, new sensations to be defined. “Guacamole to be scooped with crisp tortillas that snap into many shards and dip like spoons into the thick cream” – the couple imagines entire lives devoted to the search for new blends of ingredients, new variations in measurements, alert and patient mixing, and handing down of intricate and precise lore. What starts off as a gustatory exploration, takes on darker hues as the narrator ponders, “The most appetizingly flavored human flesh belongs to the eater of human flesh” , and the reader is questioned what exactly comprises “food”? Archaeological wanderings raise many queries by the couple, which their guide seems unable to satisfactorily answer – Who are the messenger of the gods? Are they demons sent to earth by the gods to collect the sacrificial offerings? Or do emissaries from human beings take the food to the gods? When vultures clear the altars, do they physically carry the offerings to the heavens?” A thought-provoking take on how “taste” comes to define the couple’s relationship.

From here, we move on to “sound” with “A King Listens” – bringing attention to the menacing echoes within us and outside ourselves. The gripping portrait of a king’s thoughts, as he believes a coup is being planned to destroy him, just as he had done to his predecessor, resulting in a frenzied mind trying to salvage the throne by being acutely aware of every single sound inside the palace walls and outside in the city. He pursues every breath, rustle, grumble and gurgle, moves through clangs and curses, and is guided by echoes and creaks – the palace is a construction of sounds expanding and contracting. Distinct or imperceptible, he can distinguish them all as they reach his tympanum – the palace itself being his ear and the walls listening for him. Where does one draw the line between alertness and paranoia? A city awakens with a slamming, a hammering, a creaking, a rumble, a roar. Every space is occupied, all sighs absorbed. Listen to the breathing of a city – it can be labored and gasping or calm and deep. If you listen to the whorls of a shell, how do you know what is ocean, ear, shell? Where is the sound? What significance does sound play in our lives? “Are your ears deafened by unusual sounds? Are you no longer able to tell the uproar outside from that inside? Perhaps there is no longer an inside and an outside” , the author seemingly questioning the king, provides food for thought for the reader as well. There is a wondrous segment on “voice” as an entity. A voice is not a person, though it comes from a person. It is suspended in the air, detached from the solidity of things. Voice and person are different from each other, but a voice means there is a person, with his throat, chest, feelings, very much alive, who sends into the air this voice unlike voices emanating from other persons. Does this mean you and your voice are one? Or two separate entities?

We then move on to “smell” with “The Name, The Nose” on the streets of Paris – a network of assonances, dissonances, counterpoints, modulations, cadenzas. Musk from verbena, amber and mignonette, bergamot and bitter almond – the olfactory alphabet is made up of so many words in a precious lexicon, without which perfumes would be speechless, inarticulate, illegible. Monsieur de Saint-Caliste visits a parfumerie not to buy perfume for a person, but seeking their help in identifying an unknown woman from her perfume. “Martine was tickling the tip of my ear with patchouli, Charlotte was extending her arm perfumed with orris for me to sniff, Sidonie put a drop of eglantine on my hand” – the staff try to help him out in various ways. Madame Odile, the owner of the parfumerie, is much sought after  for her experience is “giving a name to an olfactory sensation”. The reader is led through enchanting aromas  across space and time. “There is no information more precise than what the nose receives.” We are taken through prehistoric times when man relied on the nose rather than the eyes – the mammoth, drought, rain, food, cave, danger, the world was perceived through the nose. Will Monsieur Caliste ever identify his elusive scents?

Under The Jaguar Sun” was written over a period of time. Calvino started in 1972 with “The Name, The Nose” , followed by “Under The Jaguar Sun” in 1982 – both written in Paris, and wrote “A King Listens” in 1984 in Rome. The author sadly passed away in 1985 when only the three stories on “taste”, “hearing” and “smell” were completed – “touch” and “sight” never got written. Calvino was working on a frame to connect the senses in a way that would amount to another novel – kind of like a book within a book. His wife Esther decided to salvage the ones written from being lost in literary oblivion by releasing the trio of senses in 1986, and Weaver’s English translation came out in 1988.

The beauty of Calvino’s writing is his ability to make the reader think. His books are not quick or light reads; every sentence needs to be absorbed and savored. On it’s surface, this is a simple collection of three stories, but the lines take you beyond the senses as we know them. “There is no night darker than a night of fires. There is no man more alone than one running in the midst of a howling mob.” Do not look at “Under The Jaguar Sun” as an unfinished work of literature. Readers familiar with Calvino’s masterpieces like “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller” , “Cosmicomics” and other works will no doubt be disappointed about missing out on where he might have taken this book had he lived long enough to complete the remaining two senses. Use this, however, as an opportunity to marvel at some more of his pieces. As his wife Esther writes in the epilogue, “We consider poetic a production in which each individual experience acquires prominence through its detachment from the general continuum, while it retains a kind of glint of that unlimited vastness.” Read this off-beat trio of tales for what they are, and still bask in awe of the brilliance of this writer. And maybe you will find yourself questioning the way your sense organs work. That is the effect of Calvino’s writing – makes one ponder while reading and long after one is done.

My rating – 5/5

2 Peg Ke Baad – Book Review

The clock is ticking towards the end of the year, and with New Year celebrations all around, I decided on some bookish contribution as well. An attempt to sum up the old year and welcome the new one with a book on the theme of spirits. Big mistake! This book just turned me all gloomy and I had to salvage the year end by reading something else. (There’s no way I’m ending a fabulous year with such a read). But read on anyways, and hear a little more about it.

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Title – 2 Peg Ke Baad

Author – Nikita Lalwani

Genre – Non fiction

The title is in Hindi (meaning “After 2 Pegs”), though the book is in English. As the title suggests, the book is about what happens after drinking two pegs. Or not necessarily two pegs, but basically an inebriated state. This is an anthology comprising fourteen short (and some not-so-short) stories, that started off as a blog post with people from around the world sharing their tales, or confessions, or whatever memories they have of acting out in a drunken stupor. The book does not encourage drinking, nor does it have to be read only by those who drink, and thereby more familiar with the beverages mentioned. These are true stories, after all, and even teetotallers can read them. Good literature can be appreciated even if one does not identify with the theme. Sadly, this book does not qualify as good literature.

I thought the premise was interesting, with an eclectic mix of contributors for each of the stories. But the narratives weren’t engaging enough – you don’t feel for the characters or their experiences. The style of writing was also disappointing. There are blatant grammatical errors alongside big and fancy words. It seems like the author picked up a bunch of words from the dictionary in an attempt to make the book more “literary”, but it’s a complete turn off when basic grammar is incorrect. As a reader (or even a listener in a verbal conversation), one would rather have simplistic vocabulary accompanied by good grammar, instead of fanciful lexicon that seems completely out of place.

One of the stories is about an individual with a keen interest in the French language. Here too, the French-English translations are totally off, not to forget the French (if you can call it that). One example, “madmosel” – even non French speakers are familiar with the word “mademoiselle”. Considering these are true stories, even if the person submitting the account made the mistakes (which she shouldn’t have since she’s writing about her own life episodes), the least the author could have done was a little research and reference work before putting something out for publishing. Some of the stories feel like fictitious accounts, with the words “2 pegs” repeatedly being mentioned like they needed to tailor a story around the given theme. Though the book claims these are all true incidents, “inspired by a true story” is mentioned only in some places. Makes one wonder about the authenticity of the rest of them.

All-in-all, a disappointing read that I shouldn’t have ended a good literary year with. I usually don’t suggest what one should or should not read, since reading preferences differ from person to person. But definitely don’t begin a new year with this one; squeeze it in between some fabulous books if you do go for it.

Rating 1/5