Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Hunger Games

My brother, ten years my junior, literally bullied me into reading Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy. He ranted and raved about how good the books were and I was convinced that they should be, to have caught his attention! He who doesn't read unless it is for school work or only if he is truly impressed by the novel.
I've read my fair share of young adult novels as an adult that occasionally dabbles in a quick read just to keep myself occupied (and the count of books going), so I wasn't skeptical about this book (as I had been about 'The Host'). I read it in two days and was, I must admit, thoroughly taken by it.
As gruesome as the summary might sound, this is definitely one of the nicer, better written young-adult books currently in the market. No stupid vampire love triangles or supernatural presences. Just a nice story of adventure, loyalty, love, and survival.

(Since I've read only the first book, as of February, 2012, I shall base this post only off that)
The book is set in the post-apocalyptic nation of Panem in North America with The Capitol, the rich metropolis, controlling 13, now 12 (due to a rebellion which lead to District 13 being annhilated), districts of the nation. Each District has its own specialization and status within the country, some more prosperous than the others. District 12 is the mining district, and one of the poorest, where Katniss Everdeen lives with her worn out mother and younger sister. Starvation is one of the most common causes of death in this district, and to ensure that her family never goes hungry, Katniss, along with her best friend Gale Hawthorne, sneaks out into the fenced off woods, and poaches animals, which she then sells in the market place for food. Though things get tight, it is quite obvious that the security in District 12 isn't as stringent as in most other districts mainly because the Capitol does not have very high regard for the people in this district. Until the 74th Hunger Games begins.
This is games that the Capitol forces each district to play, to reassert their power and to remind the people of Panem how vulnerable they really are. Two tributes, a girl and a boy, are chosen from each district to compete with each other, to the death. The last one standing walks away with riches they could not have imagined and brings pride to their district.
Most unfortunately Katniss' younger sister, who is entered into the lottery for the first time ever, gets picked, and Katniss volunteers to take her place. The boy tribute is Peeta Mellark, the baker's son, who seemingly has a crush on Katniss. Their mentor, one of only two winners of the Games from District 12, is the drunkard Haymitch, who eventually gets his act together and begins to instruct the two tributes in earnest. Their aim, to stay alive for as long as possible, win the favor of the audience, who will place bets on tributes based on their chances of survival and provide them with much needed assistance during the game.
The Games begin with killings at the very start, with 11 of the 24 tributes murdered almost immediately. Alliances are formed by those considered 'most likely to win' while others fend for themselves in a forest. Peeta and Katniss are portrayed to the audience as star-crossed lovers and quickly gain a faithful following, though they are both aware that only one can win.

Told in the first person, Katniss' perspective, the narrative never gets dry. There is no dwelling upon the inevitable, or unnecessary emotions. No elongated descriptions of days or events. Just quick walk throughs with importance given to decisions, strategy and thoughts. There are escapades into the happy times in Katniss' life, the few that she can count, and the brief glimpses into the future as the possibility of her winning the Games hovers within reach.

Naturally, I liked the pace of the book. Collins does a good job of keeping you on your toes through every chapter, and you're just itching to find out who dies, how, and who lives. The winner is revealed towards the very end with the undertone of restlessness which paves a restless path to the next book.
I could just buy the 2nd and 3rd books (Catching Fire and Mockingjay) and read them right away, but for my brother's sake, I will hold off and read them when I go home in two weeks' time :)

Lady Chatterley's Lover

It was my grandfather's interest in the Lady Chatterley trial that first brought my attention to Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence. I was, at the time, too young to even consider reading the novel (I must've been fourteen or fifteen), but, after a bit of research, I was able to ascertain the story and why it was so controversial.
The novel concerns the notorious relationship between a lady of the aristocracy and the game-keeper of her invalid husband's grounds. Says it all? Most of the novel explores the necessity/desire for a physical relationship that Lady Chatterley, a young woman, longs for, now that her husband has been paralysed waist down in the First World War. Truth is, he is the one that pushes her towards it because he wants an heir, a boy, to carry on the Chatterley name and take care of Wragby, the family seat.

There is the tone of class distinction, how Lady Chatterley, Connie, is rather sympathetic towards the lower classes but her husband, Sir Clifford, isn't. He believes that somebody should be the boss and justifies his impersonal way of running his estate with the fact that he was born to be boss.
Connie, however, has grown up rather exposed to the world. Her sister, Hilda, and she were left to their own design before Connie fell in love with Sir Clifford. She has just a month of 'proper marriage' before she is resigned to the role of care-giver and nurse to her husband. She accepts this life quite easily, not really giving thought to what she was missing out on. Pushed to the edge of frustration of being locked in and, in essence, being a mechanical servant, Connie finds her peace in the woods that surround Wragby, and in the arms of Oliver Mellors, the crude, classless game-keeper.

I must admit that I found a lot of the book rather revolting and did skip quite a few pages, but I got through it somehow without any doubt in mind as to why it was such a big deal when it first came out!
Some of the characters just annoyed me. A lot of it seemed impersonal. But Lawrence was, when the book came out, trying to prove a point, and I believe he did!
I suppose I admire Connie's initial reluctance and her reaction to the realization that she was bound by Sir Clifford in the most unjust manner - he doesn't what's wrong in having her nurse him, being rather selfish and running after his mistress, Success, through his writing. It makes you want to clobber Sir Clifford over the head a few times and shake him awake. Mellors doesn't change over the course of the book, but he genuinely loves Connie. Enough to know when he must take his leave of Wragby in order to preserve her image as Sir Clifford's wife.

I wouldn't necessarily recommend this book, but would love to take a look at the case files, just as my granddad did, to know what the line of defense for its publication was.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

10 Reasons I Love Libraries

I have loved libraries for as long as I can remember. I have loved books even longer than that. There's just something about the way a library is structured - architecturally and internally - that draws me to them, the sights and smell. Ah! The smell of a thousand books waiting to be read…
I've been to my fair share of new cities, and the first place I seek out is the local library (or, God forbid, if there isn't one close enough, the closest bookstore). I’ve carried a library card far more often than I have an ID card!
  1. It’s FREE - You join for free and you get to take books out for free! You pay nothing - well, perhaps you do, by way of tax, but that's different. You have access to a multitude of books and they exist solely for your pleasure! They are just sitting on shelves, waiting to be picked up!! All they want is some indulgence from you, and your time to enjoy what they have to offer :)
  2. The collection – Where else would you find a physical collection of the written or spoken word? Yes, of course the internet, but that’s not physical. I mean a collection of books, magazines, music and movies that you can actually touch and feel. You have literature, anthologies, biographies, newspapers, magazines, CD's, DVD's, from all walks of life in a variety of languages, in different colors, shapes and sizes. It's heaven. The knowledge that awaits you is incredible and it never ceases to amaze me that all of it is so readily available for the taking. I have Milton, Chaucer, Dostoevsky at arm's length, I may study evolution with Darwin, look into the vast unknown of space through Galileo's eyes, indulge in 19th century feminism, read of the politics of the Romans, take over countries and establish empires, find my roots, learn history... yes, and get carried away :)
  3. Architecture - If you've noticed, most of the largest libraries are housed in grand buildings that provide an architectural landmark to the place they are situated in. Modern libraries and those that have survived time, all are proof of this notion. I have not been to many 'modern' libraries, I shall admit, but am convinced that they are fantastic, just because they are libraries. But the older ones, the large stone structures with the gargoyles and marble staircases, immediately put me at ease. I could just stare at the facade of a library and be content, knowing that when they were constructed it was done with religious precision. The sole purpose of having these buildings, apart from temples, was serve as a depository of knowledge that could be accessed by those who seek it. If you look closely enough, these buildings speak of that commitment.
  4. Information - I'll admit it isn't as easy as clicking on a link online, but it's all there. You'll almost never arrive at a 'red link' that gives you an HTTP 404 error ;) If you don't find it, it means you didn't look enough. There is something quite satiating in knowing that you did all of the researching work, instead of having Google tell you which page you need to go look at first! Besides, if there's something you can't find, you can actually interact with librarians, who are experts at finding things. They'll lead you in the right direction. There's human interaction! Besides, if you think you'd rather trust a computer and or or the internet, that's available too!
  5. It's Quiet - When I want my peace of mind, I read. Or I walk by, or just stare at, the lake. While I prefer the comfort of my most comfy chair, I wouldn't really mind sitting at a library surrounded by books. People respect silence here. You'd here the odd scrape of a chair or the copying machine or the scanner, muffled footsteps, some tapping of the keyboard, a soft giggle, that swish of a crispy sound when books slide against each other when being put back onto or being pulled from a shelf. You may relax. (This may not work for me because I'm fidgety and wouldn't be able to hold my concentration that long, but a lot of people have told me it works).
  6. Social - You meet people. Most people that go to a library are readers. They appreciate stories and writing, that's why they're there. No book is uninteresting, except maybe the 150-page romance novels, which, in their defense, provide someone an excuse for reading, even if it does not contribute to the mind's natural thirst for knowledge. I'd wager that at some point, each person that has been in a library, has had a conversation about books with a stranger they just met. Be it a book he's holding that you've read, or vice-versa, or a book you both are reaching for. You're socializing. It may be a moment of interaction, but it serves for conversation and provides food for thought. You make and receive recommendations. You may or may not take it seriously, but you do consider it. That's social interaction for you, in a library. (I once had a very entertaining conversation about gardening with a lady, who had an acre large garden, while waiting in the check-out line at the library.) There are also book clubs that you can sign up for at your library!
  7. Literary events - Remember going to reading sessions and story-time at a book store when you were a kid? That's an event. An author stopping by to talk about his or her work, literary and cultural events... libraries. I've met 3 authors at library events. I found out about one of these events on an elevator ride down four floors, from fiction to check-out. I've been to book signing events at libraries. I've spoken with fellows readers, and been connected to others. Then there are the several writing contests that are hosted. According to season, or some special event. I submitted a bunch as a kid, and few as an adult. Who knows, you may meet your favorite author there, or you might end up becoming one!
  8. Book sales - I love old books. They have this wonderful musty, "I've been read and I'm old" smell. I like new books too, the fresh crisp pages waiting to be turned. And so I love book sales! They're definitely used books so don't necessarily fit into my vision of filling my library with leather bound copies of my favorite writing, but they add to my collection. You'll find games (a friend bought "It Was a Dark & Stormy Night" at one such sale at a library), magazines, books, CDs and DVDs. If you're lucky, you'll find that one book of a certain edition that you always wanted!
  9. e-Libraries - I'm a bit old fashioned when it comes to books in that I'd rather hold a book in my hand than read it from a device. BUT that does not keep me from purchasing or downloading eBooks, or borrowing books from the library through an app (read Kindle App). I don't really feel as much of a connection to the story if I read from a screen instead of paper, but that's just me. I'm tech savvy, but I'll stick with books. For those of you that would prefer an eReader, then libraries still cater to your reading needs.
  10. Free Wifi - When coffee shops and grocery stores offer customers free wi-fi, why shouldn't a library?! Step in and you're connected. Use it for whatever you will whenever you want.
So there you are. 10 of my reasons why libraries are some of the coolest places on Earth. I'm sure there are many others, but I love words (and consequently books) and I shall advocate libraries.
If it so interests you, check out this post of the 20 of the World's Most Beautiful Libraries. Below is the library I frequent - complete with the gargoyles, dusty shelves and the wondrous smell of books waiting to be read.

Harold Washington Library Center, Chicago, IL

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Thousand Splendid Suns

Written by Khaled Hosseini and spanning over a period of thirty years, A Thousand Splendid Suns, is about two women, whose lives begin to entwine in the most unrelenting circumstances.

Mariam, an illegitimate child of a wealthy man, lives with her rather bitter mother near the city of Herat, Afghanistan. Despite her mother's repeated warnings and insistence that her father, Jalil, will never accept her as his daughter, as he does the children of his three wives, Mariam grows up believing in him. He visits every week, tells her stories, talks to her about the city and the country. He is Mariam's only connection to the rest of the world. But her faith in him is misplaced as he proves to be everything her mother said he was. The simple act of not showing up on her birthday to take her to watch Pinnochio and then refusing to see her when she goes to his house destroys Mariam's life. Essentially. She is married off to a much older shoe maker who takes her away to Kabul where Mariam gives up all of her hopes and dreams and begins life as young girl resigned to the will and fancy of her husband. Mariam miscarries eight times and Rasheed, her husband, becomes more aggressive and loathsome.

On the same street that Mariam lives, a young girl, Laila. This fair headed beauty is the daughter of former school teacher who believes that giving his daughter an education is the most important gift he can give her. She grows up an intelligent child with high aspirations. She falls in love with her closest childhood friend, Tariq. But as fate would have it, and as we know from the history of Afghanistan (through the 70's to the early 2000's), war comes to Kabul and tears them and their families apart. It is at this point that Laila's life inadvertently crosses into Mariam's.

The two women are thrown together unwillingly. One, trying to make the best of the given situation, and the other, resentful of her whole life from the moment she refused to trust her mother. Mariam is always the 'hag' and Laila, the 'flower'. But their personalities rise and come to each other's aid and defense when the need calls. Mariam finally finds herself being cared for. She begins to love and be loved. She earns the respect she once longed for and knows, for once, what true happiness is supposed to feel like.
Laila, on the other hand, sees suffering and finds the courage to stand up for her own and for someone else. She fights for life.

We've all known what life must've been for the simple men and women of Afghanistan through all the battles and wars that raged in the country over the course of several decades, with just a few breaths of respite. Families torn apart, uprooted... fleeing their homeland because it was no longer safe to even step out of their houses. Rules imposed upon them by near tyrannical political conditions of the time. It's just so starkly startling through Hosseini's words.
The stories are heart-wrenching and pitiable. You wonder how people even lived in such conditions. Robbed of their own free will and forced to live their lives as dictated by others. Beaten up and punished for the smallest of issues, which free nations take for granted - because it is a thing we are entitled to.

This novel gets to you. Told from the perspective of women, it is feminist. But it is also honest. It doesn't blaspheme men. Not all of them. Just those that mindlessly follow. There are the stronger ones that play vital roles in shaping the women and help them. But it is still so very terrible to imagine that all of this is reality for someone in some part of the world.

I thought it might take me longer than three days to finish this novel, but it was so captivating. The voices of the two women in this novel. It speaks of the love of one's country and the necessity to feel the connection with it. It speaks of closure and forgiveness in the simplest of terms. Of love, of companionship and of desperation to be free. To do something good. To provide for and be cared about. It talks of hope. That everything that happens happens because of some larger plan. It talks of never losing faith, because that is what, in the end, sustains you and keeps the fire burning.

I was already drawn by the title of the book (taken from a line in Saib Tabrizi's poem Kabul) before I even began reading it.

Every street of Kabul is enthralling to the eye
Through the bazaars, caravans of Egypt pass
One could not count the moons that shimmer on her roofs
And the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls

The Woman in White

One of the earliest works of detective fiction, The Woman in White is an epistolary novel set in the late mid-19th century, written by Wilkie Collins, a man who is fast becoming one of my favorite authors.

This is definitely literature, the sleuthing and legal mind at its best. The foreword/preamble to the book sets the tone and pace of the novel, which essentially is a collection of statements of the various important people that figure in it. Much like a trial scene where each witness provides his side of the story, in facts.
Walter Hartright, a twenty-something drawing master, receives an offer of employment, to teach drawing to two young ladies that reside in Limmeridge House. As he bids his family farewell and sets off to fulfill his commission, he meets a lady dressed in white. He doesn't realize until later that she was an escapee from a private asylum but thinks nothing of it as he settles in to his role as tutor. His employer, Mr. Fredrick Fairlie, is a middle aged man whose only concern is himself. Walter gets along well with his students; the confident Miss Marian Halcombe and the shy Miss Laura Fairlie, both nieces to Mr. Fairlie. The link? The woman that Walter had aided in escaping, Anne Catherick, bears great resemblance to Laura and she had lived in Cumberland, the village in which Limmeridge House is situated. Laura's mother had taken pity on Anne when she lived there and the young girl had become rather devoted to the lady.
Marian, a shrewd young lady who has resigned herself to the life of a spinster, quickly deduces that Walter has fallen in love with his shy young pupil, Laura. But Laura is promised to marry a Sir Percival Glyde, an older gentleman. Anne, who makes a quick appearance in the village, writes a letter to Laura telling her that Sir Glyde has a secret to hide and that she shouldn't marry him. In the course of an interview with Anne, Walter is convinced that it was Sir Glyde that locked her up in the asylum.
Walter, however, leaves, before Sir Glyde arrives, on an expedition to Honduras vowing to forget what has come to pass, though knowing that he can never be happy.
In the meanwhile, accusations made by Anne against Sir Glyde are dispelled, who conducts himself as a perfect gentleman in an uncomfortable situation would, wins over Marian, and marries Laura. His only fault, as presented through the eyes of Laura's solicitor, it would seem is his insistence, through his own solicitor, that all of Laura's money/inheritance be signed over to him, leaving no provision for even Marian, who is Laura's most trusted companion.
Laura returns from their wedding tour a changed woman. Marian moves in with her into her husband's house in Blackwater and mysteries begin to unfold. An Italian count, Count Fosco, and his wife, sister to Mr. Fairlie, accompany the Glydes to Blackwater. Fosco, an eccentric, big and jolly man, seems harmless, but Marian sees through his charm, while he becomes fascinated by her mind. His wife, earlier an outspoken, thick headed woman, now seems to have only one opinion. His. Sir Glyde seems to have lost all of his pre-marital charm. And Anne Catherick's accusations rise again. And the whole drama of a well orchestrated crime of mistaken identities, hidden stories, destroyed proofs, come into play.
The story flows smoothly through the narratives. It may seem predictable, but it is not. The story is very well written and presented in a very streamlined format in that while the narratives go over a certain time from different perspectives, it never gets confusing. There aren't too many names and situations involved, unlike several modern 'sensational novels' - The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo included. It has all the charm of English literature and society of the time, and retains the spirit of suspicion and the pace of a thriller.
I loved the characterization of Marian the most. Walter is obviously my second favorite, for his courage and strength and honor. But Marian. Ah! She is the strong one, the one whose mind and heart work sensibly and practically.
A lot of parts of the novel are creepy. Like the housekeeper that guards the door when Sir Glyde locks up his wife, the bleeding dog in the boat house, the fear of being followed, of being overheard, the eavesdropping, the unsafe methods of communication, of being attacked... and even the disgusting white rats that the Count allows to go through his button holes *shudder*.
It is a novel that concerns educated people doing things in moments of terror, where they try to set their paths in crooked ways. It is also a novel of female integrity and male courage and of love for someone you truly care about. It is a long book but you never feel bored. Which is why I'm glad I never had to read this, or most other classics, in their original serialized format!

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Day 11: Twilight (series)

Day 11: A Book I Hate

Given the number of books I read it should be that I come across at least one that I absolutely hated reading. If asked, I would immediately say that anything in the 'romance' genre I hate; to be more specific, anything other than historical romances in the romance genre, I hate. And yes, the Twilight series falls into that category.

I read the books right after Breaking Dawn came out, and the only reason I even knew of it at the time was because my sister was quite into Edward Cullen at that point. This was before the mad following it eventually garnered. Anyway. So I read the books in less than a week and can honestly say I didn't like them at all. I grew to hate it after the movie came out.

The Twilight series is meant to be a young adult series by Stephanie Meyer, who has a style of story telling that can never be called 'literature'. It's just story telling. I'm sorry to be harsh, but it is true. The story is that of a teenage girl, Bella, who falls in love with a vampire, Edward, and, eventually, a werewolf, Jacob, who then falls in love with Bella's and Edward's daughter. It's a bit convoluted, but there. There are a lot of supporting characters that provide for some comical relief from the 'Oh Edward I love you', 'Bella, I love you too', 'Oh Edward make me a vampire', 'No, I will not make you a monster', 'I hate you!' 'I still love you'...... you get the point, right? Then there's the governing body of the vampire community that Bella and Edward get into a spot with, and the werewolves, who hate vampires, and smaller vampire families that avenge the death of someone in their circle by waging a war on the responsible other family, and quite obviously everything surround or concerns Bella, the only human in the whole world that entices a vampire.

I'm a vampire purist, Bram Stoker's Dracula and John Polidori's The Vampyre being my guiding lights here. Anne Rice and Stephen King too have given vampirism the literary respect it deserves. I found the Sookie Stackhouse series much better written than the Twilight series. I understand that the writing I speak of are all meant for adults while Meyer wrote for a younger audience. I'm fine with that, but then I also speak as one that read Dracula as a teenager, so I guess my expectations were pretty high.
I commend Stephanie Meyer on her story telling skills, it's just the writing that I dislike. But that's just me.


I've known of Hermann Hesse's (1946 Nobel laureate) Siddhartha for a long time, over a decade probably, but never got down to reading it till last week. As I made my way through this rather short but intense (to me) book, I wondered why it had taken me so long to pick it up!
Here is a doubt that must be expelled. I had thought that Siddhartha referred to Gautama Buddha, whose name when he was the prince of Kapilavastu was Siddhartha Gautama. I was surprised that it wasn't him, though the Gauthama figures largely in this magnificent piece of writing.
If follows the spiritual journey of Siddhartha, a young Brahmin and the perfect son. He realizes, soon, that the knowledge he seeks, the thirst for spiritual knowledge that his soul craves for, cannot be attained where he is and doing what he does. He decides to leave his home and join the ascetics, and once he obtains his father's permission by awaiting the abatement of his father's anger through pure resilience, without a wink of sleep or a breath of food, he goes away with his friend Govinda. Once again, he comes to realize the limitations of being an ascetic - whose belief centers around 'deprivation leads to enlightenment', and journeys on, with Govinda at his side, to seek the Buddha, whose teachings have reached them by word of mouth.
Siddhartha meets the Gautama, and speaks with him with passion and arrogance. He understands and respects the Gautama's enlightment, but he isn't satisfied with his teachings. He wants to experience the enlightment for himself. He wants to seek that knowledge himself and not be taught. Again, Siddhartha decides to move on, but here's where he parts ways with Govinda.
As Siddhartha ventures about, he encounters a beautiful courtesan, Kamala, and being a man himself, embarks upon the path to please her for she tells him that she would be satisfied with gifts and riches. She aids in getting him a 'job' as a sort of right hand man to a business man. Siddartha quickly rises and makes a lot of money of his own. He delves into the company of the rich men, the child people as he calls them, and gets into drinking, gambling and trading, while learning the art of love making and satisfying lust from Kamala. But in a moment of indulgence, he realizes that he has become exactly what he had sworn to dislike. He has let his ego take over his once pure soul. He decides to end his life, but realizes the foolishness of that decision at the last moment when the word 'Om' resounds in his mind and soul. A ferryman encounters him, and Siddhartha quite happily settles into a life with him. He learns from him the art of patience and listening. He learns from the river that the ferryman says has taught him all about life.
Soon, however, Siddhartha comes across his Kamala and his son while they're on their way to see the Gautama. Kamala dies and Siddhartha takes his son under his wing. But the boy proves to be a disappointment; he ill-treats his father and Vasudeva, the ferryman who is in all sense Siddhartha's spiritual guide and runs away. Siddhartha once again realizes that what he feels now, the hurt and pain of loss of someone you love was exactly what he had caused his father. As he comes to terms with these events in his life, he meets Govinda once again, who now tells him that he was always truly a saint.

I loved the general theme of writing in that everything you need to know in life comes from experiencing it on your and not just by having someone teaching it to you. There's also the belief that ultimate knowledge is not attained by scholastic means, or by asceticism, or by indulging in worldly pleasures, be it riches or carnal pleasures. However exciting and fulfilling they seem, each individual feeling adds to 'Samsara', and that in turn leads to the final understanding of the meaning of life. You feel at one with yourself and your existence. Being an agnostic myself, I appreciate the simple yet deep spiritual sense of the story itself.
It's a short read that captivated me from the very first page. There are several references to Indian philosophical writing here, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita. While these contributed to the general laws of Hinduism, they stand, independently, as texts of spirituality that provide you a path to your salvation while offering you wisdom you could only hope to attain in one lifetime.

"I'm always ready to learn but I do not always like being taught" has always been a favorite quote of mine (ref. Winston Churchill) so this book was even more enjoyable. It is a firm read for anyone. It makes you think in simple terms of everything in your life. I wonder why I never read it before now!