Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Comic Book Reads: The Complete Peanuts (1950 To 1952) by Charles M Schulz

For those who have enjoyed the wit, endearing artwork, humour, unexpected poignancy, wisdom and sheer joy of the Peanuts comic strip, this is a must buy. 

Canongate Books deserve applause for coming out with the complete, detailed collection of 25 books that cover the comic strip's entire 50-year illustrated history, tastefully done in hardcover. And of course, hats off to Charles M.Schulz, who lived and breathed the strip for most of his life. Incidentally, Schulz passed away a day before the last strip was to appear in newspapers all over the world.

This particular collection is special for it contains the complete first two years of the strip, right from the first one with the opening line - "Well! Here comes ol' Charlie Brown!". The characters looked a lot different than how they were drawn in the later years.These were early days for Schulz, we can see him still figuring out each character's look and behaviour.

As American author and radio host Garrison Keillor reveals in the introduction, Charlie Brown was a reflection of Schulz's tormented childhood. We  instantly connect with Brown, for like all of us, he has his growing up issues. He is troubled by his constant failure in managing his baseball team. His lack of self-esteem,  loneliness, inability to talk love to girls, all come to the fore.  The important thing is, despite the odds, Charlie Brown keeps trying.

Then there is Snoopy, who, like the Indian drama's 'vidushak', provides comic relief with straight-faced humour. Be it Snoopy's attempts at writing stories that all begin with the line - 'It was a dark and stormy night', his love for cookies, multiple disguises and witticisms, Snoopy is a comic-strip dog like no other.

Additional characters make Peanuts stand out, giving it an epic family feel. Take the forever sour Lucy, an embodiment of an elder sister. Catch her younger siblings Linus and Rerun cower; sometimes get back at her in their own cute, harmless way. Peppermint Patty,  a loyal friend to Linus, reminds us of school friends who stubbornly stuck to our side. Woodstock, a little whisk of a bird with his comma filled interactions with Snoopy provides cute festival decoration to the legendary strip.  

To conclude: No adult characters have ever been featured in a Peanuts strip, ever!

(Article by Snehith Kumbla)

Short Story Reads: A Little Cloud by James Joyce

A Little Cloud from the anthology, Dubliners is a common-place story, yet a brilliant and most-articulate one. Written by James Joyce (February 2, 1882 - January 13, 1941) a lot of people can identify with it as it is about individualism and the individualistic. It is also about  bettering one's circumstances and achieving one's dreams. The protagonist of this story, Little Chandler from Dublin is about to meet his friend Gallaher who has made it to the numero-uno spot in the world of journalism in London. While he is upbeat about meeting the latter, what follows is his age-old remorse at not having enough spunk to change his situation.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Monday, 29 April 2013

Short Story Reads: An Ideal Family by Katherine Mansfield

An Ideal Family is the first piece of writing that I've read by popular New Zealand author, Katherine Mansfield (October 18, 1888 - January 9, 1993). What struck me as unique in the story is the theme of alienation and the narrator's eloquent use of conversations and vivid descriptions of old Mr. Neave's household. Despite outsiders' perception of his family as the 'ideal' one, the constant chatter of his children and wife and his success and the tennis parties,  he feels alone.

I will not give the story away. It is a beautiful read and certainly different.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Short Story Reads:The Verger by W Somerset Maugham

Just like the friends we make, certain writers have the knack of bonding with readers through their works. During my teens, I struck a friendship with the most unlikeliest of writers - a certain William Somerset Maugham (1874-1965). 

As it goes with two peaceful souls, our relationship has been harmonious.Neither has tried to communicate with the other yet, stuck as we are on either sides of the graveyard. Jokes apart, I read most of Maugham's works during my teen years, thanks to The British Library, Ahmedabad - from the forgotten short story collection The Casuarina Tree to his best novels - Cakes and Ale, Up at the Villa and The Moon and Sixpence. 

Rereading certain Maugham's works does tell us that they haven't stood the test of time and are not as relevant today. Yet, the writer's persisting legacy are his short stories.

My favourite Maugham short stories emanate universal truths, surprise, compassion and delight. An otherwise melancholic and serious writer is clearly enjoying himself in these tales. One such classic, cheeky story is The Verger. It is not the O Henry-like twist, but the absurd happy turn of circumstance that is celebrated here. A change of guard, discovery of illiteracy, unemployment and a business idea makes up this breezy tale. Read it here.    

(Article by Snehith Kumbla)

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Fiction Reads: Glory by Vladimir Nabokov

Glory by Vladimir Nabokov has a flavour of the persistence of memory and descriptions of places that leave the reader dumbfounded. There are several reasons why one feels this way: Nabokov's writings have a dream-like quality and an overwhelming feel of poetry. Glory is no different and it feels like a step into the real world, perhaps with the likening of the esoteric.

Nabokov wrote Glory between 1930 & 1932. He narrates the story of Martin Edelweiss (a half Russian and half Swiss youngster) who grows up in Russia before the days of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet era. His mother is an Anglophile and raises him in a literary overdose of British literature. With the onset of the Revolution and his parents' divorce, he moves with his mother to the Crimea and then to Switzerland. Note that his journey to Athens before his parents' divorce is wonderfully described with young Edelweiss experiencing the first pangs of love and romance.

The story sharpens the characterization of Edelweiss when he leaves for England to study at the University of Cambridge. This is where the story gains a momentum of emotions, experiences, changes, interactions and people. Upon reaching England, he is taken in by a family of Russian emigres, the Zilanovs. This is where and when he gives in to the flirtations and passion for Sonia, one of the Zilanov daughters. This is a one-sided infatuation and his love is unrequited so far.

Edelweiss moves back to Switzerland only to travel to France to work, back to Switzerland and then to Berlin. He meets Sonia now and then until he decides to allow himself to be dared.

What I loved about this book is this whole element of uncertainty and wondering what turn it would take towards the end: crossing the restricted geographical and precarious infinity and plain daring. I read the ending twice; just loved it and marveled at the whole description. It seemed like a photograph.

"He said something under his breath, rubbed his cheek pensively and walked on. The air was dingy, here and there tree roots traversed the trail, black fir needles now and then brushed against his shoulder, the dark path passed between the tree trunks in picturesque and mysterious surroundings." - Nabokov.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Friday, 26 April 2013

Fiction Reads: Skeleton Island by Robert Arthur, Jr

Skeleton Island from The 3 Investigators series is a fun read and indeed a page turner. Written by Robert Arthur, Jr. (November 10, 1909 – May, 1969) for children and teenagers, this series was first published as Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators. The writer believed that using the name of a legendary film director would garner interest in the books from this series. Later it came to be titled as the The 3 Investigators. Each book has the presence of Alfred Hitchcock. In Skeleton Island too, he meets the three amateur teenage sleuths (the protagonists in the series) Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw and Bob Andrews before the start of a journey and an adventure on an island at the Atlantic Bay: Skeleton Island.

Jupe or Jupiter Jones is the ‘brains of the firm’ while Pete Crenshaw is the athlete, and the third sleuth Bon Andrews is the one involved in research (Records and Research). Their motto states ‘We investigate Anything’. In Skeleton Island, Hitchcock introduces them to Skeleton Island where Crenshaw’s father who is working on a film project.  Strange things go on with the inclusion of urban legends and thievery on this island. This is yet another exciting inception of a nail-biting adventure.

(Review by Kabita Sonowal)

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Poetry Reads: A Song of Enchantment by Walter de la Mare

This poem by Walter de la Mare (April 25, 1873 – June 22, 1956) is about the remembrance of a time and place gone by. It is also about the inheritance of memory. He aptly emphasized that imagination for writing had two important aspects: the childlike and the boy like. He had commented that children ‘are
not so closely confined and bound in by their groping senses. Facts to them are the liveliest of chameleons. ... They are contemplatives, solitaries, fakirs, who sink again and again out of the noise and fever of existence and into a waking vision’. Similarly, in this poem too, there is a transition from the uninhibited remembrance of a place to descriptions that are limited post boyhood.

The descriptions of the place in the various stanzas are indeed of one which is a place of enchantment. Although it is seemingly beautiful and lucid, it is also deeply psychological.

A Song of Enchantment 
by Walter de la Mare

A song of Enchantment I sang me there,
In a green-green wood, by waters fair,
Just as the words came up to me
I sang it under the wild wood tree.

Widdershins turned I, singing it low,
Watching the wild birds come and go;
No cloud in the deep dark blue to be seen
Under the thick-thatched branches green.

Twilight came: silence came:
The planet of Evening's silver flame;
By darkening paths I wandered through
Thickets trembling with drops of dew.

But the music is lost and the words are gone
Of the song I sang as I sat alone,
Ages and ages have fallen on me -
On the wood and the pool and the elder tree.


(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Short Story Reads: The Lighthouse Keeper Of Aspinwall by Henryk Sienkiewicz

I do not know what to say about the love for the country. To love trees, waterfalls and an evening breeze seem more meaningful. In comparison, the whole idea of patriotism seems manufactured. The way armies man borders and war makes killing acceptable and dying heroic, only proves that human beings are still possessed by a fierce territorial blindness.These thoughts surge in the wake of a poignant story I have just finished reading. It concerns an old man, his life of misfortune, a search for quietness, the sea's vastness and the faraway smell of the homeland.

The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall (1881) is a story originally written in Polish and tells of another kind of longing, a desire associated with geography, culture, people, and land. Draped with the completeness and girth of a short story, its atmosphere matches a novel for its verbosity and reflection. Here is the link to The Lighthouse Keeper of Aspinwall. Happy reading!

(Review by Snehith Kumbla)

Monday, 15 April 2013

Non-Fiction Reads: City of Djinns by William Dalrymple

I read City of Djinns for the second time; both the times, I felt that it is a marvellous travelogue. Researched, crafted and narrated by William Dalrymple, this book is about Delhi: mythology, archaeology, architecture, history and stories all woven as one tale. It is a well-researched book that narrates tales from the days when a lot of happenings went undocumented. Further, the book starts from Dalrymple’s first time in Delhi to his spending a year there with his wife.

From the stories on djinns, to the reign of the Mughals and their downfall, the contemporary Mughals and Delhi wallahs, the Delhi sultanate, the rule of the Chauhans and the Tomars and the days of the epic to the mutiny of 1857, the twilight in Delhi, the early days of the Raj, Lutyens’ Delhi, Independence and Partition, the Delhi riots in 1984 to the current day. Needless to say, it is a spectacular book because Dalrymple painstakingly documented the various and varied scenes, ethos and history of Delhi from various angles and references from the past. He brings his conversations and characterization to life with various people: interactions with Balvinder Singh and the Puris, the Anglo-Indians, the British who stayed on in India post-independence, the present-day Mughals and other Delhi wallahs, the eunuchs and the practitioners of unani medicine among many others. Modern-day idiosyncrasies are juxtaposed with what the city was like over thousands of years ago. He also highlights statecraft, gossip and the debauchery during the reigns of various monarchs that finally did them in.

Another thing that is worth noting in this book is Dalrymple’s references to various other authors, poets and writings. To name a few: Ibn Battuta, Ghalib, Niccolao Manucci, Francois Bernier and Isami among others. City of Djinns feels like a painting of Delhi among the ruins, grandeur and opulence, a modern milieu that has been marked by violence and a city with several cities in it. If you are one with a penchant for travel, vivid descriptions on travel, history and heritage, this book is certainly a must-read. 

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Short Story Reads: The Mark of Vishnu: Stories by Khushwant Singh

This compact Penguin Evergreens edition (first published in 2011) contains ten of Khushwant Singh's short stories.Singh's writing style is akin to an entertaining newspaper article, adorned with a layman's vocabulary and easy to comprehend. But as the writer is making fiction here, there is more to it. Cheekiness and biting satire stand out. The straight-faced effect of the words is the author mocking at mindless conventions, traditions and cruelties. 

On to the stories now. The Mark of Vishnu is an early Khushwant (1950). It conveys with a fatality, the foolishness of stubborn beliefs. The Mulberry Tree is an insightful story of how a middle-aged man's loneliness and brush with death leads him to disillusion. A Bride for the Sahib is a post-independence tale of an arranged marriage, cultural aloofness and its tragic implications.

The Bottom-pincher is a mischievous tale with its study of high-society perversion and hypocrisy. The Black Jasmine dwells on sexuality and old age. Death comes to Daulat Ram tells of the effect impending death has on us, has a surprising whisk of the supernatural, unusual in a Khushwant Singh story.

The Portrait of a Lady is the most endearing story of the collection. It tells of a grandmother - seen through her grandson's eyes, her stoop and wrinkles get through. The story winds up with an inevitable, poetic demise.The Riot brims in catharsis and violence and brings forth how humans can be more demonic than animals.

Two damning stories make up the book's fag end. The Voice of God tells of a electoral masquerade that could be happening anywhere in rural India. Much of the attention that Zora Singh draws is through its casual narration of how a sycophant becomes a Member of Parliament and is awarded the Bharat Ratna!

All through his writing career, Singh has had the habit of getting carried away while describing anything sexual, a characteristic the late writer attributed to senility, leading to crass, bordering on soft porn novels like The Company of Women (1999). But no such frivolities mark the stories collected here. The tales tell of Khushwant, the journalist and writer with a keen eye and curiousity for life - and the way people go about it. This collection features the writer at his restrained best. 

(Article by Snehith Kumbla)

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Stort Story Reads: The Young Oxford Book of Train Stories (Edited by Dennis Hamley)

This is for all you train lovers from all over the world and this book is packed with crazy whirls of adventure. The Young Oxford Book of Train Stories is an anthology by British children’s author Dennis Hamley. This is a collection of versatile and quirky writings by several writers such as David Belbin – Mystery Train, Marilyn Watts – Don’t Let Go, Ruskin Bond – The Tunnel, Douglas Hill – Train of Ghosts, Marjorie Darke – Corder’s Spur, Laurence Staig – North, Adele Geras – First Class, William Mayne – A Puff of steam, Robert Dawson – Grease Monkey Jack – The Engineer, Hilary McKay – Penalty for Improper Use, John Gordon – Dust, Nicola Robinson – Train Boy to the Rescue, Alison Prince – Cabbage Soup, Linda Newberry – The Circle Game, and Dennis Hamley – Danny’s Last Duchess.

These stories have been written and packed with surprises. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself reading each one of them.Each of these stories is a favourite of mine. However some really stand out such as Ruskin Bond’s The Tunnel which has a sense of place and something indescribably beautiful. Alison Prince’s Cabbage Soup is spectacular in terms of the narration, geography and the voyage that she has described. Linda Newberry’s The Circle Game is unique and has a haunting sense of alienation and futility that nobody else has perhaps described it using a setting like hers. David Belbin’s Mystery Train is curiously unsettling while Marilyn Watts’ Don’t Let go has a twist. Douglas Hill’s Train of Ghosts takes one on a journey across one of the world’s most beautiful landscapes while Marjorie Darke’s Corder’s Spur is wonderfully narrated with characters that are very real.

North by Laurence Staig and First Class by Adele Geras are weird and the former is haunting. Robert Dawson’s Grease Monkey Jack – the Engineer has a touch of the old world and Hilary McKay’s Penalty for Improper Use is worth a read. The list goes on and I’ve not mentioned all of them. The stories are impressive for their distinct narrative styles, oddities and language style – I would definitely recommend this book.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Fiction Reads: Fall by Colin McAdam

Fall by Colin McAdam feels like a screenplay through most of the chapters in the book. Written in the genre of a psychological thriller, it has shades of immense psychological drama, sadism and alienation. There is an element of obscurity, something amiss, haunting and nothing emerges as completely crystal-clear. Set in the backdrop of an elite Canadian boarding school, St Ebury, it is an illustration of perfection where drugs and seediness to an extent thrive. There is a lax in security and the boarders get away with wrong doing. Noel who is one of the boarders falls in love with Fall and has an obsession for her boyfriend Julius.

Fall and Julius are marked out because of Noel’s fascination for both of them. Noel is a character who does not deserve an iota of pity despite his lazy eye and isolation. Justifiably so in such an environment, he takes advantage of the smoking and drug concern to get Julius in trouble after Fall’s disappearance. Julius and he are roommates in the final year of school. What is spectacular about the book is the characterization of Noel. Although the reader has an idea about basic details of the other characters, it is Noel who stands out with his intelligence, cruelty and sliminess. He is a gunk all the way through.

Fall is a poignant novel which highlights the loss of innocence. 

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)

Short Story Reads: The Tunnel by Ruskin Bond

The Tunnel by Ruskin Bond has a special feel of time and place. He has a special knack of bringing a place to life. This story is part of the anthology titled The Young Oxford Book of Train Stories by Dennis Hamley. It is a simple tale about a boy called Ranji, his meeting and friendship with Kishan Singh, the watchman of the tunnel; and his encounters with a leopard.

I will not give the tale away. However what I loved in this story was the description of the Indian countryside that existed a few decades ago with an abundance of the forest, scenic beauty and wildlife. And it is about the two trains that cross the tunnel. There is much more to the story apart from the thundering roar of the trains, the simplicity of rural folks and the curiosity of the young boy. Ruskin Bond has woven a story in a setting that he loves and understands like nobody else.

(Article by Kabita Sonowal)