Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life 

The past month or so was spent in starting and giving up on some books and doing some quick readings like a book of short stories by Indian writers (neither great nor bad) and a Marathi book. After cleansing my palate, so to speak, I picked up the voluminous Kate Atkinson novel Life After Life.

As the verses unfold and your soul suffers the long day,
and the twelve o’clock gloom spins the room,
you struggle on your way.
Well, don’t you sigh, don’t you cry,
lick the dust from your eye.

- “Life is a Long Song” Jethro Tull

Atkinson begins with one of my most favorite  Nietzsche quotes about a demon who sneaks up to you and tells you that this life is the one you’ll have over and over again, a countless number of times. If so, would you rejoice? Or would you be hopelessly defeated? Ursula Todd, Atkinson’s lovable protagonist, is thusly blessed (or cursed). Ursula is born on 11 February 1910 and dies at various times of her life, ranging from being a still-born to suicide. Every time she dies, she is born again, and again. Unfortunately, she is born at a time when she has to go through one great duress after another – the flu pandemic of 1918, the two World Wars, the London Blitz, to name a few. But the little Ursula, who outlives some of these threats to her life, lives on and becomes a woman who doesn’t ever have a particularly easy life, and yet manages to be a heroic central character.

The first few chapters of the book, when the reader is just getting used to Ursula’s life and death cycle, are quite harrowing. We want her to live. We want her to experience life. And then when she does, Atkinson always keeps Ursula at the edge of a calamity, dangling death near her at every opportunity. There are times when Ursula’s death comes as a relief. By now, we know she’s going to come back.

The first quarter of the book, however, is as much about Ursula’s mother, Sylvie – a wonderful character on her own and worthy of her own book. As Ursula grows up, Sylvie is moved to the margins, often becoming more despondent and petulant. In fact, other than the drastic change in Sylvie’s character, most of Atkinson’s other characters are extremely well etched and likeable (even in their weirdness – like Maurice). The Todd family is exceptionally sweet, making you wish you could go over to Fox Corner one evening and have tea and cake with them. It is this creation of a lovely family that makes Ursula’s repetitive life an enjoyable read.

Atkinson is a very gifted writer. The novel is ambitious in its scope and, other than a particularly long section about the war towards the end, the novel is very entertaining. The author had me crying and laughing in a matter of pages. The Tarantino-esqe fantasy element, fortunately, is not a major episode in the book. Fantastically unbelievable, and unbelievably good – I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat.

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Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Before I settled on this WordPress blog, I had a Blogspot and then because of its community feel, a LiveJournal. It was somewhere around my time on LiveJournal, the mid-00’s, that I heard, from practically everyone, about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. There were nothing but rave reviews, and the book became a much talked about thing for a few months and then, like a fashion trend, disappeared. I didn’t read the book then, but the hoopla around it helped stick the name in my mind (not that it’s a name one may easily forget), and so I happened to read it, last week, after so many years.

Curious Incident is about Christopher Boone, a 15-year old math whiz, who has some behavioral difficulties and lacks interpersonal skills. While the writer doesn’t specify Christopher’s condition, one may guess he has some form of autism. When Christopher finds out that the neighbor’s dog has been killed with a garden fork, and gets temporarily accused of killing him, he takes it upon himself to solve the case of the murdered dog. What begins as a simple murder mystery, however, takes Christopher on a roller-coaster ride where he finds out much more than he imagined he would.

While my book cover talked about Haddon winning a children’s fiction prize, I am not sure if I read the version for children or for adults. The content of the book seemed much too grown-up for being a children’s book. Christopher’s autistic needs and demands are a serious look into the lives of these children, their teachers, and their parents. It is not, by any means, easy to deal with and Haddon cuts no corners trying to depict that. That all of this is narrated by Christopher himself, helps give you a clear perspective into an autistic mind, increasing your sympathy for him.

And yet, there was something off about the book, for me. Perhaps this is a book that may be better enjoyed by a younger mind. Maybe I am too old and brazen for the innocence and childlike-ness of the book. I enjoyed Christopher’s sudden segues into puzzles, trivia, and little lectures on things he finds interesting. The story itself, I didn’t care for much. The narrative, with its incessant “And then”s made me palpitate a little. I am not good with anything repetitive, especially if that repetition lasts for 270-some pages. On the plus side, the book was a quick read and I don’t see why anyone should not read it.

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Steve Martin’s Shopgirl

There’s one kind of person that I like and admire – someone who can do multiple things. Sure, you can be really good at this one thing you do, and that deserves respect; but if you are good at a lot of things, you have an instant fan in me. Actor, comedian, musician, writer Steve Martin is, by that rule, really easy to like. While I was familiar with his first three abilities, I wasn’t quite aware that Martin wrote fiction as well. The author’s name and the brevity of the book piqued my interest.

Shopgirl is about Mirabelle, a glove saleswoman at Neiman Marcus. Like her quaint occupation, Mirabelle is an oddity in the artificial, glamorous, and superficial world of Los Angeles. Mirabelle is psychologically fragile and deeply lonely. She lives away from her family in a dead end job, is unable to make friends, and is not good at playing the dating game. In the midst of all this, Mirabelle is dependent on mood elevating drugs that help her stay away from a suicidal depression.

As likely as it may be in a plastic-ky, sterile universe like this, Mirabelle finds herself as the object of affection of two completely disparate men. Ray Porter, a millionnaire twice her age and Jeremy, a deadbeat guy her age who “stencils logos on amplifiers for a living.” What is similar about both these men is that they are both more self-absorbed than interested in properly pursuing Mirabelle. Will Mirabelle find a fairy-tale ending to her story? Will she fall in love with a man who loves her equally? Martin spins a short yarn with a very unlikely protagonist at its center.

Martin’s language is poignantly beautiful. While the story itself is nothing special or different, his characters are unique and easy to empathize with. The beauty of Martin’s novella lies in his very pointed view of the world. His metaphors and analogies are certainly male and modern, which makes his writing crisp and refreshing. For a man whose main profession is to recite lines written by someone else, Martin does quite well to pour his imagination onto the paper. I’d recommend you spend a day (or a few hours, if you are a fast reader) and read Shopgirl.

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Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore

There are certain times of the year when Haruki Murakami is the only writer that I want to read. Since I have only read three books by him, and there are many unread ones left, I have a lot to select from. I picked up Kafka on the Shore sometime in March, but I just came around to reading it, and there was a point in the book where I came close to giving up on it. But I didn’t… Yay, me!

Kafka on the Shore is about Kafka Tamura, a fifteen year old troubled teen, who runs away from home in search of his estranged mother and sister. Kafka hasn’t ever received any affection from his father, and although he feels abandoned by his mother, he still wants to look for her and rekindle a relationship that he hopes will make his life feel worthwhile. To cope with his troubles, Kafka often breaks himself into an alternate personality, a boy called Crow, who helps him communicate clearly in difficult times.

Simultaneously, there’s Nakata, an aging, simple man, who lost his ability to read, write, or be “normal” after an accident during the second World War. Nakata can talk to cats, however, and makes a living finding lost cats. While the only thing that Nakata and Kafka have in common is the area in which they live, a murder of a common enemy ties the fate of the two forever.

While the magical realism of Kafka is quite enjoyable and typical of a Murakami book, there was just something off about this novel. I liked the character of Nakata and Oshima a lot, and they were the reasons I kept reading the book. Usually, though, I am fond of every Murakami character (he just manages to do that!). Kafka was a weak protagonist. But this might be deliberate because he is only fifteen. There isn’t enough background about his prior relationships to support the urgency in his run away from home. It seems awkward and too simple for a fifteen year old to just up and go, and survive without any major difficulty.

Long-winded, complex, and deeply philosophical conversations between characters are the high point of Murakami’s books. There were several here (sometimes between humans and cats, too!); but many felt stilted, and I read over them to get to the meaty, narrative parts. The Oedipal angle also seemed forced, but it’s one of my favorite stories, so I am ready to give that one a pass.

The middle of the novel is its best part. The beginning takes too long to take off, and the ending doesn’t come soon enough – but the middle is just right. I wish I had better things to say about the book, but for me, it was just about a meh. I also have a minor gripe about the translator’s overuse of the contraction of is as ‘s. Once I started noticing that, I couldn’t stop. Have any of you read Kafka? Please tell me your thoughts on the book.

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Blurring the “shadow lines” between reader and author

Personally, I am reluctant to meet someone famed or with a celebrity status because I am afraid of being disappointed. Authors’ celebrity status is in a rather grey zone. They are much loved and appreciated, but they are also often out of the limelight. They hide inside of book jackets and disguise themselves with their words. And I’ve expressed before how it’s best for a reader to separate the author from their personal lives and let their works do the talking. But with Amitav Ghosh I was ready to ignore that rule. He was my foray into literature and I have grown mature as a reader with his books. I’ve expressed my love for his writing before, and when I heard that he would be talking at the Asia Society Texas Center, I jumped at the opportunity.

Mr. Ghosh’s talk, on the growth of opium trade between India and China in the 18th and 19th century, was informative, fascinating, and funny. His eye for detail and his expansive knowledge about the history of that time was so awe inspiring. In those 30-odd minutes, he didn’t just give a talk, he taught. In a situation like this, it is hard not to be transformed into an eager student. The lecture actually helped make sense of the first two books of the Ibis Trilogy. While I have yet to finish reading River of Smoke, I am tempted to start with Sea of Poppies all over again.

After the lecture, there was a book signing. With a thumping heart, I approached Mr. Ghosh and showed him my ancient copy of The Shadow Lines. “First edition!” he exclaimed. It had an embarrassing cover from ages ago that I didn’t take off. I showed him my notes from the back of the book and told him how much the book meant to me, and my journey as a student of literature. He was warm, gracious, and genuinely listened to me. I can only imagine what a chore these book-signings must be. Mr. Ghosh did not make it seem that way. Most importantly, I feel like he actually understood why that old book meant so much to me and was just as fascinated by what I had to say.

My copy of The Shadow Lines has always been valuable; now, it’s priceless:



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Doubt and Closer

Ever since I saw the 2004 film Closer and found out it was based on a play, I had wanted Doubt A Parable JP Shanley to read the original work. Now that I have pushed myself to request more books from the Houston Public Libraries, I am making it a point to order plays like this that are generally not seen in bookstores. I went ahead and also requested Doubt, another play that was made into a critically acclaimed 2008 film. Smart move, me!

Patrik Marber’s Closer met every expectation I had of it. Although having seen the movie adaptation before can be a bit of a dampener because you see the actors uttering the dialogs in your head. But Marber’s words and world pervade that barrier and allow you to imagine these characters for yourself. Made up of four characters only, the play is about love and lust in contemporary society. Dan, Alice, Anna, and Larry meet each other at various times over the span of four years, and although they have ample opportunity to create a life with each other, manage to lose the love they have. Marber, with his witty, tongue-in-cheek, and heartbreaking words, portrays these hapless characters that we feel anger and sympathy for simultaneously. All four characters are equally messed up, yet, you might find one that you identify with the most.

Doubt, by John Patrick Shanley, has four characters too. But unlike Closer, Doubt is driven by the performance of the characters rather than the dialog itself. That’s not to say that the play is less intelligently written, but it is definitely an actor’s play that is better seen than read. Set in a Catholic school in the 60s, the holy and virtuous world of Doubt could not be more different than the lust-filled, hedonistic world of Closer. And still, both plays deal masterfully with the weaknesses of the human mind and body. Both plays show in their own deft ways, how deeply we as humans are capable of hurting and destroying one another.

While I would always recommend reading the original text, but both movie adaptations are also worth your while.

As a closing note, here’s one of the best author bios I have ever read. I think I just fell in love with Shanley.



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Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves

I came across the mention of House of Leaves in several of the horror fiction discussions on Reddit. Ever the one in search of a good spook, I had put the book on my list forever, but I was also a little hesitant. The people who talked about it hinted at how dense and complex it was. I just wanted a fun read, not a challenge. But curiosity got the better of me and I ordered the book online (1).

The novel begins as normally as normal can in this case. Johnny Truant, an unstable young man who works at a tattoo parlor, finds a manuscript with the help of his friend Lude. The old man working on the manuscript, Zampanò, is now dead, but has left all his research for a book he calls House of Leaves. Johnny becomes obsessed with this research manuscript and its story, which is based on a short film called The Navidson Record (a film Johnny never manages to find). As Johnny starts working on the manuscript, we get a look into the short film and the lives of the people in it. Will Navidson is a Pulitzer Prize winning photographer who has now decided to retire to a remote house in the countryside with his partner Karen and their two children. The move is intended on bringing the couple closer, who Karen feels is drifting apart because of Will’s demanding occupation.

The house works well to do this in the first few weeks that the Navidsons move there. But when they return from a vacation, a mysterious doorway appears in one of the hallways. Will begins to look into this and finds out that somehow the internal measurements of the house are just a little bit larger than the external measurements. Soon, another door appears that should technically lead into the backyard, but instead opens to a black, icy abyss, and over time, the house steadily grows on the inside. All of these discoveries are recorded either by Will’s handheld camera or the Hi-8s set up by Will around the house.

And while this part of the narrative works (and is beautifully written), it gets broken up by minimal footnotes by Zampanò and extensive footnotes by Johnny. Johnny’s footnotes sometimes extend into their own narratives, which is distracting, but an integral part of what Danielewski is trying to stylistically achieve. The faux-research style story is written with so much (fake) research that can be frustrating, but is also equally awe-inducing.

Danielewski’s typographical style reminded me quite a bit of e.e. cummings’s emphasis on playing with visual patterns within a text. Danielewski is very successful, and for me, this stylistic attempt was not just a show, but rather effective in creating an atmosphere.

While it is easy to categorize a book like this in the horror genre, but that would be unfair. House of Leaves is more than that, and it doesn’t scare so much as it unsettles you. Read the book, and then dare to walk into a closet without feeling a slight chill down your spine.

 (1)My reading journey this year has been quite testosterone filled. I have read only male authors since December 2013, and after Danielewski, I plan to take a bit of a break and move toward some woman-ly fiction.
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