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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Shutter Island by Dennis Lehane

I am a wannabe nerd. In keeping with this ambition, I watch Jeopardy on a regular basis with an enthusiasm that would only be reserved, for most people, for an exciting sporting event. I am not very good at the game, but there are certain categories that I fair better at than others. On a show last month, the category was “They Turned My Book Into a Movie.” I knew the first four answers (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Spy Who Loved Me, Gone With the Wind, World War Z). The last answer was Shutter Island and Mystic River. I had seen (almost*) both these movies, but no idea that they were adapted from books, let alone who wrote them. A contestant buzzed in and pat came the reply, “Who is Dennis Lehane?” Color me impressed! Shutter Island and Dennis Lehane went on my must-read list.

The novel opens with Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall, who has been sent to Ashecliff Hospital for the criminally insane on Shutter Island, to solve the mystery of a missing patient. Rachel Solando, a patient and murderer, has simply vanished from her room one night. Teddy and his new partner, Chuck, reach the island and meet with the officials. While the authorities support the marshalls in most of their endeavors in solving the mystery, Teddy and Chuck also sense a lot of resistance. Not only is the disappearance of Rachel a little extraordinary, but the hospital itself seems to be teeming with secrets. Moreover, Teddy is fighting his own ghosts. He is still mourning his wife, who died in a building fire. Teddy knows that the man who set fire to the building, Laeddis, is currently at Ashecliff, and Teddy has his own ulterior motives for being on the case.

If there was a ride in Disney World called Testosterone, this book would be read out loud as background music. The novel is chock-full of manliness. That a majority of its characters are men, is obviously one reason, but also because the way these men speak to each other, their jokes, their priorities, their professions – it’s men, manly men. And there’s a lot to love about that. I loved the way the men spoke to one another. Chuck is a delightful side-kick to Teddy, and easily one of my favorite characters in the novel. The camaraderie that the two share is something some of us instantly recognize when we happen to meet someone with whom we just connect. There are parts when Teddy recalls his love for his dead wife, Dolores. And these sections are so poignant, that it makes you want to go love a man (if you like men, that is).

I am not sure, however, about how effective the ending really is (check footnote). The third part of the book started to come apart at the seams a little for me. But, yet, I thoroughly enjoyed this roller coaster, testosterone-y ride.

*Here’s the thing about the movie. I half watched it when it first came out on DVD. The story is right up my alley, but for some reason I ignored most of what was happening on screen and couldn’t recollect it later. This made reading the book much more interesting because although I had an inclination of what the ending was, for the most part, I was ready to pretend like I did not.
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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

One of the diagnostic essays I give my students is to recommend to me their favorite books. While most are books I have already read, or young adult fiction that I might not read, once in a while a student recommends a book that I truly find intriguing. One such example was American Gods that a student talked about very passionately. It had been on my list ever since then, and when a friend liked it as well, I decided to get to it next.

I am not sure how I can convincingly review this book — because reading it was a really strange experience. Every few pages or so, I’d stop and ask myself “What in the damn hell am I reading?” And although I was thoroughly confused at several places, I could not stop reading. American Gods is like Twin Peaks meets Heroes meets Lost*.

The novel starts out simply enough. Shadow, a young man, is in jail and on the verge of being released. The week of his release, Shadow is given the bad news that his wife has died in a car accident. Upon being set free, Shadow takes a flight back home, and on the plane he meets a mysterious and persistent man named Mr. Wednesday who urges him to take up a job as his bodygaurd. With no other future left after the death of his wife, Shadow takes the job and sets off with Wednesday on a trip around America. Shadow’s journey soon takes a turn of epic and mythological proportions. Telling you anything more will just ruin the novel for you — and a smart reader will have guessed a lot from the novel’s title itself.

The novel is a roller coaster ride. There were times when I was rushing through the pages, where I felt like I was in control and knew exactly where the story was going. At other times, I was getting sucked into the story like in quicksand, unsure of what was happening, yet unable to come out. There were times when the book slipped into my dreams, and other times I’d wonder if there were parts of the books that I had dreamed up. I went through quite a few moments of déjà vu when reading the book too.

Here’s the kicker though. After experiencing the book, I’m still not sure whether I can recommend it to you confidently. In fact, I’d only want you to read the book so that, maybe, we can talk about it. I’m not entirely sure this book is a genre that I am comfortable with, however, there were parts of the book that engrossed me. Yet, I am on the fence about its effect on me.

What in the damn hell did I just read?

*I’m giving examples of TV series here because I cannot find book equivalents.
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Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk

ImageI think I tried to read Fight Club almost every other time I went to the bookstore. The book is so short, I thought that eventually I’d be able to finish it. But I never did. This was largely due to the fact that I had seen the movie (several times) and knew that it followed the book pretty closely. But that didn’t mean I shouldn’t read the book. My advisor teaches this book in his undergraduate class, and hearing him talk about the book on many occasions made me want to read the book even more. After finishing the 800-odd paged tome of A Game of Thrones, I was happy to find Fight Club at the local library. I devoured it in two days.

I wish there was a way to go back in time and read the book before watching the movie. Alas, my reading of the book will always be tainted with prior knowledge about how things end. Perhaps, just perhaps, I think I read the novel more closely because I knew what was going to happen. I wasn’t breezing through in a hurry to get to the climax. I enjoyed the strange way in which Palahniuk sets up his story, his characters and their crazy world.

The unnamed narrator is an insomniac who goes to support groups because they make him cry, their problems more real than his, and this helps him sleep. But Marla Singer, who goes to support groups with no real ailment, just like the narrator, bothers him. He can’t frequent the support groups anymore and goes back to his sleepless ways. Thankfully, he meets Tyler Durden on one of his various cross-country trips. Tyler is a rebel in the truest sense of the term, a rule-breaker, an anti-establishment believer. In an attempt to (maybe?) let off steam, the narrator and Tyler get into a fight, which slowly morphs into a club. An underground meeting group for middle-aged, white-collared, frustrated men. There are rules, but they are simple. The narrator doesn’t need his support groups anymore. He moves in with Tyler, and they run their fight club, and for a while everything seems to have fallen into place with the narrator. But then Tyler meets Marla and they begin sleeping with each other, Tyler isn’t satisfied with just fighting, and starts to employ “space monkeys” to carry out “homework assignments” that encourage nihilism and anarchy. The narrator feels drawn farther and farther away from his friend and his world spirals out of control.

Fight Club is a heady read that is hilarious in certain parts. Palahniuk may not have known how the book ends when he started writing it, but his narrative is very confident and forceful. The narrator’s world hangs between a crazy, sleep-deprived fantasy land and a gritty, boring, dry reality. With him, we sway between these two worlds, trying to figure out fiction from fact. The novel makes us question the pointlessness of our own lives, and the lives of everyone around us. Is the narrator you? Or are you the narrator? Is he your best friend? Could you be his? Maybe, just maybe.

Lastly, once you read Palahniuk, you would want to read more of his works. I know I will. I am Jill’s complete sense of amazement.

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Last post for 2013

When 2013 began, I had told myself that I would try to read at least 12 books by the end of the year. That may be a very unambitious number for some, but I am a slow reader, and to me that’s a good goal. I was doing well for the first quarter of the year and then my life got too busy to pay attention to fun reading. I taught more classes than I had ever taught before, and my schedule didn’t spare me any time to read anything other than classwork and essays. Going to bed around 9:30/10:00 pm to wake up at 6:00 am, also meant that I didn’t do my “before sleeping” reading either.

I did read a lot though – just not 12 full-length novels, so I’m prepared to cut myself some slack. I managed to finish reading A Game of ImageThrones that I had started some time in October. Reading the book was an interesting exercise. I have followed the HBO series and there’s very little suspense for me, but the book was quite well written and enjoyable (of course!). Certain characters that I liked in the TV series (Tyrion, Daenerys), I liked more in the books; whereas others I didn’t like in the series (Jon Snow), I appreciated much more in the book. Nothing beats the nuances of a book, and yet, having seen the series and knowing how it all ends, I found myself rushing through certain parts of the book just to get to the juicy bits. While I loved reading most of the storylines in general, the details about wars and strategies were boring for me. I will definitely try to read all the books, but it’ll be a while till I pick book two. I’m just proud that I read something that’s so different from anything else I usually read.

I also read Angel Street (known as Gaslight in UK), a play I had heard about since undergraduate days. While I was more curious about the psychological aspect of the play, i.e. “gaslighting,” the story turned out to be more of a detective-thriller than a close look into the mind-games the villain-husband plays on his hapless wife. Regardless, getting a rare book (from the Houston Public Libraries) was in itself a memorable experience.

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