Monday, November 28, 2011

The Iron Tooth

The latest entrant in the children’s fiction genre, Prithvin Rajendran’s ‘The Iron Tooth’ is a tale of fantasy and adventure set in the fictional land of Goodabaiya. The book begins by narrating the story of a young girl, unmarried and pregnant. She is thrown out of her home and makes a new home for herself at the foothills of the Mala Mountains, where few people dare to live. When she gives birth on a dark stormy night, she has two babies – one human and one troll.
The girl’s story that forms the prologue of the book is then linked to the events in the story at the end. Meanwhile Chapter 1 opens with the story of Dashter, a great and mighty kingdom ruled first by a good king, Dashtum and then by his equally strong but evil son, Darum.
King Darum is hated by his people who repeatedly rebel against his unfair and tyrannical practices. Darum does not really care for the opinion of his people, he is happy to enjoy the luxuries of being the most powerful man in the kingdom.
Princess Nova, Darum’s eldest child, is exactly like her father – arrogant, selfish and rude. When she insults the master magician, Faerum, he curses the entire kingdom of Dastur and imprisons Nova for the rest of her life.
The book then introduces us to the kingdom of Greatix, which is also the home of our protagonist, Princix and his family. Setting out on an adventurous quest for fame and wealth, Princix, who is both kind and brave, wins magical weapons that help him to become the Champion General for the kingdom of Greatix.
Princix’s first duty as Champion General is to find out who has cursed the neighboring kingdom of Dastur and help them lift the curse. To this end he sets out with two other Imperial Guards, Candelbre and Hammil. How Princix fulfills his quest and discovers the all-important iron tooth, (from which the novel gets its title), forms the rest of the story.
The story begins rather slowly, but becomes more readable as it devolves into the customary framework of fairy tales - that is, sending off a hero to a quest, in the course of which he also finds out about an imprisoned Princess and chivalrously decides to rescue her.
Other elements that help create the fairy tale atmosphere include the hero who does not know his own heritage, the sage who foretells the destruction of the kingdom and its resurrection by a stranger, an evil magician who will curse the kingdom, the Princess who will directly or indirectly cause the trouble, brothers who are jealous of their youngest brother who is vastly more successful, grateful strangers giving magical weapons in return for help rendered… all well entrenched examples from popular fairy tales. Rajendran has faithfully followed the fairy tale genre to give us a tale full of the fantastic and displays his own rich imagination and inventiveness in the process.
In the introduction to this, his first book, Rajendran tells us that his influences are the stories of mythical creatures that his mother used to tell him and the action figure toys that his dad bought for him.
The pages naturally are filled with fabulous, mythical creatures. There are vampires, trolls, Medusas, fairies from the Saxeaxs family, an immortal Custodian of the First Light, zombies, ghouls and creatures from the author’s own imagination such as the elite soldiers, the Baks.
I certainly felt that the cast of characters was overcrowded. Some of these mythical beings have very little to do in terms of furthering the plot but on the plus side, no one is going to complain that their favorite fantastic species is not mentioned in the book!
In terms of characterization, some stereotypes are inevitable because of the fairy tale genre, and do not detract from the book. I am surprised though that Rajendran was happy with such a tame portrayal of the Princess. After all, this is the 21st century, where princesses no longer sit around waiting for rescue. Quite often, they are the ones doing the rescue act so to meet someone like Nova who cannot do anything but repent her actions is a bit of an anticlimax for me!
Rajendran uses a medley of languages in the novel – there are brief snatches of various languages including one invented by the author, the language of the Bak. Both old and modern English are used throughout the book. And verse finds a prominent place in the text as well. I sometimes found the variety bewildering but the challenge may appeal to a younger audience.
In terms of plot, there is certainly completeness to the novel. The story gallops from one adventure to another, neatly picking up loose ends along the way so that by the end of the book, everything is neatly tied up. There is loving attention to detail both during the story and after the book, in the appendices which include a chronology, maps, a translation of the Bak language,Nivthrip and more.
‘The Iron Tooth’ is definitely an interesting read and I look forward to seeing how Rajendran’s next book turns out! Thanks to Blogadda for the review copy.
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

Sequels, prophecies ..and socialism 101

Is there a literary trope more tiresome than the prophecy? Just about every fantasy novel I’ve picked up these last few months has been about children variously marked, feared or heralded as ‘The One’ and mysterious strangers swooping in on them to convey them to their destiny. And honestly, shouldn’t ‘The One’ be picked for some reason greater than the accident of birth, or just plain being in a certain place at a certain time (aye, Boy who Lived, that means you.)? Meanwhile, what is it with prophecy-oriented stories and their inability to fit into a single tome, leaving us poor readers scrounging around bookstores and library waiting lists for Books 2 to gazillion? So I should have shied away from ‘The Midnight Charter’ which, apart from concerning itself with not one but two ‘The Ones’ is also clearly only part one of a series, meaning of course that a hundred narrative threads will be left dangling on the last page. As will I, waiting for Book 2.

Then again, when have I ever taken my own advice?

Well, for once that worked out alright since ‘ Midnight ..’ turned out to be a page turner, with a good story ,great pace and the kind of steadily darkening atmosphere that makes you simultaneously cringe and start reading faster . It is set in Agora, a grim medieval city ( imagine a very dark Lyra’s Oxford) that keeps its citizens walled in, where free trade is the reigning-and only- deity. There is no money in Agora, but anything can be bartered – emotions , children, lives (rather fittingly, murder is called ‘life theft'), even a woman’s voice. Children are considered property until they are legally emancipated at twelve, when they are left to fend for themselves, expected to improve their prospects either through marriage or slavery; the slightest hint of disapproval from their masters/ mentors could have them thrown into the streets and deemed unfit for employment. And all the while, the sinister and invisible Dictator does a Big Brother, tracking every move its denizens make.

Half dead from the plague, eleven year old Mark finds himself sold by his own father to Theophilus, the kind doctor tending to them. Nursed back to health by the doctor and Lily, a young orphan and employee of Theophilus’ grandfather, Count Stelli, Mark then begins his apprenticeship with the doctor. But fate has other plans for him; he finds himself being mentored by Stelli, a respected Agoran astrologer while Theophilus and Lily move out into the slums where they unleash a truly subversive weapon in the heart of materialistic Agora – philanthropy.

Mark narrowly escapes public humiliation after he discovers he is nothing more than a pawn in Stelli’s politicking. Rather serendipitously, Stelli’s life is destroyed while Mark inherits his wealth and becomes the toast of Agoran society, where he swiftly learns to be as unscrupulous and manipulative as his old employer. Meanwhile Lily tries to learn more about her mysterious origins even as she struggles to keep the shelter from being shut down .

Tides will turn, of course – it is only a matter of time before Mark falls out of favour with the powers that be, while Lily’s radical notion of giving away property for no reason other than the good of others, catches on and wins her many benefactors. But both children are unaware that they are part of a much larger game, overseen by shadowy figures, and that their fates are linked with that of Agora itself.

‘Midnight..’ does an interesting take on the age old Capitalism vs Socialism debate - Lily and Mark come to represent diametrically opposite points of view , and it is clear that some sort of confrontation lies ahead, even if they are allies at the end of the book. I liked the way Whitley’s characters develop, especially Mark – he goes from confused and scared waif to scheming and manipulative social climber, fuelled mostly by rage at his own abandonment. It is this angst that leads him to forge an unlikely bond with Cherubina, the infantile woman he almost weds in a marriage of convenience, and I would like to see their story evolve in future books in the series.

Rather like Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark materials’ trilogy – though nowhere as dense, pedantic or exhausting - this is a book about the death of ideas – a society based on free trade sounds ideal on paper - a …“ of a city where all are equal..where balance, barter and give and take were woven into its very heart and soul…society where value was judged by every individual and no one could force something out of nothing.” But it is, like all other great ideas, easily corrupted and how Lily and Mark either strengthen or destroy the idea of Agora remains to be seen.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Josephine Tey – Inspector Alan Grant Mysteries

Josephine Tey and Gordon Daviot are both pseudonyms of Elizabeth MacKintosh. She has written 8 mystery novels between the years 1929 to 1952, five of which feature Alan Grant. A quick search on Gutenberg is sure to throw up a fair collection of novels. The first of the Alan Grant mysteries is ‘The Man in the Queue”, which did not really capture my attention. But it created just enough interest for me to pick up the second book, ‘A Shilling for Candles’ and then, I just had to find out what Grant does in the next book!

I suppose I need to mention that Tey’s books are accused of political incorrectness. There are claims that the author’s prejudices are passed on to her characters. To me, so many years removed in time, all that matters is a good mystery and on that count, Tey certainly scores high on my list.

Her detective, Alan Grant, does not astonish à la Sherlock Holmes; he does not have the flamboyance of a Poirot or the elegance of a Peter Wimsey. What he does have is ordinariness and a dogged determination to find the truth. He is an Everyman detective, albeit a clever Everyman.  

Grant is well educated, as seen from his quotes from the classics, he is conscientious and will worry over a case even after he has reached a conclusion that is acceptable to all and perfectly logical. In The Man in the Queue, for example, after arresting the man who he has believed to be the murderer and listening to his story, Grant starts to wonder if he has indeed caught the right suspect. Evidence is never infallible and often Grant persists even when no one else can see the point.

Because he is essentially a kind and fair man, Grant finds devoted hero worship from his nephew and his sergeant, Williams. And that explains Grant’s appeal – he is no awe inspiring superhero – just a nice man trying to do his job and use his powerful position to fight for the cause of justice, succeeding against difficult odds.

In the novel, 'The Daughter of Time', which is Tey’s most famous Alan Grant mystery, Grant finds himself in hospital with a broken leg. He is bored to death and has no patience with the magazines and other trivial pursuits that are commonly provided to hospital patients.

Grant has a strong belief that the face is a true mark of the man. And considers himself an expert in the art of understanding the character through studying the face. As he says,

It was a strange thing how much the meaning of a countenance depended on eyebrows. One change of degree in the angle this way or that and the whole effect was different.”

Knowing his interest, Grant’s friend, Marta Hallard, an actress, brings him some portraits to study. Grant does not recognize these people but the face that attracts his attention is that of Richard III.

Now if you know English history, then you also know that Richard III was king for only two years. He is remembered for the ignoble way he came to the throne. Richard III was supposed to the guardian of his brother’s son, Edward V, who was to be crowned king after his father’s death. Instead Richard III managed to have both of Edward 1V’s sons declared illegitimate and crowned himself as ruler. And the Princes? Why, no one saw them again, leading to speculation that Richard III had murdered them.

But when Grant looks at the portrait of Richard III, he sees not an evil murderer but a man of power, one used to both responsibility and suffering. So why is Grant’s analysis of Richard so different from what history has to say?

With the help of the ever faithful Sergeant Williams and reputed scholars, Grant investigates the true story of Richard III, so many years later, and concludes that this image of a murderer was created mainly as Tudor propaganda (with the help of dramatists like Shakespeare who portrayed the king as a power hungry despot, hunch backed and monstrous in appearance). Grant makes a persuasive case for Richard III as a brave, courageous warrior king by the end of the book.

An enjoyable book just like the rest of Tey’s mysteries.  Interesting and ingenious plots that test Grant and the reader, loving attention to detail and varied settings all written in a pleasant prose make Tey’s novels necessary reading for those of us who like mysteries.

And when you are done reading Alan Grant’s cases, do look for Tey’s other books including ‘Miss Pym Disposes’  and ‘The Franchise Affair’ – both first class mysteries!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mrs. Pollifax mysteries - Dorothy Gilman

A kind reader sent me a list of mystery writers that I hadn’t read. These are old school mysteries and the indescribable charm of these writers, their clever plots and their very appealing characters make reading a totally satisfying experience. Some of these books are available on Gutenberg as well.

Maybe this will turn into a series of posts  – but for now, I am starting with Dorothy Gilman (1923 -) – focusing specifically on her Mrs. Pollifax mysteries –  Gilman has written other general fiction that are vastly different from the Mrs. Pollifax books, so go ahead and explore the rest of Gilman’s repertoire if detective fiction is not your genre.

There are 14 books featuring Mrs. Pollifax and each of them have certain characteristic features – Mrs. Pollifax always sets out on simple jobs which however turn complicated, dangerous and generally end with her barely cheating death and very content with her adventure.  Along the way she discovers reserves of strength she didn’t know she had and meets some outright villains, makes friends with a  vast number of characters, some relevant to her case, some just because Mrs. Pollifax loves people. No wonder her postman is amazed by the letters she gets from exotic locales.

The exotic locale is also a given – Mrs. Pollifax on safari, in Albania (where she wasn’t supposed to be!) or watching the dance of a whirling deverish, in a rest cure in Switzerland, Italy, Turkey… I suppose that in today’s world where travel is so common, these locales are not always exotic any more… but the magic of reading about a different place in each book still exists and Mrs. Pollifax’s  innocent joy at being in a new locale is hard not to share.

In ‘A Palm for Mrs. Pollifax’ she describes herself as “too cushiony”. And that is exactly what she is. Comfortable and reliable, just like your grandma. What makes a grandmother who looks more suited to being part of the garden club run around on missions for the CIA? It turns out that even grandmothers need some excitement in their lives – that the boredom of routine and the aloneness caused by faraway, grown up children and a husband who died over 8 years ago, can be depressing and make Mrs. Pollifax wonder if life is worth living.

In such a scenario, what can Mrs. Pollifax do? She makes a trip to Washington to the CIA building and offers herself as an agent. Through a case of mistaken identity, she is hired and sent on her first assignment which you can read about in The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax. She surprises herself and her superiors with her inventiveness, courage and physical stamina ensuring that she is a regular on the CIA rolls.

So the prize winning geranium gardener and member of the local Save our Environment Club also adds yoga and karate (brown belt) to her repertoire. And Mrs. Pollifax becomes a very successful agent for the CIA. Of course, the bad guys who do not know her like we readers too, generally underestimate her, thinking that there is just a fluffy old lady beneath those fascinating hats (there is always a paragraph devoted to Mrs. Pollifax’a latest hat in each book!). And that is part of Mrs. Pollifax’s charm – she does not act like a professional agent but still gets the job done most efficiently.  

And so through each book, Mrs. Pollifax takes a simple case, apparently uncomplicated, and turns it into a geographical, physical and mental odyssey. As her boss, Carstairs, tells his assistant, Bishop,

“One must be philosophical about Mrs. Pollifax, Bishop. We sent her off to Bulgaria to deliver a few passports to the underground and she proceeded to arrange prison escapes and the arrest of a Bulgarian general. We sent her to Mexico City to bring back microfilmed information and she ended up in Albania.”

Extraordinary, resourceful, funny, unconventional and a very good human being, the adventures of Mrs. Pollifax are a must read for every fan of detective stories. 

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Ring of Solomon - Jonathan Stroud

I confess that I am a big fan of the Bartimaeus series. I read all of them and was unhappy it had to end at book number 3. The magicians in the trilogy are frankly unlikable. And I am not sure I like Nathaniel, the other central character of the Bartimaeus trilogy. I thought he was annoying, too full of himself, childish and a complete idiot most of the time. But Bartimaeus? Well, as Bartimaeus would be the first to say, “What’s not to like?”

Would Bartimaeus be as brilliant without the foil provided by Nathaniel in the trilogy? That was the only concern I had when I picked up Bartimaeus and The Ring of Solomon, a prequel to the trilogy.

Bartimaeus of Uruk is an ancient spirit of ‘great resource’, fourth level djinni, summoned from the Other Place by human magicians. His modesty never prevents him from telling us about the renowned masters he has served and the buildings that are testimony to his architectural and artistic skill. He has many a battle to his credit and has defeated djinni, afrits, madrids and many more powerful beings. If a lot of these victories seem to be sheer luck, it doesn’t matter! As Bartimaeus tells us, “I have a high enough opinion of myself already not to need extra flattery from you.”

It is Jerusalem, 950 B.C.  Solomon rules over his kingdom with an iron hand. He controls a group of elite magicians with his ring of power. Just turning it can conjure up spirits that are both powerful and deadly. The magicians are chafing at being controlled by Solomon, they are a mean spirited, evil and vicious bunch of people, and no one epitomizes this better than Bartimaeus’ master, Khaba.

While on duty, Bartimaeus meets Asmira, who is on a secret mission to assassinate Solomon. Queen Sheba, whom Asmira serves, has decided that Solomon must be destroyed. Is a hereditary royal guard actually equipped to deal with a powerful ring of power, dangerous spirits and wily magicians? Highly unlikely. But when Asmira tricks Khaba and rescues Bartimaeus, she begins an action packed adventure that is managed by Bartimaeus with his customary, insolent élan. She may not succeed but you can bet she is having the time of her life!

Bartimaeus has a unique ability, the ability to get into trouble. He follows the letter of the order given to him (when he absolutely has to) but never the spirit. There is chaos when Bartimaeus is around and the only person having a hearty laugh about it is Bartimaeus himself.

Magic, a dash of mischief, a few misunderstandings and a lot of mayhem best describe Bartimaeus´ working style. When Khaba orders the spirits under his control to build Solomon a great temple, Bartimaeus needs but a few minutes to create total disorder in the ranks. Bartimaeus tells us,

“My work was done. The argument was going nicely: all discipline and focus had vanished, and the magician was a nice shade of purple….

Khaba gave a cry of rage. ‘All of you! Be still.’

But it was far too late. Our line had already disintegrated into a bickering melee of shaking fists and jabbing fingers. Tails whirled, horns flashed in the sun, one or two previously absent claws slyly materialized to reinforce their owners’ points. “

Although Bartimaeus would have you believe that he is a poor, oppressed spirit merely pining for the Other Place, he is having loads of fun misinterpreting orders and driving his masters wild by pointing out how puny, unintelligent and powerless they really are.

Add to this a satirical wit, a wicked sense of humor (at the expense of other spirits and magicians), and a love of adventure (while following orders; of course), and you get a djinni with attitude a mile high! He has you chuckling, laughing out loud and glued to the book – and never bored.

Sadly, the rest of the book is not as entertaining. The chapters that have Asmira on her way to Solomon’s court are, in particular, a bit of a drag but the ending, spectacular and tricky, much like Bartimaeus himself, is outstanding.

And much as I disliked Nathaniel in the trilogy, he was at least doing what he did because he was ambitious and good at heart. Here, Asmira’s enthusiasm comes merely from her belief that she must follow the Queen of Sheba’s orders at all costs. True, you cannot doubt her courage or her bravery, but ultimately she is just a slave like Bartimaeus, a fact he constantly reminds her of.

As is typical of Stroud’s books, there are serious undertones to the book – the corruption caused by power, slavery, the individual versus the role given by society… and you can think about these themes at leisure. But as with the trilogy, this prequel, for me, is firstly about Bartimaeus!

Put on your bookshelf if you haven’t already.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party - Alexander McCall Smith

The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party is the twelfth book in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. And if, like me, you have faithfully bought or borrowed each of the previous books, then you know the strength of the book is in its characters. The creator of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Mma Ramotswe, associate detective, Mma Matutski, apprentice Charlie, master mechanic Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, and the pushy Mma Potokwani are all old friends. The book narrates more life experiences of these familiar faces, ensuring we participate in their happiness and share their surprise at unexpected twists of circumstances.
The plot is typically crowded with stories and events – the big wedding party is Mma Matutski’s, who as Mr J.L.B. Matekoni points out, not unkindly, is ‘at long last’ getting married.  Clovis Anderson’s The Principles of Private Detection, continues to guide Mma Ramotswe in her quest to find answers for her clients. Charlie is in trouble as usual but this time it really looks like he is in over his head. There is even mention of the hated Violet Sephotho who has broadened her ambitions – she is now attempting  to get herself elected as a Member of Parliament. And to add to the practical difficulties of organizing a wedding, solving mysteries and stopping Charlie from making more mistakes, there is an apparently supernatural element introduced with repeated sightings of Mma Ramotswe’s old white van – the same van that was given up as only good enough for the scrap heap.
This is also the mellowest book in the series - there is less sermonizing and fewer criticisms. Even the abrasive  Mma Matutski loses some of her rough edges thanks to her happiness in the soon-to-be wedding. Despite the loud altercation with Charlie at the beginning of the book which indicates a further worsening of the relationship, there are unexpected reconciliations all around.
At least part of it is engineered by Mma Ramotswe who gently reminds Charlie (and indirectly us) of his forgotten self-worth.
“She looked at him. For all his faults - and she had to admit they were manifold – he was a well-meaning young man. And much as he could be frustrating, he could also be amusing and generous and attractive.
‘Don’t change too much,’ she said gently. ‘We like you the way we are, Charlie.’
He stared at her incredulously, and she realised that he might not have heard many people say that. So she repeated herself: ‘We like you, Charlie, you just remember that.’
She looked down. He had clasped his hands together, his fingers interlaced. It was a gesture, she thought, of unequivocal pleasure—pleasure at hearing what all of us wanted to hear at least occasionally: that there was somebody who liked us, whatever our fault, and liked us sufficiently to say so.”
Near the end, the book has mutual apologies by Charlie and Mma Matutski and a hint that things could be smoother in the future. Yet another prickly problem is solved by a drastic change in the behavior of Mma Potokwani towards Mma Matutski. There is a newfound regard because a married woman is, in Mma Potokwani’s eyes, definitely worthy of respect. Typically in character, Mma Potokwani manages to wrangle an invitation to the wedding even when she was not on the original guest list and once she has got what she wanted all along, she uses her outstanding organizational skills to ensure that every aspect of the wedding party is memorable. A high note to end on - with so much more happiness in store for the characters.
This is not the best book in the series, certainly. And much of its richness would be lost if one is not familiar with the books that went before. But there is much to take away, the grace and elegance of Botswana shines through and a profound lesson on how simple kindness and understanding are sometimes all that is needed to make us better human beings.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wounds already there

In Kevin Brockmeier’s new book, as stunning as it is disturbing, the Illumination refers to an inexplicable phenomenon that overtakes the world, where physical pain begins manifesting itself as a brilliant light emanating from the wounds on everyone’s bodies. Overnight, the world is awash in the dreadful beauty of lambent tumours and corroding tissue, luminous ulcers and glimmering schoolyard scrapes.

"The world had changed in the wake of the Illumination", Brockmeier writes. "No one could disguise his pain anymore. You could hardly step out in public without noticing the white blaze of someone’s impacted heel showing through her slingbacks; and over there, hailing a taxi, a woman with shimmering pressure marks where her pants cut into her gut; and behind her, beneath the awning of the flower shop, a man lit all over in the glory of leukemia.

How would a world like this adapt to its newfound incandescence? Some turn voyeurs, rushing to capture the art, the unmistakable beauty in suffering. Hospitals evolve new triage rules; photography gains momentum like never before. For others, like the teenaged ‘cutters’ , self mutilation becomes an expression of angst, the inspiration for a whole new sub culture . “We’re not creating wounds”, a character says after a particularly grisly photo opp. “We’re uncovering the wounds that are already there.” Some see variety in the light around them, and in some, it inspires empathy. But for the most part, people just learn to look away. “You would think “, a character observes, “that taking the pain of very human being and making it so starkly visible – every drunken headache and frayed cuticle, every punctured lung and bowel pocked with cancer – would inspire waves of fellow feeling all over the world, at least ripples of pity…”.

Brockmeier gives us a world ripe with potential, a scenario that surely demands examination. Yet he prefers to breeze by this aspect of his tale, choosing instead to focus on individual stories. So we follow the trajectory of a journal through the lives of six unconnected people as they struggle to cope with their pain. The journal is a compilation of love notes written by a man to his wife. I love watching you sit at your desk, it reads. I love your gray coat with the circles like cloud covered suns. I love how easily you cry when you are happy. I love your many doomed attempts to give up caffeine. I love the way you shake your head when you yawn. I love the way chocolate makes your eyes light up.

It is a litany of endearments made all the more poignant by her untimely death, and it touches each of these six lives in different ways. For data analyst Carol Ann, whose life “seemed like one long litany of wounds”, it is the salve that helps her move on from a painful marriage and divorce. For Jason Williford, author of those notes, it is his one connection to the love he has lost, until his pain becomes his diversion and, ultimately, his salvation. Ten year old Chuck Carter, victim of bullying at home and in school, can see the pain in inanimate objects as well, and the journal’s radiant pages spur him to become its protector. For writer Nina Poggione, literally wounded by her words as she endures oral ulcers through successive book readings, the journal inspires a parable that leads her toward love and healing, however fleeting. And for used book peddler Morse Strawbridge, “..fascinated, yet vexed by the book”, the journal is a comforting presence, his sole companion in a momentary respite from his impoverished life. “Between each sentence, it seemed, there was a gap, a chasm, a whitening away of meaning. He did not understand how something so sweet, so earnest and candid, could also be so wayward and enigmatic. He kept expecting to return to the book and discover that it had pondered all his questions while he was gone and then fortified itself with the answers.

In a world lit up by suffering, evangelist Ryan Shifrin is an anomaly – a man untouched by the Illumination, seemingly immune to disease and disaster. Bound to his vocation not by faith but the burden of obligation, his life is spent questioning God’s intent. Is the Illumination a sign of His love , in which case, he himself has been left bereft? Or is it a sign that His love is decorative, a particularly arduous test of faith? The journal resonates with a simple love he can never hope to feel, that he has, in fact, deprived himself of, and that he can only yearn for in “..a Heaven of starting over, a Heaven of trying again” .

The Illumination’ traverses terrain familiar to readers of Brockmeier’s earlier work – alienation, silent heartbreak, grief. This is also a book about the fleeting connections we make , or miss, the ephemeral encounters that leave one’s life forever changed. It is one of those books that you will either love or hate unconditionally, the kind that will work its way under your skin and into a stubborn corner of your head and stay there. There are times when Brockmeier’s chronicle of suffering feels like a dark reflection of Jason’s words, an unrelenting chronicle of damage and disfigurement – severed thumbs, mouth ulcers, the aurora of a million ruined hearts, livers and kidneys. His characters are offered little respite and certainly no redemption. The section on Jason Williford is especially hard to read, as we watch him apprentice himself to a teenaged cutter, learning how to release his grief in the incandescence of his pain.

And yet, for all its bleakness, it is hard to remain unmoved by this book’s raw and tragic beauty or Brockmeier’s considerable skills as a storyteller.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Race, rage, redemption - and pirates

Take One Candle Light a Room

by Susan Straight

Pantheon Books

“You a lie!” someone yells in the opening chapters of this powerful book about family ties, the notion of home and one woman’s search for redemption . And in many ways, Fantine Antoine, successful travel writer and narrator of this book, does feel like one. Secretive about her origins, camouflaged by a skin tone that confuses most people about her racial lineage, she makes her home among strangers, distancing herself from her roots with education and a lifestyle her family can neither comprehend nor appreciate.

For Fantine's family is bound by ties far stronger than blood – they are brought together by the shared trauma of rape, decades of racial prejudice and violence, and the insularity that comes from being unable to trust anyone outside of their tribe. But though to outward glance she has walked away from it all, she still wears the scars of her heritage close, in her inability to commit to relationships, in the distance she must necessarily keep even from those closest to her.

All this changes, however, when her godson, the academically gifted Victor – and the one family member who seems to be following in her footsteps - becomes involved in a random act of gang violence. As she races against time to reach him and save him from the dark future that claims so many young black men of his generation, Fantine finds herself reconnecting with her estranged family and confronting, at last, the memories and dark secrets she has tried to leave behind. After years of being ‘invisible’ in her neutral complexion, carefully chosen clothes and the privileges her job offers, Fantine discovers, as she drives across America with her father, the reality of being black , when even an act as innocent as driving at night comes fraught with danger. “You just a nigger,”, her father says, a man who has survived great violence and meted out his version of it. “You not a writer. You with me.You tite souri (mouse). For them.” And sure enough, despite her laptop and vocabulary, she is mistaken for a prostitute (“a low-rent Halle Berry”) by a passing white couple and duly propositioned.

As a writer Straight is known for her extraordinary ear for dialogue, and ‘Take One Candle..’ moves effortlessly between patois , street jargon and Fantine’s articulate, writerly voice. ( ‘You made me fall in love,’ a professor tells her, after reading her work. ) Through the anguished inner voice of her protagonist, and the stories of the resilient men and women who came before her, Straight does even more. In an essay I read a while ago,about Haitians who dared raise their voice against political oppression, writer Edwidge Danticat defines ‘ guapa’ - the ‘courageous beauty’ she sees in the actions of these artists, writers and activists. With ‘Take One Candle..’ Straight gives us a glimpse of hers, returning to issues she has so eloquently examined in her earlier books – race; prejudice; the burden of painful cultural memory and its crippling effects across generations; the weight of love, often as damaging as it is redemptive.

At the heart of this book is the relationship Fantine shares with Victor - complex, fraught with tension, laced as much with a frail resentment as it is affection. In many ways, it springs to life only when she realizes she may lose him. Until the moment this happens, you can sense a diffidence on her part to bridge the gap she keeps between them, and his own pained , but silent acceptance of it. She brings him gifts, expensive mementos from the places she visits, yet is unable to offer him shelter the one night he needs it the most. For, much as he is like her, Victor is still a painful reminder of the past for Fantine – his doomed mother was once her best friend, the secrets of his parents’ death her unshed burden. Growing up, Victor has survived abuse and severe deprivation, scraping by only because of the largesse of the clan. Fantine, black sheep of this family, has rarely stepped in to help him; yet, she notes, as much with pride as regret, she seems to be the person he wants most to emulate. “People like us were not meant to measure success in the same way our families did,” Fantine observes. "We were failures to them.. And now Victor wanted… to be me.” But what they do have in common is a love of words, and it is this love that forges the tenuous bond that keeps Fantine on Victor’s tracks as he hurtles across America towards his doom, with little more than his cellphone in hand.

Fantine does eventually catch up with Victor, only to lose him again when he inexplicably starts behaving like the boys he has been trying to escape till now, and sets out on a hair brained treasure hunt of his own. Given how gripping the story has been till this point, and how drawn I was into Fantine's world, Victor's volte face made no sense whatsoever to me. It also alters the trajectory of the plot , taut and grounded until now, to embrace, in one great swoop, pirate yarns, flood waters (dame Katrina herself) death defying rescues, romance, ghosts , even the odd miracle.

Yet stick with Fantine - and Straight - as they negotiate this strange terrain , for a finale as satisfying as it is cinematic.