Ahad, 13 Oktober 2013

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

The Lowland


SHORTLISTED for the Man Booker Prize 2013, Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland is a multi-generational tale that tells of two brothers and what follows after the death of one.

Subhash, the older of the two, is the reserved, dutiful son – the opposite of the impressionable, adventurous Udayan. Yet the brothers grow up as part of a close-knit family in Tollygunge, Calcutta, during the tumultuous era following India's independence.

Then comes news of the Naxalbari incident in 1967 (police opened fire on a group of villagers demanding their right to farm a particular piece of land). The idealistic Udayan becomes a Communist Party supporter while Subhash, who wants no part in his brother's politics, eventually moves to the United States and becomes a scientist there.

The elder sibling receives updates from home on occasion. A picture arrives in the mail one day, that of his sister-in-law Gauri. Not too long after that, news of Udayan's death follows; the lowland near the family home is where he hid in vain from his fate.

Subhash returns home to Tollygunge for the funeral and learns that his brother was killed because of his involvement with the Naxalites. But was it his attraction to Gauri or the duty to his late brother's unborn child that drove him to marry his sister-in-law and take her to the United States?

Of course the union is ill-fated, otherwise this would be a very short book. In America, Gauri eventually abandons Subhash and her young daughter Bela. But, as they say, life goes on. And it really goes on and on....

This book is probably not a good introduction to Ms Lahiri's body of work, which includes two short-story collections praised by a colleague and numerous others. I wanted to enjoy this book but couldn't.

Earlier, I'd read a novel about displaced characters and felt comfortable with it, probably because they were created by a fellow countryman and, therefore, felt familiar and more relatable.

Lahiri's vivid depiction of the life of Bengalis in India and the United States is greatly helped by what she and her family had witnessed and been a part of – and is an exemplary showcase of her writing talent.

But I feel her kind of polished, flourish- and gimmick-free prose is better sampled in small doses. This is not a novel you'd want to relax with.

And, for me, Tollygunge is too far away in terms of history and geography – except perhaps for the Communist violence. Closer to home are the struggles of one who has to pick up the pieces after a loved one's untimely demise. Nearly all the main characters seem be struggling to fill the void carved out by the death of Gauri's husband.

The slow decline and passing of her parents-in-law is particularly poignant, a powerful admonishment to children who embark upon violent careers that might work for places such as India, where Naxalite insurgents are still active.

Most notable is Gauri who tries just about everything but can't seem to patch that Udayan-shaped hole. Her attempts to do so, culminating in her ditching Subhash and Bela, is responsible for dragging the melancholy across two generations and over 200 pages.

For me, the book's atmosphere finally lifted when, after a grown-up Bela tells a suitor about her past and why she can't be with someone, the dude says, "I'm not going anywhere".

A strong art-house-film vibe comes off this book, and it might find a second wind in the form of a silver screen adaptation (hello, Mira Nair!). The way The Lowland drags on, though, begs me to concur with another critic (I forget who) who wondered if Lahiri is only good at short stories. That would be unfortunate, considering her way with words.

The Accursed


LET me get straight to the point: Joyce Carol Oates's The Accursed is not an easy novel to read.

The good: labelled as a Gothic/horror work of historical fiction, the novel perfectly captures the ideals, values and personalities of turn of the century Princeton, New Jersey, the United States, and contains chilling murders, a bride's abduction by a demon bridegroom, sinister secrets, and ghostly apparitions.

The not so good: the almost 700-page novel definitely takes its time in getting to these juicy bits, weighing itself down with pages of side stories, lectures and historical notes that seem mostly tangential to the main plot. The book also has tons and tons of characters, with the closest thing to a hero vanishing three quarters of the way in.

Clearly not a novel for novice readers.

The 76-year-old Oates is renowned as one of America's master storytellers: she is the author of many critically acclaimed novels such as Bellefleur, We Were The Mulvaneys, The Tattooed Girl, and The Gravedigger's Daughter, among others. She is also the recipient of the US National Medal of Humanities, the US National Book Critics Circle Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, among many other accolades.

Her latest novel, The Accursed, is presented as an account of mysterious events that take place among the elite families of Princeton from 1904 to 1906, compiled from historical documents by one M.W. van Dyck II, a descendant of one of the families affected. Visions and dreams haunt the innocent, and the most unexpected people start committing the most heinous of deeds.

The novel is populated by both fictional and historical characters, all with their own agendas. Princeton University president (and future US president) Woodrow Wilson frets over his legacy at the university and a mysterious woman he encounters. Upstart (and real) author Upton Sinclair fears for the future of the Socialist movement.

Brave salt-of-the-earth lad Josiah Slade goes on a quest to rescue his sister Annabel, kidnapped by the demon bridegroom, while his companion, the spunky Wilhelmina Burr, pines for him. Meanwhile, Josiah's grandfather, the esteemed preacher Winslow Slade, reveals secrets that threaten the fate of the town.

The Accursed is presented in epistolary format, with the story told in the form of narratives, journal extracts, letters, and so forth (think Bram Stoker's Dracula). This style is admittedly not always easy to get through.

Oates cleverly blends her novel's supernatural themes with social commentary on the prejudices, misogyny and hypocrisies of the era. Issues such as women's suffrage, lynchings of blacks in the American South, and religious problems of evil are all explored in great detail: sometimes too much detail, in fact.

Oates' writing is crisp, with some of her passages positively lyrical, and her research faultless: She brings Princeton to life with wondrous vigour. Her characters are generally well-drawn – though The Accursed is also populated with many unreliable narrators, which adds creepy layers to its already formidable plot.

The novel has some terrific scenes. The Bog Kingdom (where Annabel Slade is taken to and which she relates is an underground realm populated by nightmare creatures) is absorbing and chillingly atmospheric, while "The Temptation of Woodrow Wilson" is a suspenseful account of the titular character's experience with an amoral supernatural messenger. In one chapter, a minor character is revealed to be a bloodsucking creature of the night; in another a character tries to murder a baby: these supernatural scenes are very well-written, and were my favourite parts of the novel.

Unfortunately, with the book's slow pace and propensity to ramble, getting to these parts occasionally felt like a taxing marathon. I am not against long books; however, I felt that a lot of the stuff in the novel, particularly extraneous detail about the private lives of Princeton residents, could have been edited out without any major impact.

A major sideplot revolved around authors Sinclair and Jack London (both real people) and the rise of the socialist movement. While the chapter was memorable, their story felt disconnected, and went on for too long: occasionally when reading, I had to double-check my book cover to make sure the novel hadn't suddenly morphed into A Brief History Of Socialism.

Also difficult to read were chapters of excerpts from the diary of Adelaide Burr, a victim of the curse, written in a rambling, stream-of-consciousness style, to say nothing of the final and highly crucial Epilogue, which was TWENTY PAGES WRITTEN COMPLETELY IN ALL CAPITALS. Those chapters made me question if I was being paid enough to review books like this!

I also did not like the book's climax, where the fate of Princeton is determined through a game between a boy and the closest thing to the novel's villain. I personally thought it felt out of place, anticlimactic and overly bizarre.

Overall, a highly divisive read. Those looking for a straightforward horror story will probably not become fans, while fans of postmodern and unconventional historical fiction will most likely adore it. While I personally think The Accursed is not really my style, I must admit there were enough interesting parts in it to keep me generally invested through the arduous read.

A challenging but somewhat rewarding novel for those with perseverance.

Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope For A Future On Earth


A provocative journalist and wonderful writer gives us a book with a message so compelling that it will change the way we see the future.

WHAT if we suddenly vanish? How would nature cope with a lack of human beings?

Insects would take over our houses, which would rot beyond use, snow would pile up high or sheets of ice will form, as if we were back in an Ice Age....These frightening predictions are explained in great detail in A World Without Us, a bestselling book written by Alan Weisman, a journalist whose face is weathered by his fears for Mother Earth.

But that is the author's old introspect. His new theory, as presented in his latest book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope For A Future On Earth, is the other side of the coin but equally haunting.

Travelling to more than 20 countries in over two years, Weisman sought answers to one question: What would the world be like if there are too many of us and too little of everything else – water, air, food?

The answers he discovers conjure up frightening scenarios that demand immediate attention, input and solutions from ecologists, hydrologists, geographers, and agronomists, not just the usual cast of engineers, economists and politicians. And now we, as laymen, can very well answer that question ourselves by following Weisman on his eye-opening journey.

The first stop, interestingly enough, is the holy land of Jerusalem. Immediately, the Ultra-Orthodox Jewish procreative tactic of "outbirthing" the Palestinians becomes anything but inspiring. Though Palestinians hope to boast double-digit population growth like their Israeli counterparts, they can't. Their dwellings are walled and they are squished and squashed, making mobility an impossibility. What a sad chapter to begin this book with – yet I was hooked, nevertheless.

That chapter unveils a weary Earth and a first glimpse into Weisman's thorn: population. Weisman believes either we manage the duplication of ourselves voluntarily or nature will do it for us brutally in the form of famine, thirst, climate chaos, crashing ecosystems, opportunistic diseases, and wars over dwindling resources.

This meta crisis, whose urgency trumps all economic, political, cultural and religious differences, is frighteningly real. Weisman trudged down into the valleys only to see dried up orchards and cracked river beds; into the forests where the existence of even the most trivial species, butterflies, is important to human existence; and into the slums of Mumbai – a microscopic version of a world reaching 10 billion in population. And what he saw is a world bursting at its seams. Hunger, deprivation, pollution, destitution, prostitution, abuse ... the list of woes goes on. Name anything that portends disaster, and you'll find it here in this book, and the culprits are you and I, us, humankind.

Wait. This book is good not because of the endless problems it forces our eyes to confront. As the mega crisis tramps across borders and gyrates around religions, politics, economics, science and culture, it is necessary that we understand all of these factors to help answer the question Weisman asks.

Although journalists rarely claim depth in any field, as they are trained to ask common sense questions and translate answers for laymen to understand, Weisman is an extraordinary journalist in his presentation of these various ruinous aspects of a ruined world.

Without sounding at all polemic, he maps the intricacies between these aspects. Whether it is liturgies, histories, feminism, nationalities, tribes, beliefs and finance, Weisman sheds light like a storyteller armed with boundless knowledge and blessed with a voice profoundly enlightening and moving. He makes Ponzi finance, for example, as easy as ABC, and his recounting of Iran's convoluted history, from Shah to Ahmadinejad, is awe-inspiring.

The book is designed to be readable despite its rather haunting subject. Like the catchy lyrics of a chart-topping pop song that linger in your head incessantly, Weisman's words resound in your ear, making his book nearly impossible to put down.

Wielding simple yet stylish prose, Weisman is a master of description. He describes, for instance, on one page that Yoshio Takeya, a young Japanese man who opts for a reclusive life far away from the city, has bowl-cut hair plastered on his forehead. Just as quickly as the image of Takeya is conjured up, a picture of him appears on the next page. The two images are confluent to near perfection.

And how poignantly beautiful Iran becomes when seen through Weisman's eyes and described by his words, and how melancholically alluring is Dharavi, the world's biggest slum in India, when it is not stereotyped as a dumpsite, as most writers would describe it.

Weisman's charisma emanates from the pages, intoxicating and engaging.

Never mind that the burgeoning effects of our cumulative presence is wreaking havoc on our precious planet. We are still blessed with a provocative journalist and wonderful writer of a marvellous book whose message is so compelling that it will change the way we see our existence and our future.

"What future will be there for our kids?" I ask myself.

"A bleak one," I answer.

Kredit: www.thestar.com.my

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