Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dirty Little Angels, by Chris Tusa

Release date: March 2009

From the author:
Set in the slums of New Orleans, among clusters of crack houses and abandoned buildings, Dirty Little Angels is the story of sixteen year old Hailey Trosclair. When the Trosclair family suffers a string of financial hardships and a miscarriage, Hailey finds herself looking to God to save her family. When her prayers go unanswered, Hailey puts her faith in Moses Watkins, a failed preacher and ex-con. Fascinated by Moses's lopsided view of religion, Hailey, and her brother Cyrus, begin spending time down at an abandoned bank that Moses plans to convert into a drive-through church. Gradually, though, Moses's twisted religious beliefs become increasingly more violent, and Hailey and Cyrus soon find themselves trapped in a world of danger and fear from which there may be no escape.

I had to read this book over twice, to resolve how I felt about it. It's a dark book, replete with violence, that I wouldn''t recommend for everyone, but it is a book one must appreciate for its gritty and unflinching portrayal of life in extremely harsh surroundings,amidst poverty, drugs and crime. The narrator, sixteen year old Hailey Trosclair struggles to resolve her conflicting feelings about God, her parents and her best friend's boyfriend. A meeting with the charismatic but sinister Moses begins a chain of events for Hailey and her brother that lead to shocking consequences. And as she increasingly realizes that God may not be listening, she decides to help herself and her family the best way she can.

The book has some great characters - each flawed, far from wholesome,yet humane. Hailey's parents squabble and neglect her, yet willingly set their issues aside for her sake. Moses, before he reveals the violence he is capable of, is seen as a doting son and father. And Hailey's brother Cyrus, even as he plunders graveyards for statues, remembers to steal some flowers for his mother.

I especially liked the character of Hailey, a confused teen struggling with thoughts '
crawling around like roaches in her head'. She is gutsy and smart, with a head for facts, yet capable of some really bad choices. She just may have the intelligence to get to college and make a life for herself. She displays a compassionate streak, as when she goes to confront the husband of the woman her father is involved with, only to find him near death. Most of all, when she finally does what it takes to defend her brother, she saves his life but only by setting herself up for a far greater fall.

I can't say I loved the book, but it definitely stayed with me for a while. There were times when I wondered if a character would have indeed spoken a certain way, or used a specific word. And towards the end, the book feels rushed, as if we were being hastened towards its dark end after a series of slower paced chapters. I wasn't entirely convinced with the way things turned out either, with the convenient presence of a weapon or even Hailey's decision to meet Moses. Yet, as Hailey reflects on her 'tiny black soul' at the very end, I couldn't help but be moved.

In the end, redemption seems as unlikely as the miracles that Hailey has prayed for.It might have been easier to wrap this book up with a neat, happy ending. The fact that the author chooses to do the opposite makes all the difference.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The High Lord, Trudi Canavan

I am a sucker for science fiction. And women writing science fiction. But this time, Crossword made me a sucker of a different sort when it located Trudi Canavan along with Asimov and Douglas Adams.
The Black Magician trilogy is a fantasy action novel - the main character is Sonea, a slum girl who accidentally discovers she has magical powers. There is the big bad Guild which does not allow outsiders to learn magic. Sonea is however rescued and protected by the Thieves until eventually she manages to become a student at the Guild itself.
Like being an outsider and treated with derision by her classmates is not trouble enough, Sonea further complicates life by having once seen Akkarin, The High Lord, the leader of the Guild, practice black magic which is forbidden by strict rules. To prevent her from repeating the secret, The High Lord blackmails and threatens Sonea into secrecy.
How Sonea discovers that The High Lord is in fact on the side of good and how she finds herself is the rest of the book. For a detailed synopsis, go here.
There are various cliches at work throughout the book - the standard division between the haves (the Magicians' Guild) and the have nots (the slum dwellers), the misuse of power (the yearly purging of the slum dwellers by the magicians being one example), the unlikely hero (Sonea who herself is a poor, impoverished slum girl until she realizes she can breach magical defences), the anti establishment members working with and finally learning the ways of the establishment (Cery, Sonea).
And of course, the hero, who starts with being misunderstood and evil but is revealed as a figure of superhuman good, who sacrifices himself to save his country. A predictable conclusion to a plot that meandered along without any surprises.
Characterization is not the author's strong point either. For example, Sonea could have been made into a far more powerful character rather than the hero -worshiping, gush, gush character she turns into as she falls in love with Akkarin.
Overall, the third part of the trilogy (there is also a prequel and a sequel to it) is disappointing. Its a page turner if you like light fantasy reading - leave your brain in your other head though.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing

This book, first published in 1962, is considered one of the most influential books of the last century, as well as a landmark in feminist writing. The author, Doris Lessing, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007. The Golden Notebook has been the focus of a tremendous amount of scholarly discourse, that this review has absolutely no pretensions of adding to.

As a decidedly unscholarly person, I found this book to be one of the most difficult I've ever read. I chose to read it merely as a novel, however, overlooking everything else, which is probably how the author intended it in any case. Indeed, her preface to the edition I read states as much - the story was never written as a feminist text, or even as a book purely for women.On the contrary, her intention was to demonstrate a new structure to the novel, developing this story as a small novel, interspersed with writings from the journals of one of the characters. The reader alternates, therefore, between the protagonist's voice and the author's. The characters were based on the women she saw around her, the conditions of their lives in the Britain of the 50s and 60s, and their largely antagonistic relationships with men.

Anna Wulf, the central character of this book, is a writer and single mother who begins a series of notebooks that record her life. Even as she battles writer's block, she is so consumed by the fear of going mad that she decides to seperate this record into distinct narratives detailing singular aspects of her life. So there is a black notebook (her writing), a yellow notebook (her emotional life), a red notebook (her experiences as a member of the Communist party ) and a blue notebook (her everyday experiences).

Anna is complex, and hovers on the brink of a nervous breakdown as she faces disillusionment and rejection of various kinds - her association with communism grows increasingly strained, her relationships invariably leave her feeling used and betrayed. Finally, she meets Saul, a man who is practically her doppelganger and, in the course of an extremely unsettling relationship with him, she eventually faces her demons and resolves some of her issues. This exchange is chronicled in a fifth notebook- the Golden Notebook of the title.

I loved the robust language of the book, and the throb of nervous energy that runs through the notebooks, as Anna flits between her memories and plots for stories that are thinly veiled accounts of her own life. The journey through her feverish, wordy interior world was a challenge and, despite never really liking the character of Anna, I found myself wanting to know how her various crises would be resolved. At the same time, the book can easily feel dated. Womens' lives, at least in the urban context, have progressed since the time of this book, as has stylistic innovation in literature and, indeed, the feminist movement itself. Thus, this view of the relationship between men and women being essentially confrontational feels hostile and even objectionable today, but was perhaps the dominant view in the 60s. The flow of the novel, innovative for its time, didn't feel smooth either - bracketed explanations frequently crop up to explain sections and how to view them, leaving little to the reader's imagination. Sometimes the dialogues ascribed to some characters are strange, especially the Americans, who frequently sound and behave like characters from daytime sitcoms ("No, doll. No, baby").

A big problem for me with the book was the complete absence of any sound, morally coherent male characters - indeed the book reminded me of the early seasons of Desperate Housewives where the male characters seem like parodies of their own worst avatars. And yet, these are the men Anna unerringly returns to, and going by her journals, these are the men who shape her view of the world and herself. While she blames them for their cruelty, she cannot live without them either. At the same time, Anna seems incapable of building healthy relationships with other women. Her friendship with her best friend Molly is not without issues, and her opinions of all the other women in the book are largely derisive. And considering that she is a mother, her relationship with her daughter, Janet, occupies her ruminations the least. Janet remains a shadowy peripheral figure, until she finally breaks away for the safe 'normalcy' of boarding school. And yet, towards the end of the book, Anna suddenly realizes that
" ..Janet's mother being sane and responsible was far more important than the necessity of understanding the world". But why - I didn't understand where that epiphany came from, given how obsessively focused Anna has been on understanding the world upto that point.

Crucial to her recovery is the fifth notebook, the Golden Notebook, where all four strands of her narrative finally come together.But what dominates its narrative is yet another man, even if he is eerily siimilar to Anna. I even wondered if he was perhaps a figment of her imagination, crucial to her 'cracking up'and eventually resolving her conflicts with men. But no, the plot leads elsewhere. Nevertheless, at this point, as he alternately rages and then embraces her, she gifts him the golden notebook. The key to her identity, her recovery from all the turmoil holding her back - casually given away. Why?

And considering the interminable length of time the reader has spent inside Anna's head, the end feels sudden and almost flippant. Is irony intended here? Anna has ceased to be a communist. Now she announces she will no longer write, but join the Labour party and be (good lord!) a marriage counsellor. But when you have effectively chronicled the death of your belief in any kind of ideology, why begin endorsing another? And her turning away from writing felt like she was rejecting her creativity, which is what set her apart in the first place. And since the writing of those journals is what helped her recover, why is abandoning the words themselves necessary to heal? Essentially, Anna will be negating every aspect of her life and seeking the sanity of more conventional behaviour. Why?

As for it being a feminist bible....

I'm a feminist because I believe in equality and tolerance, not just because I'm a woman. To that effect, I would hesitate to call this book feminist or a positive influence on women struggling for empowerment. It is at its heart bleak, pessimistic and violent. Also homophobic. If its male characters seem like caricatures, the female characters finally feel the same, with their incessant internal conflicts, their almost parasitic need for male company, their weak hankering after men who clearly despise them.

A bible, indeed any book I consider influential must necessarily be affirming of life, of the power of the self and belief. And while I am no romantic, something that affirms life would in turn affirm love and tolerance. This book does nothing of the sort. It concludes with the suggestion that Anna will somehow fall in line with the life she has been bravely resisting for the last 500 pages. She will curb her creativity, be 'sane and responsible' for her daughter's sake, exchange one political ideology for another even after concluding that these will inevitably fail, and earn her living by "integrating with British life at its roots". Her relationship with men will continue to remain adversarial - that somehow, seems a given here.

Finally,I felt disappointed by this rather sad conclusion to a story about a woman so unique, despite her flaws - it felt like a cop out. Powerful yes, but ultimately not uplifting.

Monday, February 16, 2009

The Book Thief, by Marcus Zusak

When was the last time you read a story narrated by Death? Well, going by this book, set in Germany during the Second World War, he (she?) is a witty and articulate narrator. Also, sadly, overworked. Yet as he moves about carrying away the souls of thousands of people from farms, houses, concentration camps and battlefields, he tells us the story of one extraordinary little girl and her love of words.

Liesel findes herself abandoned with foster parents in a small town near Dachau. Her father is dead, her brother has died in front of her, and she will never see or hear from her mother again. She can't read, despite being nearly ten, and school is a daily humiliation. Gradually, her foster father, Hans Hubermann, helps her settle in and teaches her to read.She makes friends, learns to fight and curse like the best of them, and endures the tough love of her shrewish foster mother. And then, right under the noses of the Nazis and their rabid pro- Hitler neighbours, they take in a young jewish refugee and hide him in their basement.

Slowly, Max and Liesel bond - first over the nightmares they both have, and then over her fondness for books. Max draws her two stories, which for me were the most moving sections of the book. Rather appropriately, the books are drawn on painted-over pages of Hitler's horrible opus, 'Mein Kampf'. They are presented as is, sudden graphic novelletes that burst out from the book, with the dim print of the original visible below. The lines are childish, but the stories they tell are very profound, and their presence made me wonder if the author was paying homage to that terrific graphic novel, Maus: A Survivor's Tale. Things seem fine, until one instinctive act of kindness by Hans puts Max in danger, and destroys their life.

I loved this book. It doesn't pussyfoot around the horror of that time simply because it's for kids. It certainly doesn't aim for the gentle sadness of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Like all books about the Holocaust, you know things will get a lot worse in this book before they get better. A sense of foreboding looms as the story progresses, and it doesn't help that Death is a constant presence throughout. It's a story about the destruction of life, and its protagonist's struggle for survival against hunger, poverty and the backlash of war .People die in horrible ways, children suffer. Death cracks jokes and is apologetic about having to do his job., but does it anyway. And he doesn't always spare the innocent, or take only the ones who want to go. And yet, says Death, 'I am haunted by humans' - especially by their endurance under suffering, and their ability to " both so ugly and so glorious, and their words .. .so damning and brilliant".

The complexity of the characters had me impressed. Liesel is no wide eyed innocent. She is foul mouthed and thieving, she can wound with her words as well as with her fists,yet never expresses her love for her mother or best friend. Rosa, Liesel's foster mother, starts off as a foul mouthed harridan, yet she will risk her life to take in a Jew and be shattered by the sight of the neighbour's son returned from war. And her love for her husband, veiled under abuse, is revealed only when he is taken away to war. Liesel herself, struggles with her growing attraction to her friend Rudy, even as she connects at a deeper level with Max. Her need to read draws her to the emotionally wrecked Ilse Hermann and the almost wordless relationship between the two, built around books, is another little gem.

This is a book about war and human endurance, and about love and courage.But most of all it is a book about the power of words. It is also a a rather uncommon thing - a story about the War from the viewpoint of the Germans - in this case, innocent Germans bearing the brunt of the destruction triggered by Hitler.Where Hitler used words to stoke hatred, Liesel uses them to bind people. She reads out to the families cowering with her in a bomb shelter; her reading makes her unlikely friends - the wife of the Mayor, their sharp tongued neighbour.When her world crumbles around her and she can no longer bear to read, she begins to write.

There were times I felt the author was stretching the story out too much. Some sections of the book did feel overly dramatized, aimed squarely for the reader's tear ducts. Death as the narrator is also something of a killjoy - he frequently reveals too much before time, and launches into little monologues that are not always necessary, and begins to sound very predictable. And while the language is for the most part stunning, there were the occasional strange turns of phrase, clearly structured for dramatic effect, that didn't work for me ("drizzle came down in spades"; " ..he tasted like regret in the shadows of trees.". This is a story powerful enough without needing gimmicky language props like these. In this regard, 'Striped Pyjamas' works better with its minimalist approach, and by staying true to a child's eye view of the world around it.

Nevertheless, this is a thought- provoking book that everyone should read.

Monday, February 9, 2009

The Post-Birthday World, by Lionel Shriver

Towards the end of this book, two of the central characters have this conversation:

"So what do women prefer? For their men to be fine? Or luuuuvly?"
"Oh, whichever a woman ends up with, she'll wonder if she wouldn't rather have the other."

That pretty much sums up the premise of The Post-Birthday World - the What If, explored. Irina McGovern, a talented but little known illustrator of childrens' books, has lived nearly ten years with solid but boring Lawrence. Then one night, she finds herself stoned,alone and within kissing distance of the handsome and exciting Ramsey . Should she lean in for that kiss and destroy her comfortable, if predictable, life with Lawrence. Or step away and preserve that ordinary happiness?

The book then goes on to explore either possibility. Alternate chapters plot her life over another five years or so, as her relationships progress, flounder and reach their seperate conclusions - essentially, two novels in one. Her relationships in turn influence her growth as an illustrator, with her career following different paths with either choice.

Lawrence supports her career, is dependable, an intellectual and a fellow American. But he is also patronizing and often distant, and more a creature of routine than Irina can bear. Ramsey is a rich and dashing snooker player, and has very little in common with Irina, yet he listens to her in a way Lawrence never has, and she feels a chemistry and connection to him that she never really had before. Being with Ramsey also brings her illustrations to life - she creates a successful book blazing with colour and vigour that earns her fame. Success eludes her, however, while she stays with Lawrence. And, even as she basks in the quiet glow of her moral choice to stay faithful to him, she finds Lawrence receding from her.Most devastating of all, neither man is quite what she thinks they are.

This was an extremely long book (600 pages), and needessly so. It is no epic saga, after all, do we need an account of practically every conversation, meal and walk Irina takes in either life, to understand her better? Both storylines follow the same points of reference in Irina's life - incidents, meetings with people, Christmas at her mother's, the World Trade Centre crashes - with her responses to each varying depending on the choice she has made. However, this soon falls into a rather predictable rut and the disappointments ahead for her are a foregone conclusion for the weary reader. While I was intrigued by the concept of parallel lives,this book quickly became a tedious read for me, and the over usage of snooker terminology to describe Irina's life with Ramsey was frankly annoying. The wordiness also ruins the suspense, as you have to wade through page after page to see what happens next.

The character of Irina was very believable, though not always comfortable for me. She is emotionally needy, still burdened by the inadequacies she felt as a child, still at odds with her domineering mother. This is no superwoman, but a woman who would dither and second guess herself, and whose need for true, endless love is bigger than anything else in her life. And despite which choice she makes, she is unable to shake off her attraction for the one she turns away from, with predictably unpleasant consequences. It doesn't help that both men are themselves flawed. I got the feeling that she was attracted to these men because they represented the kind of person she wanted to be herself. Another interesting touch was the childrens' stories Irina develops in the book, which essentially mirror her own dilemmas .

The last chapter is a nice touch - it could belong to either story. I do wish, however, that the author hadn't resorted to the death of a central character as a device to resolve the two stories and lift Irina to a state of grace as selfless caregiver/ friend - and I wish we could have been spared the homilies on life and loving. There is a suggestion here that Irina may be at another crossroad again - will she get back with one of the men again, or walk away?

For Irina's sake, I hope it's the second, but that is a sequel I am unlikely to seek out and read.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Daydreamer, by Ian McEwan

After reading such dark books by Ian McEwan as Atonement and Amsterdam, I was rather wary of reading this one After all, Atonement is about the tragic consequences faced by a young couple, caused by one child's flighty imagination and need for attention. So a book by McEwan advertised as celebrating imagination and childhood seemed strange initially, but turned out to be entertaining enough, if not the brilliant tour de force the book cover claims it is.

The Daydreamer comprises seven stories built around a ten year old boy called Peter and some of the "things that happen to him in his head". Some stories are just fun, some have subtle messages.
The Bully, for instance, has Peter facing upto a bully, only to realize he has become one himself. The Baby has him swap bodies with his infant cousin, allowing him an insight into a life he has begun to faintly resent.The last, The Grown-up, starts with Peter dreading becoming like the boring grown ups around him ("..and never playing, never really having fun" ), until he glimpses the possibilities being an adult offers - freedom,a career he already dreams about,love. In the end, the dread is replaced with an anticipation of the adventures in store for him.

"As far-fetched as anything by Roald Dahl" screams the book cover, but I beg to differ.This book has none of the complexities, plot twists or delight in gruesomeness you associate with Dahl, (except fleetingly in
The Dolls, where Peter is attacked by, well, dolls) Nor is it a disappointment.The language is simple, you can believe the thoughts being described are those of a ten year old., and a very interesting and likeable one at that . The author has played fairly safe with plotlines, with most stories winding up as mid day reveries or dreams, and almost always with happy endings.Only 'The Burglar' has an interesting little twist in the end. Infact, I found the stories closer in spirit to safe and solid Enid Blyton, though thankfully with only one mention of talking toys. But McEwan does point out in the beginning of the book that these were initially written as bedtime stories for his kids, before he considered their possibilities for an older audience. He says,
"What we like about children's books is our children's pleasure in them, and this is less to do with literature and more to do with love."

So in keeping with this pleasure and this love, these stories stay accessible to both adults and children.

Since we're on the subject of kids with lively imaginations,have you read these terrific stories?

The Wish, by Roald Dahl, about a boy playing on a red and black carpet. This is one of my favourite Dahl stories - it's only about three pages long yet the tension mounts, the line between reality and game rapidly blurs and, by the end, you share the boy's terror.
The Lumber Room by H. H. Munro (Saki), about a boy who turns the tables on a censorious aunt. Saki wrote some wonderfully wicked little kids, and Nicholas here is one of them.
Under Cover of Apologies, by Geoffrey Household, about a resourceful young American teenager engaged as a secret agent by the British government.
Bridge to Terabithia, a novel by Katherine Paterson, which is a great book, and led to a wonderful film too (ah, the powers of computer aided animation) is about two children, who imagine this entire world in which they battle, or come to terms with, the troubles they face in the real world. By the way, this book has been on the list of books banned from American libraries at one time or another.
The Open Window, again by Saki, about a young girl who drives away an annoying guest with a wonderful ghost story.
6. Every frame ever drawn, of
Calvin and Hobbes
7. Swami, from Swami and Friends, by R. K. Narayan

I'm also tempted to add
The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel, though it does descend into grimness, and the child's story is finally deciphered to reveal something truly horrific.

Have you read these, or other stories about kids and their imaginary worlds? Do tell.