Saturday, October 29, 2016

My Life and Hard Times [1933]

My Life and Hard Times, first published (albeit, in parts) in The New Yorker, the magazine which James Thurber was associated with for close to three decades, and often referred to as his greatest work, serves as an indelible and unforgettable introduction to the celebrated American humorist, satirist, caricaturist and chronicler of everyday foibles. Comprising of a series of colourful, lively, zany, rambunctious and hilarious vignettes from his early life – his days of growing up in Columbus, Ohio, with his parents, grandparents, siblings, maids, dogs, neighbours and whatnot, and ending just after his graduation from college – this madcap novella, which seemed (on hindsight) straight out of a quintessential Woody Allen back-story, is a memoir like no other. The memorable introductory note, by the author himself, where he spelt out, with disarming and self-deprecatory humour, why he’s ill-suited to write an autobiography, brilliantly set the tone for what followed. The sketches, told through deadpan comedy, wit, irony and irreverence, chronicled the idiosyncrasies and foibles of a host of quirky and eccentric cast of characters, through marvelously chosen and depicted episodes – a stoic father whose life seems defined by cosmic jokes, a neurotic mother who’s fond of their pet-dog which just can’t stop biting everyone, an aunt who’s afraid of electricity leaking out of sockets, a grandfather who’s confused WWI with the Civil War, a maid who’s always under fear of being hypnotized, James who just can’t seem to pass his botany course in college, and then, unwittingly, becomes a regular at the Draft Board, and a town full of oddball residents who embark on an exodus on the mistaken assumption that the dam has broken. That commonplace and mundane everyday-life and people can be turned into something as remarkable and extraordinary as what’s contained in this slender gem of a book, with the author’s drawings as juicy accompaniments, is indeed a reflection of Thurber’s fecund mind, incredible storytelling prowess and unbridled comic genius.

Author: James Thurber
Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/Memoir/Autobiographical Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Slaughterhouse-Five [1969]

Slaughterhouse-Five works beautifully along multiple facets – as a farcical and psychedelic nonsense literature, a cheekily revisionist sci-fi parable, an irreverent and darkly comic political satire, and a deadpan exercise in surrealistic metafiction. But what this iconoclastic Kurt Vonnegut work – part of both Time and Modern Library’s lists of 100 Best English-Language Novels of 21st Century – remains above all is a powerful anti-war novel whose tonal levity and absurdist depictions belie its disconcerting content and commentary, thus placing it on the same page as the Heller masterpiece Catch-22, or for that matter, such movies as Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne and Kubrick’s Dr Strangelove; the book’s alternate title, viz. The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death, perfectly illustrates the author’s grim stance. The story revolves around the infamous Firebombing of Dresden – referred to as “the Florence of the Elbe” for its cultural significance – by the Allied Forces near the end of WWII. Billy Pilgrim, a most unlikely protagonist, is a pitiful non-hero, an optometrist, an admirer of the obscure yet surprisingly prescient sci-fi author Kilgore Trout, an unintentional time-traveler who has become “unstuck in time”, and a subject of interest for the extraterrestrial species Tralfamadorians. That he was also a hapless member of the American war machine, was a prisoner-of-war upon falling in Nazi hands, a survivor of the Dresden massacre and was subsequently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, added deeply melancholic and troubling contexts to his seemingly fantastical existence. The narrative zigzagged back and forth, in rapid succession, to various points in Billy’s life, and in a further touch of formal bravura, the book opened and closed with a nameless narrator (Vonnegut himself) trying in futility to pen down a book on the Dresden episode. That Vonnegut’s war-time experiences closely mirrored Billy’s, makes one realize that this brutal, madcap book, through the belly-laughs it evokes, was in essence an attempt to come to terms with scarring memories and make sense of mankind’s unparalleled lunacy.

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Black Comedy/Political Satire/War Novel/Science-Fiction/Nonsense Literature/Absurdist Fiction
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, October 10, 2016

Jagori (The Vigil) [1945]

Satinath Bhaduri was as much a writer as he was a political activist – he was actively embroiled in the struggle for independence in British India, and spent considerable time in jail, and his books, therefore, were a direct outcome of his politics. In his most well-reckoned work, Jagori, he infused strong semi-autobiographical elements and his own shifting ideologues (Bhaduri was initially a member of the Indian National Congress, but later veered towards the Socialist Party), thus making this novel a stirring blend of the personal and the political. He made use of a stream-of-consciousness, fractured and multi-perspective narrative, and these formalist devices made this an important political and modernist work in the annals of 20th century Indian literature. With the 1942 Quit India Movement as its backdrop, the tale’s central tenet revolves around the imminent execution of Bilu, a young revolutionary, who’s sentenced to death for political crimes. Slated to be hanged at the first stroke of dawn, the story opened on his last night leading to this scourging eventuality, and is chronicled from four different points of view – Bilu, a mild-mannered guy with strong political convictions, who’s alone in the cell for the condemned prisoners; his ageing father, a former school teacher who’s dedicated his life to Gandhian principles, who’s in the same jail but in a different block housing prisoners from all political walks; his loving mother who’s been arrested for the most trivial of reasons; and his younger brother Nilu, a brazenly confrontational young man with equally strong political convictions, whose witness served as the most decisive nail in Bilu’s fate. Employing the devastating imminence and irrevocability of capital punishment as the key hinge, the novel explored, through a mix of matter-of-factness and mordant humour, the anxieties, memories, the here-and-now and the inter-connected experiences of the 4 characters, along with reflections on social structures and hypocrisies, discourses on rationality vis-à-vis religious rituals, and wry observations on prison corruption, among others.

Author: Satinath Bhaduri
Genre: Political Drama/Stream-of-Consciousness/Semi-Autobiographical Novel
Language: Bengali
Country: India

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Hound of the Baskervilles [1902]

If there’s one book which comfortably overrides every other output, and not just from those belonging to the Sherlock Holmes Canon, in Conan Doyle’s prolific bibliography, it would clearly be The Hound of the Baskervilles. Its enormous and enduring popularity has turned it into a pop-cultural icon; that it’s also a darn fine work has further cemented its legacy. Ironically, this would never have come into being had he not decided to resuscitate Holmes 8 long years after having got the legendary sleuth killed in The Final Problem. The tale revolves around the so-called curse of a spectral hound that has possibly led to the death of Sir Charles Baskervilles; Holmes, being a rabid believer in logic and rationale, refuses to fall into the supernatural trap and takes up the case of protecting the successor to the Baskerville estate, and, more importantly, unearthing the gruesome quagmire. The gradual revelation of the central mystery, in the mould of a classic whodunit, is bound to keep one engaged; but what made this even more captivating lay in the extraordinary moodiness, the constant sense of fatalism, and the haunting atmosphere that Doyle imbued the tale with. The enormous Bakerville mansion, the harsh and bleak wastelands of the Devonshire moor, the incessant air of melancholic doom that perpetuates the brilliantly paced proceedings, and the ambience of terror that seems to lurk from the hazy backgrounds, elevated this beyond the confines of a regular detective story into the domains of Gothic horror. The best parts of the novel for me, in fact, was the middle section in which Holmes was physically absent from the scene, with Watson trying to make a sense of the eerie unknown, including the carefully etched characters part of the sparsely populated setting. The roaring success that the novel turned out to be when it was serialized in The Strand Magazine, ensured that Doyle would never again bump off Holmes like the way he did when the super-sleuth fell off Reichenbach Falls with his arch-nemesis Moriarty.

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: Detective Novel/Crime Thriller/Mystery/Gothic Horror
Language: English
Country: UK