Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The Top 20 - 2018

OK; At last I am done sorting out my Top 20 albums for 2018. Here's the Top 20, and also why another 20 or so albums didn't make it to that bunch of winners.

The Hits: There are two R&B albums, with both promising to be top ten material on the early days I started listening to them. However, "Midnight hour" started to feel a tad monotonous upon repeated listens, despite the quality of the music, hence it just makes it inside the top 20.
Meshelle Ndegeocello's stellar album with some lovely covers of Prince, Sade, Tina Turner and TLC among others managed to impress me on repeated listens and hence is near the top.

The Misses: The only other R&B highlight that I listened to was Janelle Monae's "Dirty Computer". It just missed the top 20, despite the strong similarities of Prince that its sound has. There is even a track which starts like "kiss".

Alternate/ Adult-Alternate / Rock
(typically my favourite genre)
The Hits:
a.The alternate and adult alternative artistes that I have loved over the years make appearances, but not in the top ten. Alice in Chains and the Smashing Pumpkins have good records to show up in the top 20, while "A Perfect Circle" , although different from their previous efforts, has its charm to show up just below the top 10 ( and if only 2019 will see a new Tool album).
Further it was refreshing to listen a strong consistent album by The Breeders after a long while. Loved "walking with a killer" and "Blues in Acropolis". And the ideal running length for an album is 30 minutes and a bit, I feel, in the present times.
In previous years, Paul Weller has featured at the tail end of the top 20, if that. But his largely acoustic effort of 2018, is a charming album, and is featured high in top ten.
b. The Brit-Rock Band Snow Patrol effort impressed me a lot on repeated listens, although on initial listens I didn't think it'll last through the year. It did well to feature higher than my typical favourites such as Alice in Chains.
c. Their dead pan style being an attraction with me, Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett continues to do well as in the previous years. Love the Kurt Vile album in particular with its extended tracks.
The Misses:
a. Dave Matthews Band's album "Come Tomorrow", although a good listen doesn't impress to the level of "Big Whiskey...", "Busted Stuff" or "Under the table and dreaming" - and hence misses the top 20. Dave may just be running out of ideas too, I suspect. They had a similar dilemma at the time of Everyday and Stand up; they came out out all winners with the Grammy nominated Big Whiskey and the Groo Grux King. Let's see if they can repeat that feat.
The new Stone Temple Pilots with its new vocalist and the hard rock veterans Judas Priest have slipped out of the Top 20. The former has a few elegant tracks, and the new vocalist matches Weiland's style, but it isn't enough to push it higher, The rather impressive stoner rock album "The Sciences" by Sleep too slips out of the top 20.
Mark Knopfler was another drop out, although traditionally I've liked his records - goes to show that too much of a thing is not good; besides he seems to have run out of ideas.
b. Suede missed out, as did the Eels, although both albums have several strong tracks. The Eels album has its moment, but certain tracks sounds like a rehash of others at times, and hence finds itself out of reckoning.
The new Manic Street Preachers album, "Resistance is futile" sounds good initially but the arena rock just becomes a little monotonous and hence misses the top 20.
c. Other stalwarts who didn't make enough impression to hang on in the the top 20 are Paul McCartney, Simple Minds and Lenny Kravitz ( the latter has failed to impress me repeatedly).
d. A big disappointment was Jack White's "Boarding House Reach". Yet, it is hoped that the self indulgent meandering album is a temporary getaway for the artiste, for he is one of Rocks' future hopes too. Besides there maybe those who actually enjoy this self-indulgent album.

a. Lots of Indie-rock artistes this time, more than ever before, and thanks a lot to the Face Book music Group "Music Buffs" for introducing a lot of them with their respective albums ( Parquet Courts, Stephen Malkmus, Beach House, The Voidz and Amen Dunes ). If you look at the Top Ten, it is quite obvious that they have been the winners this year. In my part of the world, the chances of us discovering these indie artistes are remote, and as such, the role this group plays in introducing us to these albums cannot be stressed enough.
b. Stumbled upon the Ty Segall album, through the high praise it received from most year end charts and that was one hell of a record.
c. The Arctic Monkeys album was a slow builder, and by the year end made enough impression to be in top 15.

The Misses:
a.) The Good, the Bad and the Queen as well the Gorillaz didn't make it to the top 20. A double failure for a musician I truly admire - Damon Albarn.

Industrial Rock
Hits: Nine Inch Nails haven't been one of my favourites over the years. For all the nihilistic charm that the industrial rock sound carries, I've found the drums too predictable and the vocal delivery not to my taste. But this year, Mr. Trent Reznor's David Bowie inspiration tweaked the equation to such a degree, that I love their effort. So much so, "God Break Down the Door", must be my favourite track of 2018.

The Misses: There are zero Rap albums in the top 20, although I did listen to one album - The Cypress Hill album.

Hits: I honestly felt Moby hit a kind come back with his album of 2018. But then I realise that the rest of the world has hardly taken notice of his album, although AMG recognized it as one of the most important Electronic albums of 2018.

Friday, 4 January 2019

The Beggar Maid : Stories of Flo and Rose - Alice Munro

Reading one short collection by Alice Munro per year, over the last two or three years has become akin to an annual date with the gracious lady from Ontario. Back in 2014, I read "Runaway" ( or rather listened ) on being introduced to her by a fellow reader, and since then I've been reading one Munro book per year - "Dance of the Happy Shades" ( December, 2015), "Lives of girls and women" ( December, 2016) and "Something I've been meaning to tell you"  ( December, 2017) - and the last three were read in the sequence of their publication. As such 2018 was the year of the book in caption, my fifth Munro read. This book can possibly be grouped under the categories of  both short stories and also a novel. All ten stories in this collection are centered around Rose, and her step mother, Flo. Rose's family is a poverty stricken one from Ontario, and she, as best as she could tries to breakaway from the bleakness that West Hanratty, Ontario burdens her with.  She succeeds with many self-inflicted failures upon herself, and one can't get away from the notion that the ghosts of her roots are someway or the other to be blamed.

Rose wins a scholarship to the local University, where a rich man who is also an intellectual falls in love with her. They marry, they have a child together, they separate and go their own ways. Their daughter grows up, Rose's search for love and security makes her adventurous, restless and desperate. Rose tries many jobs. Flo grows old and becomes forgetful and difficult to live with. She is taken to a home for the aged, as she literally wastes away alone in her old house - which by that time has become an eye sore, in a neighbourhood which has changed over the years. No, these summaries don't serve as spoilers, for it is the close views for each of these episodes complimented by the visceral moods that enrich these stories - and these moods and views can only be grasped by reading the book.

It is a moot point as to how these stories, despite their continuous main characters don't somehow make the reader feel as if she is reading a novel. It could well be that the reader is so used to associating short stories with  Munro, that she finds appropriating these stories to a novel,  an exercise that she fights an inner revolt against. But there is also the feel that we have periodic close focus followed by a long absence, and then a close focus again on another period. And by its closure we don't know the fate of most of these characters - and hence we see "pieces of lives" of the main characters, without they quite composing a whole - not even where the main characters of Flo and Rose are concerned.

In conclusion, it is always a pleasure to return to Munro at the end of the year, akin to looking forward for a vacation at the end of a tiring year. Occasionally this pleasure falls during a family trip, and it is bliss.

Looking forward to my next blissful episode of  Alice Munro in her own world in Ontario.

Thursday, 3 January 2019

Sapiens - Yuval Noah Harari

I read a book, that was like no other. It was a book that makes
one rethink about almost everything about Man, that one has ever known - or thought one knew. ( To date this will be automatic choice if I am to be marooned in an island with just one book. )Not stopping there it makes you rethink about nature, the religions, the philosophies and what is identified as good and what is identified as bad. I repeat, I read a book that was like no other. And if I had read no other books in 2018, but this book, I would've settled for it. I learn now, that there is so much hype about this book - there's this notion that one needs to read this book just for the hype it has created. Well, I strongly disagree. I was not aware of the intensity of the hype, until I was told a few days back. But this is a book that needs to be read by a modern man or woman, with the capacity to read it in its entirety.

The book broadly looks at the three revolutions that we, Homo Sapiens have triggered: Cognitive ( 70000 years ago), agricultural revolution ( 12000 years back) ,and the much more recent 500 year old Scientific one. The author discusses many topics under these broad eras, but with more emphasis on the latter era.

He shows how an animal no special than any other, in fact inferior than the more confident animals - the ones who knew their place in the scheme of things - managed to outwit ( not always intentionally ), the other animals over their one gift - their language, their ability to make up things which aren't there, to create myths, which collectively led to what he terms as cognitive revolution. At the earlier stages he cannot stress the importance of gossip as a means of us getting us kick started with our language.

"...ever since the Cognitive Revolution Homo sapiens has been able to revise its behaviour rapidly in accordance with changing needs. This opened a fast lane of cultural evolution, bypassing the traffic jams of genetic evolution. Speeding down this fast lane, Homo sapiens soon far outstripped all other human and animal species in its ability to cooperate."

He explores and questions the consequences  on nature due to the homo sapiens and discloses our track record which is downright bad. If we believed that man over the last five hundred years destroyed most of earth, well, think again. He was always a destroyer of nature ( but then what is nature ?  That too is discussed in the scheme of things ).

The second part looks at the Agricultural Revolution, and it is interesting to read that man may actually have opted for a raw deal when he settled down and planted his food crops.

"The Agricultural Revolution certainly enlarged the sum total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food did not translate into a better diet or more leisure.... The average farmer worked harder than the average forager, and got a worse diet in return. The Agricultural Revolution was history’s biggest fraud ... The culprits were a handful of plant species, including wheat, rice and potatoes. These plants domesticated Homo sapiens, rather than vice versa."

It further discusses the "happiness is around the corner" delusion and the belief that hard work is way to that oasis. Harari, predicts that given the context the Neanderthals were happier than us.

Since the agricultural revolution, the gaps in our biological deficiencies have been fulfilled by imagined orders and devised scripts which  led to mass networks of cooperation. A Special chapter is reserved to elaborate on the unfairness and lack of neutrality of these networks, be it based on skin colour, caste, gender and sexuality. The most interesting discussion to me was the question on what is Natural vs. what is Unnatural.

"In truth, our concepts ‘natural’ and unnatural’ are taken not from biology, but from Christian theology. The theological meaning of ‘natural’ is ‘in accordance with the intentions of the God who created nature’. Christian theologians argued that God created the human body, intending each limb and organ to serve a particular purpose. If we use our limbs and organs for the purpose envisioned by God, then it is a natural activity. To use them differently  than God intends is unnatural. But evolution has no purpose. Organs have not evolved with a purpose, and the way they are used is in constant flux. There is not a single organ in the human body that only does the job its prototype did when it first appeared hundreds of millions of years ago. Organs evolve to perform a particular function, but once they exist, they can be adapted for other usages as well." 

In essence this applies to everything from ability of flying of winged beings to homo-sexuality.

While the first two parts, each comprising of four chapters, are on cognitive revolution and agricultural revolution respectively, the next part is on the unification of humankind. It starts with how sometime back there existed in this planet multiple worlds of human existence.

"Around 10.000 BC our planet contained many thousands of them. By 2000 BC, their numbers had dwindled to the hundreds, or at most a few thousand. By AD 1450, their numbers had declined even more drastically. At that time, just prior to the age of European exploration, earth still contained a significant number of dwarf worlds such as Tasmania. But close to 90 per cent of humans lived in a single mega-world: the world of Afro-Asia. Most of Asia, most of Europe, and most of Africa (including substantial chunks of sub-Saharan Africa) were already connected by significant cultural, political and economic ties."

The chapter starts with the account of when  this unification took place, to today, where there is only "one world" for all practical purposes. Towards this end the role played by merchants, conquerers and prophets is of paramount importance. There is a very revealing chapter on how money played a big part in ths unification, on how the Chrisitans and the Muslims who saw not eye to eye, still agreed upon the belief of money.

It explores the role played by various empires in unification of humans. In recent times no where else is this more apparent than in India.
"...the modern Indian state is a child of the British Empire. The British killed, injured and persecuted the inhabitants of the subcontinent, but they also united a bewildering mosaic of warring kingdoms, principalities and tribes, creating a shared national consciousness and a country that functioned more or less as a single political unit."
The chapter concludes  discussing how the New Global Empire is inevitable.

The next chapter discusses religion and how it contributed towards this unification. It recognizes that polytheists were inherently more tolerant than monotheists.

"Polytheism is inherently open-minded, and rarely persecutes ‘heretics’ and ‘infidels’."
Even when polytheists conquered huge empires, they did not try to convert their subjects."
The discussion doesn't spare the cruelties carried out in the name of religion.
"...the polytheistic Romans killed no more than a few thousand Christians. In contrast, over the course of the next 1,500 years, Christians slaughtered Christians by the millions to defend slightly different interpretations of the religion of love and compassion."
I couldn't help but detect the subtle inference that Judaism ( possibly the author's belief by birth ) is but a local monotheism, and it never had a missionary past unlike all other monotheist religions - a case I found hard to argue against.

It discusses Buddhism under the category of the law of nature.The gist of Buddism that is presented here is so concise and contains its core, that it introduces the faith to those who are not familiar with it.

"Gautama’s insight was that no matter what the mind experiences, it usually reacts with craving, and craving always involves dissatisfaction. When the mind experiences something distasteful it craves to be rid of the irritation. When the mind experiences something pleasant, it craves that the pleasure will remain and will intensify. Therefore, the mind is always dissatisfied and restless. This is very clear when we experience unpleasant things, such as pain. As long as the pain continues, we are dissatisfied and do all we can to avoid it. Yet even when we experience pleasant things we are never content. We either fear that the pleasure might disappear, or we hope that it will intensify. People dream for years about finding love but are rarely satisfied when they find it. Some become anxious that their partner will leave; others feel that they have settled cheaply, and could have found someone better. And we all know people who manage to do both."
The chapter gives a prominent space to "worship of man" - new religions, based on the natural law, and he includes humanisms here. The author doesn't hesitate to call liberalism, communism, capitalism, nationalism and Nazism religions, despite their adherents' dislike to recognised as creeds.

"Like Buddhists, Communists believed in a superhuman order of natural and immutable laws that should guide human actions. Whereas Buddhists believe that the law of nature was discovered by Siddhartha Gautama, Communists believed that the law of nature was discovered by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin."
 Something that I found very interesting was the fundamental of monotheism in such humanist beliefs such as Communism and Liberalism.

The liberal belief in the free and sacred nature of each individual is a direct legacy of the traditional Christian belief in free and eternal individual souls.
 The idea that all humans are equal is a revamped version of the monotheist conviction that all souls are equal before God.
And the irony is that the only humanism that has broken out from traditional monotheism is Nazism! And the aim of Nazism human progressive evolution. While the Nazi belief in a superior race has since been debunked, that was due to more recent science. As per the knowledge available in 1933, Nazism was even scientific !!

The fourth section begins with a comparison of the changes that took place over the last five hundred years. While the comparisons are many, the following should be good as an indication of the level of changes that this period has brought.

"In 1873, Jules Verne could imagine that Phileas Fogg, a wealthy British adventurer, might just be able to make it around the world in eighty days. Today anyone with a middle-class income can safely and easily circumnavigate the globe in just forty-eight hours."
It stresses on how modern science doesn't fear to admit ignorance, the method of attempting to formulate new knowledge using a mathematical model, and how not being content with theory alone, how it uses the knowledge so gleaned for furthering its ends - as a power.

"Pre-modern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known."

"Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions."
It goes on to elaborate that it is the utility of knowledge that is of import, for no knowledge or theory 100% accurate.This knowledge has developed to such a level that a-mortality is being suggested by 2050, under the Gilgamesh project.

The ideas being suggested from hereon becomes that much more interesting as they reach relative more recent times. One of the questions he attempts to answer is why is it that it was in Europe and not in China that the Industrial revolution took place ? Harari suggests that the secret lies in that Europe had started behaving with a scientific and a capitalist bent even before they had any technological advances under their belt. And the bitter truth is that their mindset of conquest, was instrumental in financing these advances. It is usually the insights that Harari provides which make this book so valuable. He suggests that whereas the Europeans admitted to their ignorance an their thirst for expanding their vistas, the other civilizations were so complacent and minding their own business that they didn't realise that their days were numbered, "even when the wolf was at the door". He takes the case of Cortez and the Aztecs as an example. In essence the build up of the scientific discipline an imperial project.

The Capitalist Creed: The comparison of how the muslim world ran out of steam in the race for conquest against that of Europe  is due to the latters' belief in credit and investments - and the resulting fair sharing of the spoils, the author shows. I could even draw a parallel of this modern Sri Lankan politics - why a certain political party is favoured by certain segments of the business world  despite the proven incompetency its leadership has shown, against the other party which showed rapid development during its tenure, is that the former allows the spoils to be shared by a larger segment of the community. All the other cries ( democracy !! Thief - thief !! ) are largely eye wash I feel ).

"Capital trickles away from dictatorial states that fail to defend private individuals and their property. Instead, it flows into states upholding the rule of law and private property."
Harari takes the case of the Dutch merchants to elaborate on this home truth. The beauty of this work is is provides these insights while giving us the succession of incidents that follows - the rise of the English, the Opium wars and the economic truth so important today - your credit rating. The British investors were willing to take risks, because they knew their majesty's army could be trusted to safe guard their interests if the foreign debtors refused to pay.

The last few chapters are on the wheels of industry and how once the science and the art of successful conversion of energy was learnt, it has opened up the world for a permanent revolution. These chapters are presented with sufficient facts, enough insight yet with enough human emotional elements to make the book readable, without the reader getting tired.  It is this skill - this fine balance, which works to make this book such an amazing work. For example, how the big nations learnt that "Imperial Retirement" was due, shows so much astute statesmanship in hindsight one could say. Harari uses the case of Britain and the U.S.S.R. as examples.

Another thing is the healthy mix of the optimism that the narration carries without disregarding the negative effects too. For example, note the following sentence:

"For real peace is not the mere absence of war. Real peace is the implausibility of war."

Harari then goes on to show that the world has always had wars and despite the power of the states to annihilate others and even itself, that we are currently experiences the most peaceful of times.

"The Nobel Peace Prize to end all peace prizes should have been given to Robert Oppenheimer and his fellow architects of the atomic bomb. Nuclear weapons have turned war between superpowers into collective suicide, and made it impossible to seek world domination by force of arms."

Chapter 19, discusses if we can live happily ever after, and how even the third world countries are better off than they ever were before. It also discusses what is happiness, where is happiness and how it can be found. Harari returns to Buddhist teachings at this point, although he concedes that the path as taught by the Buddha is seldom followed, and practical difficulties it offers. Yet, there is almoest a grudging admission, that the teaching per se has an essence of truth in it.

Yet for all the advancement mentioned, the book ends with an ominous note for homo sapiens as the new experiments in DNA and bionic life makes one wonder what homo sapiens want - the question being "What do we want to want?"

I spent a many sessions of half hour to one hour with this book, and the book which I took to my hands glistening in white, has changed colour to a dusty shade of white by the time I was done.
I finished towards the second week of December I think and took another two weeks writing this review - and I know I haven't justice to this book. And I will cherish my soiled book, hopefully for many years to come, and many returns to it. In 2019, I hope to read its sequel, Homo Deus.

Sunday, 30 December 2018

හමුවෙද අපේ වෙණ තත - ලියනගේ අමරකීර්ති

කතුවරයාගේ නවකතා සහ කෙටිකතා රාශියක් කියවා තිබුන ද, ඔහු ගේ මුල් ම කවි පොත ( එකොමත් එක පිටරටක ) මගැරීම හේතුවෙන් කියවන්න ට ලැබුණු පලමු පද්‍ය කෘතිය මෙය යි. වරෙක කතුවරයා විචාරකයකු ලෙස දමිත් දහනායක ගේ "තෙමි තෙමි ම මම" ගැන ලියමින් තෙපලුවේ, දමිත් ඉතා අවංක කවියෙකු බවයි. ඒ ගුණය මා අමරකීර්තිගේ කාව්‍ය තුල ද දිටිමි. සාමාන්‍යයෙන් අලංකාර බසකින් පද්‍යකරණය දැකීම ලොල් මා හට, එවන් මනරම් බසක් නුදුටු ව ද කතුවරයා ගේ නිර්ව්‍යාජත්වය ගෝචර විය.

නිදසුන් කිහිපයක්;
"අයිනක ඉඳන් මැද සිදු වෙන දේ        උගෙන
උගතෙකු ලෙසින් මැදටම ආ අද            දවස
හැම හරි මැදම අයිනක් සේ දැනේ           මට
එවිට මට පෙනේ ඒ මදහස                   එළිය
ඈ මුව කමල රැඳි ඉඟිබිති                බැබලීම"
                                                           (අයිනා )

මෙය මට අපූරත්වයෙන් පිරි කවියකි. එක් අතකින් එය දර්ශනයෙන් සපිරිය; අනෙක් අතින් සුන්දර ගුරුතුමිය වෙත සිත් බැඳීම කාව්‍ය ට සෞන්දරත්වයක් ගෙන දෙන අතර, උගත්කමේ පෙනෙන නොපෙනෙන මාන්නයක් ද ඇතැයි හැඟේ ( එය ද නිර්ව්‍යාජත්වයේ ම කොටසකි ).

"හඳ වුණත් හොඳට ලොකු උණ       පෝ දාක
ලපයද ලොකුම වෙයි පුරහඳ පළුදු           කර
හාවයි කියා හොඳ  වචනෙන් නම්          කළද
කැළල කැළලමයි මෝරයි හඳ                සමඟ"
                                         ( ෆොටෝ දෙක )
ආදරයේ තියුණු අවස්ථාව ඊරිසියාවක් හා බැඳී  තිබිම හා නොනිත් කෙනිත්තිල්ලක ලබැඳියාව අපූරුවට ග්‍රහණය කල කවියකි.

කවියා වරෙක නොව දෙවතාවක ම සාර්ථකත්වයේ ණය උගුල හෙවත් තොණ්ඩුව ගැන විස්සෝප වෙයි ("දඬුවම" ද මේ ආරේ කවි පංතියකි ).
"මල්ලි ඔබ කියන්නත්
පොලීසිය කියන්නත්
කලින් මම දැන ගතිමි
කාර් එක ගෙනාදාඉඳන් මම දැන ගතිමි
වැරදි කාරයා මමයි."
මේ තරමක්  දිග කවි පංතියේ කතාව වනාහි ත්‍රි රෝද රථයක් හා ගැටීමේ සිද්ධියත්, ඒ රථ හිමිටත් අප කවියාටත් එකම නමින් දියණියන් සිටීමත් ය. මෙහි දෙ අර්ථයන් නිරූපිත යයි සිතමි. එක් අතකින් කවියා ගේ හීනමානය හා මුසු වරදකාරි ස්වභාවයයි; අනෙක් අතින් අප රට බහුල කුහකත්වයයි ( මෑතක හදිසියේ සුදු ඉරක් මතින් පාර පනින්න දැරූ අයෙකු, මා වැරෙන් තිරිංග යොදා රථය නතර කල කර, වීදුරුවට පහරක් ගසා ගියේ ඔහුගේ සිතැඟි මා කලින් නොදැන සිටි නිසා ය )

මා සිත් ගත් තවත් කවි පංති කිහිපයක් නම් "ටෝච් එළිය", "තාත්තගෙ හුණුපාර", "ආයෙත් ඇතොත්" ය. එනුමුදු සමස්තයක් ලෙස බහුල කවි පංතීන් රස විඬි බැව් ට ද කිව නොහැක. බසේ රළු බව වසාලමින් අව්‍යාජත්වය මතු වන විට එහි අපූරත්වයක් දුටුව ද, එලෙස කම්පනයක් නොවන අවස්ථාවන් වල බසේ ඇති සාමාන්‍ය බව කාව්‍යයන් ට බරක් ලෙස මට දැනුනි; ඒ මා අලංකාර කවිකාර බස ට ප්‍රිය හෙයිනි ( නිදසුන් - ලක්ෂාන්ත අතුකෝරාල ; මංජුල වෙඩිවර්ධන ; නන්දන වීරසිංහ )

එහෙත් යම් සුවිශේෂි මෙන් ම අනන්‍ය කවි පංති කිහිපයකින් සුසැඳි සංග්‍රහයකි.

Friday, 28 December 2018

In our Time - Ernest Hemingway

( One of the books I started reading this year was "The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway", which I haven't been able to finish. It includes all his published short story collection, plus those which appeared in magazines, journals, compilations etc. After six short stories which have been taken from compilations, the full set of "In our Time" starts off the collection, from story seven onward. This review focuses on short story seven through story 21 - fifteen in all. )

Across these vignettes we see Nick Adams, possibly Hemingway's alter ego as he goes through life from a boy to adolescence and then to the Army as a Youth. It cannot be looked upon as a novel as we see close ups of separate incidents, usually unconnected with the previous ones.

Indian Camp: Most of what we see here could be identified as vignettes. For one thing most of the short stories have episodes on the life of Nick Adams. In this particular one, it is a vignette of an experience of Nick when he still a young boy, accompanying his father  to an Indian camp, to carry out a Cesarean operation under the most basic of conditions. Possibly the condition and the fate of the  infant's father  portrays the limitation of persistence rather than his sensitivity.

The Doctor and Doctor's Wife: The Doctor is Nick's dad. The story is based on the same setting as the former, but in a context where an Indian half cast and the Doctor don't see eye to eye. The argument between the two serve as the central incident of the vignette, although his wife's reaction and attitude gives the story its title.

The End of Something: Ten years has passed and the town that Nick lived in issn't a lumbering  town no more.This vignette centers on the break up of Nick and his girl friend. The attraction is in the natural setting and the unattached signature style of Hemingway.

The Three-Day Blow: A Vignette in which Nick has a drink with his pal Bill, on the aftermath of his break-up with Marge. They discuss many things - Football teams, their respective dads and of course Marge. Bill compliments Nick for breaking up without getting married, although Nick has doubts about his actions. The story is written in such a manner where the prevailing weather, the surrounding solitude and the two boys proving to each other about their maturity compose a mental picture in the reader's mind, with a crackling fire to the bargain.

The Battler: In the next story we find Nick kicked off a train, stumbling upon a former fighter by the name of Adolph Francis, sitting at a fire in the woods. The story then takes an interesting twist with a 'negro' by the name of Bugs joining in, and the conversation between the three. The fighter's clearly insane and Nick needs to Bugs' help to leave the camp.

A Very Short Story: As the name implies, the tale is presented in a summarised form. We are not told who is recuperating in Padua. But the reader is wont to believe that it is Nick, after a bout in the army during the first world war, since the girl sends a letter to Chicago upon him leaving for the States.

Soldier's Home: The soldier in question is one  Harold and this is the first story which doesn't involve Nick. The story involves Harold's attempt to get acclimatized in his hometown of Kansas, after the war, and the difficulties he has - with the local crowd, and his own family. Post-war trauma as well as the difficulties in hitching up with girls, with the local scene changing during his time away.

The Revolutionist: A very short vignette, where a one page account of a Magyan comrade is revealed. I cannot but help feeling that one of the driving needs at the time would've been for Hemingway to include his experiences in world war I,  the various incidents which stuck in his mind, and put them down in writing. Vignettes are possibly the best way to include them in a fictional form.

Mr. and Mrs. Elliot: The story of Hubert Elliot, a poet and  a post-graduate student in law at Harvard, and how he came to be married. Hubert has held very puritanical views about marriage, and was surprised himself on how he came to be married. The story is one which overall reflects the unhappiness of that marriage.

Cat in the Rain: A short story which by itself looks a little aimless, but presents the whims of a young girl and a wife at that.
"'Anyway, I want a cat,' she said, 'I want a cat. I want a cat now. If I can’t have long hair or any
fun, I can have a cat.'
The restlessness of the girl, how she keeps badgering on her husband, and how the whole world is at her service are some of the points being subtly hinted here.

Out of Season: A tale of where a tourist couple is saddled with a drunken guide, with the husband trying to help out the guide out of sympathy than any other reason, managing the wife who is not pleased with  how things stand. As such it is a vignette and could've easily fitted to a longer narration with ease.

Cross-Country Snow: We  come across Nick again, as he goes skiing with two of his friends  Mike and George, in Germany.  Nick;s wife or girl Helen is expecting their child, yet the boyish attitudes reveal that he would rather hang out with his friends rather than hold bigger responsibilities.

My Old Man: A tale written in Hemingway's nonchalant abstract way, yet one which reads a son's admiration of his dad - for the way he lived his life, the ups and the downs as a Jockey, until the last time when he went down.

Big Two-Hearted River (parts  I and II) - This is a short story in two parts in which we have only the protagonist, Nick Adams, alone in a war scorched field. With his camping equipment, he walks miles along a river until he reaches an unaffected area. Yet he fishes using the grass hoppers, who had turned black due to the scorched lands - in essence signifying how the after-effects of war are used for the current era, I felt. The story goes to minute details about how Nick fishes for trout.

All in all, most of the stories use the Iceberg theory that Hemingway was known for - where he goes to minute detail about "a tree", allowing the reader to form out the "woods" of her own. Besides the deployment of that theory, the use of the character Nick Adams is to present his alter-ego as already mentioned. First published in 1925, it may have caused quite a stir upon a first reading, although critics have embraced his style.

It was Hemingway's first official short story collection, and it was a very good place to start - and the coming years will probably see me reading the rest of his work.

Tuesday, 25 December 2018

Less - Andrew Sean Greer

Pulitzer Award for Fiction 2017

Since reading the Man Booking award winning "Finkler Question" and "The Sellout" , satire fiction has held an affectionate nook in my reading. But I was somewhat not prepared for Less. This is the  first satire which is also a Gay romance, written from the viewpoint of a "Gay World". So much so, not long after starting upon the novel the notion that straight is strange atmosphere affects the reader ( if he or she is hetero).

I was skimming through a little of the author's biography as found in Wikipedia and it is clear that the work is partially biographical.  The name Less too is telling - for Less is someone "less" successful in the world of literary giants, and am sure the choice of the name is well thought of.

We see the ever romantic, moderately successful author taking  time to patch up, with a round the world trip, to come to terms with his not so successful life - that of  loss, of his past - broken relationships, troubled childhood, drugs etc. The trip starts off bad, as he realises that his publisher won't accept his latest novel - one more defeat in a long series for Less.

In an Indian resort Island his life long rival says to Less "has the best life of anyone" he knows - of course by then Carlos ( his rival ) knew more than he was letting on to Less.

"You have the luck of a comedian. Bad luck in things that don’t matter. Good luck in things that do. I think—you probably won’t agree with this—but I think your whole life is a comedy. Not just the first part. The whole thing. You are the most absurd person I’ve ever met. You’ve bumbled through every moment and been a fool; you’ve misunderstood and misspoken and tripped over absolutely everything and everyone in your path, and you’ve won. And you don’t even realize it."

An unsuspecting white gay of fifty years, alone in the world, with humour and awkwardness all along the way, around the globe, with many a chuckle and a few outright laughs for the reader to indulge in. Its satire is what  holds the book up - for instead of the tragedy of Less' situation, we are shown  the comedy of it, and how those he has loved, loves him back in return unconditionally. It is this survival and Less' own non-realization of it that makes Carlos admit to his nemesis' success.

Towards the last part of the book, Less is being asked to break his way out of paper walled room in Kyoto, for an age old door is stuck. The use of parable here is clear.

The moment the reader realises that the book could be semi autobiographical ( Greer has been a more successful writer than his protegee in the novel, granted ), one wonders if there's a tone of self-congratulation concealed, but with traces to show.

A very readable book, and a new experience since the base from which the narration is presented is that of a gay seat - a first time to me - not even Forster's Maurice or any other work from a Gay author had this "from their natural world" outlook.

Although I enjoyed the book as a whole, I cannot deny the nagging feeling if what the book offered was sufficient to attract the success it did. Gay-world,  satire, and a fresh look at what is success, not to mention a view of the not so sweet world of authors is what it offers. I cannot but wonder if I missed something the Pulitzer panel found revelatory .

Saturday, 22 December 2018

The Shining - Stephen King

This isn't exactly a review. It is part novel review, part movie review and why I wouldn't hesitate to watch movies based on King's work without reading the novels they are based on, hereon.

The Shining - the novel: A long work, the book is titled on the "born talent" that Danny Torrence has - that of psychic premonitions, ability to listen to conversations out of his earshot and peeking into other's minds. He's schizophrenic too, and  this talent is being presented to us as "The Shining". While the genre of the book is horror, there are unmistakable use of psychology throughout the book While as a whole,  the novel, the plot and the segments of thriller work, I found it rather far fetched the moment the long dead spirits intervened with the living, through physical actions. For example opening the larder door for Jack Torrence in which he's been locked in. Its as if somewhere deep down in my brain there is some understanding that the paranormal can affect you mentally, and could haunt you but for them to do physical activity makes whatever slim chance of them being real, even far more remote. So that's when the book doesn't work for me. The other part was the hedge animals - a total No-No I felt. Thankfully Kubrick has traded the hedge animals to the hedge labyrinth - a much better, believable choice which plays a pivotal role in the movie, in contrast to the rather unbelievable role that the so called hedge animals play in the novel.

I would've probably enjoyed  Kubrick's movie better, had I not read the book. The book while being more descriptive, and more gory with Jack using the  mallet axe to good effect,  is almost a good match in the intensity of horror. For, the movie has the advantage of sound and color, not to mention the expert use of the camera. In that sense, King would've done well to limit the "far fetched" scenes of horror - but then, I do grant that those incidents could appear more believable to other readers.

On trivia to round off this small write-up; It is reported that Mr. King was less than happy with movie production of his novel. For, there are fundamental differences in the movie to make it almost  original. The ending scene which shows a 1924 photo of the participants of a Ball, in which a Jack Torrence look alike is present, leaves the audience contemplating whether there is another angle to the whole horror psychology being presented here. This was a path that King didn't thread upon at all. Another point is that The Stanley, a hotel in close proximity to the Rockies  with some rumours about it, is the basis for the grand hotel in the book and the movie - The Overlook. And Stephen King and his wife had spent one night there - as its only guests there, and the plot for the book has come to the  author then. (It is even said that some of the battles that King was fighting were same as what Jack Torrence was).

In conclusion, I could say that while I enjoyed "The Shining" largely, it is very unlikely that I will indulge in more of his novels. Movies based on his books are another matter.