A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

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The story revolves around Jude, a lawyer, and his friends- Willem, JB, Malcolm. Jude had a troubled childhood. It affects every relationship he has later on. The book is a study of his worldview. The events in the book take place over a span of many years.

The book is about Jude, but Yanagihara gives us a backstory for each of Jude’s friends. Each character has a rich set of traits which make them memorable. The author describes how a character behaves in certain situations. She talks about their quirks which makes them more human. There is an instance where she describes a girl Willem spent a night with. She appears just once but the author describes little details about her:

She is thirty-three, with long dark hair that lightens at its tips and a very small hands, hands like a child’s, on which she wears rings that she has made, dark with gold and glinting stones; before they have sex, she takes them off last, as if these rings, not her underwear, are what conceal the most private parts of her.

Character traits are unravelled by their actions. She describes their specific actions on a normal day.

[Jude] who had a tendency to make things more elaborate than was necessary, to spend nights making batches of gourmet when everyone would have been content with pizza, to actually clean the place beforehand, as if anyone would care if the floors were crunchy with grit and the sink was scummed with dried soap stains and flecks of previous days’ breakfasts.

Yanagihara rarely describes the setting in terms of material things. She does not talk about the colour of the walls or the sofa or the tile. She instead makes everything about the people. The reactions of the character to the setting. Its always about the way someone feels. Here’s a passage which talks about an evening in JB’s home:

At some point in the evening- after dinner but before dessert, while they all rested in the living room, watching television, his mother’s cat lying hotly in his lap – he would look at his women and feel something swell within him.

Friendship is one of the biggest themes. Yanagihara has portrayed friendship in the same way how most of the movies portray romantic love. The bond between Willem and Jude is beautiful but at times tends to be unrealistic. Jude has difficulty talking about his childhood among his friends. He feels left out when people talk about their lives and he does not have anything to share.

They were his friends, his first friends, and he understood that friendship was a series of exchanges: of affections, of time, sometimes of money, always of information.

JB took pictures of his friends. He regrets not recording their lives earlier.

At one point a couple of hours in, he [JB] found them by the window with just one another, Jude saying something and the other two leaning in close to hear him, and then in the next moment, the three of them leaning back and all laughing, and although for a moment he felt both wistful and slightly jealous, he was also triumphant, as he had gotten both shots.

All characters are chasing a dream of their own. Each of them yearns for something they don’t have. Willem wants to be an actor. JB is a passionate, talented struggling artist who is in search of success. Malcolm, on the other hand, is trying to impress his parents, pursuing a career which he thinks will make them proud. He is working in a firm which sounds good to tell at parties. But secretly he wants to create things.

JB had his series. Jude had his work, Willem had his. But what if Malcolm never again created anything.

There are moments during conversations when unspoken words convey more than the spoken ones. In the below passage, the author writes about Jude’s struggle to say ‘No’.

The word no, so short, so easy to say, a child’s sound, a noise more than a word, a sharp exhalation of air: all he had to do was part his lips, and the word would come out, and- and what?

Yanagihara values details. When talking about parents of Andy, Jude’s doctor, she says – Andy’s father was Gujarati and his mother was Welsh. Yanagihara refrained from saying the father was an Indian. He was a Gujarati. She didn’t generalize.

The narrative is in the third person. Except for the part where Jude’s professor, Harold, is narrating his experiences which happens in the first person. This switch to the first person narrative gives us a glimpse of Jude and his friends from a new perspective.

Jude has seen the best and worst of the world. What he has experienced affects how he behaves with everyone. He sees himself based on how others have treated him in the past. Willem tries to understand Jude and help him. Willem tries to fix him. But Jude doesn’t believe he needs fixing.

Much later in the book during a dinner, the characters talk about the meaning of life. Willem says the below words, which in some ways describe what the book is about.

I know my life’s meaningful because I’m a good friend. I love my friends, and I care about them, and I think I make them happy.

The Picture of Dorian Gray

5297The Picture of Dorian Gray is the only novel written by Oscar Wilde. It is set in Victorian-era England. Dorian Gray is an attractive young man who becomes a perfect muse for a painter Basil Hallward.

Basil’s friend, Lord Henry, often comments on human behaviour and the world around him. His long monologues may sound a bit didactic at times. He tries to influence those around him using his wisdom and wit. We don’t know much about his past. Basil’s characterization is bit weak. The novel mostly concentrates on Dorian, whose character is sketchy. The characters reveal themselves through their words rather than their actions.

The author talks about Dorian’s beauty a lot.

His romantic, olive-coloured face and worn expression interested him. There was something in his low languid voice that was absolutely fascinating. His cool, white, flowerlike hands, even, had a curious charm.

Basil and Henry are enamoured by Dorian. The way they talk about him shows they are strongly infatuated.

The story goes at a leisurely pace. It is linear and laid back. After seeing the stunning painting of himself by Basil, Dorian wishes that he stays young and handsome.

How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young

His wish comes true. He does not age but the portrait does. People believe that Dorian has made a deal with the Satan. He commits sins which reflects in his painting. It becomes more hideous.

The book talks about the relationship between the artist and the art. Basil is afraid to exhibit the portrait. He thinks he has poured too much of himself into it. He knows the painting is the best he has ever done. By looking at the painting people can see him. As Henry points out that he is secretive about his closest friends. Sybil was a good actress. Playing the heroine in Shakespeare’s tragedies. But after she falls in love with Dorian, she loses interest in acting. She is in love with real life. Drama doesn’t look as exciting. Sybil thinks art was a prison and reality freed her.

Sybil is poor. She is worried her affair with Dorian might not be successful. In the latter part of the book, Dorian has an affair with a village girl. He mentions to Henry that he did a great favour by not marrying her. The author here shows how love and class are inter-related.

There are no strong women characters in the book. Women seek the attention of men. All Sybil wants is to marry Dorian. She neglects her work when she comes to know of their mutual interest towards each other. Lord Henry’s comments hint at his chauvinistic attitude. Henry tells Dorian that since Sybil does not know much about the world she might make a good wife.

She is very lovely, and if she knows a little about life as she does about acting, she will be a delightful experience.

Dorian is not ready to accept himself. But he is aware of his thoughts and actions. He knows how it has affected others in a negative way. But he doesn’t believe his vices are his. It is rather projected on his portrait which he hides from everybody. He is ashamed to see it himself. As Henry says, “To realize one’s nature perfectly – – that is what each of us is here for.” Dorian’s actions are unexpected and shocking. It does not make sense. As Lord Henry says-

I wonder who it was defined man as a rational animal. It was the most premature definition ever given. Man is many things, but he is not rational.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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The book was not easy to read at first. I was overwhelmed with the new terminologies and the unique style of writing. The author doesn’t pause to explain what’s going on. He just shows what is happening and we need to put things in place. A lot of mental work required by the reader. But gradually I got the hang of it. I started to love the writing and the world he had created. Familiarity is indeed comforting.

The book is about the misadventures of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect as they travel the universe after the Earth is destroyed. The science is handled well. But the book is not about advanced sciences or new technologies. It’s about how life has come to terms with it.

There is a robot, Eddie. But it has character traits of its own. Like humans, it has imperfections. There exists a place which manufactures other planets. People who want to buy planets can look at a catalogue. But the fun is not in introducing these concepts. It is in knowing how the world has shaped around it, how life and world economy is affecting this process. It’s about knowing why the intelligent beings are doing this.

Two philosophers, Vroomfondel and Majikthise, appear in only a few lines. But they are more memorable than Robert Langdon from the Dan Brown books. The characterization is rich. Even computers have a personality. The author is adept at bringing out certain traits in characters which make them stand out.

The book is funny because its sarcastic, ironic and absurd.

The whole Poghril tribe had died out from famine except for one last man who died of cholesterol poisoning some week later

Paradoxical statements are filled in every page. For example, even with advancements in technology, a towel is considered the best tool a hitchhiker can have. It is a pleasure to read such witty sentences which bring together science and bare humanness.

“You know,” said Arthur, “it’s at times like this, when I’m trapped in a Vogon airlock with a man from Betelgeuse, and about to die of asphyxiation in deep space that I really wish I’d listened to what my mother told me when I was young.”

“Why, what did she tell you?”

“I don’t know, I didn’t listen.”

The book uses phrases like ‘Knowing where one’s towel is’, ‘Don’t Panic’, “Most Harmless’ which forces the user to pause and look for meaning. It tells more by telling less.

An overarching theme of finding meaning is prominent. Zaphod is disturbed. He is trying to find out the reasons behind his actions. The intelligent beings build a supercomputer to answer the most important questions of life. And it spurts out an answer whose meaning is ambiguous. The humans have lived their whole life with certain ideas about the world around them. The book destroys both the Earth and the ideas we have about it. And we can’t be happy thinking that the more intelligent beings know what they are doing. They too are confused. But these questions are suppressed by the humour. By seemingly insignificant details. The book is about finding what is the purpose of life and also knowing where your towel is.

A Farewell to Arms

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There is nothing in A Farewell to Arms that distracts you from the writing itself. The plot is sequential. There are no flashbacks. It is not a page turner with mystery and thrill spilled all over the place. The chapters doesn’t end with a cliffhanger. There are not many characters. The focus stays on the main characters all along. The language is as simple as it could be. Hemingway concentrates only on story telling and nothing else. And he tells it the best way possible. It sometimes feels that you are not reading a book, but listening to an old friend sitting beside you, telling about the time with his lady, in the middle of a war. But in a more elaborate manner.

Hemingway uses certain deviant literary devices to narrate few instances which mark its importance or foregrounds it. The author sometimes uses long, almost unending sentences which is a string of many other sentences joined together with many and‘s. For example consider the below snippet:

“Maybe she would pretend that I was her boy that was killed and we would go in the front door and the porter would take off his cap and I would stop at the concierge’s desk and ask for the key and she would stand by the elevator and then we would get in the elevator and it would go up very slowly clicking at all the floors and then our floor and the boy would open the door and stand there and she would step out and …”

This technique catches the reader off guard and has a profound effect. You are forced to read it in a single breath. All the emotions and thoughts converge and intensify the reading experience.

The author also uses a ridiculous amount repetitions. For example:

“Don’t let her die. Oh, God, please don’t let her die. I’ll do anything for you if you won’t let her die. Please, please, please, dear God, don’t let her die. Dear God, don’t let her die. Please, please, please don’t let her die. God please make her not die. I’ll do anything you say if you don’t let her die. “

There are many other instances where Hemingway uses this method. I felt this was a bit irritating forcing me to skip through the whole part where author makes use of this.

Hemingway sometimes seems to be in a flow and writes his thoughts as it comes to his mind without caring for punctuation or quotation marks to indicate conversations, which he makes use of elsewhere. Consider this snippet:

“You go away in the morning, baby, Rinaldi said. To Rome, I said. No, to Milan. To Milan, said the major, to the Crystal Palace, to the Cova, to Campari’s, to Biffi’s, to the galleria. You lucky boy. To the Gran Italia, I said, where I will borrow money from George. To the Scala, said Rinaldi. You will go to the Scala. Every night, I said. You won’t be able to afford it every night, said the major.”

The courtship between Catherine and Frederic, the main characters, is glorified and a tad too perfect. Maybe a bit unconvincing too. Author creates ideal situations at the time of crisis for the blossoming love. The background setting of Switzerland romanticizes the whole plot. The love is purely conveyed from the romantic settings and the conversations. The author rarely intervenes. He only speaks through the characters and the settings. The absence of other characters creates an exclusivity and the brings forth how the lovers feel when being with each other. The lovers fill each other’s worlds and the rest is a blur.

Frederic character background is not explored much. The character development is slow overall. For most part of the book, author shows Frederic form reactions to his surrounding and not form opinions of his own. Not until much later when he starts to be with Catherine. There are no other significant characters. Rinaldi and the Priest give a sense of the past for Frederic which is non-existence otherwise. Fergusan too plays the same role for Catherine.

War looms over everything all along. Hemingway raises concerns over the futility of the war. There is a hint of irony when Tenente is being considered for a bravery medal and is asked what heroic act he has done to which he repeatedly refuses doing any act of honour. But he is given a silver medal anyway. War is the destroyer of lives, families and one’s loved ones, ultimately reflected in the main plot of the book.

The Crows of Agra by Sharath Komarraju

The book is a murder mystery set during the Mughal emperor Akbar’s reign, in 1562 A.D. Many of the characters’ names resemble real people in Akbar’s court and family including the emperor himself. Mahesh Das (later known as Birbal) investigates the murder of king’s regent Bairam Khan the night before his pilgrimage to Mecca.

Crows of Agra

The linear third person narration focuses mainly on Mahesh Das for the most part of the book with an exception at the beginning where a little background is given to Akbar’s character. As the investigation proceeds the facts are made known to the reader along with Mahesh Das, which puts the reader at the center of investigation and it helps to develop ideas along with Mahesh Das.

Mahesh Das and Akbar emerge as two prominent characters. The mysterious past life of Mahesh Das creates a pleasant distraction. Akbar is shown as a young man coming out of the damaging clutches of his regent Bairam Khan. Reader is not given any deep insights to rest of the characters, but the author is successful in bringing out relevant features without any break in the narration.

The quest for power is the dominant theme. But revenge and love also plays along on the sidelines which brings a bit of diversity to the plot. In spite of being set in the Mughul period, the women characters are strong and overshadows men most of the time. Maham Anga, the step mother of Akbar, and is portrayed as an imposing mother figure. Gulbadan Begam, emperor’s aunt, is also a interesting character with curious traits.

Most of the plot is filled with conversations between Mahesh Das and other characters. At times you yearn for something dramatic to happen. It is not a page turner but it goes on a steady pace. Past life of Mahesh Das could have been explored more. Would I pick this book if it did not mention any historical people? – I doubt it. But I love the narration and writing – it is sounds simple, but honest, a trait which is missing in many of the contemporary Indian bestsellers.

 

Clear Light Of Day by Anita Desai

Source: Goodreads
Source: Goodreads

The story portrays the dynamics of relationships among the members of Das family in Old Delhi. With the added setting of India – Pakistan partition at its background, the book attempts to capture the sentiments of the people and society of that time. The plot mainly revolves around the Das siblings – Bimla, Tara, Raj and Baba. The book starts when the characters are in their present state of adulthood. It then goes on to give some perspective about the characters’ adolescence, early adulthood and their childhood.

The prominent part of the story is the tumultuous relationship between the Das siblings. The house is depicted as a bad omen for its residents. First there are the negligent parents, the autistic brother and later the lonely existence of Bim. Tara untied her knots from all these, married Bakul and lead a good life. Similarly Raja, moved to Hyderabad and is happy with his family. Tara and Raja found happiness after moving out of the house. Bim chose to stay in the house avoiding all love that is thrown upon her.

The tensions between the Hindus and the Muslims form an important part of the plot due to the Raja’s involvement with the Hyder Ali’s family. The riots caused major movement of people across countries, ever recorded in recent history. Raja’s aversion to his own family and his love for the Hyder Ali’s, affirms his ideas of a quality lifestyle. Same is seen with Bim when she dislikes the Mishra family.

The author, painstakingly, names and distinguishes between the birds and flowers. Nothing is generalized. This creates a vivid picture and enhances the setting and mood of the book. The music and poetry too are prominent. The Mishra’s are connoisseurs of classical music. Tara takes a liking towards the Mishra girls who are shown in contrast to Bim. Bim is sophisticated, strong and independent. Whereas Jaya and Sarla are simple minded, lively and more concerned of material things.

Raja’s abandonment had turned Bim into a cynic, with practical view of life. A life void of all fancy dreams like the Mishra sisters or of Tara. Raja is living a satisfied life, away from his own family, doing what he loves, reciting poems. Bim is obsessed with the comical image of Raja’s family feeding and growing fat, which makes her more mad at him.

There are elements in the story which tends towards dark fiction. Mad Mira-masi running out naked from the house, the dead body of a cow in the well, the ghost of the aunt, all create disturbing imagery.

The book sticks to telling a story and the narration does not take sides. It is not didactic. The author rarely has a voice of her own. The characters don’t have long soliloquies, where the writer can write down their own ideas. Clear light of day is true to its characters and plot.

The Floating Opera by John Barth

Source: Goodreads
Source: Goodreads

In this book, lawyer Todd Andrews reminisces about the day when he decides not to kill himself. The book, then goes on to describe why he had planned to end his life and why he did not go through with it. The narrative, written in first person, also gives us glimpses of some important events in the protagonist’s earlier life.

The story comments on the futility and meaninglessness of life. This post war American novel tends to be nihilistic  and philosophical. The protagonist is convinced that there is no intrinsic value for any aspect of life. Its value is given by us, an external entity. He believes that death is neutral and his life is a pain. Hence by committing suicide he is actually ending his misery. But later he extends his philosophy of meaninglessness to death itself. He thinks ‘why bother’ to die.

The protagonist fancies the idea of a showboat which has a play going on as it moves along the river. The audience sit on the banks and enjoy the show. They can only see what is happening in the play when it passes in front of them. They can have an idea of what happened before through word of mouth from the people sitting beside them. Hence the name ‘The Floating Opera’. Similarly, in our life we meet people and get involved with them, not knowing what happened before. We use our imagination and build stories for our satisfaction, but we have no clue. We try to find a relation, a meaning but we have no idea about anything.

The narrative goes back and forth in time to give us an idea of Todd’s life. It tells us about his first sexual alliance with a girl, his time as a soldier in war, his involvement with a couple and the subsequent love triangle, his relationship with his father and a case which he was working on. Each part of the story solidifies and confirms the main idea of the novel. The narrative sometimes tends to be didactic.

I picked this book with not much expectations. But by the time I finished, it was one of my favourite books. It is relatively easy but not a casual read. It requires attention in order to appreciate the subtle sarcastic and ironic remarks of the author. And to know that the author was just 24 when he wrote this, is quite surprising.