A YEAR IN READING – MESSING UP THE POLITY

A YEAR IN READING – MESSING UP THE POLITY

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The political dust of the last general election in the U.S has yet to settle. Like all “diligent” citizens of the world, the 2016 U.S General Election was a nail-biting time for me. Nigeria has its dose of trouble but Nigeria has always, and to grieve for Nigeria all the time was a stale and a perennial affair. I could really use some time in the sun, so off to America I wandered; the land  of the free and the home of the brave. In the United States a Republican candidate for the leader of the free world was about to go into an election and he was shooting his mouth haphazardly like a broken faucet. That was a sight. It would have been laughable if it were just some comic actor in a sitcom ribbing us. This was a potential President of the United States! And as ludicrous as the whole affair was, I couldn’t help but notice a cloud gathering – one that had the stamping foot  and the screaming voices of legions of Americans threatening to kick out the old order in a discontented cacophony, one that was gangly soaking up the drivel of the burly, testy man on the campaign podium. How such a racist, sexist pedagogue created a platform that would become a rallying point for many U.S citizens was very worrying to say the least

Let me step back and do a full disclosure. I am with Hillary Clinton. See, I can’t even bring myself to dip that declaration in past tense. That’s how badly hurt I am by America. This pain hurts, I tell you. Abi no be America again.

So while I was admiring Clinton and staying with her, seething at Trump and smhing for him, I decided for balance to find dirt on my heroine, Hilary Clinton in the name of full disclosure. So from a list of anti-Hillary books that had suddenly find their way to the top of the bestseller’s list, I decided to go for the most venomous according to polls. I picked Gary J Brynes Crisis of Character. Bryne was a White House Secret Service Agent during the Bush administration and the better part of Bill Clinton’s.  He was a close observer of the operations of the White House in the early nineties. In his tell-it-all account, Brynes spared no details in tearing into the Clintons. He wrote of the sinister machinations, the sleaze, and the financial impropriety of the first family. He seized on Bill’s  widely publicized romance with Lewinsky, Hilary’s less known temper tantrums and manipulative style; just about any of the Clinton’s linen was starkly brought out for literary airing, and all in time before a historical election in the history of the United States, featuring its first female candidate in a major political party.

So with a Crisis of Character, I sought the truth from where it was likely to hurt the most to prepare my heart for any eventuality.  Hilary isn’t Miss Too Goody Shoe and now I know it like I have always suspected, but against a Trump, I would still had stood for her. My choice here was not a difficult one. I would take her over an undisciplined, unhinged racist, a bigot and an unruly character without discipline or any measure of Presidential decorum to say the least.

The book Crisis of Character is no way near the awesomeness of the dozens of books I have read this year. Placing it on this list is the gravest disservice I could have done to the multitude of titles here, and the others that didn’t make my top 12. But I also know that the things that make us grow and learn aren’t necessarily the things that appease our sensibilities .They are sometimes like the irascible elves that hold up their hands like a witness and share their discomfiting truth, with glee or with remorse.

I don’t know how much this books and others of the ilk helped in ensuring that Hilary Clinton does not become the first female president of the United States (and I don’t think it did much) but I ensured that if I had hitherto had any iota of blind worship for Hilary Clinton, this book disabused me of it, and created for me a level playing field from which to assess the two candidates.

So thank you Gary J. Bryne but there are no quotes from you.  Nonsense !

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A YEAR IN READING – A MILLION GEMS FOR A GOLDFINCH

A YEAR IN READING – A MILLION GEMS FOR A GOLDFINCH

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“That life – whatever else it is – is short. That fate is cruel but maybe not random. That Nature (meaning Death) always wins but that doesn’t mean we have to bow and grovel to it. That maybe even if we’re not always so glad to be here, it’s our task to immerse ourselves anyway: wade straight through it, right through the cesspool, while keeping eyes and hearts open. And in the midst of our dying, as we rise from the organic and sink back ignominiously into the organic, it is a glory and a privilege to love what Death doesn’t touch.”  – Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch.

Reading The Goldfinch this year was a belated catch-up really. With the number of incredible books released every year there is a possibility that a great number of them would be hidden in plain sight – passed over again and again. Between catching up on the recent years’, rereading old classics, keeping up with the contemporaries, very many good titles get lost in the shuffle. I read The Goldfinch roughly three months ago. It’s been idling away on my TBR for a while. So when September came and things slowed down on the fiction- reading front I decided at last to see to it.

 The Goldfinch is another book that reviewers are adorning with stars, sometimes too sparsely at other times flamboyantly. In some way, I can understand why. The first few pages of this book were a bore. A lot of time I’m thinking, ‘there are a gazillion books in the wings that you wouldn’t get to finish if you are blessed with a thousand life times, why do you like to punish yourself thus?’. But when you are a serial reader you are a survivor in ways many ways many would never understand. You’ll be able to sniff water by the very sight of a cactus in a desert. I knew there was something to this book and I just couldn’t give it up when I sense I could stumble on that something any time. And  boy, did my patience pay off or what!

The denouement was fa-bu-lous. Some stories hook you from the beginning with a scented bait and drag you through the slimy mud of plot into the bottom of the ocean, others offer nothing but the faintest ray of light, pulls you out of the mud to the fresh clean air of a bespectacled shore. The Goldfinch belongs to the latter.

In the midst of the desolation there were characters who made me laugh, and more importantly there were tons of quotes for my scrap book. What’s even more amazing is how you can generate a mammoth story from a speck.  But I suppose in the order of things in literature there are no specks to be dusted away; there are segues of subplots and back stories and spin-offs from that tiny grain of an idea that holds the writer by the gut, that just can  not be washed down by a shot of whiskey. Only a pen poised over a blank paper or the mad tapping at the computer would do. From these atomic situations, a cosmo of words is birthed – the big bang that produces the thousand words of essays, a few pages of novellas, and many hundreds of novels. There is nothing to be toyed with in the handling of an idea that has found a foothold in your guts.

Theo Dekker, with his mother broke into the pages of this book in an art gallery that would soon have him motherless, lost and alone (except for a painting). Feverishly antsy for something he had done, the traumatized thirteen-year old had to deal with an innocent mistake that would define the course of his life forever. Becoming a globe-trotting art enthusiast with an insidious history, his life goal became both a personal and a philosophical one of naming the un-named, in his search for a lost treasure in the seedy world of European art dealership.

The Goldfinch dramatizes that wanton, helpless, shameless pride we have for things we are passionate about.

When a book touches you so like The Goldfinch did me, when it touches on something you feel deeply in your soul the way Tartt digs into it, you just know it has to make your list, and only because we don’t all feel just as strongly as other people feel about their passions, I’ll excuse anyone who wants to take a pass on this one. But it’ll be good if you’ll read it if not for the story itself but for the abundance of freshly distilled wisdom contained therein. This book re-emphasizes for me what all great work of art is –philosophy. And you know me, I love anything that tinkers with my brain. This one tickled it.

Donna Tartt was exquisite. I didn’t think I was going to say this when I started this book but here I am.

But yeah, sometimes you have to dig for the gem.

And here are some gems for you:

“A great sorrow, and one that I am only beginning to understand: we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

“Because–isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture–? From William Blake to Lady Gaga, from Rousseau to Rumi to Tosca to Mister Rogers, it’s a curiously uniform message, accepted from high to low: when in doubt, what to do? How do we know what’s right for us? Every shrink, every career counselor, every Disney princess knows the answer: “Be yourself.” “Follow your heart.”

“Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or winningly they say it: no one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is a catastrophe. The basic fact of existence – of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do – is a catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous ‘Our Town’ nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me – and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool. Sinkhole of hospital beds, coffins, and broken hearts. No release, no appeal, no “do-overs” to employ a favored phrase of Xandra’s, no way forward but age and loss, and no way out but death.”

“And as much as I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”

Only here’s what I really, really want someone to explain to me. What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted–? What if the heart, for its own unfathomable reasons, leads one willfully and in a cloud of unspeakable radiance away from health, domesticity, civic responsibility and strong social connections and all the blandly-held common virtues and instead straight toward a beautiful flare of ruin, self-immolation, disaster?…If your deepest self is singing and coaxing you straight toward the bonfire, is it better to turn away? Stop your ears with wax? Ignore all the perverse glory your heart is screaming at you? Set yourself on the course that will lead you dutifully towards the norm, reasonable hours and regular medical check-ups, stable relationships and steady career advancement the New York Times and brunch on Sunday, all with the promise of being somehow a better person? Or…is it better to throw yourself head first and laughing into the holy rage calling your name?”

“—if a painting really works down in your heart and changes the way you see, and think, and feel, you don’t think, ‘oh, I love this picture because it’s universal.’ ‘I love this painting because it speaks to all mankind.’ That’s not the reason anyone loves a piece of art. It’s a secret whisper from an alleyway. Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you.”

How can anyone resist such beautiful prose? You sef look am now!

 

Living in Gidi : Something of a Review

Living in Gidi : Something of a Review

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I’ve got my copy of Isaac Newtøn Akah’s ‘Living in Gidi’.

Here Isaac looks through a tiny pin-hole at Lasgidi in all of its maddening chaos and intemperate glory. He humorously captures the strifes of a hustler in this maniacal city, from the weekend-ly owambes to the resourceful conductor we love, from the save-by-the-bell story of a night that could have gone awry to the very humane Lagos that offers a free ride, no rituals involved.

You can process these tales in your dark imagination as a non-initiate; I-can-never-live in Lagos-if you-offer-me-ten-billion type or you can stand unabashedly in the glow of Isaac’s flash like a resident Lagos model whose story is being told through the narrative lens of a creative writer. Either way you will be alright, as we say in Lagos.

And yes there are cracks of humanity too to help you see that this writer, for all of his ‘Smart Aleckiness’ does bleed too. He might be cloaked in humour, but his heart sometimes slips down his sleeve. (I see you bruh !)

The ‘palmitic’ Pope Itodo Samuel Anthony is not left out of this tale. He makes an appearance too: ditched his gourd for a moment (or did he) and opened each episode with lines thrown from up the towering height of the Palm tree (for who does not know that that is where great wisdom resides next to the bottom of a gourd). Here we are offered a view into the picturesque Lagos of Isaac’s- crazy and all from this overlooking height.

Living in Gidi is replete with the tales we do not all have the words for. Tales that softens the edge of our roguish Lagos core with a perspective and an abiding message.

These are light-hearted stories for your reading pleasure.

Available on Amazon and Okadabooks

A YEAR IN READING – NOT SO LITTLE A LIFE

A YEAR IN READING – NOT SO LITTLE A LIFE

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“You see, Jude, in life, sometimes nice things happen to good people. You don’t need to worry—they don’t happen as often as they should. But when they do, it’s up to the good people to just say ‘thank you,’ and move on, and maybe consider that the person who’s doing the nice thing gets a bang out of it as well, and really isn’t in the mood to hear all the reasons that the person for whom he’s done the nice thing doesn’t think he deserves it or isn’t worthy of it.” ― Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

In A Little Life, I sauntered through 720 pages of life – not so short a life, I know.  Every page dense with wisdom; words like dew, words like sun, words that lighten your feet, words that leaden them. A Little Life surged, it ebbed, but it never disappointed. Like life, I wanted it to end this minute, I wanted it to go on forever.  In between this rashness I pondered life anew, friendship for one, suffering for another, and then redemption, and then pain and then death (Aha!). This is one book that had me flailing through a flurry of emotions so intense, it was like hypnosis. People who loved  A Little Life, loved it passionately and those who hate it, do with every fibre of their being and with heavy investment of their emotions.  Congratulations Yanagihara, look what you did!

Let me quickly say that this book was the one book I wanted so badly to review. I scribbled feverishly through it like a maniac but now I can’t find the words.  I’m so disappointed right now mostly because I know that there is nothing I can say here that will do justice to this book. That’s a shame   because this is a book that deserves to be read. I’ve waited for my muse to show up, read other reviews, read section of the books again, yet I feel inadequate for this task. Heck, I should have written a review immediately after the book!

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A Little Life is a treasure.

But hear me guys, A Little Life is the real deal. My social media walls are flecked with beautiful tidings from and on the book ever since I read it in early May. If I could, I would buy a thousand copies and have it distributed as Christmas gifts to you all. Nobody should be allowed to die without reading it. Nobody!

So, how did I come about it?

My knowledge of A Little Life came on a wave of rave reviews. Prior to reading it, I was inundated by positive recommendations from my book club, my mailing lists, round-table talks etc. Every four out of five persons who’d read it thought it was awesome.  And that was a problem. When a book is awash with too many accolades, it often falls short of my expectation, even if the commentators are the nerdiest book buffs around. It’s always best to err on the side of caution.  Because of this, I made no effort to research the writer or on the story itself. I wanted to be rid of all the noise and maintain a certain aloofness from the frenzy. In short, what I sort was a personal taxonomy for a book that has been labelled, cached and exhibited in different literary fora.

But what do I have to lose, really?

So in the beginning of May, I tumbled into the book cautiously.

By the time I was into the 50th page, every sense of apprehension had totally dissolved into absolute immersion.

A Little Life is not that book, and I’m not afraid to add my voice to that rooftop gang of high-praisers going hoarse from exhaustion that this is the book.  I’ll risk my voice on this one. It’s that good.

This is a book I will be reading over and over again in years to come.  With over 700 pages there is nothing dismissively out of place in this book for me. Every turn of a page was well worth it. If you are given to tears, order your Kleenex and get enough fluid in your system. I assure you you will need it. If you have a steely heart, expect to be hammered, it will leave a dent on you.

A Little Life is a story of four guys who met in college and forged a bond of lasting friendship. These men went on to become successful in their different fields. The story revolves around the lives of Malcolm, Jude, JB and Willem in a swinging arcway, carefully unveiling the backgrounds and quirks of these distinctive characters as much as they are willing to share. One after the other, they came into their own: Malcolm the highly-sought  after blue-blooded architect designing plans for high rise buildings and personal homes of the affluent all around the world, JB the tempestuous biracial photographer whose greatest creation would be inspired by his friends, Willem  the dashing waiter-actor who would successfully cut his nose among the Hollywood big leaguers and Jude the troubled  lawyer and Mathematician. On the pages of Hanya Yanagihara’s book, nothing is forced. These fictitious characters have to give their consents. With the cerebral and reclusive Jude, the experienced reader might be able to catch on early that the juiciest stuff lay with him and that he might be the hardest nut to crack; and the reader would be right.  Often impelled by his more vivacious friends, Jude’s evolution as the epicenter of the story came not from any authorial summon but in the patient dig into the past and the careful exposure of vulnerabilities. Jude’s reticence would be aptly caught through the scope of JB’s exhibitionist lens and later on by Willem’s nurturing and unrelenting love.

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In this book, Yanagihara cultivates the reader’s curiosity to a fever-pitch crescendo. Mystery (and misery) tickles curiosity and Yanagihara knows this. By slowly (and you can see how difficult this is) peeling off the layers of silence and disguises, what’s left of the story is the rawest grittiest tale that I have read in a long while.

When I have read a book so utterly compelling as this, I never let it go with the characters or the book. I have never been satisfied with a protagonist receding into the sunset, the better if they don’t.  A Little Life ended with a drawn curtain with shadows of haunting memories. Ever since May, I have hung on to the author; scouring the internet for her interviews, seeking her out on social media,  reading everything she’s ever written, done about everything I could from across the Atlantic to really get to know this woman.

Because this is the thing: Hanya Yanagihara’s characters are so memorable it’s easy to forget that they are creations; that she was there in the room when Jude writhed on the bathroom floor, his wrist bloodied from the razor cuts; that she was there when Willem’s car crashed and Malcolm designed his fabulous works. It’s so much easier to forget the forest for the tress. Yanagihara is a master pupetteer.

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A fine writer!

If for one thing, I am glad for the fame this book has had because it deserves it. I mean, there are numerous fan clubs of the book on the internet. The other day I saw an alittlelifebook instagram account. There are merchandises customized for the book (I’ve only seen two books that matched this popularity; Harry Potter and The Faults In Our Stars) and I’m so delighted by this. Yanagihara may not know it yet, she’s made me a lifelong fan of hers, and sooner or later I would have her know it.

The younger me was a dilettante. I loved reading simply for the pleasure. Reading was orgasmic. It was my adrenaline shot. I could get off those pages and never feel remorseful over a hangover when I’ve been up all night reading.  It’s hard to explain what gives you the kick, but books did it for me. Every book that has thrilled me has made my resolve stronger to be a success as a writer. Even then, my flirting with reading has trailed into something more serious. Now, I look out for style and construction and plots and all that jazz when I read, which can sometimes bog down an enjoyable pastime. Reading A Little Life was a teachable moment that added no foil to the pleasure of the book. This is one book that cannot easily be forgotten.

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Memorable quotes from the book:

“What he knew, he knew from books, and books lied, they made things prettier.”

“…things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.”

“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”

“Fairness is for happy people, for people who have been lucky enough to have lived a life defined more by certainties than by ambiguities.
Right and wrong, however, are for—well, not unhappy people, maybe, but scarred people; scared people.”

“But these were days of self-fulfillment, where settling for something that was not quite your first choice of a life seemed weak-willed and ignoble. Somewhere, surrendering to what seemed to be your fate had changed from being dignified to being a sign of your own cowardice. There were times when the pressure to achieve happiness felt almost oppressive, as if happiness were something that everyone should and could attain, and that any sort of compromise in its pursuit was somehow your fault.”

A Little Life is a treasure. I learnt about Law, Philosophy, Music, Art, Architecture and places. Yanagihara incorporated all of these in her story in a manner that speaks brilliance. Just posting these lines from the book, I feel a surge of pride. Pride, that I found this one book I wish I could have written . If I do make you read this book eventually, and you need someone to talk to, holler at me. I’d like to have your take.

Meanwhile, have a Merry Christmas!

A YEAR IN READING – THE PHILOSOPHY IN DISENCHANTMENT

A YEAR IN READING – THE PHILOSOPHY IN DISENCHANTMENT

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“Prejudice, a dirty word, and faith, a clean one, have something in common: they both begin where reason ends.” – Harper Lee, Go Set A Watchman.

Atticus Finch’s status in my fiction scope is high up there. In a collage of impressionable characters and memorable villains, this man peers through always. In a number of ways, Atticus is the epitome of the moral man in an immoral world. He wasn’t wired to be the altruistic Dudley in the tradition of the good-triumphing-over-evil trope, he became it. If villainy was a tribe Atticus was the lost sheep, too far strayed to find his way back to a home white-washed by segregation and deeply steeped in bigotry and prejudice. In Finch’s forays, he had discovered a fundamental truth that made aligning with the prevalent tribal consensus impossible. With his foibles and struggles and insecurities, as all men are so marred, he stood to bat for the other side in the name of good conscience.

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harper Lee’s classic To Kill A Mockingbird is a story of a closely-knit white family with the lawyer-father Atticus Finch, an iconic defense attorney standing up for a black man in a very heated rape case in Maycomb, a racism-infested deep Southern community in Alabama.

That was To Kill A Mockingbird.

I have to tell you, Go Set A Watchman is not a very likable book.

Go Set a Watchman is a sequel to the American classic To Kill A Mockingbird, written by Harper Lee.  The authorship of this sequel is still enshrouded in controversy but linearly the story is a plausible attendant to the one that came before it.

When a classic like Mockingbird is 55 and has traipsed the world in shining glory, leaving us with feathery stalks of goodness to line our hard beds, showing us that we can find recourse in literature, that the concept of art mirroring life  even in the unsubstantiated is a good omen for our world; helping us teach our children through literature the values of bridging racial divides and propagating oneness, it has to be held high as a beacon of what is good and noble and just.

Before Go Set A Watchman came, To Kill A Mockingbird was the book that would secure your passage to heaven, I kid you not.  After Go Set A Watchman, heaven seemed like a phantasmagoria.  Still, To Kill A Mockingbird will remain on my top list of memorable books. I don’t see it being ousted in the forseeable future, Watchman or not!

For a lot of people, that has changed and reasonably so. In what has been considered as the grand volte face of modern literature, Go Set A Watchman is a clever dismantling of everything you think you know about Atticus Finch. In Watchman, Scout now 26 year-old Jean Louis Finch returns to her native hometown only to stumble on a dark, invidious truth about her doting father, that will shatter her world and leave her disenchanted, as it probably did all lovers of this great American story.

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Just look how Lee got everyone’s knickers in a knot. Haha!

As disappointing as the story is, there are several moments of sheer profundities that remind one of the greatness of the prequel, and of the gem of the latter. For me, it’s easier to forgive this betrayal as a philosophical fact. Maybe a tad Machiavellian but hey, such is life. I know we like to act holier-than-thou and don the Pope’s habit at the mention of that name, but every reasonable person knows that in this life there are many hues between black and white.

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The ashes of Atticus Finch lost in the wind

It’s still art mirroring life.

Personally, some of the things that have shaped my view of the world have been uncomfortable facts. To grow you have to deal with some shitty stuffs. Stories are awesome sounding boards for testing the depth of our convictions. I love this story for the singlular fact that it sets the clangor of my mind click-clacking. This hasn’t changed for Watchman. On this score alone, I count the gems rather than go cold turkey. I could have a thousand words on marble from this 278-page whooper. Here are a few.

“Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious.”

“[T]he time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right”

“Remember this also: it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.”

“But a man who has lived by truth—and you have believed in what he has lived—he does not leave you merely wary when he fails you, he leaves you with nothing. I think that is why I’m nearly out of my mind.”

“What does a bigot do when he meets someone who challenges his opinions? He doesn’t give. He stays rigid. Doesn’t even try to listen, just lashes out.”

After I finished this book, I needed to talk to somebody. Unfortunately there was not one person around me who had read the book at the time. I hated everybody for a while. I felt disenchanted, abandoned even  like  Jean-Louise. But thank God, everything fades eventually.

Just look at me now, all grace and philosophy.

Right now there is a sharply divided opinion over this book . Those against it are up in arms mostly because it tears down this very noble figure, sterling in character, immaculate in propriety – by removing the white cloak of purity and revealing a starkly abhorrent human being. Those for it, know that humanity is sometimes a convoluted thing. Good people do bad things sometimes. And some good people are really bad people. Read and stand on that balance. Where do you stand?

A YEAR IN READING – THE KHATCHADOURIAN TORTURE

A YEAR IN READING – THE KHATCHADOURIAN TORTURE

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“I thought at the time that I couldn’t be horrified anymore, or wounded. I suppose that’s a common conceit, that you’ve already been so damaged that damage itself, in its totality, makes you safe.” ― Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin

When people ask me ‘Why do you read so much?” I’m often torn among a thousand and one responses.  Mostly I’d say ‘Because it helps me make sense out of life”

Only with a few people have I had to re-direct this statement to offer a deeper aspect of this habit. I suspect the people who’d prodded for more are themselves readers of some sort or are inclined to some solitary pursuit or the other.

I love stories where extraordinary things happen to ordinary people.  Maybe a stroke of luck that turns the tide, maybe an inadvertent action that makes a mark. As humans, we are always trying to figure out why people turn out the way they do. Sometimes these things are intractable, like a good gene gone rogue. Evil sometimes lurk in ordinary places – in the well worn paths from which others, everyday and from time immemorial have so naturally threaded unscathed.

We Need to Talk about Kevin is one hell of a sordid story, and I mean that in every sense. The book reminds me of that saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” We Need to talk about Kevin  is  a gripping tale of a child gone bonkers from a mother’s POV, written by Lionel Shriver and later won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2005.  They say reading is a solitary act.  With this book I was too invested to be an observer. I was a thought police incapacitated to arrest the incident before me. I suffered from that thriller’s ordeal where I had to grit my teeth, bite my nails, ball my fist, do just about anything short of tearing my hair out through most of the tale.And the culprit? a boy. A mere boy named Kevin.  Kevin almost ran me mad. His mother, Eva was no better. I wanted to give the father a sucker punch to knock him out of this self-spurned blanket of exoneration with he swaddled Kevin.

“It’s far less important to me to be liked these days than to be understood.”

“Children live in the same world we do. To kid ourselves that we can shelter them from it isn’t just naive it’s a vanity.”

“Teachers were both blamed for everything that went wrong with kids and turned to for their every salvation. This dual role of scapegoat and savior was downright messianic but even Jesus was probably paid better.”

“It’s always the mother’s fault, ain’t it?” she said softly, collecting her coat. “That boy turn out bad cause his mama a drunk, or she a junkie. She let him run wild, she don’t teach him right from wrong. She never home when he back from school. Nobody ever say his daddy a drunk, or his daddy not home after school. And nobody ever say they some kids just damned mean. …”

There are fictional characters that have sent chills down my spine in the past. Often they’ve somehow found a way into the way I depict real people who are dreadful and scary. There are the Hannibal Lecters on the prowl who gorge out people’s eyes and feast on them. There are the Amazing Amys – sexy, beautiful, intelligent- perfect fit for every eligible bachelor but crafty as the devil himself. These characters are as charming as they are devious. Children, on the other hands are angels; pure souls –reveling in the innocence of their hearts and the habits of their nurturings. Not so. Not since Kevin Katchoudourian came to the mix has all such pretty imaginings fizzled into something in the region of the fantastic.  There was KKK, now there is KK – a child monster.

If a book ever drew a visible reaction from me this year, this was the book -this tattle-tale of a letter that spilled it all. The book will either draw two things out of you; compassion or ire; maybe a mix of the two-  for this shattered mother who is trying to pick up the pieces of her life after her sociopath-of–a-son went gun-blazing, literally, in his school, and her husband left her. When you are finally done with it, you will be confronted with either picking up your shattered emotions from the rubble of this cataclysmic incident and putting it back together in order to maintain any modicum of normalcy or just swearing off any procreation effort at all.

Personally, I couldn’t hold it in. I had people ask me a number of times while I was reading the book, if I was alright. I answered in the affirmative with a grim smile but I noticed I was being closely watched. The truth was that I wasn’t. I can’t remember the number of times I yelled out loud, cussed out loud in rage.  I paced the floor of my room so incensed with angst.

If there was a compelling story, this is one. When a story starts with a major incident, your fingernail is safe or so you’d think. But not on this one.  As Eva (KK’s mother) tried to make sense of this senseless mishap that’s left her forlorn and alone, you’d start to feel your fingers dig into the muscle of your thigh. And when you think it couldn’t get worse, bam! The lethal shot of denouement sends you careening into full mode hysteria.

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NO, NO, NO!!! THAT DIDN’T JUST HAPPEN!

We Need to Talk about Kevin is a nail-biting story… No, I shouldn’t spit it. In broad strokes, it is a story that disabuses the generalized notion of maternal love.

One reviewer had this to say. ‘[Reading  We Need To Talk About Kevin] is almost like self torture under hypnotism, you don’t want to do it, but once you are into it, there’s no way to stop…’ He adds. ‘this book will stay with you for a long time after you walk away from it. More importantly it will get you thinking, if you are a parent…which is not a bad thing.’

I’m not a parent yet but the name Khatchadourian is stuck in my head forever.  Go figure!

And if somebody were to ask me “Why do you like this book specifically?”

I’d say because it rattled me in ways that I can’t remember many books doing.

THE FAULT IN OUR STARS AND ME – MY PERSPECTIVE (I)

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“To become wise without efforts- by listening to a voice, by reading a book- it is at once the most exciting and the most soothing of dreams.” – Robert Lynd

Life they say is a puzzle, a puzzle apparently more twisted than the Gordian knot. It would appear that there is no getting around some of the knotty questions of life in one universal theory, as directly as the Alexandrian solution. And so, if the Alexandrian solution of “one straight decisive unbundling” were to be put in perspective, it might be as dire as suicide or a sharp descent to insanity for us. For to think is human, to abdicate that function is death. After all, if anything was true, Descartes epistemological wisdom Cogito, ergo sum, (Latin: “I think, therefore I am) is inviolable and putting every questions of man to rest in one long spell is just as good as putting out man. It is a well acknowledged fact that in spite of man’s technological advancement, religious expositions and scientific findings, there are arguably far many questions that have risen from this new order compared to the primal survival questions that early men have had to deal with.

It is a giant labyrinth, this life!

However, as much as life is not Alice in wonderland, it also isn’t all a gritty dystopia of Hercules’ labour. In the immortal words of Carlos Castenada “the aim is to balance the terror of being alive with the wonder of being alive”.

One of the wonders of being alive for me is literature. This is because in the verdant richness of words I find the root questions that need to be asked and in this shallow superficial generation of ours, this is a minefield of great treasure that I can call my own. My passion is a fangled specimen of curiosities that meanders deep into the orifice of truth and is nourished by the adventure of seeking.

And so every now and then I come across a subject, a tale, a picture that asks a cardinal (maybe even personal) question or maybe at least attempts to ask or address it. When such moments come along, it feels like I’m connected to a higher power and it’s all I can do not to leap from my introspective hobbit and scream from the rooftop in euphoric eureka.

There’s a lot to be learnt from the colossal dynasty of death and its many underlings that there simply is no getting off for me. I cannot take a long break from pondering it. John Green offers a fresh and incisive perspective to the intricate question of life, death, love, family, friendship and (wait for it) books (how awesome is that?!) alongside other sundry matters in his book The Fault in Our Stars (TFIOS). The book also addresses the truth that straddles the fictional world of literature in so much as to blur the dichotomy in the fiction-reality concept of stories and make-believes. Following the success of the book published in January 2012, it was adapted successfully into a critically and commercially successful feature film directed by Josh Boone featuring Shailene Woodley, Ansel Elgort and Nat Wolff amongst others. So humane, so riveting, so encompassing is the theme that I could write a thesis on it (and I probably would).

My fascination for this movie came from the brilliant portrayal of the original story and the witty fluidity of the lines. As firstly a reader, I make it a point of order to always ensure that I read a book before seeing the movie adaptation if I can. Too many times I have sat through an adapted movie with a bilious phlegm in my throat wishing I could douse the movie director with my dissatisfaction in one clean spit. TFIOS was different.

It was one of those rarefied moments in film adaptations. The camera shots were aesthetic. I didn’t sense a frame skew out of focus or any of those technical hitches for the entire 126 minutes that I was riveted to my PC screen. Beyond the technical aspect of the movie, the story itself which is the major focus of this article was spot-on, and that is why I shall be talking of the movie rather than the original book just so I can contain my excitement within a two hour stretch of sound and sight and not the kaleidoscope of imaginations that books evoke.

It is often said that mystery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. TFIOS is a wonderland of   nerve-jabbing anomalies of human conditions and incongruities; not just physical but ideological. It is a clonal offshoot of genetic degenerates who stoically wear their pain and suffering much like a birthmark – hopelessly and helplessly and hideously strut that sovereign land of cancermania with their bald heads, their emaciated faces, their asymmetric eye, their cyborg-like appendages and so on. The title THE FAULT IN OUR STARS explains the hopelessness of their circumstances, their fated destinies, and their departure from decorum, from normal. Contrary to Shakespeare’s Cassius’ assertion, these are not underlings; they are minions who can hardly rise above their fates – a failed experiment in mutation as Van Houten calls it. If Caesar was the enemy, they couldn’t even rouse Brutus talk less of have him take the stab.

Such is the story of Hazel- Grace Lancaster, the protagonist and her compatriots in their doomed fight for survival against the debilitating overlord called Cancer. Every now and then they would gather in the “literal heart of Jesus” – a church basement to hold a support session and just generally buoy themselves with words of encouragement. From acute myeloid leukemia to acute lymphoblastic leukemia to neuroblastoma to retinoblastoma to testicular cancer to invasive thyroid cancer, to osteosarcoma, the heart of Jesus sizzled with the flapping wings of these intractable maladies around a central aorta like a hydra head.

Who chants a doleful hymn to his own death? Hazel Grace Lancaster and Augustus Waters apparently.

Hazel and Gus are two lovebirds with a chemistry so strong, they lure you in by the sheer force of their attraction as a witness to something so commonplace as love yet so distinctly captivating that you soon start to chant ok ok in a zealous call-and-response to the beautiful scenario playing before your eyes in unison.

Sickness indeed enlarges a man’s dimension to himself; he becomes his own exclusive object. Beyond the sharply-edged insight from dying that these two exhibited, their broader outlook of life, their sophistication, their confidence and their intellectual maturity was greatly buoyed by their love of books. This movie cuts the age tape in the questions it raised and the answers it suggests beyond the young adult categorization of the movie. If you doubt this, here is a shake-off from the sagacious Hazel Grace.

On being asked to share his fear at the support group, Gus replied “Oblivion. You see I intend to live an extraordinary life; to be remembered so I’d say if I was to have any fear, it would be not to be able to do that”.

[At this juncture the first time I saw this movie, I just paused it right there. It hit me like a bolt from the blue that if I was to die now or be dying, that would be my greatest fear too. But when I eventually hit the PLAY button, it was the cerebral sixteen-year old Hazel who unexpectedly responded to this fear in a dead-pan voice that threw me off. ]

“I just want to say that you know there’s gonna come a time when all of us are dead. There’s a time before humans, there’s gonna be a time after and it could be tomorrow, it could be a million years from now and when it does there’ll be no one left to remember Cleopatra or Mohammed Ali or Mozart or any of us. Oblivion is inevitable and if that scares you then I seek just you ignore it, for God knows it’s what everyone else does.”

Just the stoical delivery of that line, not the correctness of it, gave me goose bumps and it wasn’t the only moment in the movie that I felt a pang of emotion. I was just saying to myself: the hell she must have gone through to be so hardwired and inured to these human weaknesses

But far from being a pity party of sulking, sobbing characters lamenting their fates, the story is actually about the human courage to resist bemoaning our stars. It is about living by that venerated prayer of serenity: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

There are such classic lines that tell of the resilience of the human spirit such as “I’m on a rollercoaster that only goes up my friend” and the insanely smitten tone of Isaac, Gus’ one-eyed friend suffering from retinoblastoma who had a eye removed when he was young and would be totally blind after the one eye left is removed by surgery, but who is so in love that he gushed to the group that “…but I am so lucky cos I have this beautiful, smokingly hot girlfriend. She’s way out of my league, Monica and I have great friend like Augustus Waters too…”

It is these matter-of-fact candor of these interactions that stands it out for me from all the mushy, over-wrought, poignant love stories or teenage movies of its type. Not being a fan of teenage lovey dovies either, I wouldn’t have gone near this one with a long pole, but something is different here, and for the many aspects of this movie I’ll watch it over and over again.

Needless to say that TFIOS was a story that tried to disembowel me by exposing many long-harbored but un-articulated questions in my heart. By watching this movie (and foremost, reading the book) I gained many inches and pounds in stature enough to experience and psycho-analyze myself and my fears in some of the existential issues the story touched on, as narcissistic as that may sound.

I shall be discussing some of these issues and why this story feels personal for me in subsequent posts. TFIOS is a movie, like all classics that never really finishes saying what it has to say. And that is why it would have to be pealed layer by layer as time goes on.

But before I lay this post to rest, here is a grand entrance by Hazel Grace from the movie.

“I believe we have a choice in this world about how to tell sad stories. On the one hand you can sugarcoat it the way they do in movies and romance novels; how beautiful people learn beautiful lessons and nothing is too messed up that cannot be fixed with an apology and a Peter Gabriel song. I like that version as much as the next girl does believe me but it’s just not the truth. This is the truth. Sorry!”.