Summertime

It is remarkably easy to procrastinate when you’re not busy. And by procrastinate I mean putting off blogging, which has suddenly become a chore. But since all I do everyday is eat (oh god, the eating), sleep, read things, and poke around the Internet, anything else is a drain on the brain. I’ve even stopped keeping up with the news nearly as much, to my distant horror.

A number of things have made this vacation rather livelier than usual, though I probably shouldn’t go into much detail about them (except to say that the words “my future” have taken on multiple meanings that do not necessarily relate to my career) — but oh! The comic potential in these happenings! It begs to be written about. Perhaps at a later date…

And sadly, only two of my closest friends are in Singapore. What will make things exciting is this weekend, though, where my parents will be out of town and my brother will have to put up with my cooking. Mum has been attempting to teach me with a smidgeon more rigor than before, but I think she gave up when I mixed up uluttham paruppu and kadalai paruppu (we were discussing the finer points of thaalichukottifying). And then she told my father, in her most horrified tone of voice, “She told me that she’d check for how hot the pan is by sprinkling water! When that’s only used for dosai! I can’t leave her alone in the kitchen anymore, she’ll set the house and herself on fire.”

So this weekend should be exciting. What with the fire and all.

I do, however, have ten books — ten! — that I’ve borrowed from the library in a fit of indulgence. I’ve read five of them and am halfway through the sixth, and they’ve all been interesting reads. I’m not at all a literature major; in fact my main responses to books tend to be emotional rather than rational, so really my opinions might be utterly worthless if you’re looking for recommendations.

The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin

This is rather an old Le Guin that got a lot of publicity, if I’m not wrong. The basic premise is very interesting: Mr. Ai is an envoy to a world that is unlike anything he’s seen before, where there is no such thing as permanent gender. The people have male and female potential, but do not stay either way very long. The hardships of the harsh world, the politics and above all the strange sex of the people drives the Envoy as he tries to finish his mission. I liked very much the backstory of the world — how the Gethenians’ politics and way of life is structured around the notions of non-gender; their adaptations to cold and their responses to an alien in their midst. But in the end, I wasn’t particularly compelled by the plot. It’s pretty simple and after a while, all I seemed to be reading was it’s freaking cold and these people are strange but I begin to feel some kinship. The idea of the protagonist and alien beginning to integrate into a new culture isn’t a new one. The matter of sex and gender comes up in such an abstract form — it’s not even explored between the protagonist and his friend, the other protagonist of the story. It’s a good book, but not the book I think I was expecting it to be. A quote I liked: “A man wants his virility regarded, a woman wants her feminism appreciated, however indirect and subtle the indications of regard and appreciation. On Winter they will not exist. One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience.” I think I’d love to pay a visit to Winter (the fake-name for Gethen).

Skulduggery Pleasant: The Faceless Ones, Derek Landy

This is a book I wish I’d come across when I was younger. It’s meant for the young ‘uns but it’s equally enjoyable by those who’re a bit older than the 14-year-old protagonist. She’s a spunky one with rather adorably witty parents, and then there’s a dark and broody, sarcastic co-protagonist called Skulduggery, who’s essentially a skeleton. It’s essentially a fun, light read involving magic and other inexplicable things that are woven through modern-day Ireland, but surprisingly grown-up and realistic in places — despite the use of magic, it hurts like hell when you get hit and people you like do die.

Now, of course, I need to read the next book in the series to find out what happens to Skulduggery.

No Country for Old Men, Cormac McCarthy

I’m not even sure how to describe this book. On the face of it, it’s a story about a killer, even though the killer himself doesn’t take the spotlight much of the time. But things are obviously much deeper than that, if only because the entire narrative is interspersed with the voice of a Sheriff working to bring down the villain. As T puts it — and I’d need her lit-y skills to even begin to understand this book — you can almost hear the voices speaking in your head. Cormac McCarthy’s prose is so sparse and so direct it feels like a shot from a rifle or the image of ribs sticking out from an undernourished midriff. And I still can’t decide what the philosophical point of the whole thing is: does the Sheriff represent the flip side of the redneck, or is he McCarthy’s idea of a true hero?

I remember at one point looking up from the book in shock, because the Sheriff is talking about his encounter with a woman who was, in his view, nattering on about the rights of children in the future. She says she’d like her daughter to be able to decide whether she wants to abort or not. The Sheriff remarks that in the future, her daughter could decide whether she’d like to put her mother to sleep or not. I’d consider myself a liberal person in the sense that I don’t think it’s up to the government to dictate people’s private lives just because a majority feels that its point of view should be imposed on everyone. But the shock was because I’d been completely immersed in this book, in sympathy with the Sheriff, when it suddenly occurred to me after this reminiscence that he might actually be this inflexible majority that I was supposed to dislike. Which was when I really appreciated the power of McCarthy’s writing, missing punctuation and all.

The Little Stranger, Sarah Waters

I’d forgotten what the blurb was by the time I was deep into this book, so the fact that it’s actually about paranormal activity came as rather a shock. Pretty effective that way, anyway; possibly too effective, because at parts it was terrifying. I didn’t dare read it at night.

The protagonist is a doctor who was born into the working middle classes and whose mother used to work at the huge house of a wealthy landed family. Post-WWII, the family and its house is falling apart, and as the doctor becomes closer to the inhabitants, he grows to both love them and fear the strange happenings in the house. There isn’t much mystery, per se, as to what’s happening, but the sheer plausibility of the whole novel is astonishing. Also woven into the narrative and acting as a kind of parallel of the whole ghost story is the breaking down of class barriers and of the idea of class itself.

It was deeply engaging and as different from any of the other Waters books I’ve read as it’s possible to be, but so satisfying. Depressing, but satisfying.

The Enchanted Glass, Diana Wynne Jones

As I told T, this wasn’t a patch on Howl’s Moving Castle, but then again as she said, not much is. For some reason, though I enjoyed the internal mythology of this book, I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that some of the Jones spark was missing. When I’d finished Castle, I immediately wanted to go back and re-read everything again; this time, I was left with the uncomfortable feeling of an abrupt ending, as though the book had exhausted itself a while ago and was trying to put its ideas back together again.

But it was still pretty enjoyable. Young Aidan escapes to Andrew’s magical domain, which is really nothing much more than a large area of the British countryside but which has huge magical potential. Andrew’s search to discover exactly what kind of legacy his grandfather has recently left him, and the strange mystery of who Aidan really is and why no one can actually pronounce his name are the main drivers of the story. I liked very much the introduction of the cast from Midsummer Night’s Dream — it’s a great idea, that one, taking such a well-known tale (Shakespeare, the man himself!) and incorporating it into a book for children. Interesting, too, the choice of making them the villains. But then again they weren’t entirely blameless in Midsummer, were they.

Wild Seed, Octavia Butler

Another book that I zoomed through, and another book that was genuinely genre-bending. It’s a sci-fi story, a fantasy tale and a novel about humanity all at once. Doro, the protagonist, is now into his fourth millennium of life and has the incredible power of taking on any human’s body he pleases. He finally meets his mate, match, nemesis and eventual savior in Anyanwu, who is a healer and shape-changer of extraordinary power.

Again, this is one of those tales that would seem straightforward but is too compelling and stirring to honestly be that simple. I think it’s a lot about humanity, about slavery and right vs. good. Doro decides that it is his job to collect and breed all the “strange ones”, the humans who exhibit some tinge of otherness and supernatural ability that forces them to be ostracized by society. But as Anyanwu points out, this becomes no more than a pure breeding program, where descendants are bred together regardless of how closely related they are. What Doro’s really looking for is more immortals like himself and Anyanwu, but his own humanity seems to be getting more and more bred out of him as he progresses.

I don’t know how she does it, but Butler weaves African culture and mythology in the 1800s, history, fantasy, biology and psychology together into a totally believable whole. I imagine it would’ve been even more extraordinary in 1969, where as a black, female science-fiction author she was as precious a commodity in the literary world as the slaves Doro bought for himself. With this novel, she somehow managed to establish the African community and the racial tensions between itself and the white settler communities in the early days of the New World; give the paranormal a far more scientific bent, especially in terms of genetics and genealogy; and do all this through the eyes of two intelligent people rooted in African culture and customs.

Sexing the Cherry, Jeannette Winterson

About the biggest compliment I could pay this book is that parts of it read like an original version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Not that I think everyone should write like or love Calvino, but Winterson’s descriptions of other countries is enchanting in the same way — economical (but without that connotation of bloodless efficiency, of course) descriptions that somehow still encapsulate the soul of the location, if that makes sense. Her characters also have this strange certainty about them, as though her confidence in writing makes them more real than they ought to be. I don’t know how to describe it.

The basic premise of the book, if I can think of a way to describe it, is the tale of a giantess mother and her traveling, adopted son in the time of Cromwell’s England. I somehow love the way the Dog Woman “speaks”, the quaintness of her language mixed up with a relative innocence and straightforwardness that’s really endearing. But the book is full of musings about time and its lack of linearity. The narrative begins, towards the end, to jump between 21st century and the 17th, until the characters start living their counterparts’ lives in different parallel universes. I won’t say that I haven’t read these ideas of non-linear time before, but the way Winterson writes, they’re her original thoughts, her interpretations of them. The only reason I didn’t read the book the whole way through was because I didn’t have a couple hours totally blocked out.

—–

I still have another Winterson and two science books that I haven’t written about, but since they’re due in the library this Thursday I’d better get a move on. Last few days of complete freedom, after all.

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