Monday, June 13, 2022

Book 326: Polite Society


"As Dimple waited for Fahim, she doubted Ania's wisdom for the first time. There was no convincing reason why Fahim would be attracted to a woman like her, obviously provincial, still at times cloddish, when he had the pick of those sophisticated gazelles at media parties. Ania had kept insisting that she could see the signs. but Dimple was worried about the dangers of being wrong. It had taken her months of discipline and training to calm the anxieties that assailed her—worries about her position as some kind of interloper—and now her equilibrium was again wrecked. Ania was too fearless and her friendship too effortless, spilling from her without consequence, leaving a trail of easy generosity and advice. For Dimple that same friendship offered elation and play, but also apprehension and uncertainty, a fear that it would all collapse and crumble to dust."

Dates read: July 9-12, 2019

Rating: 7/10

A few years before I started this blog, I started making a concerted effort to read the much-bemoaned classics. I wasn't an English major (Psychology for me!), so apart from the standard high school mandatories like Gatsby and Mockingbird, I had read actually quite few of them. And what a surprise it was! While some of them deserve their boring reputations, many others have survived the test of time because they're wonderful reading experiences. Turns out I love Jane Austen! Who knew?

When she wrote Emma, Austen famously described her as a heroine that she didn't think people would really like. A smart, pretty, rich girl isn't exactly the most sympathetic of heroines. Clueless proved that Emma could hold up well to adaptation, so when I read that Mahesh Rao had decided to transplant the book to modern-day India in Polite Society, I was curious. Instead of Emma Woodhouse, we have Ania Khurana, beloved daughter of wealthy businessman Dileep. Ania is bored with her socialite life in the most elite circles of Delhi, and when she successfully sets up her spinster aunt Renu, she decides her next project will be her new friend Dimple, who works in PR. Dimple grew up in the country, and though she met a nice guy, Ankit, when she first moved to the city, finds it hard to resist when Ania tries to steer her towards up-and-coming reporter Fahim.

While many aspects of the original are here, Rao puts his own, darker spin on some of the side characters: both the Frank Churchill and Jane Fairfax types have very different storylines than Austen gave them, and Dileep is drawn dangerously into the thrall of a faith healer type called Mr. Nayak. The broad strokes of the story play out more or less as expected, though: Fahim does not fall for Dimple and marries impulsively shortly thereafter, Ania grows closer to her longtime family friend Dev (standing in for Mr. Knightly) even as she develops a flirtation with the Frank substitute, Dimple and Ankit come back to each other eventually. But while Austen wraps things up neatly and happily, it's much more unsettled at the end of Polite Society.

Taking a beloved story and adapting it is a tricky thing to do...too close to the original, and it barely seems worth the effort, but too far away and you risk enraging fans. I think Rao struck a good balance, adding plot twists that gave the story new complexity. I especially liked the addition of perspectives besides that of Ania, which had the effect of giving Dimple, Dileep, and even Fahim so much more richness and interest. I appreciated the generally edgier tone and the way it undercut a story that has a lot of romantic wish fulfillment and froth built into it. The story the book tells is compelling, and I think would work even without having read Emma (though the understanding that the heroine is supposed to be kind of annoying is definitely helpful to come in with).

While I enjoyed a lot of what this book did, it was not entirely successful. Rao's prose lacks the wit and verve that really mark Austen as a master of her craft, and is less charming as a result of the inevitable comparison. And while many of the side stories were a welcome addition, it felt like there were too many to give them all time to really develop. The generally lightweight tone of the book (even in the heavier way Rao rendered it) would be compromised by the addition of too many extra pages, but I think another 50 or so would have given it all a little more room to breathe. Overall, though, I found this book very good and would recommend it both to those who already love Emma and those who haven't experienced it yet!

One year ago, I was reading: The Death of Vivek Oji

Two years ago, I was reading: A Perfect Explanation

Three years ago, I was reading: The Coming Plague

Four years ago, I was reading: Love Medicine

Five years ago, I was reading: The Man Without A Face

Six years ago, I was reading: Zodiac

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Book 325: Washington Black


"How strange, I thought, looking upon his sad, kind face, that this man had once been my entire world, and yet we could come to no final understanding of one another. He was a man who’d done far more than most to end the suffering of a people whose toil was the very source of his power; he had risked his own good comfort, the love of his family, his name. He had saved my very flesh, taken me away from certain death. His harm, I thought, was in not understanding that he still had the ability to cause it."

Dates read: July 5-9, 2019

Rating: 6/10

It's been shown time and time again that dehumanization is a crucial aspect of the commission of atrocities. Calling other people animals, or insects, thinking of them that way, makes it easier to rationalize cruelties towards them. But we don't as often consider the other side of it. To be dehumanized has recognizable effects on the perpetrator, but what about the recipient? How do people come to absorb that conception of themselves?

What would it mean to be born into a system where your humanity wasn't recognized, to have no "before" to remember your full self existing in? Esi Edugyan's Washington Black explores the life of the titular character, called "Wash" for short, born into slavery on a sugar plantation in Barbados owned by a cruel man called Erasmus. His life changes forever when he's 11, when Erasmus's brother Christopher ("Titch") comes to visit, and Wash and his mother-figure, Big Kit, who work in the fields, are asked to help serve dinner in the house. Titch asks for the use of Wash while he's on the plantation, to assist him in his experiments, and this leads to the first time in his life that Wash is treated at all like a person. While Titch has tasks for him to perform, he's allowed to get regular sleep, to think about whether he likes the food in front of him, and a previously undiscovered talent for drawing is developed and acknowledged. But then there's a death, and Wash is blamed, and he and Titch are on the run.

Once they read the United States, Wash is given the opportunity to be transported to freedom in Canada through the Underground Railroad. But he sticks with Titch, and the two of them are pursued by a slave hunter while trying to uncover what really happened when Titch and Erasmus's father disappeared and reportedly died. Eventually, they are separated, and Wash is on his own for the first time in his life. He ends up in Nova Scotia, where he meets Tanna, the daughter of an oceanographer, and their growing bond, as well as Wash's gift for illustration, earns him an invite to travel with them to England, where Wash plunges deeper into a search for answers about his life.

The coverage I'd heard of this book before I picked it up made it sound like an adventure story, which I was not particularly excited about. And it partly is: the portion of the book where Titch and Wash are on the run, making up much but not all of the first half, is quick-paced and the atmosphere of suspense that Edugyan creates as they try to stay ahead of their tracker was engaging. But the back half of the novel becomes much more languid, turning inward as Wash begins to really examine himself and build a self-concept. This is usually the kind of thing I eat up, I love novels rooted in psychological realism! But I think the pacing of the book was damagingly uneven. After the brisk energy of the first half, the slow-down makes the book feel like it's dragging and it began to seem like a slog to get through.

Which is unfortunate, because Edugyan is a beautiful writer. Her prose is elegant and insightful, and she does wonderful character work with Wash, whose journey towards personal understanding is moving. I do wish she'd done more with the character of Tanna, who starts out dynamic and winds up in a role as Wash's emotional supporter that feels cliche and reductive. Once Titch leaves the narrative, though, so does much of the tension driving the plot forward, and to have that momentum built and then lost unfortunately undermines the strength of the work as a whole. It has brilliant moments, and I'd still say it was pretty good, but the pacing issues kept it from greatness. I'd look forward to reading more work from Edugyan in the future, and this book does have merit and is worth reading if you're interested in it, but it's too unbalanced to really affirmatively recommend.  

One year ago, I was reading: Throne of Glass

Two years ago, I was reading: The Moor's Account

Three years ago, I was reading: There There

Four years ago, I was reading: Motherless Brooklyn

Five years ago, I was reading: In The Skin Of A Lion

Six years ago, I was reading: The Name Of The Rose

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Book 324: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle


"But even so, every now and then I would feel a violent stab of loneliness. The very water I drink, the very air I breathe, would feel like long, sharp needles. The pages of a book in my hands would take on the threatening metallic gleam of razor blades. I could hear the roots of loneliness creeping through me when the world was hushed at four o'clock in the morning." 

Dates read: June 27-July 5, 2019

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die

Sometimes I feel like living in the era of technology has robbed the world of its magic. Anyone with an internet connection can have access to what once were locals-only "secret" places. A rational explanation for something odd is almost always just a google away. You can have access to scads of information about almost anyone you meet in minutes. There's so little room left for actual mystery.

I remember reading somewhere that Haruki Murakami's books are among the most-stolen from bookstores. I'm not sure why that is, but there's no denying that the Japanese author has very devoted fans. Reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was my first experience with him, and left me both sort of getting it and sort of not. It's a hard story to describe: there's a guy, Toru Okada, who lives outside of Tokyo with his wife, Kumiko, and their cat (which they've named Noboru Wataya, after her disliked brother) has gone missing. Toru has recently left his longtime job in a lawyer's office, but is unemployed while he tries to figure out what's next. Kumiko wants him to find the cat, and his searches for it lead him to strike up an acquaintance with a strange teenage girl, May, who lives down the block. That's when the phone calls start.

First, there's a woman who says she knows who he is and starts talking dirty to him. But then there's a psychic, a woman named Malta Kano, who explains that Kumiko has reached out to her to help with locating the cat. Kumiko and her family believe in things like psychics, having previously arranged for Kumiko and Toru to spend time with an old man called Mr. Honda, allegedly for spiritual consultations...but all that actually happens is that he repeatedly tells them about his experiences as a soldier in Manchuria during World War II. Toru meets with Malta Kano, and her sister, Cresta, but before long Kumiko herself disappears. She sends Toru a letter explaining that she's left him for a coworker with whom she's been having an affair, but he doesn't believe this and decides to try to find her, which brings him into contact with even more strange people, including a mother and son who he calls Nutmeg and Cinnamon. And appearing throughout is the sound of a bird, that sounds like something mechanical being wound.

This is a weird book, and I'm not sure I entirely understand it. It's one of those that you finish and almost want to flip right back to the beginning and start again, to see if it makes any more sense the second time through. I think there will be a second time through, though certainly not now. And there will definitely be more Murakami. If I had to chose a single word to describe it, it would be "dream-like". The way Murakami uses language and builds the world of the book create a feeling of constant loose connection, almost a structured free association, in which the concept that would tie everything together is just tantalizingly out of reach. It works well, and I found myself turning the pages and getting drawn further and further into it, though I suspected (correctly) that not everything was going to be tied up in a neat bow by the end.

Honestly, though, once I finished it, though I felt like I liked it, I have had a hard time articulating exactly why. It was obtuse, the female characters were largely underdeveloped (though I did love May), and it felt like some storylines were just dropped like hot potatoes. But despite its flaws, it's strangely compelling. There's something magical and mysterious about the world as Murakami creates it, and it did get me thinking about some of the deeper themes that were explored, like our obligations to each other as people and the nature of power in relationships. It's intellectually engaging despite the kind of haziness about it. If you're ready for something non-traditional, I would recommend this book.

One year ago, I was reading: Tooth and Claw

Two years ago, I was reading: Year of Wonders

Three years ago, I was reading: Delirium

Four years ago, I was reading: Boy, Snow, Bird

Five years ago, I was reading: Mrs. Dalloway

Six years ago, I was reading: Spinster