Tender is the Night

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I read Tender Is the Night just after finishing Schindler’s Ark – I badly needed a change in setting after reading almost 400 pages on the holocaust.

The story begins just as in The Great Gatsby. A newcomer to the French Riviera meets a clique of rich people and discovers their world of wonders. What happens after however is a far cry from what you can imagine.

Expectedly, the exquisite words Fitzgerald uses help create an ethereal world. One memorable event for me is the dinner scene at the beginning, which felt like a dream. I remember feeling exactly what Rosemary felt at that point. It was intense, almost magical. There are also some scenes of immense poetry between the story’s lovers. My favourite scene is the one with Dick unable to play a tune on the piano because Nicole is within earshot. His inability at doing so is a powerful mirroring of his state of mind.  (I don’t wish to give away any spoiler)

I was also impressed with the degree of freedom Fitzgerald allowed himself in writing the book. His style feels even more idiosyncratic; he uses dashes, inverted commas and ellipses whenever he wants to. One can mistake him for somebody gone a bit crazy with the pen, but he’s quite like a Picasso in fact. The leitmotifs he uses throughout the book along with the clues sprinkled here and there show that he is in charge of the story and has a clear idea of what he wants it to convey. Besides, it is for this reason that I think Tender Is the Night is better enjoyed upon one’s second reading and onward.

While I really liked The Great Gatsby, I still thought Fitzgerald was an author who played it safe, despite himself or not. What I mean is, I thought, maybe because of the time he lived in, he would not be too adventurous with taboo themes. But I was mistaken. Badly. There is one particular scene in the book where the term ‘Daddy’s Girl’ takes a completely different meaning, and I was really surprised upon reaching it.

If I was impressed that much with Tender Is the Night, then why did I rate it only 4 stars on goodreads? That’s mainly because Fitzgerald’s writing sometimes makes some passages so abstract and confusing that I found myself staring at a page, trying to make out what was happening in a scene. This somehow correlates with my above statement; the beauty of the book is better appreciated when you read it for a second time.

If asked, I would say I prefer The Great Gatsby over Tender Is the Night. The latter is technically the better book though. However iconic Gatsby’s story is, it is his [Fitzgerald’s] last book that shows how ahead of his time he was. For Tender Is the Night is not just a story rich with intricacies; it is a veritable lesson on the craft of writing by a master storyteller.

It beggars belief that this book was published in 1934!

Booker#8: Schindler’s Ark

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It was in early 2015 that I acquired this book in Folio edition. A pristine copy was available on eBay and I bought it just to expand my collection of Booker Prize-winning books. I knew it was non-fiction, so I suspected it might be too heavy for me – despite the movie being one of the greatest ever made. As a result, I had no immediate plan to read Keneally’s book.

Then in July I watched The Labyrinths of Silence, a real-life story about how a prosecutor goes after post-war Nazis to take them to trial. This somehow pinched my interest in Nazism and the Holocaust, and it was then that I finally was keen to read Schindler’s Ark.

My impressions about this book? It is perfect.

Oskar Schindler’s story is inexorably intertwined with the horrors the Jews were subjected to. So, while this book is about Schindler, it is also a very comprehensive account of what the Jews were made to go through. The book showed me just how much of this infamous part of history I ignored: I thought the Jews were sent to Auschwitz from the beginning, but the way they were treated changed over the years, going from bad to worse every time. I never knew, for instance, that it was the failure of the Madagascar plan that prompted the Nazis to use the Final Solution, which was the decision to exterminate all Jewish persons on German territory.  Neither was I aware of the obsessive degree of organization of the Nazis. They had plans for every situation and the Schutzstaffel (major paramilitary organization under Hitler) counted an impressive number of departments that would cater to any problem.

Part of the reason why Schindler’s Ark is such a powerful and troubling read is the way it impacts on you. Unless you’re well versed about this part of history, you will definitely be shaken by what happened to the Jews. We like to believe we know what happened, but we don’t even have the slightest idea. If I list everything here, it will somehow mollify the impact and be unfair to future readers. That being said, some of the most memorable scenes for me were:

  • what the Jewish jewelers were made to extract
  • every scene with Amon Goethe, the butcher of Plaszow
  • the excavation of corpses in the forest in Plaszow
  • the first realization of the Jews that extermination camps were a reality

Of course, Schindler’s deeds are just as unforgettable. The book in some ways acts also as a biography of the man. We had to know about his early life in order to gauge the weight of his sacrifice. I very much like how Thomas Keneally painted an accurate, measured, image of the magnate. We could feel the warmth of the man – told by the Jews to Keneally as he was writing the book – yet we could also see that he was no saint at all.

Finally, Keneally’s writing in my opinion is what made this book worthy of the Booker. He doesn’t spoon-feed the readers with information: he assumes we already know about the SS, Hitler’s most important officers, the War, etc. However he takes his time to paint a vivid picture of what happened to the Jews – how the people went from horrors to greater horrors. I vaguely knew about the Holocaust, but reading this book opened my eyes on the Jews’ suffering. Keneally also lets us know when he is being purely speculative and when he is not. To be honest, it was very interesting to see how the mind of a biographer speculates when he is devoid of any concrete material.

I’ve written quite a bit here, but that’s understandable, for Schindler’s Ark is one of the best books I’ve ever read. It is unforgettable. It is a solid and very accurate non-fiction book, yet it also has that humane touch that will rock any soul.  A must-read.

Booker #7: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

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Richard Flanagan’s book won the Booker Prize in 2014, but it took me some time before reading it; though my friend kept telling me how great it is, the blurb didn’t attract me at all. I then chanced upon it in Daunts and the lady on the cover was literally staring at me. Thus I bought it.

Many people are unaware of the Railway of Death. While the media focused on the battlefields in England, France and the other big countries, little was ever said about what happened to those prisoners of war – English and Australian primarily – who were sent to a jungle in Siam (now Thailand) under Japanese custody in order to build a historically long railway. Flanagan’s book is unforgettable because of the way this forgotten part of WW2 is narrated. The upshot is we see history in a different perspective, and therein lies the beauty of this book. It could have been an account of the horrors in the jungle – which it partly is – but it is more than that: we see the events from the eyes of different characters and we realize it is almost impossible to reach a definite conclusion about things: for example, are the Americans the bad guys for the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima? In some ways, in regards to how the account of the events is delivered, this book reminds me quite a bit of Achebe’s Things Fall Apart: it is virtually impossible to hold a party fully responsible for the atrocities – everybody’s acts were dictated by war.

The story spans over the main character’s life, although some chapters are exclusive to certain ‘secondary’ characters. My favorite bits were about the Japanese soldiers and generals. Their code of honor, Bushido (literally meaning The Way of the Warrior), is at the heart of all these chapters. They lived in a different part of the world under the reign of a dictator-like Emperor and had their own sets of morals and ideals. They were extremely mechanical and being liberal in their approach was never an option; this perhaps explains why until now Japanese people are extremely disciplined and faithful to traditions. It was very interesting to see how they differ from people from the rest of the world.

The novel is not solely about the war though. It was without surprise that I learnt that Flanagan sometimes assumes the roles of scriptwriter and director, because the book has the completeness of an American movie of old (in Hollywood’s heyday). Perhaps it was the scriptwriter in him who decided to let a romance be the backdrop to the nightmare that was Siam’s nightmarish jungle. It was perhaps again that same scriptwriter who thought it right to end every episode he began in the war.  Some chapters towards the end were quite unnecessary and didn’t feel really coherent with the horrors we witnessed at the core of the book. Truth be told, this took me aback a bit, because it felt too much like a movie sometimes and less like a Booker-winning book. It was not something bad though, just unusual.

The Guardian, like many critics,  lavishes praise on the book and says it definitely should be read. However it somehow makes a comment that follows along the same lines of the above paragraph: the book sometimes collapses into ”pop philosophy”. That being said, you only see this if you’re being nit-picky. For The Narrow Road to the Deep North is an unforgettable work that gave a me a different perspective on the WW2 and the Japanese people. I highly doubt there’s a better book on the Railway of Death and it definitely is one of the best historical fiction novels written in the last century. For me, it is a masterpiece because of the way it alternates between different perspectives. I believe this is how war novels should have been written.

So far, if it wasn’t for Schindler’s Ark, it would have been my best read of the year.

Read: The Collector (John Fowles)

I noticed this book on a huge table dedicated to compelling reads in Waterstones. The blurb was tempting enough, but I preferred checking it out online first before buying it. It turned out that it is one of the most popular classics published by Vintage. It was easy to find out why.

The Collector is hugely compelling. So much so that it was almost impossible to put it down. I think in recent years this is one of the books I’ve finished really fast. First off, the English is simple and fluid. Then, it is very well structured. I thought Fowles, with such a plot as this, would linger on the kidnapper’s psyche and past, but he is instead very to the point. He uses paragraphs very economically and efficiently. Besides, where this story could have easily gone off the rails and become another absurd Hollywood flick, Fowles keeps to a realism that, ultimately, is what makes this book so intense.  Indeed, the collector is a sick, worryingly sick, persona, and reading his account of events felt just like delving into the mind of a real psychopath. The ending was particularly sick. Sick: I cannot find a better word to describe what I thought of the man. I also liked how Fowles’ painted the kidnapped as yet another of the collector’s preys. Some phrases he used in this sense were very apt and deftly lucid.

I was quite surprised with the narration, to be honest. I knew so little about the story that the peculiarity of the book had a pleasant, unexpected impact on me. I don’t wish to give away what this peculiarity is, and I guess I would advise people to avoid spoilers at all costs when it comes to this book.

To conclude, The Collector belongs to the lot of those delightful modern classics that don’t feel quaint and instead introduces you to novelty in structure, language and plot. I’ve  recently finished The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Schindler’s Ark, two monumental reads, but The Collector is still one of those very good books that have already made 2016 a memorable year.

Alice Munro’s Stories#2: Dear Life

Alice Munro is very easily among the greatest authors to have ever lived. As far as short stories are concerned, I don’t think we will ever see the like of her again. To be so consistent over so many years with so many stories in so many collections, you have to be a once-in-a-lifetime author. Continue reading “Alice Munro’s Stories#2: Dear Life”

Booker#6: The Sea

I loved Never Let Me Go in 2013. It had the feel and originality of a Booker Prize winner. Of course, it was also very well written. It was hard to believe though that it was a mere runner-up.Indeed, there was a tie in the jury’s decision as to which book should be awarded the prize; half chose Never Let Me Go, half chose The Sea. In the end the Chair of Judges, John Sutherland, opted for John Banville’s The Sea.

Continue reading “Booker#6: The Sea”

Just Read: Bell Jar

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It’s past midnight and my second night at home (i’m on holiday), but I just want to leave a quick note about one of the best books I’ve read.

I’ve just finished The Bell Jar.

This book is so deeply personal that I don’t want to call it a ‘masterpiece’, even though this was the first word that sprang to mind. For calling it so would be a misdemeanour to Plath and her book in my opinion; I absolutely love Bell Jar because of the purity in Esther’s narration – her account is made all the more intimate when we know that she is a semi-version of Plath herself.

But, regardless of its autobiographical aspect, the book is indeed a masterpiece. The vocabulary is superb and I read somewhere that Plath used to attend creative writing courses, which can be felt throughout the book, especially with regards to the structure of her paragraphs. It doesn’t really surprise me that she made the most of these classes, given that she was a very brilliant student who won a scholarship for Cambridge. Her bell jar analogy besides is one of the highlights of this book. The fictional side of the book is just as impressive.

During my reading of the book, I felt as if the world around me was banal, cold and senseless, because I could relate so much to Esther and not so much to anybody else. It was a delight to delve into her world every night. Because of how well-written it is and what it is about, I feel that Bell Jar is a once-in-a-lifetime book that was written way ahead of its time.

Perfect on every level.