Writer Wednesday – Colette

“Our perfect companions never have fewer than four feet.” French writer Colette’s quote strikes a chord with all animal lovers. Our featured writer for this week is the French novelist Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, who wore many hats as mime, actress and journalist, and was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.

Colette was born in Yonne, Burgundy. At the age of twenty she married author and publisher Henry Gauthier-Villars, better known by the nom de plume, Willy. Colette’s first four novels appeared under her husband’s name – four books from the Claudine stories – Claudine à l’école (1990), Claudine à Paris (1901), Claudine en ménage (1902), and Claudine s’en va (1903). The series takes the reader through the coming of age of the titular character – a fifteen year old from a village in Burgundy to the literary salons of Paris at the turn of the century. The stories are semi-autobiographical, and are available for English readers as Claudine at School, Claudine in Paris, Claudine Married, and Claudine and Annie.

Willy, who was fourteen years older than Colette, introduced her into avant-garde intellectual and artistic circles, and chose the subject matter of the Claudine novels. Colette said she would never have become a writer if it had not been for Willy. Though she did express her wish for her name to be associated with her work as it became widely known, only to be locked up by Willy and forced to write, until she produced enough pages to suit him – which he published as his own work. (Glimpses of the artist of the sixties, Margaret Keane, whose husband took credit for all her paintings.) Colette and Willy separated after a decade, but the divorce became final only a couple of years later. Copyrights to all the Claudine books belonged to Willy, and he kept all royalties, giving her no access to those sizable earnings, ultimately resorting to a stage career in music halls across France – even playing Claudine in sketches from her own novels. She recalled this period of her life in La Vagabonde (1910), which dealt with the independence of women in a predominantly male society.

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In 1906 during her Music Hall career. (From La Maison de Colette)

Colette subsequently married Henry de Jouvenel, a French journalist and statesman, and editor of Le Matin – a French daily newspaper. She devoted herself to journalism during the First World War, without much time for her own writing. In 1920, Colette published Chéri – a story about the love affair between an older woman and a much younger man. Colette divorced Jouvenel soon after, and married Maurice Goudeket a year later (who remained her husband till her death at the age of eighty-one). The twenties and thirties were recorded as being Colette’s most productive period of her literary life. Her works were mostly set in Burgundy or Paris, with themes surrounding marriage and sexuality, and often quasi autobiographical. La Maison de Claudine (The House of Claudine) and L’autre Femme (The Other Woman) both came out in 1922. Le Blé en Herbe (Ripening Seed) of 1923 again dealt with love between an aging woman and a very young man – reflecting her own relationships with Jouvenel and Goudeket, the latter who was sixteen years her junior. This was followed by La Fin de Chéri in 1926. La Naissance du Jour (Break of Day)  in 1928 reflected her criticism of the conventional lives of women, touching the themes of age and love. By the late twenties, Colette was acclaimed as France’s greatest woman writer – she was hailed for her genius, humanities and perfect prose, by literary journals.

Le Pur et L’Impur (The Pure and the Impure) of 1932 which examined female sexuality, La Chatte of 1933 and Duo of 1934 both of which dealt with jealousy, and Mes Apprentissages (My Apprenticeships) of 1936 were some of her prominent works from the thirties. During the Occupation in France, Colette produced two volumes of memoirs – Journal à Rebours (1941) and De ma Fenêtre (1942). Both books were released in English in 1975 as Looking Backwards. Gigi, which came out in 1944, is recognized as her most famous work – the story of a sixteen-year old courtesan. It was made into a French film in 1949, and adapted for stage in 1951 with a then-unknown Audrey Hepburn playing the titular role, having been selected personally by Colette herself. The story’s adaptation into a Hollywood musical in 1958 won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

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At her home in Paris in 1940. (From the Hulton Archives)

Post the Second World War, she was afflicted with arthritis, but continued to write during those years. L’etoile Vesper came out in 1944 and Le Fanal Bleu (The Blue Lantern) in 1949, while Goudeket supervised Œuvres Complètes (1948-1950). Her later writings reflected the problems of a writer whose inspiration is autobiographical. This important voice in women’s writing has been often called as the greatest living French fiction writer, who stood out in a time of fellow French literary greats, André Gide and Marcel Proust. She was applauded for her sensual descriptions, and her strength as a writer lay in her sensory evocations of sounds, smells, sights, tastes, textures of the world around her. It has been said that no one writes so perceptively about relationships as Colette did, or about animals, flowers, food, clothes, furniture, or just about anyone or anything. Known to be a humorous realist, her chosen format was the novella, her style of writing a blend of sophisticated and natural, her descriptions both cruel and compassionate, with an intuitive acumen that stood out.

~ “In its early stages, insomnia is almost an oasis in which those who have to think or suffer darkly take refuge.”

~ “It’s so curious: one can resist tears and behave very well in the hardest hours of grief. But then someone makes a friendly sign behind a window, or one notices that a flower that was a bud yesterday suddenly blossomed, or a letter slips from a drawer…and everything collapses.”

~ “Sit down and put everything that comes into your head and you’re a writer. An author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.”

~ “Time gone by with a cat is never lost.”

Colette was a member of the Belgian Royal Academy and the French Académie Goncourt, and a grand officer of the Legion of Honor. If you haven’t read any of her works yet, pick one up. English versions are available for many of her books. If you have read her, what are some of your favorite books from the writer?

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The animal lover.

Can You Read This?

“Literacy is the most basic currency of the knowledge economy.”

~Barack Obama

Today is International Literacy Day. It is a joy to read, and even more so to connect with fellow bibliophiles. The picture below is a collage made by marathoner, author and founder of our book club here, Lt. Cdr. Bijay Nair (Retd.). What started off as a bunch of runners who came together to share their common love for reading and discussing books, snowballed into a full-fledged book club which attracted even non-runners/athletes who attended and loved the book meets. We don’t discuss just running or exercise related books, though running was what brought us together. Founder Nair prepared this collage of some of our many meet-ups, as a reminder of the value books play in our lives. In a twist to Joseph Addison’s words, Nair quotes – “Reading is to the mind what running is to the body”. And we have been blessed to find like-minded souls from the runner-reader tribe. “A child without education is like a bird without wings” , goes a Tibetan proverb. Education is a gift no one can take from you – perfectly highlighted on a day that pays tribute to the importance of literacy. Pick up a book today, and be grateful that you can read it.

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Image copyrighted by DYRT

In August Company – Books Of The Month

Here’s a compilation of the books I read in August – four novels, two anthologies, one biography, and one technical book, along with a short story. A pleasant combination of fiction and non-fiction, serious and not-so-serious ones, classics and contemporary books, including translated works.

1) The Joke – Milan Kundera (Review coming up)

2) If A River – Kula Saikia

https://tomesandtales365.wordpress.com/2018/08/09/if-a-river-book-review/

3) Why Do Buses Come In Threes – Jeremy Wyndham and Rob Eastaway

https://tomesandtales365.wordpress.com/2018/08/15/why-do-buses-come-in-threes-book-review/

4) Silver Linings Playbook – Matthew Quick (Review coming up)

5) Who Goes There – John Campbell

https://tomesandtales365.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/who-goes-there-book-review/

6) Time Out – Jasjit Mansingh (Review coming up)

7) The Monsoon Murders – Karan Parmanandka

https://tomesandtales365.wordpress.com/2018/08/27/monsoon-murders-book-review/

8) A Life Like No Other – Sujata Prasad (Review coming up)

Short Story:

Scheherazade – Haruki Murakami

https://tomesandtales365.wordpress.com/2018/08/25/scheherazade-book-review/

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Bookworm Babies – Literary Choices For Children

“A child who reads will be an adult who thinks.”

Our monthly book club meet was held over the weekend. The debate segment for this month was titled “Freedom To Choose Books” . The floor was left open for discussion on the subject of whether parents should select books for children, or should kids be allowed to read what they want to read. As with any debate session, we were not looking for right or wrong answers, but a fair conversation that shed light on both hemispheres of the argument.

The points put forth regarding parents deciding what literature the child should avail of, cited reasons of children not knowing what to choose if left to their own devices. When it comes to very young kids, language learning with growth in vocabulary and improvement in grammar are of prime importance. At this age, the child is picking up new words, stringing them together into sentences, and learning how to make coherent conversation. Picture books were suggested as essential learning aids at this age of development, where the child associates a word/phrase with pictures, which helps in imprinting what is being read. A child left to pick whatever he/she wants at the bookstore might choose on the basis of bright colorful books with eye-catching covers that might not necessarily contribute much in terms of the text. When parents read to children, the latter learn to associate the words heard with those displayed in front of them.

Moving on to older kids, pre-teens or teenagers, the opinions were quite divided. If the parents, grandparents or other older family members are all avid readers and the child is born and brought up surrounded by books, they might try exploring on their own. A member cited an instance of her ten year old reaching for a Sidney Sheldon from the mother’s bookshelves. The latter offered an Enid Blyton instead as more age appropriate reading. When books are on full display, curious children will want to read them all, not knowing about genre or age-specific reading. The parents’ prudence comes into play here – in not only discouraging the child from picking up a book not meant for them, but also suggesting appropriate alternatives.

When it comes to age appropriate books, there is, however, a wide discrepancy in what is available in the market. Most kids love comics – they are fun, quick reads and help pass the time if the child is left unattended and needs to be kept busy. They might not, however, build vocabulary or sentence structure, and do not teach paragraph formation or changing between direct and indirect speech in a longer text. Translated books (or just about any book for that matter) might have grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, or any editorial inaccuracies that the parents need to check for, since the child is at an impressionable age and might assume what they are reading to be absolutely correct.

An observation was cited about pre-teens/teens who access Kindles and other e-readers, wherein parents are unaware of the kinds of e-books being downloaded. A helpful aid here is to encourage the child to analyse and share their thoughts on what has been read. Three children at the book meet reviewed books they had read – Anne Frank’s “The Diary Of A Young Girl”, Ashwin Sanghi’s “The Krishna Key”, and John Green’s “Paper Towns”. These happened to be all paperbacks. But even when it comes to e-books, initiating a literary discussion enables parents to know what books are being read, and at the same time respecting their kids’ literary choices. Some might prefer to write down their thoughts, reflect on the story in case of fiction, or on world events in case of non-fiction, or draw comparisons with what they have just read and other books by the same author, or books on similar themes. Children who prefer being vocal can be led into a conversation on the same lines – would they recommend the book to others, any quotes or phrases that stood out, any new words they learnt, their reasons for liking/not liking the book or parts of it. An added benefit of vocalizing one’s thoughts is that parents can check for pronunciations, and correct any discrepancies in the written word versus spoken word. Very often even avid readers mispronounce words because they have never heard them and only read about them.

A point was also made of the role of siblings in reading choices. When it comes to new writers in the market, parents might not be aware of current works of literature. Rather than pushing one’s own childhood reads onto one’s child, elder siblings or cousins who have read newer books might be a good lead in what they would recommend to their younger selves. Children being curious also like to see the books their siblings are reading and this offers an opportunity to diversify reading habits, and have an engaging book discussion with someone from a similar age group.

The presence of children at the meet ensured a well-rounded discourse by receiving their perspectives as well. The session came to an end with the youngest participant expressing her views that she would prefer having her parents select books for her to read, because she trusts them in making better choices.

At the end, there is no right or wrong between who selects the books. The emphasis is on the context of reading in children. The age of the child, external influences from schools and peer groups, presence or absence of older/younger siblings, the child’s grasp over the language of reading, reasons for reading (pass the time or improve vocabulary) – many factors play a role in whether children should pick their own books or parents need to intervene in their literary choices.

 

 

Scheherazade – Book Review

Title – Scheherazade

Author – Haruki Murakami (translated by Ted Goossen)

Genre – Fiction, Short story

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“The scene seemed divorced from reality, although reality he knew, could at time be terribly unreal.”

A short story by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami which narrates the days of one of it’s primary characters, Nobutaka Habara, who for some undisclosed reason is home bound. Habara has been shifted to his new accommodation since a few months, and a woman who serves as his caretaker, entrusted to him by an unnamed company, is his only contact with the world. The woman never tells him her name, and never refers to Habara by his name either. She visits twice a week with all the groceries, books, DVDs, and other supplies he needs, even offering sex and narrating stories. Habara assumes everything is part of the deal with his new lodging and doesn’t ask or protest. He names her Scheherazade, after Queen Scheherazade from “A Thousand And One Nights”, due to her penchant for telling stories after sex.

“Her voice, timing, pacing were all flawless. She captured her listener’s attention, tantalized him, drove him to ponder and speculate.”

They have almost no other conversation in the few hours they spend together during her biweekly visits. Her stories begin and end abruptly, and the narrative takes us through how Habara has to wait for the next visit to know what happens. Whether narrating about her past life as a lamprey, or disclosing her routine break-ins at a former classmate’s house, Habara has no idea whether her stories are fact or fiction.

“Reality and supposition, observation and pure fancy seemed jumbled together in her narratives.”

In typical Murakami style, the reader is never told who Scheherazade really is, why Habara cannot leave the house, or what is the significance of the stories. The narrative is unique, with the backstory forming the main story as Scheherazade’s reminiscences of her past take you along for the ride. She begins abruptly and leaves the endings for the next visit, and every visit ends with something else pending. The reader experiences the same feelings with Murakami as Habara does with Scheherazade – the story doesn’t get anywhere, but the ride is thrilling.

At it’s core, the story is about companionship. Habara cannot move outside his abode and Scheherazade is his only link to the outside world. Scheherazade is a licensed nurse and a mother of two, but offers her storytelling to Habara who seems to be the only one eager to listen to them. With only two characters and an average plot, Murakami leaves us with beautiful imagery and brilliant storytelling, as reflected in the life of a lamprey or a house breaker who is not a thief. Just like Habara, the reader is left puzzled with many questions during and at the end of the story. But read this for your dose of Murakami’s writing, just as Habara cherishes Scheherazade’s stories for her storytelling skills.

Rating – 3/5

Writer Wednesday – Ismat Chughtai

Yesterday’s Google doodle played tribute to the iconic feminist author Ismat Chughtai on the occasion of her 107th birth anniversary. Chughtai was an Indian Urdu language writer, who wrote on themes of female sexuality and femininity, middle class gentility, and class conflicts. Google’s ode to the writer helps us remember this significant voice in the Urdu literature of the twentieth century, whose style was characterized by literary realism.

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Chughtai was born in 1911 in Uttar Pradesh – the ninth of ten children. She attributed the influence of her brothers to shaping her personality in her formative years. She achieved a Bachelor’s degree in both Arts and Education, and was associated with the Progressive Writers’ Association in the 1930s. Rashid Jahan, one of the leading female writers involved with the movement, was later credited for inspiring Chughtai’s realistic, challenging female characters. O. Henry, George Bernard Shaw, Anton Chekhov were other early literary influences.

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Chughtai began writing in the mid 1930s, and her first published work came out in 1939 – a drama titled Fasadi (The Troublemaker) for the Urdu magazine Saqi. She followed that by writing for other publications and newspapers. Bachpan (Childhood) was an autobiographical piece, Kafir (Non-believer) – her first short story, Dheet (Stubborn) – a soliloquy, were some of her earlier works. Kalyan (Buds) and Coten (Wounds) were her earliest collections of short stories, published in 1941 and 1942 respectively. Her first novella Ziddi was published in 1941, and was later translated into English as Wild At Heart. Her stories reflected the cultural legacy of the region in which she lived. Her short story Lihaf (The Quilt) was published in 1942 in a Lahore-based literary journal, and brought much criticism her way due to it’s themes of female homosexuality. Chughtai was summoned to court on charges of obscenity, but the story later became a landmark for it’s early depiction of sex – considered a taboo in Indian literature at the time. Lihaf has subsequently been widely anthologized over the years, and has become one of Chughtai’s best known works. Chughtai’s quasi-autobiographical novel Terhi Lakeer (The Crooked Line) was released in 1943, chronicling the lives of marginalized women against the backdrop of the British Raj. The book was well received by critics who described her work as “probing, pertinent and empowering”. Tahira Naqvi who translated the book into English, compared Chughtai’s writing style to that of French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, due to the existentialist and humanist affiliations the two shared.

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Ziddi – the first novella.
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Lihaf – one of her most widely known works.
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Terhi Lakeer – the quasi-autobiographical novel.

Chughtai debuted as a screenwriter in 1948 for the commercially successful dram film Ziddi, followed by the 1950 romance film Arzoo. She ventured into directing in 1953 with Faraib, and founded a production company called Filmina in 1958. Her first project as producer was Sone Ki Chidiya the same year, which she also wrote. Despite her commitments to film projects, her writing continued. Chui Mui (Touch Me Not) was a collection of short stories released in 1952. The titular story was noted for it’s pertinent dissection of society and themes of womanhood and motherhood, and was adapted for stage as Ismat Aapa Ke Naam, which ran for twelve years. Chouthi Ka Joda and Mughal Bachcha were also presented by theatre groups.

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Chughtai was awarded the prestigious Padma Shree by the Indian government in 1976 for her contribution to the field of Indian literature. Many of her works have been translated into English and Hindi, and numerous anthologies are available. Remember to pick some up, if you haven’t read them already and world literature interests you.

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Who Goes There – Book Review

Title – Who Goes There?

Author – John Campbell

Genre – Sci-fi, Horror

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John Carpenter’s cult classic of the eighties, The Thing, was one of my favorite horror movies growing up. I recently found out the movie was based on a book by John Campbell titled “Who Goes There” , published in 1938 under the pen name Don Stuart. In the 1970s the book was voted as one of the finest science fiction stories ever written, and was adapted into three films. I haven’t watched the 1951 “The Thing From Another World” , but I loved the 1982 “The Thing” , and didn’t think too much of the 2011 prequel to the 80s movie of the same name. Carpenter’s film is the most faithful adaptation of the book and the most well made, with it’s haunting theme tune.

I picked up the book as soon as I heard about it and finished it over the last two nights. Set in the extreme climatic conditions of the Antarctica of the 1930s, the story follows a group of researchers towards the end of winter and awaiting spring, who happen to discover an alien spaceship crashed and buried in the snow. Assumed to be over twenty million years old, the team attempts to thaw it with a thermite charge, but end up destroying the ship. They do discover the equally frozen remains of the pilot, buried some distance away from the craft – possibly having emerged out to look for warmer climates and succumbed in the harsh new environment. Hoping to not repeat the damaging result of the aircraft, they carry the ice block with the visitor frozen inside, to thaw it “naturally” in their headquarters. And that’s when havoc ensues.

In spite of being a complex organism, the creature’s cells function like those of simple organisms – they revive when thawed and the animal comes to life. The peculiarity of the unwelcome visitor is that it’s cells function as a separate entity from the whole organism. “Every part of it is all of it. Every part is a whole. Every piece is self-sufficient.”  It can latch on to other beings – birds, animals and humans alike – and mimic their cells perfectly to form a  whole new organism that looks, thinks and behaves exactly like the original, and the original organism dies in the process.

The team of pathologists, biologists, meteorologists, physicists, aviation mechanics, and those of varying expertise in their fields must now work together to quarantine the shape-shifter before it takes over all the humans and animals on camp, and moves on from Antarctica to the rest of the world population. But how can the team trust each other when anyone could be a potential threat? “We’ve got monsters, madmen and murderers. Any more M’s you can think of?”  Are people going mad due to cabin fever? Are sane men murdering potential mimics? How do they discern friend from foe, identify who are the real humans and which ones are the clones? Are the sled dogs really dogs or mimics? Are the cows they are milking providing real milk or foreign entities? How does one destroy a creature with no natural enemies? If it can become whatever attacks it, no one or nothing is seen as a threat but as a means of absorption and assimilation into a whole new organism.

The entire book is written in the third person narrative, ensuring the reader is constantly kept guessing about who/what/where the alien could be. Do we look for behavioral signs? Any hint of suspicion in what the characters are saying? Do their feelings, thoughts or dreams identify them as potential aliens? “The idea of the creature imitating us is unreal, because it is too completely unhuman to deceive us. It doesn’t have a human mind.”  As the suspense and paranoia build up slowly, the reader is left questioning one’s own sanity about what and whom to believe. Every one says “I’m human”, but what makes us human? The way we look, our thoughts, our feelings, our ambitions, our will to survive. If all of these are mimicked to perfection, can the mimic be called “human” too? A must-read for sci-fi and horror fans, the book can be described in one word as atmospheric.

~ “Three quarters of an hour, through -37° cold, while the aurora curtain bellied overhead. The twilight was nearly twelve hours long, flaming in the north on snow like white, crystalline sand.”

~ “It was white death. Death of a needle-fingered cold driven before the wind, sucking heat from any warm thing.  Cold and white mist of endless, everlasting drift. It was easy to get lost in ten paces.”

~ “The huge blowtorch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurgingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue.”

~ “A low rippling snarl of distilled hate. A shrill of pain, a dozen snarling yelps.”

~ “The three eyes glared at him sightlessly. He realized vaguely that he had been looking at them for a very long time, and understood that they were no longer sightless.”

~ “An odor alien among the smells of industry and life. And yet, it was a life-smell.”

Very creepy and well written, with a pounding sense of dread that makes one marvel at the era in which the writer produced it. There are references to the first people who ever made it to the North and South Poles, with these memorable expeditions so close to the time when the story was actually written. Antarctica is a harsh continent even today. One shudders to think of the conditions the crew would have to deal with in the 1930s. The plot is riveting, the pace evenly thrilling, and just like the creature, each part of the story adds to the whole. The characterization is excellent, with each specialist’s contribution to the proceedings imperative to the monster being dealt with. A seminal piece of old-school horror and science fiction that was way ahead of it’s time! Go ahead and read it, if you haven’t already.

My rating – 5/5

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I read the book on Kindle. This was the paperback version when the book originally came out. Current cover versions refer to “The Thing” instead of the actual title.