#8 – The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

SPOILER ALERT – This post has spoilers for Gone Girl – not for The Girl on the Train though, at least nothing major.

These days, no one can write fiction with female protagonists without making someone else very very angry. Men hate female characters who get the better of male characters – just look at the amount of vitriol directed against the admittedly-psychotic Amy in Gone Girl on online discussion forums while her male counterparts are lionized. The b-word was used in abundance to describe the character in reviews and articles. Women themselves feel that the portrayal of Amy as someone who is super-cray is damaging.

All in all, the feelings of both writers and readers towards these mysterious half-centaurs called women are conflicted and confused. Perhaps, the most accurate and succinct description of these feelings was provided by Maurice Moss in The IT Crowd when he says

“Ahh, women, eh? What are they, who knows? Can’t live with them, can’t find them sometimes. What’s going on in their little heads? Don’t ask me! I’m not a flippin’ women’s psychiatrist.”

In any case, the world of literature is now awash with best-sellers about “lost women” – unreliable narrators battling addiction, megalomania and abusive men. And I read the latest of these best-sellers yesterday in one 3-hour sitting.

Despite the inevitable comparisons, however,  The Girl on the Train is no Gone Girl. For one, the twist is rather predictable – nothing [SPOILER ALERT] like the whiplash of discovering Amy is alive halfway through Gone Girl. And Rachel, the chief narrator of the book is certainly no Amy. She is a drunk who cannot remember large chunks of the evening that would change several lives dramatically – which can be frustrating for her and the reader. But she also says a lot of things which sort of boil down to “I can’t remember a thing and this guy is super creepy but I just FEEL that he is good-natured deep down so he couldn’t have attacked me.” It’s the sort of lazy plot-hole that allows the book to be finished in a 3 hour sitting. But it’s also the sort of plot-hole that leaves the reader feeling vaguely annoyed. Surely, there are better ways to resolve a red herring.

But whatever its flaws, the book is entertaining. It’s the perfect read for a rainy afternoon – just the right length and exciting enough to stave off the urge to take an afternoon nap. The plot is interesting and the characters have rare moments of intense vulnerability and candor where the reader can’t help but feel sympathetic towards them.

Rachel’s self-destructive ways can be frustrating to read about before such sympathy is established however. Rachel is also quite creepy at the outset – obsessing over this couple she sees from her train window everyday – going so far as to give them imaginary names. However, she is also the underdog of the story – an unheroic and graceless underdog – but one you root for nonetheless. There’s just something about that weak tenacity that draws you in and wins her your begrudging sympathy, if not respect. I  found myself looking past the creepiness, past the weaknesses and her constant self-berating – at how incredibly human she was.

And perhaps, that’s  the thing that both readers and writers need to learn before writing or reading about women. That female characters don’t necessarily  have to choose between being damaged or resilient, vulnerable or indomitable, stupid or resourceful, frightening or fragile… They can be all these things and more all at once. Because humans – both male and female – can be all these things all at once. And at the end of the day, the most important test for a character is not whether he/she is likable or has agency or representative – all those things are incredibly important of course – but the most important test is whether you’ve written the character as though they were real  multi-dimensional individuals who could exist in our real multi-dimensional world. The way I see it – if a character can pass that test, representation and agency will follow.

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#7. The Millenium Series – Stieg Larsson

I started listening to the Millenium Trilogy the day before I left Edmonton – listening because I managed to get the Audible audiobook of the first book. After listening to the first few chapters of the book and finding my first expedition into popular contemporary fiction entirely engrossing, I got the epub versions of all the three books to read on my brand new superawesome Kobo (which, by the way, I hereby declare to be the love of my life).

And well, I was hooked. I spent every single minute of my precious and scarce free time on the books – I refused two invitations to go out for movies with my friends, almost walked into a tree on my way to class, read by candle light during a blackout last Thursday and did everything that a bibliophile who can’t wait to know what happens next in a book does while reading a riveting book. I even stayed up way past my bedtime (which is usually around 9.30 PM) to finish the book a little after 1 AM on Friday. And I loved every word of it. I mean, the plot was entirely exciting. The plot follows the adventures of Lisbeth Salander (who is probably my third favourite female literaray character now – right after Elizabeth Bennett and Hermione Granger and just a little ahead of Veronica Mars) and Mikael Blomkvist (who is being played by Daniel Craig in the movie that is coming out this December – as if I needed one more reason to strike off the days till the movie’s release).

Lisbeth Salander is an expert hacker with a photographic memory and a dark past. Blomkvist is a journalist at Millenium who is in disgrace at the beginning of the first book after being found guilty of libel. However, the libel case only forms a subplot in the first book and the main premise deals with the four-decade-long-disappearance of Harriet Vanger, a wealthy heiress who goes missing in quintessential locked room mystery style. The ensuing search makes for an unputdownable reading experience replete with enough intrigue to give the reader sleepless nights wondering what the ending will be.

The second book begins with Salander in a quest to distance herself from Blomkvist. After repeated attempts to contact Salander, Blomkvist gives up and devotes his time to working with journalist Dag Stevensson and his girlfriend Mia Johansson’s on an expose of trafficking in Sweden. However, the lives of Salander and Blomkvist cross paths again after Dag and Mia are murdered and Salander is accused of the crime. Blomkvist and a few other – including Salander’s old employer – believe in her innocence and dig up her past to reveal a shocking coverup by the authorities that shed light on Salander’s dark and tragic past. The second book ends with a seeming resolution of the situation that is distubed in the very first chapter of the third book.

With various people in positions of authority and power now striving to put away Salander for good – in order to prevent the revelation of a truth that would implicate them in heinous crimes – Salander and The Knight of the Idiotic Table (who believe in Salander’s innocence without really knowing why they trust someone who is entirely incomprehensible and possibly rather demented) have to work hard to prove her innocence. And as the plot develops and more secrets are revealed, the reader is entirely drawn into the world that Larsson so expertly creates.

Honestly, it has been ages since a book captivated me like this. And I am entirely jealous of Larsson’s ability to conjure up situations and plot devices that are unassumingly brilliant. And I also loved how things that are only mentioned in passing in one book suddenly assume importance in later books – which led me to marvel at how methodically he must have planned these books.

According to Wikipedia, Larsson had originally planned ten books in the series but he died of a heart attack before they could be completed and the three books that were completed were published posthumously. Also, his girlfriend – whom he could never marry due to security reasons as Swedish law makes it compulsory for married couples’ information to be placed in the public domain – has the first few chapters of his unfinished fourth book which she does not have the rights to and hence cannot make public. 😦 I was entirely heartbroken when I heard that there could have been seven more books filled with the sheer awesomeness of Larsson’s exquisitely clever writing. Blomkvist’s character is said to have been modelled on Larsson himself – he was a journalist too who ran an anti-racist magazine called Expo. Larsson’s  abhorrence of the ill-treatment of women and guilt at being unable to help a girl whose gang rape he witnessed as an adolescent led him to write the Millenium series.

I absolutely completely loved the books and was quite sad when I finished the last book because I really don’t see if and when I’ll ever find books that are this engrossing again.

P.S. – The books are rather disturbing in places and I wouldn’t recommend the series to kids who are 14 or younger unless kids of today who are 14 or younger are entirely different from kids who were 14 or younger when I was 14 or younger.

#6. The Girl on the Boat – P. G. Wodehouse

“Never! Never! There is no man at Ealing West! There never was a man at Ealing West!”

It was at this point that Jno. Peters began for the first time to entertain serious doubts of the girl’s mental balance. The most elementary acquaintance with the latest census told him that there were any number of men at Ealing West. The place was full of them. Would a sane woman have made an assertion to the contrary? He thought not, and he was glad that he had the revolver with him. She had done nothing as yet actively violent, but it was nice to feel prepared. He took it out and laid it nonchalantly in his lap.

The sight of the weapon acted on Billie electrically. She flung out her hands, in a gesture of passionate appeal, and played her last card.

“I love you!” she cried. She wished she could have remembered his first name. It would have rounded off the sentence neatly. In such a moment she could hardly call him “Mr. Peters.” “You are the only man I love.”

– Shocks all around, The Girl on the Boat

Ever since my father gifted me Summer Moonshine for my eleventh birthday, I’ve loved Wodehouse. I love the way he cooks up his elaborate plots and the wry tone in which he delivers the funniest of jokes. I love the ambivalence of the complicated simplicity of the cushy lives of his protagonists. I’ve wasted several eyelash wishes wishing for a butler like Jeeves. During the summer of 2003, I remember devouring every single Wodehouse at the British Library with a zeal that worried my parents. In other words, Wodehouse is an author I’ve loved for years and years. And I’ve loved him so much that I thought that it wasn’t humanly possible to love him more than I did – but then I read The Girl on the Boat and realized that I was mistaken.

The Girl on the Boat is undoubtedly the best Wodehouse novel I’ve read. Though there are several books from the Jeeves and Wooster series that I worship, they are instruction manuals for putting together agricultural machinery compared to the comical masterpiece that is The Girl on the Boat. Starting off with the travails of a mother who has to resort to extreme measures to prevent her son’s marriage, the story then meanders to an entertaining voyage on the boat mentioned in the title and then to the idyllic Windles.

Full of misunderstandings, broken engagements, interfering aunts and elaborate ruses – The Girl on the Boat has everything that is wonderful about Wodehouse. The finest and funniest part of the book is the aptly-titled chapter Shocks all around that had me laughing for hours on end. If due to some awful twist of fate, you can only ever read one Wodehouse book, I hope that it shall be this one because this is the maestro of mirth at his finest.

#5. The Virago Book of Christmas

“Around the hotel pool Christmas trees

and flame hibiscus glow with fairy lights.”

The Virago Book of Chrismas, edited by Michelle Lovric is an anthology of letters, excerpts from novels, poems and short stories about Christmas by women writers across the globe. The book which is divided into four sections – The Nativity: Mary’s Christmas, Childhood Christmases, Christmas at our place, Christmas Abroad, The Ral Gifts: Christmas Transformations, Christmas Foods, Mischielf and Malfeasance at Christmas, Christmas at War and Christmas Romance – has works from a range of authors including Virginia Woolf, Christina Rossetti, Agathe Christie and Ntozake Shange.

Some of the works in the anthology were rather dull – for example, I fell asleep twice through the excerpt from Colette’s De ma Fenetre and Christmas poetry, I discovered, can be pretty drab. But other pieces made up for that. Some of the works were intriguing because of their historicity – for example a Christmas letter from Jane Carlyle describes a Christmas party which had Thackeray, Dickens and Forster among its guests.

The funny ones were the best though – including a surprisingly hilarious account of Christmas dinner at Lady Mary Anne Barker’s Jamaican home. The funniest of the funny ones, though, was also my most favourite work in the anthology – a brilliant essay on how to make the worst of Christmas by the inimitable Jenny Eclair.

Also, a piece that pleasantly surprised me was Valerie Joseph’s poem Christmas in Cochin which was filed under Christmas Abroad. (from which the quote at the beginning of this post is taken)

All in all, it was an okayish book – not all the writing in it was exceptional but the pieces that were and the interesting mini-bios about the authors at the start of each piece made the book a good read – especially in this time of the year when everything’s so Christmassy. 🙂

#4. Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can’t Avoid – Lemony Snicket (Daniel Handler)

“Life is a turbulent journey, fraught with confusion, heartbreak, and inconvenience.

This book will not help.”

You cannot expect anything but brilliance from a book that has the above statement for a blurb. The book starts off with a parable of sorts – with a bitterly unhappy ending that teaches you to “never search for a wise man, particularly in your neighborhood, where so few of them live.” The parable is followed by a collection of quotes and important bitter truths that everyone needs to know (but which will not necessarily help everyone – or anyone, for that matter) and wise remarks made by Snicket at “dinner parties and anarchist riots”.

And I LOVED them all. Almost all the quotes are really funny – and yet, they’re also rather thought-provoking. But more than all that, they are comforting – reading Snicket is like talking to a very old, very dear friend. And whether you’re feeling confused or sad or struggling with an overall feeling of doom that one cannot escape no matter one does – this book can make you feel better. It’s sort of like what he says about crying – “Unless you have been very, very lucky, you have undoubtedly experienced events in your life that have made you cry. So unless you have been very, very lucky, you know that a good, long session of weeping can often make you feel better, even if your circumstances have not changed one bit.” Even if your circumstances have not changed one bit, randomly flipping to a page in the book and reading the quote there can make you smile and that could perhaps make you feel a little more poised to take on whatever’s troubling you. So, I guess that one of the bitter truths proved wrong after all – the one on the blurb that says that this book cannot help you out in a life fraught with confusion, heartbreak and inconvenience.

#3. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad

“Beyond the fence the forest stood up spectrally in the moonlight, and through that dim stir, through the faint sounds of that lamentable courtyard, the silence of the land went home to one’s very heart — its mystery, its greatness, the amazing reality of its concealed life.”

– Part I, Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness was one of the most difficult books I’ve read. It’s not long – it’s probably one of the shortest books I’ve read in a while too. It’s difficult because of the long paragraphs and the sometimes-confusing shift in narrators for very brief interims. And as I said in the last post, I hated it – at first. It was quite tiresome to wade through Marlow’s long-wound narrative only to find that my mind had wandered off midway and I had to reread it in order to understand what he meant.

However the last twenty pages  or so were worth all that and my perception of the book underwent a sea-change because of the extraordinary brilliance of those last few pages. Also, Marlow and Kurtz are such complexly crafted characters – it’s impossible to be anything but awestruck by Conrad’s genius. Much of it is inspired by Conrad’s own journey through the Congo and according to some, Kurtz was a character he created out of several people he met in that journey. And to be honest, I believe that it would have been impossible for anyone to come up with a plot like that without drawing from real life. I know I’m being vague when I say that – and I don’t know how to really explain that except by saying that Heart of Darkness is the sort of book that seems to be both too real to be fiction and too fictional to be real. If you still don’t get what I mean, all I can say is that you should try and read the book and you’ll probably get what I mean.

So, the verdict on Heart of Darkness is that I wish I hadn’t said that I hated it. I don’t. When I found the time to really focus and the determination to read it and I was unperturbed by report submissions and things of that sort, it turned out to be a great read. And though it really isn’t my “type” of book, I did enjoy it and as I said before, those last twenty pages were really something. I also understand why it has made its way into so many greatest books lists and why it is considered as an archetypal test – I don’t quite know how to explain this either but reading Heart of Darkness, one gets the feeling that this is what several writers after Conrad have aspired to emulate and that very visible influence is rather awe-inspiring – so much so that one feels certain that literature today would be decidedly different if Conrad had succeeded in killing himself when he attempted suicide at the age of twenty one. And one feels rather grateful to the Fates for letting him live on to write something so frighteningly dark and eerily insightful.

P.S – Anything about Heart of Darkness is of course, incomplete without mention of Apocalypse Now. I watched it as part of a Film Studies course – actually, watching it was supposed to be homework of a sort and I had to watch it at 5 AM in the morning because I didn’t remember that I was supposed to watch it till the day that we were scheduled to discuss it in class. Watching Apocalypse Now at 5 AM in the morning is quite a horrible idea. Sure, it’s a great movie – but it is definitely not a great start to one’s day. Anyway, I don’t have to say this because this is superobvious and Brando has an Academy Award that screams this and all – but Brando was just mindblowingly brilliant as Kurtz. So much so that whenever there was mention of Kurtz in the book, my mind just saw him as Brando.

Leave Letter I

I do not like Heart of Darkness – AT ALL.

It’s just not my kind of book and though it’s barely a hundred pages, I can’t bring myself to read it.

But I WILL read it and post a review as promised – though I need another week to do that.

It’s not just my disliking for the book that’s causing the delay – it’s also the fact that I’m working on the report submission at my internship and that’s a lot of work.

Therefore, I apologise for the delay and hope that I’ll be able to finish it and write about it in a few days.