Book Review – “The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories” edited by Ruskin Bond

Book: The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories

Edited by: Ruskin Bond

Publisher: Penguin Books India

Publication Year: 1994

Number of pages: 184

Price: Rs. 200 (Amazon.in) / Rs. 175 (Flipkart) / Rs. 166.25 (Kindle)

My rating: 3/5

I picked this book up at the bookstore near my house in Calcutta, a couple of days before I left for the Cherra Marathon. I read a few of these stories in Shillong, a couple of them on my way back on the flight (I see the irony here), and then finished the book back here in Calcutta.

And once again, the reason why it took me so long to finish this book is because, like it happened with Murakami’s “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman“,  the stories, at least in the first half of the book, didn’t impress me much.

The book is split into two halves: stories from before and after India’s independence. And although I’d expected the stories in the first half to fascinate me more, this is where disappointment lay. In place of stories which I expected to make me travel back in time, to a place where railway stations were little hubs of activity and filled with interesting stories, I was peddled with stories with weak plots which rather felt like I was sipping tepid and tasteless chai at a railway station.

The only story worth mentioning from the first half is the excerpt from Jules Verne’s Around the World In Eighty Days. The story is able to capture some of the romance of early railroad travel made especially challenging in Indian conditions. In it is a description of the opulent city of Bombay, forests to be crossed and unexpected interruptions as Phileas Fogg and Passepartout make their way across the Indian sub-continent.

The rest of the stories in the first half, even though a couple of them are by Kipling, can be skipped over. They did little to catch my attention and much to test my patience.

What impressed me really, was the second half of the book. With stories from writers such as Khushwant Singh, Satyajit Ray and Ruskin Bond himself, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. And I wasn’t.

The following is a brief review of each of the stories that appear in the Stories After Independence section:

Loyalty by Jim Corbett – One of the two disappointments in this second half, Loyalty is an autobiographical narration by Corbett about his challenges from the time when he was employed in the Indian Railways. The only aspect of this story that caught my eye was how much responsibility a twenty-one year old was entrusted with back then. My rating: 2/5

Mano Majra Station by Khushwant Singh – An extract from Singh’s Train To Pakistan. The tale, which begins amusingly, is a story set in the Punjab during the time of Partition. It captures the character of a village caught up in forces beyond its reckoning, as the story comes to a chilling end. My rating: 4/5

The Woman on Platform 8 by Ruskin Bond – A vintage Ruskin Bond story. A schoolboy, travelling alone, is waiting at a station for his train. A woman befriends him and offers him a meal. But are things really what they seem or is she a crook? My rating: 4/5

The Intimate Demon by Manoj Das – A beautifully worded little story about a father and daughter’s railway journey. My rating: 4/5

A Stranded Railroad Car by Intizar Husain – A group of men in a village gather round for their evening hookah and narrate tales of this new fangled beast called the railroad car. My rating: 3/5

Barin Bhowmik’s Ailment by Satyajit Ray – The master story-teller that he is, Ray whips up the suspense pretty early in the story and the surprise ending will certainly make you smile. My rating: 4/5

Balbir Arora goes Metric by Bill Aitken – The second and final weak story in the second half. Too long-winded. Might be of some interest to a railway geek. My rating: 3/5

Railway Reverie by R. K. Laxman – An extract from Laxman’s book The Messenger. An ill-chosen extract perhaps, because it was surprisingly short and had a very abrupt ending. My rating: 3/5

The Cherry Choo-Choo by Victor Banerjee – A heartwarming little tale which made me laugh at a number of places. My rating: 4/5

99 UP by Manojit Mitra – “This is the kind of story about railways that I wanted to read,” I told myself when I finished 99 UP. The story captures how a little town on the outskirts of Calcutta gets caught up in a frenzy when a movie star is expected to drop by for a film’s release. The story describes the various people of the village and how the visit captures each one’s imagination. My rating: 5/5

Lingering thoughts:

  • It is a sad sign of the times that in a book of Indian railway stories, I kept reading POW, which was supposed to stand for Palace on Wheels, as Prisoners of War. Sigh.
  • “The blue-eyed, brown-haired and pale-skinned Anglo-Indian engine driver who had rolled the ‘Choo-Choo’ into town, was whisked away by hordes of admirers, laced with rice wine that had fermented for weeks in diurnal anticipation of the arrival of the train and, in the morning, was discovered dead in the local brothel where, introduced as an Apollo from Calcutta, he succumbed to an endless striving to uphold his standard.”
  • “‘An old buddy?’ ‘No,’ murmured Bridges with a slight smile, ‘Half-devil and half-child, but by the living God that made him, he was a better man than I. A funny story; a wonderful memory.'”
  • Two books added to my to-read list from here: Around The World In Eighty days by Jules Verne and 20 Stories by Satyajit Ray.
  • Must read more stuff by Manojit Mitra.
  • I think I’m done with short stories for now. Need to read a novel which will sustain my interest over a longer period of time.

Image courtesy: www.flipkart.com

Read more about ‘The Penguin Book of Indian Railway Stories’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.inFlipkart or for your Kindle.

Book Review – “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” by Haruki Murakami

Book: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

Author: Haruki Murakami

Publisher: Vintage Books

Publication Year: 2006

Number of pages: 436

Price: Rs. 303 (Amazon.in) / Rs. 339 (Flipkart) / Rs. 275 (Kindle)

My rating: 3/5

Looking back, I realised I was gifted this book way back in December last year. It has taken me about 7 months to finish reading it.

Why did it take me so long, you ask?

Well, this book was gifted to me by a very good friend. And I have always liked the writings of Haruki Murakami. These two reasons were good enough for me to soldier on and continue reading beyond the point where I usually would’ve given up.

And I was justly rewarded for my efforts. Some of the stories towards the end of the book are vintage Murakami: slightly weird, lots of fun and handsome amount of soul searching.

The first story in the book which made me feel this way was “Firefly”. I had almost told myself “I’m not going to read any more of this book if this story isn’t worth it.” And then, Murakami gave a glimpse of the kind of stories he can tell. At the end of this one, for example, you feel as if you’ve stopped at the finish line but the answer still lies somewhere in the distance: you’ve reached your destination but can only see the solution from afar.

He follows this up with, in my humble opinion, the best story in the book: The Chance Traveller. The serendipitous meeting between a gay piano tuner and an unhappy wife, along with the two curious incidents from the author’s own life, make for a beautiful story of love and connecting with the strange ways of the Universe.

It would be unfair to say that the next story, Hanalei Bay, is any less beautiful. It narrates the grief of a single mother who has lost her only son and what happens when she comes to the part of the world where he died.

The final two stories in the book, The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day and A Shinagawa Monkey, helped me to finish this book with a smile.

I wish I could say that for the rest of the stories. I was left bewildered by most of them and some of them seemed to end abruptly. Not that this isn’t what Murakami usually does. It felt like an artist had gone just that slight bit overboard and indulged himself in his fancies, leaving us who appreciate his art stranded on a different plane.

To summarise, I still love reading Haruki Murakami’s writings. He creates a world which is absurd and yet it brilliantly connects with the reader within me. Unfortunately, I think he overdid the randomness this time.

P.S. Nenette on Goodreads has done a story-by-story review and rating here. I think she has done a splendid job.

Lingering thoughts:

  • “There are only three ways to get along with a girl: one, shut up and listen to what she has to say; two, tell her you like what she’s wearing; and three, treat her to really good food. Easy, eh?”
  • “Your work should be an act of love, not a marriage of convenience.”
  • This chap Murakami has certainly had some weird sexual experiences. Look at all the ways in which he talks about it. Not judging him. Just an observation.

Update on 6 Aug 2015: I have stumbled upon the The Best Way to Read Haruki Murakami. Those who want to get started with Murakami or want to figure out their way through this man’s works must give this post by Book Oblivion/Jessica a look. Happy navigating!

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.in, Fipkart or for your Kindle.

Book Review – “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” by Oscar Wilde

Book: Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (Little Black Classics #59)

Author: Oscar Wilde

Publisher: Penguin Books

Publication Year: 2015

Number of Pages : 50

Price: Rs. 42 (Amazon) / Rs. 42 (Kindle)

My rating: 4/5

There is something about Oscar Wilde’s writing which always makes me pause and smile at the wonderfully crafted sentences. I’d felt this way when I’d read the only novel that he’s written, “The Picture Of Dorian Gray”, and again when I read the short story “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime”.

What I’d expected to be a dark tale about one man’s psychological struggle to come to grips with a prediction that he was soon going to commit a murder turned out to be a witty tale; a tongue-in-cheek look at upper class London society with a fun, surprising end.

I read this book one evening in Shillong, and this was the perfect read to compliment the beautiful hill station and the wonderful quiet which is associated with unhurried evenings at such places.

I cannot wait to read more by Wilde. And if you haven’t read anything by him thus far, “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” is an excellent place to begin.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

Book Review – “Something Happened On The Way To Heaven” edited by Sudha Murthy

Book: Something Happened On The Way To Heaven

Edited by: Sudha Murthy

Publisher: Penguin Books India

Publication Year: 2014

Number of Pages (Kindle): 224

Price: Rs. 200 (Flipkart) / Rs. 175 (Amazon) / Rs.  157.70 (Kindle)

My rating: 2/5

A book that I bought and persisted with since one of the twenty real-life short stories here features a friend of mine. Although she had warned me that the publishers had dumbed down the language in the book, I was taken aback with what I read. Some of the tales are really naive too, which doesn’t help either.

Avoid.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about ‘Something Happened On The Way To Heaven’ on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart, Amazon.in or for your Kindle.

Yma Dream – Thomas Meehan

Here’s a fun performance by Anne Bancroft, based on a little story titled Yma Dream that author Thomas Meehan wrote for The New Yorker magazine.

All I can say is beware of the guests you invite in to your dreams; the results can be disastrously hilarious.

P.S. I discovered this story through a performance I heard on Selected Shorts, a podcast I have blogged about previously.

Selected Shorts – Donna Tartt, Etgar Keret and Evelyn Waugh

Selected Shorts is one among the handful of podcasts that I’ve been listening to regularly of late.

“It’s story time for adults,” says their website, “with PRI’s award-winning series of short fiction read by the stars of stage and screen. Recorded live at Peter Norton Symphony Space in NYC and on tour. A co-production of Symphony Space and WNYC Radio.”

I’m not quite sure where I picked up on it, but the programming has been good enough to encourage me to set aside an hour every week to sit and listen to it.

The first episode which caught my attention was one where Patricia Kalember, a regular reader at Selected Shorts, read Donna Tartt’s short story Ambush. The story, a bittersweet tale about the friendship of a little boy and girl in the backdrop of the Vietnam war, had been featured in the 2006 Best American Short Stories. Although a stranger to the various accents, I was engrossed at the remarkable ease with which Ms. Kalember switched between them and narrated this beautiful tale. You can hear the episode here. (Needless to add, I have since added Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning Goldfinch to my to-read list)

But the episode which really nailed the deal for me was the one featuring none other than Mr. Spock himself! Leonard Nimoy, in an episode titled An Alien and a Gentleman, reads Etgar Keret’s Good Intentions, followed by Evelyn Waugh’s The Man Who Liked Dickens. In the former, Nimoy speaks in the voice of the narrator, a hitman who has been contracted to kill the only man who was ever kind to him. In the latter, he is chilling as the tribal chief who wishes to keep reading Dickens’ works over and over again. I won’t spoil the fun for you; listen to the episode here.

An additional clincher is that these episodes are recorded live, and you can hear the audience ‘participate’ in the reading through their reactions. Close your eyes as you listen to the podcast, and you are transported as an audience member of the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York.

Prior to Selected Shorts, I hadn’t read any of these stories and also hadn’t heard about these authors. As I subscribed to the podcast, I smiled as I realised that books were reinventing themselves in the digital age. Survival of the fittest, as they say.

Book Review – “Gooseberries” by Anton Chekhov

Book: Gooseberries (Little Black Classics #34)

Author: Anton Chekhov

Published: 2015

Number of Pages: 64

Price: Rs. 34 (Flipkart) / Rs. 46 (Kindle)

My rating: 4/5

I was in a bookstore the other day, browsing for a gift for a friend. I chanced upon a shelf which displayed some of the books from Penguins’ recently published Little Black Classics compilation. What a fantastic selection of books it seems to be! At 50 bucks a piece, each of these seemed like a perfect companion for the monsoon season along with a cuppa of cappuccino.

Within these, I spotted one which was a collection of three short stories by Anton Chekhov. Curious, because I hadn’t read any stuff by him thus far, I picked this one up.

The three stories in this book are The Kiss, The Two Volodyas and Gooseberries.

The Kiss is a beautiful little short story about a meek man, who almost seems a non-entity to his companions, experiencing uncommon joie de vivre when he is the recipient of an unlikely kiss. Although with a tricky ending, I liked the idea of the “little guy” finding some joy in his life and all the emotions, thoughts and doubts that he goes through, almost thoroughly unmindful of the world around him.

The Two Volodyas was a story I would’ve loved to have heard as a radio dramatisation. It tells us of Sofya, who has recently married an older man named Vladimir, in spite of having been madly in love with her childhood friend, also named Vladimir. The two gentlemen, nicknamed Big Volodya and Little Volodya respectively, even share a somewhat notorious reputation when it comes to women. The story is about the misgivings of Sofya about her marriage and how she tries to make sense of her situation as she looks at the lives of two other women who have, so to speak, chosen diametrically opposite lives in a similar condition.

Gooseberries, from which this collection gets it’s name, is a story of two brothers and how differently they choose to define happiness. Although, I didn’t quite get why this needed to be a story within a story. But it was a nice little tale all the same.

A quick, fun read and there’s little more that I can ask of a book of short stories.

Image courtesy: www.goodreads.com

Read more about Gooseberries on Goodreads. Buy it on Flipkart or for your Kindle.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Title: Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Author: Truman Capote

Number of Pages: 157

Price: Rs. 205 (Amazon.in)

I read this book as a part of The Sunday Book Club’s (@tsbookclub on Twitter) #TSBookChat. As is the norm with me these days, I immediately searched for the book on the Kindle store and was surprised and disappointed to not find a Kindle edition. Hence, I ordered for a copy of the book.

Having read the book, I can now admit that I’m thankful that the Kindle edition wasn’t available. Packaging this under their Modern Classics series, Penguin has done a fabulous job with the quality of the cover page and also of the pages inside. Also, the fonts used for the book make it a pleasure to read. (Someday, I will dedicate myself to studying various fonts.)

“Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is a charming novella. Narrated by a nameless author (who has, at the beginning of the book, not had anything published) who lives in 1940s New York, the story features the charismatic Holly Golightly, a modern “American geisha”, if you will. She doesn’t have a job, per se, but was almost a Hollywood starlet before she runs away to New York, offering herself as company for dinners and parties to anyone who would compensate her for her time and presence. Holly, who at the beginning of the novella, is about 18 or 19 years old, is most definitely not the “ideal” society girl and you know she is going to fall into trouble sooner rather than later. Yet, Capote manages to capture a mix of naivete and brashness which made me adore her and kept me curious about her fate.

I remember watching the film ages ago, and hence, it was only Audrey Hepburn I saw in my mind’s eye while I read the book. I recalled a very different ending in the film and thought the “romantic comedy” genre inspired end was better than the slightly ambiguous one the novella provided. Yet, one cannot really blame Capote, as the novella feels more like a labour of love than something he was writing that would enable him to pay the bills.

Apparently, Capote wrote the character keeping Marilyn Monroe in mind. I guess it will remain a debate for film historians to decide who would’ve been a better Holly Golightly.

This edition also comes with three short stories: House Of Flowers, A Diamond Guitar and A Christmas Memory. House of Flowers disappointed me a bit and A Diamond Guitar merely flirted with my curiosity and my imagination. However, it was A Christmas Memory which was the most impactful of the three. It is a tribute to Capote’s skill that the reader is so invested in the characters by the end of this short story. It almost perfectly captures how we feel looking at people as we grow up, more often than not, far away from those who we love.

This was the first time I was reading Truman Capote and I am now sufficiently impressed and curious to read In Cold Blood, which I believe was what earned him fame and established him as an excellent modern writer.

My rating for the book (the 3 short stories included): 4 out of 5.

Image courtesy: Penguin Books