Books & Reading

Existential Essentials: A Halloween Reading List

True terror is not otherworldly. In fact, it is a thing far more terrifying (and far more real) than ghouls and spooky spirits. You find it in the most innocuous of places: in history textbooks, small newspaper articles, unreported events. Most of the time, you find it in other people, and, sometimes, even within yourself. This is a place of madness, hysteria, suffering, narcissism and confusion.

In the spirit of Halloween, I’ve put together a list of novels that offer a sample of what real-world terror can look like: abject poverty, plotting paedophiles, book-burning, totalitarian states. Though works of fiction, they are inspired by the monsters of this world, and more frightening because of it.

WARNING: This list contains truly depressing novels.

1. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

It is 1951, a winter day in a Siberian labour camp. A prisoner goes about his day, bending rules, avoiding punishments and making life a little easier where he can. Based on Solzhenitsyn’s own experience as a labour camp prisoner under Stalin’s reign, this is a grim but powerful account of life in the Soviet Gulags.

2. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

a fine balance

The unfair prejudices of the Hindu caste system are revealed as we follow the lives of 4 characters from different castes in Bombay, India, in the 1970s. The poor survive by living on a razor’s edge. For them, everything goes badly; there’s no happy ending in this overwhelmingly sad novel that’s the unfortunate reality of millions of impoverished Indians.

3. Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa

Revenge

Yoko Ogawa is a master of modern Gothic. Beautiful and deadly, each short story is like an exquisite delicacy that’s rotten to its core. In the first story, for example, a woman spends an “Afternoon at the Bakery” where she goes to buy strawberry shortcake for her son’s birthday, twelve years after he died while trapped inside an abandoned refrigerator.

4. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

1984

Nineteen Eighty-Four and Farenheit 451 (#5, below) are equally frightening dystopian novels with similar themes. Orwell’s version depicts a totalitarian state where truth doesn’t exist, independent thought is banned, and love is an alien concept (unless it’s love for the Party). It is visionary because some countries today function exactly like the nightmarish world depicted in this 1961 novel.

5. Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

farenheit 451

I reviewed Ray Bradbury’s frightening vision of future a few years ago. In this dystopian classic, owning, publishing and reading books is a criminal activity. Distracted by technology, citizens allow, in fact prefer, to let books burn. (Sounds familiar?) In the midst of this extreme government-imposed censorship, one book-burning fireman has a moral awakening.

6. Black Hole by Charles Burns

black hole cover

I’ve written about Burns’ macabre graphic novel before. In a gruesome twist of fate, all goes awry when a mysterious sexually transmitted plague starts infecting teenagers in a quiet suburban American town. What unfolds is a testimony to the savage cruelty of puberty and high school politics.

7. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

lolita

Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged European intellectual, meets his ideal nymphet in the shape of 12-year-old Dolores Haze, and constructs an elaborate plot to seduce her. The prose is as hauntingly beautiful as the story is sad, sick and tragic.

8. The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka

the metamorphosis

Gregor Samsa wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into some sort of vile insect though his intellect remains intact. But the longer he’s trapped in his new form, the more bug-like his mind becomes. Truly kafkaesque. 

9. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews

Flowers in the attic

The four Dollanganger children are locked up in the attic of their beautiful mother’s childhood home, a sprawling Victorian mansion. Here, the children grow up, enter puberty and discover sexuality with some disastrous consequences. It’s not highbrow literature but that doesn’t stop it from being a dark, twisted fairytale.

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Books & Reading

A Short List of Unusual Novels

1. Black Hole by Charles Burns

black hole cover

Growing up is dangerous business, as teenagers in a suburban Seattle town soon discover when a mysterious sexually transmitted plague descends upon their sleepy little corner of the world.  This is a highly sexualised, twisted horror graphic novel, coloured entirely in black and all the more nightmarish for it.

black hole 1

Teenagers undergo grotesque mutations, boils and horns appear overnight, skins peel off, and an entire talking mouth even appears on one poor character’s neck. There’s an undercurrent of desperation, apprehension and fear that runs through all the character’s motivations.

black hole 4

At its heart, Black Hole cuts to the crux of every teenager’s topmost concern: what does it means to fit in with the cool crowd, and what happens to the outsiders, the nobodies, the freaks. Charles Burns’ art is simple yet dark, surreal and super creepy. Highly recommended to anyone in their early twenties.

2. Night Film by Marisha Pessl

night film cover

A genius, enigmatic model-daughter of a Hollywood cult director commits suicide. The rest of this complex novel is a collection of screenshots, police reports, news clippings and transcripts that try to unravel the reasons behind Ashley Cordova’s premature death and her reclusive father’s cult status amongst his legion of fans.

There are various plot summaries of Stanley Cordova’s Lynch-like films, screened only in the secrecy of the night. Watching any one of them supposedly causes the viewer to leave his old self behind, walk through the doors of hell and emerge reborn at the film’s end. Pretty cathartic stuff.

night film 2

There’s black magic in here, tribal blood sacrifices and secret Internet forums, too, but the kicker is the dream-like sequence through an incredibly complex series of stage sets of every single Cordova film ever made, complete with props and dead bodies. Reading Night Film was like entering a long, disturbing and sophisticated hallucination that lingered sleepily after the last page.

3. Censoring an Iranian Love Story by Shariar Mandanipour

iranian love story cover

A novel by an Iranian writer about an Iranian writer who wants to write a love story and see it published in Iran. But he finds himself in a metaphorical burqa. Almost everything he writes is in danger of being censored, because it’s politically offensive, or blasphemous, or offensive to some unknown third-party.

iranian love story

Forget the writer’s block. This is every writer’s biggest nightmare. What do you do when you’ve managed to write a simple boy-meets-girl love story but you can’t even publish it? Circumstances threaten to kill characters; other characters go out of control within the story, assert their independence from the writer and rebel against the story and narrator. Sentences, phrases and paragraphs are striked through. Read this novel if you want to know how Shariar Mandanipour manages to treat censorship like a new literary form, much like a sonnet or a graphic novel.

4. S. by J. J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

 

CT jj-abrams02.jpg

S. is a book that takes place in the margins of another book. There are actual, physical notes, postcards and clippings wedged between the pages of this hefty tome. There are even several websites dedicated to helping readers keep track of the various paraphernalia found in the book. Have I gotten your attention yet?

 

s. 2

s. 3

Essentially, S. the novel comprises of a fictional novel Ship of Theseus written by a fictional author, V.M. Straka. All the pages within Ship of Theseus feature handwritten notes in the margins. It’s like you went to the bookstore and bought an example of the type of book one can find in libraries all over the world. The notes in the margin belong to two students, passing the book back and forth and creating a kind of dialogue between each other. Now if you ever figure out how to read this super metafictional book, drop me a message. I’d love to go back to university just to study a text this jaw droppingly beautiful and complicated in class.

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Book Review, Books & Reading

What I Learnt From Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

1. An ultra fashionable way of expressing a vacant expression, unfurnished with emotion. This is what I look like when I’m being informed about the efficacy of homeopathy:

He has the strangest expression on his face – the emotive equivalent of 404 PAGE NOT FOUND.

 

2. I’ve never been to New York but apparently in the Big Apple, humans, not birds, tweet:

The thinnest tendrils of dawn are creeping in from the east. People in New York are softly starting to tweet.

 

3. If you want to give your child a name that he will curse you for for the rest of his life, you can always turn to softwares:

Hadoop! I love the sound of it. Kat Potente, you and I will have a son, and we will name him Hadoop, and he will be a great warrior, a king.

 

4. Let’s say you meet an alien one day and it asks you ‘What is this Internet thing? Why does everybody love it so?’ Memorise this answer:

I’d sit at my kitchen table and start scanning help-wanted ads on my laptop, but then a browser tab would blink and I’d get distracted and follow a link to a long magazine article about genetically modified wine grapes. Too long, actually, so I’d add it to my reading list. Then I’d follow another link to a book review. I’d add the review to my reading list, too, then download the first chapter of the book – third in a series about vampire police. Then, help-wanted ads forgotten, I’d retreat to the living room, put my laptop on my belly, and read all day.

 

5. Does an inventive analogy make you simultaneously shudder with pleasure and hate the writer for coming up with it first? I’m a sucker for analogies:

…I can´t stop squirming. If fidgets were Wikipedia edits, I would have completely revamped the entry on guilt by now, and translated it into five new languages.

 

6. For a while in 2013, the hashtag #firstworldproblems took over my Facebook news feed like a meme-wrecking hurricane. To see an example of a first world woe in a novel is just.. priceless:

Kat bought a New York Times but couldn’t figure out how to operate it, so now she’s fiddling with her phone.

 

7. This is what my books tell me every time I snuggle into bed with my newly acquired Kindle:

I have one and I use it most nights. I always imagine the books staring and whispering, “Traitor!”

 

8. And this one little priceless gem, which someone should have told me about when I was still in school learning how to string together a friendship:

Let me give you some advice: make friends with a millionaire when he’s a friendless sixth-grader.

 

***

I love the expression on people’s faces when I summarise the plot of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (2012, Farrar, Straus and Giroux). The conversation, with few variations, goes like this:

“Hey Preet, what are you reading?”

“Oh, it’s just this novel about a 500-year-old black-robed cult dedicated to unraveling the mystery left behind in the encrypted book of Italian printer Aldus Manutius, in which is the secret of immortality. But it’s also a love letter to Google and the world wide web.”

“O-kay.”

“In a nutshell: global conspiracy, code-breaking and girlfriends who work for Google.”

In a nutshell: be careful when you ask me about what I’m reading. I don’t know how to stop talking.

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Food & Culture

14 Honest Reasons Why I Eat Alone

Luncheon of the boating party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

Luncheon of the boating party by Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

1. I can have my meal anywhere. On the roadside, in an elevator, in the bathtub, at a table with or without cutlery. Anywhere.

2. I can chew as loud as I want.

3. I can chew as though sending an open invitation to all air borne creatures: with my mouth wide open.

4. I can read a book or listen to a podcast or have a virtual conversation with a friend sitting continents away – or all three at the same time.

5. Mess is a non-issue.

6. The five-second rule is flexible and no one’s going to secretly judge me while laughing companionably.

7.  Time is a non-issue. My meal can be over in 5 or 50 minutes and it won’t matter a whit to anyone.

Painting by Lee Price. http://www.leepricestudio.com/

Hyper-realistic painting by Lee Price, who probably understands my sentiments. http://www.leepricestudio.com/

8. The empty seats around me do not beseech my attention nor cast my way meaning-laden glances to which I am obliged to respond.

9. No eye contact necessary. Unless it’s with my cutlery.

10. Conversations take place within my head at thinking-speed, each requiring little to no resolution as one thought passes the baton to the next with unreal fluidity.

11. No empty, wordless silences during which my lunch/dinner partner and I masticate in what we think is an agreeable silence but we both secretly know is an awkward one.

12. No chance of looking at the other plate and wishing I ordered that spectacularly colourful, fattening and economically friendly meal rather than my own drab, healthy and expensive one.

13. That feeling when I see other tables with every chair occupied, and notice how every occupant is engaged on a supremely important task on their smartphones and tablets, hence ignoring the rest of civil society at the table? Priceless.

14. The freedom to leave at any time without waiting for ongoing conversations to die their natural death before popping the inevitable “Shall we?” question.

Exceptions: dining with my mother, or on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean with a non-English speaking fisherman as my sole companion.

The Merchant's Wife by Boris Kustodiev, 1918. Look at how happy the merchant's wife is.

The Merchant’s Wife by Boris Kustodiev, 1918. Look how happy she is.

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