Loser Takes All by Graham Greene

★★★★☆ (4/5)

One adapts oneself to money much more easily than to poverty: Rousseau might have written that man was born rich and is everywhere impoverished

A wonderfully short and fun read, Graham Greene’s “Loser Takes All” is a first person account by Bertram, an accountant of humble means. He works in a large industrial complex and upon the insistence of his extremely intimidating boss Mr. Dreuther, he is coerced into marrying his beloved Cary in Monte Carlo instead of the modest wedding they had arranged at a local church.

Bertram and Cary travel to Monte Carlo, settle in an affluent hotel and await the arrival of Mr. Dreuther in his yacht who does not show up as promised. Days pass by and the couple’s means begin to run low until they are left with no money at all. Bertram is an avid gambler as well and through his mathematician instincts, he surmises that he may be able to win money at the Roulette tables. He begins to lose more and more money as he gets sucked into the “system”. The couple begin to squabble on Bertram’s gambling habits which become more routine as days pass by.

The room was more than empty—it was vacant. It was where somebody had been and wouldn’t be again

Cary leaves Bertram for another indigent but handsome gambler who frequents the casino. Bertram begins to win the system and comes into possession of millions. His luck takes a further leap when a shareholder of his company begs Bertram for a loan which the latter is only willing to give in exchange of the controlling shares. Bertram’s chief motivation is to seek revenge on Dreuther for the misery their boss inflicted upon them owing to broken promises. Meanwhile, Dreuther’s yacht docks at the harbour and Bertram realises that his boss had completely forgotten about their arrangement in Monte Carlo. He laments the loss of his wife and Dreuther placates him with a plan to win his wife back.

I knew about his kindness, but kindness at the skin-deep level can ruin people. Kindness has got to care

Later that night, Bertram confronts his wife with her handsome friend and pays off the latter to be rid of him. On the yacht, Bertram consoles Cary and tells her how he gave all his newly-earned money away. The couple returns to their modest beginnings with revived love and hope for the future.

I think for a moment we were both afraid to go in. Nothing inside could be as good as this, and nothing was

This novella deals with the soullessness of big business and gambling with the passion of true love and companionship. The writing style makes this a page-turner. It’s enriching and adds multiple dimensions to simply-constructed sentences without pretension. I ventured upon this book as a light-read and it did justice. It’s a gripping, thrilling story with a subject matter that wavers between the thought-provoking and the entertaining.


  • “You seem to get afraid of being old when you’re rich.” “There may be worse fears when you are poor.” “They are ones we are used to”
  • She was not too young to be wise, but she was too young to know that wisdom shouldn’t be spoken aloud when you are happy
  • I have never been able to understand the layman’s indifference to figures. The veriest fool vaguely appreciates the poetry of the solar system—”the army of unalterable law”—and yet he cannot see glamour in the stately march of the columns, certain figures moving upwards, crossing over, one digit running the whole length of every column, emerging, like some elaborate drill at Trooping the Colour. I was following one small figure now, dodging in pursuit
  • So simple when you knew, but everyone before me had accepted the perfection of the machine and no machine is perfect; in every join, rivet, screw lies original sin
  • He was a prisoner in his room, and small facts of the outer world came to him with the shock of novelty; he entertained them as an imprisoned man entertains a mouse or treasures a leaf blown through the bars
  • “Terrible” was her favourite adjective—it wasn’t in her mouth a cliché—there was terror in her pleasures, her fears, her anxieties, her laughter—the terror of surprise, of seeing something for the first time
  • I have never liked uniforms—they remind me that there are those who command and those who are commanded
  • Everything was rocky grey and gorse-yellow in the late sun which flowed out between the cold shoulders of the hills where the shadows waited
  • How they defeat us with their silences: one can’t repeat a silence or throw it back as one can a word
  • “We forget a lot of things near at hand, but we remember the past. I am often troubled by the past. Unnecessary misunderstanding. Unnecessary pain.”
  • People don’t like reality. They don’t like common sense. Until age forces it on them
  • There are different types of ambition—that is all, and my wife found she preferred mine

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

“To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top…But of course, without the top you can’t have any sides. It’s the top that defines the sides.”

This was an incredibly insipid, over-hyped, self-indulgent and a pseudo-philosophic read. A few dense concepts were buried deep within heaps of nonsense. And even the treatment of those concepts was poorly managed. I fail to understand the mainstream fame acquired by this apparently “life-altering” book whose recourse is nothing but self-involvement to an extent of alienating the common reader with the most mundane of ideas.

Besides the content, what is most infuriating about the book is the structuring. Chapters are haphazardly broken with sudden introductions of new concepts which seem more like interruptions. Just when the reader is getting along a particular theme, the writer changes the course with an indented paragraph, taking the reader on a completely new and unrelated direction. Reading becomes an arduous task.

“This Chautauqua I would like not to cut any new channels of consciousness but simply dig deeper into old ones that have become silted in with the debris of thoughts grown stale and platitudes too often repeated.”

Essentially, ZAMM are three books congealed to form one whole, which accounts for the disarray found in the structuring. Thematically the book can be divided into three parts: the first one is an account of a father-son’s motorcycle trip from Minnesota to California, the second book concerns the story of a man who is haunted by the ghost of his former self, and lastly, the third book consists of philosophical meditations on concept of Quality, Classic and Romantic thought process, resistance to incursion of technology and so on.

The author begins with a disclaimer that notions of Zen Buddhism and motorcycle maintenance are not accurate within the context of the book. What he really failed to warn his readers was the tedious way in which he amalgamates motorcycle anatomy with pseudo-philosophic stream of thought.

“I’m happy to be riding back into this country. It is a kind of nowhere, famous for nothing at all and has an appeal because of just that”

The book starts off on an adventurous spirit before devolving into Pirsig’s thought process. He aims to dissect his own history through absolute self-absorption. The narrator is not a likeable person. He revels in mediocrity with roles attributed to him – a father, a friend, a husband, a teacher and lastly as a human being. He is deliberately cold towards his son, basking in self-indulgent thoughts, concerned with inquiries whose answers bear no weightage on his personal life.

“He is a heretic who is congratulated by everyone for having saved his soul but who knows secretly that all he has saved is his skin.”

One expects this pedestrian living to have a huge pay-off. Maybe the author is setting the reader up for an intellectual awakening that evolves from self-centeredness and eventual self-awareness. Prepare to be disappointed! This philosophic treatise fails to attain the reader’s attention as it casually disregards the importance of making the narrator likeable or at least be cared for, even in the minutest of ways.

When it comes to style of writing, the book appears to be nauseating at 500+ pages. It aims to edify but becomes pedantic and stilted so much so that one forgets to care about the message the author is trying to get across. Having been rejected from 121 publishers, one would have thought the book required to undergo serious editorial changes. But the book fails to grasp empathy with its turgid dialogues and uninteresting account of cross-country motorcycling. Add to that half-baked references to Greek philosophy and the author’s personal musings on nature of philosophy and it results in a book so far removed from the international recognition it has somehow managed to achieve.

After slating the utter nonsense contained in this novel, I will now expound on a few dense concepts that intrigued me. These concepts managed to awaken my curiosity, but the treatment of them is such that no definitive answers can be sought within the book. As a reader I felt exploited but given my tendency to seek goodness in the most demeaning, useless of reads I’m personally obliged to dedicate a few choice paragraphs to the notions that captivated my attention.

Firstly, as a modern day Luddite, the influx of technology as an interference in ordinary lives struck a chord with me. Technology aims to modernize every aspect of human life with or without their consent. Rapid changes in science and technology has been unable to keep pace with the gradual change that takes place within social value systems. This results in an ever-growing lacunae amongst people. Two characters in the book, John and Sylvia, are averse to concerning themselves with understanding the modes of tech surrounding them. If John’s motorcycle malfunctions, he seeks the help of a mechanic in order to dump on him the mechanical problems he does not understand. For the writer, this behaviour is disconcerting as he views mechanical and technical problems with the same zeal as he would any other problem in life. The writer explains that technology envisions its users in masses and that John and Sylvia are not mass people.

“It is against being a mass person that they seem to be revolting. And they feel that technology has got a lot to do with the forces that are trying to turn them into mass people and they don’t like it.”

The writer resolves that technology is not concerned with matters of heart and spirit which is why people are increasingly distancing themselves from it, disinclined to learn its functionalities and even hostile to employing some time and thought to it. Their values are rigid which inhibits them from learning new facts of a machine, which in turn results in failure to come up with a solution to even the easiest of problems.

The writer’s conceptions on systematic education and grading system seem most relevant to current day and age. In his opinion, all institutions and organisations function towards serving their own appropriated versions of truth rather than seeking the ultimate Truth. They seek to have control over individuals which is intended for self-perpetuation only. This leads to the failing grading system that has plagued the institution of education for long now.

“Grades really cover up failure to teach. A bad instructor can go through an entire quarter leaving absolutely nothing memorable in the minds of his class, curve out the scores on an irrelevant test, and leave the impression that some have learned and some have not. But if the grades are removed the class is forced to wonder each day what it’s really learning. The questions, What’s being taught? What’s the goal? How do the lectures and assignments accomplish the goal? become ominous. The removal of grades exposes a huge and frightening vacuum.”

This concept of inanity of grading system is presented as a circular argument for which no solution is present. After all “how can you put on the blackboard the mysterious internal goal of each creative person?” The narrator connects this stream of thought with the perpetual question of “what is Quality?” He mulls over the nature of quality, and aims to discover a single notion that could determine it. The crux of this novel lies in the narrator’s life-long search for the definition of Quality and its implications.

“Because if Quality exists in the object, then you must explain just why scientific instruments are unable to detect it. You might suggest instruments that will detect it, or live with the explanation that instruments don’t detect it because your whole Quality concept, to put it politely, is a large pile of nonsense. On the other hand, if Quality is subjective, existing only in the observer, then this Quality that you make so much of is just a fancy name for whatever you like.”

Much of the treatise on Quality is handled in a highfalutin, neo-philosophical way which may be better comprehended by Philosophy majors or general readers who take fancy to the philosophical genre. I disagreed with the narrator’s idea (and by extension the author’s) that “reality is always the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. There is no other reality.” Reality is not defined by its approachability nor by its applicability. The Ultimate Truth stands unified, in its Oneness and Supremacy (objective truth), and it is the variations of this Truth that have dawned upon Man (subjective truth).

I’m not aware of the author’s personal religious beliefs, but in all his references to Oriental and Occidental religions and cultures (especially Eastern beliefs), it seems he picks notions that run parallel to his own personal philosophy and casually disregards other ideas that may run contrary to it.

To sum it up, the faults with this book are twofold: it flunks on a conceptual as well as a literary level. Pirsig intended for “unification of spiritual feeling and technological thought” but only achieved grandiose claims of self-reflection, written in a banal, uninspiring manner. With poor treatment of barely three concepts that caught my attention, this book is not worth investing time and effort in.


Influx of Technology

  • …because of these changes the stream of national consciousness moves faster now, and is broader, but it seems to run less deep
  • Each machine has its own, unique personality which probably could be defined as the intuitive sum total of everything you know and feel about it. This personality constantly changes, usually for the worse, but sometimes surprisingly for the better, and it is this personality that is the real object of motorcycle maintenance
  • After a while he says, ‘This is the hardest stuff in the world to photograph. You need a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree lens, or something. You see it, and then you look down in the ground glass and it’s just nothing. As soon as you put a border on it, it’s gone.’
  • John looks at the motorcycle and he sees steel in various shapes and has negative feelings about these steel shapes and turns off the whole thing. I look at the shapes of the steel now and I see ideas. He thinks I’m working on parts. I’m working on concepts.
  • The way to solve the conflict between human values and technological needs is not to run away from technology. That’s impossible. The way to resolve the conflict is to break down the barriers of dualistic thought that prevent a real understanding of what technology is – not an exploitation of nature, but a fusion of nature and the human spirit into a new kind of creation that transcends both
  • Those that block affective understanding, called ‘value traps’; those that block cognitive understanding, called ‘truth traps’; and those that block psychomotor behavior, called ‘muscle traps.’ The value traps are by far the largest and the most dangerous group.
  • The typical situation is that the motorcycle doesn’t work. The facts are there but you don’t see them. You’re looking right at them, but they don’t yet have enough value. This is what Phaedrus was talking about. Quality, value, creates the subjects and objects of the world. The facts do not exist until value has created them. If your values are rigid you can’t really learn new facts.
  • If you’re plagued with value rigidity you can fail to see the real answer even when it’s staring you right in the face because you can’t see the new answer’s importance

Classic vs. Romantic Thought

  • That’s the problem, all right, where to start. To reach him you have to back up and back up, and the further back you go, the further back you see you have to go, until what looked like a small problem of communication turns into a major philosophic enquiry.
  • A classical understanding sees the world primarily as underlying form itself. A romantic understanding sees it primarily in terms of immediate appearance.
  • The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuitive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. ‘Art’ when it is opposed to ‘Science’ is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience
  • The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws – which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behaviour
  • The classic style is straightforward, unadorned, unemotional, economical and carefully proportioned. Its purpose is not to inspire emotionally, but to bring order out of chaos and make the unknown known. It is not an esthetically free and natural style. It is esthetically restrained. Everything is under control. Its value is measured in terms of the skill with which this control is maintained
  • Traditional scientific method has always been at the very best, 20-20 hindsight. It’s good for seeing where you’ve been. It’s good for testing the truth of what you think you know, but it can’t tell you where you ought to go, unless where you ought to go is a continuation of where you were going in the past. Creativity, originality, inventiveness, intuition, imagination – ‘unstuckness,’ in other words – are completely outside its domain

Induction and Deduction

  • That is induction: reasoning from particular experiences to general truths.
  • The real purpose of scientific method is to make sure Nature hasn’t misled you into thinking you know something you don’t actually know
  • If the purpose of scientific method is to select from among a multitude of hypotheses, and if the number of hypotheses grows faster than experimental method can handle, then it is clear that all hypotheses can never be tested. If all hypotheses cannot be tested, then the results of any experiment are inconclusive and the entire scientific method falls short of its goal of establishing proven knowledge
  • Instead of selecting one truth from a multitude you are increasing the multitude.

Systematic Education

  • It’s a problem of our time. The range of human knowledge today is so great that we’re all specialists and the distance between specializations has become so great that anyone who seeks to wander freely among them almost has to forego closeness with the people around him
  • You are never dedicated to something you have complete confidence in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it’s going to rise tomorrow.
  • For me a period of depression comes on when I reach a temporary goal like this and have to reorient myself toward another one
  • She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to

Aphorisms

  • Plans are deliberately indefinite, more to travel than to arrive anywhere
  • The truth knocks on the door and you say, ‘Go away, I’m looking for the truth,’ and so it goes away. Puzzling.
  • If someone’s ungrateful and you tell him he’s ungrateful, okay, you’ve called him a name. You haven’t solved anything.
  • You always suppress momentary anger at something you deeply and permanently hate
  • a ghost which calls itself rationality but whose appearance is that of incoherence and meaninglessness
  • Some things you miss because they’re so tiny you overlook them. But some things you don’t see because they’re so huge
  • If you really don’t care you aren’t going to know it’s wrong
  • If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government
  • The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans
  • We take a handful of sand from the endless landscape of awareness around us and call that handful of sand the world
  • Mountains should be climbed with as little effort as possible and without desire. The reality of your own nature should determine the speed. If you become restless, speed up. If you become winded, slow down. You climb the mountain in an equilibrium between restlessness and exhaustion
  • Every step’s an effort, both physically and spiritually, because he imagines his goal to be external and distant.
  • If you have a high evaluation of yourself then your ability to recognize new facts is weakened. Your ego isolates you from the Quality reality
  • The real University is a state of mind.
  • Zen is the ‘spirit of the valley,’ not the mountaintop. The only Zen you find on the tops of mountains is the Zen you bring up there. Let’s get out of here.
  • The physical distance between people has nothing to do with loneliness. It’s psychic distance, and in Montana and Idaho the physical distances are big but the psychic distances between people are small.
  • This book has a lot to say about Ancient Greek perspectives and their meaning but there is one perspective it misses. That is their view of time. They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their

The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

★★★★★ (5/5)

Wonderfully tragic, inexplicably withdrawn and beautifully composed, Paolo Giordano’s debut novel “The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is a marvel of story-telling and pathos without romanticising the notions of melancholy and solitude. It is a coming-of-age-story, revolving around Alice and Mattia – two people drawn together through scarred adolescence and solitary adulthood. The translation by Shaun Whiteside is commendable. It conveys the terrible gravity of characters and their situations with stunning brevity. Sentences are fluid, intense and visceral, exuding tragic beauty of two lives who are threaded together by fate yet remain woefully distant.

Alice suffers from a limp in a skiing accident she had as a child. Mattia abandoned his mentally disabled twin sister in a park after which she went missing. Both these tragic incidents puncture their teenage years with painful sense of isolation and awkwardness. They are aware of their terrible past at all times which leads to self-harm, anorexia and undue self-consciousness but it is the same past that weaves the lives of Alice and Mattia together. Giordano traces their next twenty-four years in which both protagonists go on to lead their own separate lives hinging on to each other. They are socially dislocated and find comfort in their mutual friendship which eventually blossoms into unprofessed love.

Alice and Mattia are two frayed pieces of a puzzle, perfectly befitting each other but never forming the complete whole. Mattia takes solace in mathematics and science, a formulaic existence through which he evaluates life’s events with mathematical precision. This tendency alienates him from many social circles and affect his love life in profound ways. Alice’s career as a photographer is an attempt to escape the disarray of her haunting past but her repulsion to food spirals her life out of control.

“The Solitude of Prime Numbers” is a profoundly beautiful read. It analyses weaknesses and passions through the lens of realism of two characters who are deeply entrenched in a past they long to escape but are inextricably linked to forever. The writing is fantastically gripping as the author time and time again plays with the readers mind – a possibility emerges of unification, only to be dispelled by fate and choice again. A myriad of minor characters, portrayed ever so wonderfully but dealt with similar brevity, add much color to the tragedy of the two main characters. This is a highly recommended read!


Here’s a bulk of beautifully crafted sentences:

  • The sound of the wind sweeping the summit of the mountain was punctuated by the metallic rush of the steel cable from which Alice and Giuliana were hanging
  • Her thoughts were growing more and more circular and illogical
  • Her inarticulate little cries rose from such a solitary, deserted place that they made their father shiver every time
  • His brain seemed to be a perfect machine, in the same mysterious way that his sister’s was so defective
  • Those merciless, captivating looks that could make or break you with a single, imperceptible flicker of the eyebrow
  • while Alice’s lips still bore the insipid memory of a mechanical kiss in third year.
  • Pietro Balossino had stopped trying to penetrate his son’s obscure universe long ago
  • Viola Bai was admired and feared with equal passion by her classmates, because she was so beautiful she made people uneasy
  • Viola Bai knew how to tell a story. She knew that all the violence is contained in the precision of a detail
  • She pressed her bony back against the wall. A tremor ran down her good leg. The other remained inert, as always.
  • The fluorescent light on the ceiling gave off an electrical hum and the voices of the kids in the gym were a formless mixture of shouts and laughter
  • But the guilt rained down on him from above like a shower of dirty water. It ran down his skin and nestled in his guts, making everything slowly rot, the way that damp eats away at the walls of an old house.
  • was a bright day, an anticipation of spring at the beginning of March
  • He told her about the post office where he used to work, and how long the evenings were now, at home alone, with so many years behind him and so many ghosts to reckon with
  • Ernesto apologized, but then he bent over her lips again and Soledad felt all the dust that had settled in her heart whirl up and get in her eyes.
  • His mother often abandoned her sentences halfway through, as if she had forgotten what she was going to say as she was saying it. Those interruptions left bubbles of emptiness in her eyes and in the air and Mattia always imagined bursting them with a finger.
  • She hated the fact that her every action always had to seem so irremediable, so definitive. In her mind she called it the weight of consequences, and she was sure that it was another awkward piece of her father that had wormed its way into her brain
  • How she longed for the uninhibitedness of kids her age
  • He would happily have spent all night in that car, driving around the half-dark streets of the hill, watching the lights of the cars in the opposite lane strike his friend’s face and then return it to the shadows, unharmed
  • He noticed that they had the same way of holding objects, framing them with their fingers tensed, touching surfaces but not really resting on them, as if they feared deforming whatever they held in their hands
  • The music in the living room sounded like the heavy, panting breath of the walls
  • The silence was almost unbearable for both of them, the empty space between their faces overflowing with expectation and embarrassment
  • The others were the first to notice what Alice and Mattia would come to understand only many years later. They walked into the room holding hands. They weren’t smiling and were looking in opposite directions, but it was as if their bodies flowed smoothly into each other’s, through their arms and fingers
  • They had a dreamy air about them, as if they had come from some distant place that only they knew
  • was filled with a searing nostalgia for a part of the world that had drowned in the river along with Michela.
  • He wondered if his classmates knew everything. Maybe even his teachers knew. He felt their furtive glances weaving together above his head like a fishing net
  • Mattia came down the stairs enveloped by that foot and a half of emptiness that no one other than Denis dared occupy
  • The Polaroid spat out a thin white tongue and Alice waved it in the air to bring out the color.
  • Prime numbers are divisible only by 1 and by themselves. They hold their place in the infinite series of natural numbers, squashed, like all numbers, between two others, but one step further than the rest. They are suspicious, solitary numbers, which is why Mattia thought they were wonderful
  • He was dressed anonymously and had the posture of someone who doesn’t know how to occupy the space of his own body. The professor thought he was
  • and she had thanked him with a beautiful smile, as impossible to grasp as a gust of icy wind.
  • Then, in a precise instant, like the line separating light and shade, Fernanda’s illness had gotten worse
  • A feeling of remorse, the origins of which belonged to another time, kept him from imposing his will on his daughter and almost kept him from talking to her at all
  • Alice had a sense that he was aware of the way the light played on his hair; that in some way he was aware of everything he was, and all the things around him.
  • He concentrated on his own breathing, which was still stuck in some backwash between his throat and the bottom of his lungs. It had happened to him before, but never for such a long time.
  • All Mattia saw was a shadow moving toward him. He instinctively closed his eyes and then felt Alice’s hot mouth on his, her tears on his cheek, or maybe they weren’t hers, and finally her hands, so light, holding his head still and catching all his thoughts and imprisoning them there, in the space that no longer existed between them.
  • The excesses of the world, whatever form they might assume, didn’t really concern him
  • He knew how to build a shelter for himself even before he needed one
  • In that unknown and far-off place lay his future as a mathematician. There was a promise of salvation, an uncontaminated place where nothing was yet compromised. Here, on the other hand, there was Alice, just Alice, and all around her a swamp.
  • He had learned to respect the chasm that Mattia had dug around himself. Years previously he had tried to jump over that chasm, and had fallen into it. Now he contented himself with sitting on the edge, his legs dangling into the void
  • Mattia’s voice no longer stirred anything in his stomach, but he was aware of the idea of him and always would be, as the only true benchmark for everything that had come afterward.
  • That evening, getting up from the table, she had crossed the invisible boundary beyond which things start working by themselves
  • The thought of Mattia, so incessant over the past few weeks, vibrated faintly in the air like a slightly slackened violin string, a dissonant note lost in the middle of an orchestra.
  • Alice laughed and the sound of it scattered through the air as she left with that sinuous, rhythmic gait of hers.
  • Alice smiled at the thought that it might be their first half-truth as a married couple, the first of the tiny cracks that would eventually converge into a gaping hole.
  • He wondered whether his parents had grown old. Of course they had, he heard it in his father’s voice, which was slower and wearier, more like an attack of breathlessness
  • Alice had set it aside, like something she would think about later on. Now, all of a sudden, there it was, like an abyss cut into the black ceiling of the room, monstrous and irrepressible
  • All of a sudden things seemed to return to their place in the shadows. There was silence again, but it was an imprecise silence
  • Nadia thought about the ridiculous space of solitude that separated them and tried to find the courage to occupy it with her body
  • She sat up and they both thought how much trouble it would be to find themselves like this again, to break an old equilibrium and build a different one
  • The scene was set. All that was required was an action, a cold start, instant and brutal as beginnings always are
  • The weight of consequences was always there, like a stranger sleeping on top of her.
  • You can fall ill with just a memory
  • He felt a furious sense of powerlessness, because he played no part in Alice’s life, but by God she did in his, like a daughter whose name he hadn’t been able to choose.
  • felt as if she didn’t have a past, as if she had found herself in that place without knowing where she had come from
  • She was filled with searing but pleasurable nostalgia
  • If he had moved, she would have been aware of it somehow. Because she and Mattia were united by an invisible, elastic thread, buried under a pile of meaningless things, a thread that could exist only between two people like themselves: two people who had acknowledged their own solitude within the other
  • Both of them were aware, however, of his strange and menacing presence, just beyond the edge of the page
  • “It was just an excuse to keep you with me,” Alice replied. “But you never understood anything.” They both laughed, to stifle the ghosts let loose by her words
  • Alice assembled and dismantled the image of the moment when she and Mattia would meet; she studied the scene from different angles and adjusted every detail. She wore away at the thought until it seemed not so much a projection as a memory.
  • They were details he knew well, which had survived in his mind longer than words and situations.
  • His physical presence was overwhelming; he no longer seemed to have any cracks through which one could invade his space, as she had often liked to do when she was a girl. Or else it was that she no longer felt she had the right to. That she was no longer capable of it.
  • Before her was a man whom she had once known and who was now someone else
  • The kiss lasted a long time, whole minutes, long enough for reality to find a fissure between their clamped mouths and slip inside, forcing them both to analyze what was happening.
  • By now he had learned. Choices are made in brief seconds and paid for in the time that remains
  • That same morning, a few hours later, Alice raised the blinds. The dry rattle of the plastic slats rolling around the pulley was comforting

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

★☆☆☆☆ (1/5)

“This,” announced Richard to the world, in direct defiance of the evidence of his senses, “is not happening.”

Very rarely have I been this anxious to finish a book, write a review and get over it once and for all. This was my first read by Gaiman and it saddens me to say that I was gravely disappointed. The beginning caught my intrigue but towards the middle I found it supremely tedious to be attentive to all the details Gaiman pushed my way. By the 15th chapter or so, I had completely lost my patience and lost hope for a redeeming element which might rescue this story for me. The last five chapters were a struggle to get through.

There are little pockets of old time in London, where things and places stay the same, like bubbles in amber

“Neverwhere” is a surprisingly boring fantasy novel which follows the protagonist Richard Mayhew who, after an inadvertent act of kindness, is pushed into the realms of London Below – a world cloaked from ordinary eyes where monsters, knights, angels and murderers, earls and noblemen live. Richard along with a bunch of bizarre characters traverse the underground realm, a dimension wholly invisible to those who live in London Above, to acquire a key, exact revenge upon those who killed Lady Door’s family and slay the infamous Beast. Lady Door can magically unlock doors and find doorways where none exist, Hunter is an ancient assassin whose sole purpose of life is to defeat the Beast and the Marquis de Carabas has avowed to protect Lady Door.

Door fixed the earl with her look: there was something more ancient and powerful in that glance than her young years would have seemed to allow

What persistently annoyed me were the shocking off-hand remarks which were casually brushed away or utterly ignored by Richard regarding his ordeal. As a character, Richard was vacuous in his appeal as the protagonist. No heroic value or traces of heroism have been attributed to him, yet by the end he emerges as Warrior of the underground. He wasn’t inquisitive enough to understand what he was experiencing. He remained aloof throughout the adventure which lent him an air of stupidity. Who wouldn’t be more curious as to why they were invisible to residents of London Above once they had been to London Below? He did not inquire after the history of the underground world, how things came to be here, nor did he express more shock at what were clearly surprising, life-altering turn of events.

His mind was too numb to make any sense of where he was, or why he was here, but it was capable of following the rules

I did not care for the trials and tribulations the characters were going through, which by extension implies that I did not care for the characters at all. I wasn’t anxious to find out if Lady Door would be successful in exacting revenge upon the killers, neither did I vouch for Richard to be returned to his previous life. All the characters simply seemed to be caricatures set in a highly fantasised setting. I wasn’t interested in knowing more about the Angel Islington, his history with Atlantis, nor did I find the two mischief makers Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar any more fascinating than a white-washed wall. Had the characters any depth, I might have felt some level of empathy for them in their endeavours. But alas, it was not to be.

He was learning, awkwardly, to trust his instincts, and to realize that the simplest and most likely explanations for what he had seen and experienced recently were the ones that had been offered to him—no matter how unlikely they might seem

The style of imagery was very insipid and even managed to infuriate me at times. Some were positively cringe-worthy. For example “Ruislip, the Fop’s opponent, resembled a bad dream one might have if one fell asleep watching sumo wrestling on the television with a Bob Marley record playing in the background.” And again “The marquis de Carabas tossed the figurine to Mr. Croup, who caught it eagerly, like an addict catching a plastic baggie filled with white powder of dubious legality.” At another instance Gaiman writes “She had a remarkable scream: it could, with no artificial assistance, go through your head like a new power drill with a bone-saw attachment. And amplified . . . It was simply unearthly.” How is a power drill going through one’s skull an “unearthly” experience?

The story left me with too many unanswered questions especially regarding the backstory of how the Underground and all its residents came to be. Why could only Lady Door and her family possess the special powers to unlock doors? Why did the Beasts’ blood give Richard navigational powers? Why was Hunter downed by the beast in one go when throughout the story she was praised for being supremely clever and powerful?

The knowledge was a part of his dreams; it surrounded him, like the darkness. So the day became one of waiting, which was, he knew, a sin: moments were to be experienced; waiting was a sin against both the time that was still to come and the moments one was currently disregarding. Still, he was waiting.

By the end, the book left me completely deflated. The world building wasn’t as evocative as I had hoped for, the villains weren’t half as threatening as they were posed to appear, and many plot points and twists were easily decipherable way before they occurred. A horde of characters were introduced only to never be alluded to again and nothing substantial ever happens for me to feel concerned about. Overall, this was a tremendous disappointment and I can’t wait to move on to a better book.


Some nicely crafted sentences:

  • Afterward he remembered only the feeling that he was about to leave somewhere small and rational—a place that made sense—for somewhere huge and old that didn’t
  • A noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them
  • Richard had noticed that events were cowards: they didn’t occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once
  • And then they set foot on Night’s Bridge and Richard began to understand darkness: darkness as something solid and real, so much more than a simple absence of light. He felt it touch his skin, questing, moving, exploring: gliding through his mind. It slipped into his lungs, behind his eyes, into his mouth…
  • Old Bailey remembered when people had actually lived here in the City, not just worked; when they had lived and lusted and laughed
  • Violence was the last refuge of the incompetent, and empty threats the final sanctuary of the terminally inept
  • But the most important thing for you to understand is this: all things want to open. You must feel that need, and use it.
  • He felt odd: detached, and depressed, and horribly, strangely saddened

The Secret Lives of Married Women by Elissa Wald

★★★★☆ (4/5)

And yet this happiness didn’t feel the way I’d always imagined it would. It felt fearful and precarious. As if it might be taken from me at any moment.

Contrary to the cover, this book is not erotic fiction. It is an incredibly thrilling ride into lives of two (or three so to speak) ordinary women, who occupy conventional spaces in their lives as wives, mothers, sisters and friends. They are to perfectly balance inner turmoil with adventurous exploits without losing hold of their sense of reality. The two novellas nestled within this one book deal with marital frustrations, anxieties of motherhood, and undisclosed fantasies which are sweetly attainable but would disrupt the quiet order of their lives. Secret yearnings especially of sexual nature can unravel their entire lives at a moments’ whim.

And suddenly from within me came a white-hot answering flash, like oil flung into a hot pan or the silver of a hooked fish catching the sun

This was my first brush with Hard Case Crime series, and much like the appeal of The Dorothy Project, I’m invested owing to the brilliant narration and story arc which kept me hooked. The book cover and title may appear misleading after having read the two entwined stories, but Hard Case Crime publishes stories of classic noir, dealing with adultery, murder, suspicion and sexual deviation. It is reminiscent of old-school paperback which lends the reading experience a tinge of delightful nostalgia.

Would it ever feel safe to savor these things, or would I always be waiting for that knock at the door, the slow whirl of red and blue lights in our driveway, the flash of a badge that would level our lives?

The Man Under the House

I hadn’t realized how much space this belief had occupied until it was suddenly dismantled

The first story revolves around Leda Reeve, a woman whose life has drastically changed since her marriage and subsequent motherhood. As a former libertine, adjusting to newly acquired roles as a wife and a mother seem slightly oppressive. She admits to having married out of mere necessity since she was getting on in age but also confesses to having eventually fallen in love with her husband Stas, a Russian refugee whose past is as undecipherable as hers.

This was something I never would have noticed. I could be close with someone for years and never notice what they drove, beyond a vague sense of its shape and possibly its color. Whereas Stas kept a vehicular inventory of his every casual acquaintance: the brand, the make, the year, how many miles it would get to the gallon

The story starts off with Leda and Stas moving into a new home in Portland, from New York, to settle into a proper house and start their life as a well-adjusted family. The house is in desperate need of repairs which is when Jack, a handyman working on their neighbours’ house, makes himself readily available to come to their disposal. He is eager to identify Leda from the past and presents himself whenever Leda is home alone. Her surreptitious past is at a threat of being disclosed to those she had long veiled her secret from.

Still, for accuracy’s sake you might say I often stopped, that I rarely went as far as I dreamed.

Jack becomes overbearingly intrusive and Leda decides to divulge her secret to her husband Stas. Soon after, Jack disappears and Leda begins to suspect her own husband of a grievous wrong-doing. Her apprehensions alter the nature of their relationship, from distance to intimacy, as she worries about their future together. Her scandalous misgivings make her question her present and future and can only be placated by knowing the truth of her husband’s action.

But when it happens, when you’re truly forced to revise the meaning of the clues you’ve disregarded, there’s no humor in it, only breathlessness and dread

Abel’s Cane

It’s like we’re one person split in two. I got the wildness, the darkness and the artistry. You got the credentials, the integrity and the sense.

Two stories of two different women are burrowed within this one novella which is narrated by Leda’s twin sister Lillian, a high-profile lawyer. She narrates the story of a client Abel and his working relationship with his personal secretary of sorts Nan. Nan was an orphan and brought up in a Convent amidst the stringy but modest and humble values embodied by nuns. As a young woman she became a professional submissive, offering her body for sexual pleasures for dominant men. Her work entails traits of her personality which have always come naturally to her – that of being of service to a man whom she cherishes secret admiration for.

She often felt hollow, transcendent, as if she were pure spirit and the pain was what weighed her to the earth. Other times, in a way that made no sense even to her, she felt hurt and close to tears. She felt pangs of aftershock, arousal, and bewildered grief all at the same time.

Abel Nathanson is a blind, non-profit industrial developer who hires Nan to read legal documents to him. Their relationship is symbiotic and professional but Nan begins to get much more invested in it than Abel who is a happily married man with an adopted child. Nan not only helps him with official work but also gets involved in assisting the Nathanson’s in their household chores. Soon Abel finds himself cornered by a rival developer and the case is bought to Lillian.

Amidst narrating Nan’s story, Lillian recounts her own experiences of a loveless and sexless marriage with Darren. Their inability to have children have left both reclusive in their associations with each other, and the act of copulation is scheduled and perfunctory, devoid of any pleasures. Here Nan and Leda’s past entwine to give Lillian a sense of sexual liberation which she had long ignored deliberately. Abel’s case takes a dark twist resulting in his acquittal and Lillian is reunited with her husband.

Moments like these come suddenly and without warning, adrenaline-driven and past all decision, where no resistance is possible, no sense of propriety can prevail

Concluding Thoughts

I’ve come to believe that intimacy is available to anyone who’s truly ready to give and receive it.

The two stories deal with women and their repression of desires – yearnings of sexual and psychological intimacy – in a patriarchal world. Two kinds of men exist in Elissa Wald’s world, those who nurture their women through providing order in their otherwise chaotic life and those who seek to upset the order primarily through sexual advances. Rae, a close friend of Leda is involuntarily attracted to a man who has done acts of extreme violence in the past and she is more than willing to forego his criminal actions owing to their wonderful sexual chemistry. Same is the case with Nan who is involved in submissive sexual acts with absolutely no regards for her physical integrity. Her relationship with Abel is beautiful and self-destructive at the same time.

After a while, I realized that the aura—an annoying, new-age word but I couldn’t find a better one—around Leda in the movie was something like the aura around Nan: a force field of whole-hearted focus, devotion, self-abandonment. Rapture.

For the reader, these stories may seem to make unlikely heroes of men who rose to an occasion just in time to rescue their women from adversity. But these tales are as much assertive of women who, despite the appeal of adventure and zeal to experience change, hold their moral and social ground.

But I told myself it was better if I went. I needed a visceral and immediate sense of the place, the better to glean the stray and unexpected details that were often the most effective.

This was a quick read with though-provoking substance as well as high entertainment value. Wald keeps our curiosity at bay, holding on to the final reveal till the very end. We anticipate a tragedy but rejoice at narrow escapes. We empathise with the characters and are uncomfortable with their predicaments. The author playfully tightens the reins around her heroines as well as the reader, sometimes relieving us with their happiness and at other times jostling us with shock. An overall engaging book which has made me want to read more from Hard Case Crime series.


More of my favourite lines

Characterisation

  • So far, I wasn’t afraid as much as jittery, skittish; Jack seemed more off-putting and overbearing than truly menacing
  • Until then, I’d thought that Bryce alone created the frisson in the office, but now I understood that Stas supplied an essential part of it as well
  • He was rootless, he could go anywhere.
  • I was elsewhere, on my way to a party. On arrival, everyone was sure to be carrying a piece of the awful world with him. Not one of us wouldn’t be smiling. There’d be drinks, irony, hidden animosities. Something large would be missing. But most of us would understand something large would always be missing.
  • Had the labored breathing of a smoker and his clothes, too, bore the scent of cigarettes.
  • In all the bewilderment, the vertigo, the upended perspective of a funhouse mirror, one lone conviction was still in place: Stas loved Clara
  • Her dark blonde hair, pulled back into an elegant twist and pinned in place with lacquered chopsticks
  • She read as if an oracle might be divined from the document if only it were rendered with enough care
  • It took stamina to plow through page after page, and stoicism not to betray a flicker of fatigue
  • Nearly every evening at this hour, a nameless sadness would threaten her with suffocation
  • In the social arena, so much physical contact relied on visual cues—intentions signaled in advance, consent sought and granted, as one person leaned in and the other bent in reception. Who would dare such an intimate gesture without implicit permission? Not Erica. So often, amidst these exchanges, Abel was set apart, an island—as if blindness warranted a kind of quarantine.
  • There are things too unbearable to think about, memories you can never let float into focus. Nan could barely bring herself to consider that day, and the terrible stilted awkwardness of the ones that followed, where she was unable to meet his sightless gaze and she knew things would never be the same

Beautifully crafted sentences

  • The kitchen faucet sprayed rivulets in all directions. The bathroom door scraped hard against the floor and the lock refused to catch
  • There was at once no time and nothing but time
  • There are three speeds in construction: slow, dead and reverse.
  • Relieved and restored and unburdened and bereft
  • Slavery made them graceful, light on their feet beneath that floor-length cloth, floating like dark swans in their bridal black
  • To waste the slightest amount was a sin against poverty.
  • Deirdre could always be counted upon to draw these lines, lest Nan start to feel like a part of the household.
  • And then, just as quickly, this dark thrill of recognition was displaced by professional assessment
  • The overriding aromas of disinfectant and leather couldn’t fully mask the more pungent ones just beneath: the musk of sweat, the gamy tang of struggle and tension and intensity.
  • As if its violence might be stayed with a show of passion.