A doze of Dostoyevsky for today?

notesfromundergroundThis morning I woke up feeling a little different and decided to give up mid-way what I was reading till last night – The Honorable Schoolboy by John le Carre. Instead, just before leaving for work, I quickly grabbed Dostoyevsky’s Notes for the Underground. This book has been lying on my shelf since a week and everytime I opened something else, I could hear Dostoyevsky calling out to me to read him first. I kept ignoring it long enough but this morning something changed.

So, when I finally got on the train and sat, I scrambled for a seat so as not to waste any more time and quickly took the book out of my bag. It started as follows:

“I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. I am an unattractive man. I believe my liver is diseased. However, I know nothing at all about my disease, and do not know for certain what ails me. I don’t consult a doctor for it and never have, though I respect medicine and doctors. Besides, I am extremely superstitious, sufficiently so to respect medicine anyway. (I am well-educated enough not to be superstitious, but I am.) No, I refuse to treat it out of spite. You probably will not understand that. Well, but I understand it. Of course I can’t explain to you just whom I am annoying in this case by my spite. I am perfectly well aware that I cannot “get even” with the doctors by not consulting them. I know better than anyone that I thereby injure only myself and no one else. But still, if I don’t treat it, its is out of spite. My liver is bad, well then– let it get even worse!”

Those of you who have ever read Dostoyevsky probably know the kind of excitement one feels when embarking upon a journey where he is the guide. For those who haven’t read him, do so before you die. Everything else can wait.

The Dream – A Short Story

TheDream

After a long dry spell of almost a year, I have published my third short story The Dream.

The Dream is the short story of a girl who wakes up every morning to realize she still hasn’t forgotten the devastating memory of seeing off the love of her life for the last time ever. Here is an excerpt:

She woke up to find herself crying hard. Tears filled her eyes and everything looked blurred. She tried to take a deep breath but choked on her sobs. Still lying down, she rubbed her hands over her eyes and large drops of tears fell onto the pillow, which she discovered was already very wet. She wondered how long she had been crying in her sleep.

You can download it for free in various ebook formats from Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/508280.

If you would like to check out any of my other short stories, please have a look at my author’s page on Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/shitijbagga

The Reading List

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As a book lover, one of the things I have most longed for is a week long holiday from work and a list of excellent books to read without any interruptions and distractions. I had been craving for such a break for a long time and it only came about this week.

So, Christmas holidays are here and at the end of my last day at work, I dropped in to Stockholm’s biggest library, Stadsbibliotek, and spent about an hour searching for the list of books I was going to devour over the next couple of weeks. Or at least, I thought I would. But here was the problem: none of the books that I had on my Reading List A was to be found in the library. OK, so I had two reading lists prepared for this occasion – List A: books that I’ve been longing to read and now was the best time; and List B: books that can be listed as backup if List A was not possible. Here is a sample of what I was looking for:

List A:

  • The Idiot OR The Karamazov Brother – by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  • The Honorable Schoolboy OR Smiley’s People – both by John Le Carre (Remember Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy?)
  • War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

List B:

  • Missing – Karin Alvtegen
  • In Cold Blood – by Truman Capote
  • Any books by PG Wodehouse.

There was also a Plan C, of course. Plan C was that in case I found nothing from my first two lists at the library, I would pick 3-4 fiction novels that appealed to me the most from what was available. It was unlikely, but not impossible, that I might have to fall back on Plan C – after all it was Stockholm’s biggest library – but I was nevertheless going to be mentally prepared.

‘Mentally prepared for not being able to find a good book to read from a big library?’ you might ask and it may sound a bit weird to the unfamiliar, but imagine a guy (that’s me) who stands for hours in front of his personal library back home in India, stocked with 300 books (about 15 of them are yet to be read), and is still unable to decide what to read. Yes, some of us bookworms get weird in this aspect of our lives.

So, back to picking the books. I immediately move to Section D to look for Dostoyesvsky’s books and there are none of them available. Damn! Now to Section L for Le Carre and the two books on my list are also not there. I do see Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I’ve already read that and, to my shame, not understood what happened in the story at all.

Nevermind! I move to T and even Tolstoy is out of stock. There goes List A into the dustbin. Out with List B. I move to Section A and look for Alvtegen and it is also missing. And there is nothing by Wodehouse that I haven’t already read so I am so frustrated now that I don’t even attempt to look for Capote.

It has been 15 minutes since I entered the library and I am already panicking. I can see my holidays going for a toss because now I don’t have any books to read. But I must persist and pick up something before I leave – that was plan C. I run over the list of authors I can think of. Jeffry Deaver – already read all of his books. I’ve heard of Tess Gerritsen, Michael Connelly, Patricia Cornwell.. oh Damn! Not those regular thriller fictions again.

It was a long battle in my mind but another 40 minutes have passed by and I have finally made up my decision. I have picked up The Nightmare by Lars Kepler, another thriller but at least the story is based in Stockholm so it will give me a peek into the city that I have recently moved to. And because my mind has stopped working completely, I also picked by The Sixth Man by David Baldacci and I have no idea why. Somewhere, at the back of my mind, I am already thinking about the unread books I already have back at my apartment which I know I probably can fall back upon now: A couple of them by Wodehouse and one by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Fast forward by a couple of hours and I am back at my apartment, holidays have started and I am already lying on my couch with a cup of hot tea and about to finish the 20th page of The Nightmare. It is a good thriller, but I feel more and more disappointed. The problem is, I’ve read so many thrillers in my lifetime that they all seem to be the same to me. Something to start with, a lot of twists and turns and I already know how stories unfold. Depending on how much you have progressed in the book, you can figure out whether the events that are unfolding right now are leading to the unraveling of the suspense or only thickening of the cloud around it. It gives me no high.

That is when I start thinking about the books that have ever given me a high. When I had read my first book, A Matter of Honor by Jeffrey Archer, it gave me a high because that was the first time I realized how books can engage you. But over the last few years only a very few books have really shaken me from inside and I start remembering them. I thought about Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and how deep the flaws of the protagonist ran. I was amazed by how sick he felt after committing a murder and how it changed him and everything around him. There was no mystery in that novel in the conventional way. The real mystery was in guess how much sicker he can get and how his life was going to deteriorate because of what he has done. It touched you like nothing else ever did before.

Then I think about Love in the Time of Cholera. I don’t know how others feel about it because I never look up the reviews of a book I’ve read because my opinion and my feelings for it are enough and do not need to be spoilt. But was this book something special! The protagonist Florentino Ariza is a young man madly in love with Fermina Daza who has turned him down but he waits for over half a century to win her over again. The feelings depicted in the book are unmatched and I cannot think of any other romantic novel – though I hate to call it just a novel – that has even come anywhere close to it. This stuff is special. If you haven’t read it yet, read it today.

Anyway, as I reach page 40 or so in the novel that I was currently reading, my mind wanders to Sherlock Holmes. Ah, unarguably the best I have ever read and reread and then again some more. I don’t think I will ever tire of reading Holmes and will even be reading it when I turn 50 or 60.

And so is the case with the Jeeves and Wooster series of books (again I refrain from calling them novels in the traditional sense) by P.G. Wodehouse. Have I ever cherished a fictional character more than I’ve cherished Bertie Wooster? No, and I probably never will. Someone had sometime quoted that Wodehouse is ‘..the ultimate in comfort reading because nothing bad ever happens in P.G. Wodehouse land… For as long as I am immersed in a P.G. Wodehouse  book, it’s possible to keep the real world at bay and live in a far, far nicer, funnier one where happy endings are the order of the day.’ I possibly cannot say anything that explains it better that this quote.

And so, the list is long but there was one book that still has me stumped. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carre is the book that I took a really long time to read and is perhaps the only book at the end of which I confessed to myself that I did not understand what the hell had happened and where the story had been going. Immediately after finishing the book, I could not even explain to my wife what I had read. What was so wrong about it? Or was it me who, despite all my experience in reading for the last 15 years, is still not good enough? The problem, as I can only remember it, was that the story kept swinging wildly from present to past and the author did not make it very obvious which scene was played when and how one got there. I think the ambiguity made me lose track of what I was reading but I kept going on and on, hoping that sometime later in the book it will become clearer. But that was a mistake on my part. It never did and the story ended with me hanging clueless about what happened.

I started surfing the internet in a bid to find a post that would finally explain to me, in detail, what happened in the story and if there was anyone else who did not get it when they read it. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that many other readers of this book admitted the same disappointment as me and so did even people who had watched the movie. And it always came down to the same reason: the story kept swinging from present to past without warning.

But this book taught me a very valuable lesson. Not all books will be run-of-the-mill thrillers-or-suspense where the author does the bulk of the work in making things clear for the reader. No, By Gosh! as Bertie Wooster would have exclaimed. I realize that what I really wanted to read was something where the author doesn’t spoon feed me but challenges me to understand what he is saying. A book doesn’t have to reach out to you, sometimes, you need to reach inside it and find things out. That is what happened when I read the likes of Holmes, Wodehouse, Dostoevsky, Orwell, Albert Camus and others. What they write is only a part of it. What you get out of understanding them is the real joy of reading.

I hope you have found your favorite books to read this winter. Happy Holidays!

The Lord of the Rings – The Best fantasy ever?

LOTR

Isn’t The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien the best piece of fantasy writing ever? If the movies were not fascinating enough, the books are even better.

I read the Hobbit and loved it but ever since I have started reading the LOTR (which is actually a single novel and not a trilogy as people erroneously often call it), I have been mesmerised by the quality of the writing and the depth with which the characters, the locations and the histories have been modelled.

What has amazed me the most is the panache with which the author has composed the numerous and often very lengthy songs throughout the length of the story. For an author to be able to write such a long and fantastic story without losing the reader’s interest is a huge achievement in itself. But when you add to it the fact that he has deviced a seemingly different style of poetry to go along with story, you really start to understand what it is that makes LOTR the best piece of fiction writing ever.

Not to mention the numerous times the novel has run into problems due to printer’s errors, compositor’s mistakes including well-intentioned ‘corrections’ of the invented languages and delicately constructed nomenclatures by Tolkien. Despite suffering from such tragic setbacks, Tolkien kept working on rectifying the problems and the publishing of these books spanned over a decade. At the end, Tolkien has delivered the world’s most fascinating piece of fantasy writing ever to be published. And all this way back in the 1950s.

So, for me, there is absolutely no question about it. There is not and will not be any other book that even comes a close second.

Do you agree with me or do you think there are others better than LOTR?

Carl Sagan on the Magic of Books

Quote-on-Books-and-Magic-by-Carl-Sagan

Just Write!

writingOne of the biggest problems I face when about to begin my next book is that I need to have the plot, the sub-plots, characters, etc. all figured out already. I need to know how my story is to be setup and how it is going to progress and my mind keeps wandering from the start to the finish. But since not everything is figured out yet, I start feeling as if I’ve not thought through it sufficiently and thus am unable to start. This further makes me feel as if my imagination is just not good enough to be a writer and I end up shelving that book even without having written a single word. I know it’s crazy!

But, the desire does not die away and after some time, I am back with my pen and paper thinking about some other plot which I can perhaps develop a little better. But that too often meets the same fate. I spend so much time thinking about the book but never much in actually writing it down.

The solution to this problem? Just write!

I discovered this last night. Struggling with the same problem for about an hour, I finally decided to try a different approach. I told myself that I will not worry about the book or its plot or characters. I decided that I will simply write a scene that I would love to see in any of my books and not think about what has happened before it or what will happen afterwards in the story. I didn’t even name the central character, I just called him (or her) ABCD. So, I began by writing a thrilling chase sequence in about 200 words only. It was extremely short but when I finished it, I realized that I could think of one scene each before and after the present and connect them together. I feel if I try this approach and keep going one scene at a time, I might end up inventing more about the story than I could with a pen and paper and just hoping for the perfect idea.

And in case I get stuck anywhere yet again, I can simply close this story and start writing a totally independent scene just like I did above. I might, for instance, start writing a horror scene and think only about that scene and nothing else.

What I found when I followed this strategy is that even if I had no plot in mind while starting to write, it does surprisingly gives me many better and smaller ideas that I can use to develop bigger ones in the future. Also, the fact that I am able to write down the scenes that I someday want to see in my books takes away the pressure of those ideas remaining in my head and haunting me to be written down. Completion of even a 200-word scene makes me feel a lot more positive and I can finally stop feeling stuck and start exploring more than that single scene.

I guess what I am trying to say is, the more you write the more it starts to get you. Writing is like a habit. Sometimes, it will come to you automatically but for that to happen, you need to start now. I am not a professional writer but an amateur but I recognize that the only way for me to have ideas is to write down whatever comes to my mind and not worry about the end result. As it is, writing one short scene is much better that writing no big ones. (Maybe that is why my first two publications have both been very short stories.)

And once you write that short scene, it makes you feel much better and more confident. Try it.

How do you deal with not having a completely figured out plot? Do you also give up or try something else?

An excerpt from ‘Taking Down Bob’: Meet Dan

This is an excerpt from my first short story ebook: Taking Down Bob. This introduces you to an important character in the story, Dan:


Dan was one of the stupidest folks we knew. And his stupidity was popular all over. One time, I had quietly entered his room at midnight (thanks to his roommates) and moved his clock forward to two minutes before his morning alarm time and vanished. Soon enough, the alarm went off and Dan got up and even went to the washroom to brush his teeth, whereupon he realized it was still dark and the joke was discovered. Another night, while he was asleep, a handful of us lifted Dan’s bed along with him, carried it out of the room and to the end of the corridor and left it there. He woke up in the morning and was left wondering how the hell he ended up there.

But today, it was different. We spoke to Dan and explained the plan to him. All he had to do was pretend to be asleep in his bed with a blanket over his face. We would bring in Bob on the pretense of attacking Dan and once inside, someone would throw a blanket upon Bob and Dan could get the hell out of there while the rest of us took the Psycho down.

Dan was a little apprehensive at first but finally agreed. He was a good sport.

Discover what happens to him next by reading the full story for free from Smashwords. And if you like it, don’t forget to leave a short review.

Taking Down Bob: A Short Story

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