Thursday, December 25, 2008

Vikas Swarup - Q & A

I got curious about this book after I read about Slumdog Millionaire, an award winning movie by Danny Boyle. It was based on this book by Vikas Swarup.

Ram Mohammed Thomas is an orphan, abandoned as a newborn by his mother outside an orphanage. He is lucky to fall into the hands of a priest who is the best father he could have had. But an unfortunate chain of events force him to lead an eclectic life, trying to survive the misfortunes that befall him.  On a positive side, his experiences give him enough knowledge to be able to win the biggest prize ever in a quiz show.

The format of the story is interesting. Right at the first, Ram Mohammad is arrested for cheating in the quiz show he has just finished filming. The show has not been aired yet. He is bailed out by a young lawyer, Smita, who is willing to save his skin if he can prove he did not cheat. Ram tackles each question and shows Smita how his an experience at some stage in his life helped him learn an answer to each question. The story is meaty and goes forward quite easily.

What makes the book so pedestrian is the lacklustre style. It is the most un-beautiful language I have read in recent times. Even some crappy chicklit I read a while back was decently styled compared to this. I wish Vikas Swarup had taken some help, I don't think he lacked any. Surely it was his clout as an Ambassador to wherever that helped him in getting his book published in the first place.

Apart from the crappy language, at times the episodes seem a bit jerky, but I suspect, had the style been better, the jerkiness would have been ironed out.

It is a pity, because the idea is good. Ram Mohammed Thomas is an everyman sort of a fellow. His nomadic lifestyle, and exposure to different homes help him absorb knowledge. For instance, it is from his stint in the home of an Ambassador that he learns the Australian language, and also the meaning of the term persona non grata. It is from his stint as a servant of a famous but faded film star that he learns which movie won her the national award for best actress.

Alas Alas !

Now what remains to be seen is Slumdog Millionaire and if it is any good.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

The most recommended books of 2008

47 Most recommended books of 2008

1984 by George Orwell (4 recommendations) :

Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas R. Hofstadter (4 recommendations) :

The Bible by multiple authors (4 recommendations)
yes, the language is good. but gets tiresome at times with all the begats.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (3 recommendations) :
I tried to read this.. couldnt !

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (3 recommendations)
I saw the movie

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (3 recommendations) :

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (3 recommendations) :

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (3 recommendations) :
One of my most frequently read books, and one of the most beloved.

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli (3 recommendations) :

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig (3 recommendations) :
yes .. serious reading..

Animal Liberation by Peter Singer (2 recommendations)

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (2 recommendations) :
oh yes, influenced me tremendously.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (2 recommendations)

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (2 recommendations)
oh yes.. its a an old master

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (2 recommendations)
wo.. of course, a fab book

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (2 reccos)
This I can try

Foundation by Isaac Asimov (2 recommendations)
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (2 recommendations)
Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes (2 recommendations)
Lord of the Flies by William Golding (2 recommendations)
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (2 recommendations)
yes I did read..

Paradise Lost by John Milton (2 recommendations)

bits of it.. very strong prose..

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse (2 recommendations)

of course, a slim book. very hippie. anyone who was living in the 70s will remember the pics of a resplendent and bare breasted Simi Garewal

The Art Of War by Sun Tzu (2 recommendations)

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (2 recommendations)
Yes, read

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (2 recommendations)
no, alas

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (2 recommendations)
oh yes. i liked atlas shrugged better

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (2 recommendations)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (2 recommendations)
oh yes yes yes.. whatta a romance

The Histories by Herodotus (2 recommendations)

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams (2 recommendations)
Not to be missed. A must read by any human who plans to hitchhike through the galaxy in near future.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (2 recommendations)
A prequel to the Lord of the Rings, and very wonderful, warmer than LOTR

The Iliad and Odyssey by Homer (2 recommendations)
in bits n pieces.. again.. when an ancient master recites, you can but listen in awe.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (2 recommendations)

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (2 recommendations)
The Republic by Plato (2 recommendations)
The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine (2 recommendations)
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (2 recommendations)
The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau (2 recommendations)
x ( i read candide though)
The Stranger by Albert Camus (2 recommendations)
I wish to.. I wish to

The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (2 recommendations)
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (2 recommendations)
I think I did

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (2 recommendations)
Oh.. absolutely. The books is like a bible.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (2 recommendations)
yes, a boys adventure

Ulysses by James Joyce (2 recommendations)
noo, has anyone tried stream of conciousness literature?

Walden by Henry David Thoreau (2 recommendations)
no but i can try.. seeing its thoreau

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (2 recommendations)
oh yes.. absolutely the best book ever, second only to Anna Karenina

Thanks to Smita for forwarding me this list. Any of my readers are welcome to make their additions and leave a link please. or discuss in the comments section - anytime.. even if the post is years late.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Ranjit Lal - Life and Times of Altu Faltu

How do I write about a book that captivated me, let me count the ways.

I could say the book is delightful, funny and amazing and still feel I have not said enough. These adjectives sound jaded and used. I could hit the thesaurus site to look for better words, but they would feel too high flown. There were passages in the book that made me laugh out loud, but most times the laughter rumbled deep in my stomach, as I recognised characters in the book from real life, and their idiosyncrasies that are so well brought out.

The writing style is unassuming, fresh and very very functional. By which I mean there are no linguistic flourishes here meant to show off the writers superior vocabulary, that when he writes a passage it serves to highlight an event or detail to its best. It does not mean the language is not lyrical, it is, but not all the time which means at no time does the language cloy in your mouth.

Sample this : "The Lodhi Gardens are certainly the most prestigious amongst Delhi's public gardens: if you are rich, famous, bureaucratic and overweight, and live in Central Delhi, that's where you go every morning and evening to vigourously atone for the sin of being fat in a thin country. The gardens, built around the solid, solemn tombs of the Sayyids and Lodhis, are beautifully laid out with pleasent undulating lawns, tall, dark and handsome trees, rainbow beds of flowers (especially in February and March) and a curving waterway where kingfishers flash and egrets fish."

The story? Well it is about Altu Faltu, a skinny monkey who has chosen to while away his days lounging around the Hindu Rao College and is addicted to cough linctus. For some reason Rani-beti, a princess of the Falstaff clan has fallen for him, and Altu Faltu finds his lazy days change. You see, Chaudhray Rai Bahadur Charbi Saheb has not taken kindly to his daughter flirting with such a wastrel. The love story of Altu-Faltu the bekar bander of the hazel eyes and Rani-beti the pretty princess with golden eyes and pixie ears is played out on the background of political turmoil, social upheaveals and WAR between various factions of monkey tribes for supremacy. Religion is also mixed with politics when Swami Palang Tode the wise monkey appears on the scene. Sex can never be far away when life abounds with so much vigour. From the pretty bandaris of the Khyber Pass Massage Parlour to concubines and multiple wives, there are plenty of interfering females here to change the course of simian history.

What is the most endearing feature of the book? The names given to the characters and places. Apart from the Chaudhry Charbi Singh, there are his wives named - Bibi-ek, Bibi-do and Bibi-teen whose goings on would put the harem of a Mughal court to shame. Then there is monkey Leechad who wishes to curry favour with the Chaudhry so he could close to the beautiful Bibi-do. There is Brigadier who is ever-ready for war, Chamkili of the beautiful smile, the Kacha Banian Gang run by Kacha and Banian the supari monkeys, Ghungroo the nautch monkey.

On a serious note, the book is a marvellous and a gentle satire on our life and times. Although we may be tempted to call it the modern Panchtantra, it is never ever preachy like those ancient fables. The author is a faithful historian, not a pontificating one.

In these times of shit-lit, when you can print a book faster than a monkey grabbing a sweet off your hands, it is a wonder to come across such an unassuming author, who published such a masterpeice. Ranjit Lal the author is a famous naturalist. His new book on the wildlife of Delhi has just come out.

Here is what Roli Books has to say about him : "Ranjit Lal was born in Calcutta in 1955, and educated in Mumbai, graduating in economics and sociology. As a freelance writer and columnist, he has over a thousand articles, short stories, features and photo-features published in over fifty newspapers and magazines in India and abroad. He has special interest in areas like natural history, photography, humour, satire and automobiles, on which he writes for both adults and children. He is one of the few Indian journalists to write satire and humour on a sustained basis. He has authored several books including The Crow Chronicles, The Life and Times of Altu Faltu, That Summer at Kalagarh, The Bossman Adventures, Enjoying Birds, Birds of Delhi, Birds from My Window and The Caterpillar Who Went on a Diet and Other Stories and When Banshee Kissed Bimbo. Ranjit Lal lives in Delhi."

The book is magnificent and a must read for lovers of good fiction.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Manju Kapur - Difficult Daughters

"He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations."Wittingly or not, the sins of our fathers (or mothers) have a bearing on us.

The eldest of eleven siblings, Veermati is owed only one duty, to marry well. Fate decrees otherwise and she finds herself treading rebellious paths. After her death, her daughter reconstructs her life. The novel traces her journey to her ancestral home in Amritsar and the places her mother had lived in, Lahore and Nahan. The setting is Pre-partition to post-partition Punjab and Lahore, when a few women were taking tentative steps towards emancipation. The rest of Punjab was mired in tradition that decreed zero personal freedom for women.

The novel is rich in detail. So rich, that it can effective be used as a reference for the life in those times. The novel is so rich in detail, that it is evocative not only visually, but also aurally.

"And that is how Veermati found herself on a train leaving Amritsar, her feet on her bedroll, her metal box pushed behind it, its lock faintly clinking with the motion of the train."

Coming back to the richness of the detail, if Veermati finds herself working in a school in Nahan, we are first given the history of Sirmaur in brief, the mission and work of the Rajmata who promotes education for girls and institutes a school there, the civil management of the place, and then we are shown the connection between this prestigious institution and Veermati. This detail enhances the story to the level of a piece of history rather than remaining just an account of the life and times of Veermati.

The book is extremely true to its time, not judging any of the characters, just presenting them to us as they are, so that we find ourselves loving them despite their flaws. The way the old ladies speak, always trying to say what they should say, using sugar coated taunts rather then a direct attack, never saying what they really feel. It is all so true and so familiar to me, I who grew up hearing my aunts and her cronies talk like that.

The men are rather in a shade, egoistic and self centered. The spotlight is on the women who are usually in subjugation here. But in a way, even in subjugation, the women are very much in control and strong.

The book is like a beautiful tapestery which might have been woven by Veermati herself for her trousseau. An elegant work by an elegant lady is how I would classify it.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Risa Aratyr - Hunter of the Light

Once every nine years the sacred elk runs through Eire and the designated hunter must hunt him before Bealtine Day. This year the task is all the more difficult because Shadow has reared his head and Scaileanna and Orcs are abroad, ravaging the villages that lie in their path. There is also a false hunter who wishes to kill the sacred elk and bring the Light forever to Shadows. The Mighty of Eire, the Midhe and the Sidhe align themselves to fight the Shadow and help the called hunter. For only when the sacred elk dies by the spear of the hunter will the Light survive, and magic still aid Eire.
In this world the poets are deemed the greatest because their words can make or mar a person. Mothers are revered for the far reaching powers they have and the Kings fight lustful for the Glory. The women are not consigned to the hearth, but stand in the forefront as leaders, it is the men who seem to be a step behind. This is the world Blackthorn the bard loves, when he is called to be Hunter of the Light, he knows he has to put all he has into the hunt and succeed at any cost or all Eire will suffer.
This fairy tale charms its way into your heart with references to elves, spells and mighty warriors. It harks upon the times when men walked with fairies and were privy to their secrets. But those were not innocent times, life was hard for all and danger lurked at all bends. It was in these times that nature was at its most beautiful and terrible, and men needed to be true survivors or fall.
The words of the tale are chosen with utmost care by the writer, making sure they maintain the folklore-like tone of the tale. The story never falters, never loses its step. The descriptions are almost cinematic, making the world come alive virtually in your mind. We see the long limbed dark hunter stride through the forest, stalking his prey. We see the evil elves, quick to wreck havoc upon peaceful folks, and the greed in the heart of the false hunter who wishes to rule Eire with the aid of the Shadow. The poet Scatach, dancer Meacan, Mother Liannan, King Niall, Reatach the shape shifter and Cessair the Sidhe warrior, Una, all come alive for us. It also tells us that all will be right with the world if Love prevails, for the relentless hunter Blackthorn is also a true lover, who must race against time to lift the spell on his beloved Roisin Dubh.
This magnificent book is written by Risa Aratyr, though it seems as if the tale has come down from a line of bards, like Iliad. Her vivid prose is worthy of high praise, and the book deserves the kind of success Lord of the Rings has.
How did I come by the book is a story in itself and needs to be told in detail, which I will do soon, I promise.

I have to thank couchpapaya for this award. Her blog is extremely interesting and I look forward to her new posts eagerly. I am supposed to forward this award and all the people on my blogroll deserve it. I admire bloggers because they take time out to express themselves. It is art for art's sake, most times. In my turn, I will confer it on Oxymoronic despite his love for Rakhi Sawant, because I think his posts are highly irreverent, extremely entertaining and often shake you up. He even has a stalker, a fact I envy.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan - You are Here

It is a dream situation. Girl writes a blog. Girl catches attention of publishers (Penguin for gods sake). Girl gets a book contract. Hey that is one situation I would love to be a part of. It has happened to a couple of girls (Sonia Felaro , Meenakshi Maadhavan) and I would not mind being a part of the hoo haah going on about chiclet .. errrr chick-lit.

I happened to be in a bookshop on Saturday evening and as the store manager was chasing me around and asking if I needed help, I set him to look for Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan's book You are Here. After a bit of rummaging, he found it. The price was reasonable, Rs.199/- so I took it.

I started the book and felt a bit let down. After a preamble that seemed a bit high flying, we got down to the business of Arshi trying to shock conservative readers by admitting to a few vices, namely, drinking, smoking, having sex, some bra talk. Hey girl, been there, done that.

However, the story settles down soon enough and we get to know that Arshi is on a re-bound and has just met a gorgeous guy in a pool party. He aint perfect, but is great. Only Arshi does not know where she stands with him. In the meantime, her friends, Topsy, Esha and Deeksha are coping with issues of their own. Topsy belongs to a conservative Hindu family and is in a clandestine relationship with a nice muslim boy, Fardeen, which is the mother of all NO NO's. Esha is obsessing about Akshay and it is obvious to all he is not really that into her. Deeksha is blissfully on her way to getting married to a gorgeous Canadian guy.

So what is the problem? Problem is that Arshi is not happy about where she is. She has this feeling that she should be doing something else, being with someone else. How she comes to terms with her situation is what this book is all about.

I would not call it the perfect book. There are too many digressions, that really take you away from the story and make you forget where you were. Right in the begining, one minute Arshi is wondering what to wear at a pool party, the next minute the story goes off tangent with Arshi reminiscencing about something else. It happens two or three times. She has repeated the phrase - "rolling of eyes" a bit too often.

If she had stuck to the story, and cut out the meanderings, it would have been much better. After a few initial descriptions of lingerie, probably offered up to pander to male curiosity or maybe female approval (yeah-it-happens-to-me-too), she stopped, thankfully. Despite claims of being slutt-ish, she does not really see so much action, often stopping at making out, which is more 16 than 25.

I liked the way she wound the book up, it was refreshing. It wasnt all fairy tale-ish with the handsome prince riding in, but it was with an admission that fuck-wittage happens to the fuck-witee.

Which is true.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Amitav Ghosh - The Calcutta Chromosome

Luckily for me I picked up the scintillating Sea of Poppies first. Egged on by my friend Oxymoronic who waxed eloquent about Amitav Ghosh, I made bold to order The Calcutta Chromosome too.

Right in the first chapter I was highly gratified when Ava was introduced. It is not often that I find my namesakes in literature and this one is not merely a woman, she is a computer, a worthy successor to Hal. Ava is an intelligent, interactive computer who is equipped to solve ALL the problems of the world.

The story goes something like this. Antar is some kind of a worker for an insurance firm who need not leave his home. He is (sigh – yeah dream on) connected to work from home. His computer, Ava (sounds lovely eh?) pops up some information at him which intrigues him. He finds himself in pursuit of a colleague Murugan, given up for lost since long. Murugan had been hot on the chase of Dr Ronald Ross who was the person who discovered all about malaria. In his pursuit Murugan had found out that Dr Ross, who had conducted most of his experiments in India, had mysteriously acquired two assistants, Mangala and Krishna. Murugan pursues all the leads relentlessly in his quest for truth, culminating in his disappearance.

The book is full of medical-scientific references, after all it is about malaria. Murugan discovers (thru Ross) that malaria, apart from being fatal in instances, also cured syphilis. And that the fever was not all bad. And that the Indian natives, with their acute observation, had cottoned on to these facts and were in fact, feeding the information to the good doctor. It was the earthy, wise and manipulative natives versus the stupid, easily influenced Brits.

From being a racy, cerebral thriller, the book, towards the end, disintegrated into almost an Alice thru the looking glass finale when all the characters turn into cards and fly at her. I felt a little like Alice myself, lost and puzzled and wondering why the pace picked up so much towards the end, why all the clues were coming so fast towards Murugan, why was he making so many discoveries. I almost drowned in the sea of information and forgot what we were all looking for in the first place, Me and Antar and Murugan and Urmila.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Amitav Ghosh - Sea of Poppies

Deeti has this vision of a ship, and a premonition that it will play a role in her life in times to come. How can a simple native woman, bound to her lands and her husband forever suddenly find herself on a ship is something she cannot envision. All she does is to tend to her small farm while her husband works in the opium factory.

Zachary has signed on as a cabin boy but finds himself rising through the ranks rapidly till he is the 2nd mate to the captain. He just wants to do his job honestly and make it in life. He is just a man of mixed colour from Baltimore, but finds himself stamped as a white gentleman.

Paulette is the daughter of a deceased Botanist living on charity. Her benefactors dont know that she is more native than the natives and has a brother too.

Pandit Nob Kissin Pandey is an accountant with a mission. He wants to recreate the world of Krishna and has already sighted a person who is the latest avatar of the Lord.

Raja Neel is lord of all he surveys, but he know how precarious his financial position is. What he does not know is the devious means that can easily be used against him to reduce him to the lowest form of human existence.

Mr. Burnham himself indirectly controlling the destiny of all these people though he is just a merchant who wants to makes profit.

How all these people, including Kalua, Heeru, Munia, Serang Ali, Jodu and many others find themselves abroad the Ibis is what constitues the story.

It is the first in the series of a promised trilogy by Amitav Ghosh. In this novel, he traces the background of his characters and gives us a hint of what to expect in future.

Amitav paints an unhurried picture of his characters, to make us understand them all the better. We are sent back to the times when British were the masters of the world, thanks to their understanding of the seas. However, it is their cunning nature and adaptability that makes them win the game, again and again. They knew how to set up ruses and use their trump cards. They knew how to make a person feel like a king and then .. suddenly throw him down into the deep abyss of sub-human existence.

They knew how to manipulate the seas and the people.

What do I say about the style of Amitav Ghosh. That is smooth and fine as sweet wine? That there is never an extra word, nor a word less? That he uses the language with the finesse of a master? That he is a devious devilish craftsman who can make us see what he sees?

The book - unputdownable. The next in the series - eagerly awaited.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Karen Joy Fowler - The Jane Austen Book Club

Karen Joy Fowler's book, The Jane Austen Book Club, came highly recommended by some online reviews. The name and theme of the book was highly tantalising to me, being a huge fan of Jane Austen. I ran around trying to procure the book anyhow. I put in a request at my usual bookshop and soon got a call by them that the book was in stock. Off I went like a rabbit to get the book I had long been dying to read.

No doubt the book is a gem. It is subtly crafted and the Jane Austen references are so subtle and gentle that they may not be there at all. Of all the Jane Austen books, it is the closest to Emma. Which is very nice, as Emma is my favorite as well. I even love its derivative, the movie Clueless.

The book follows the lives of six people who form a book club. Their purpose is to read and discuss the works of Jane Austen. For six months, they meet at the home of each member to read/discuss a book. Their lives superimpose the book club and they go through some changes as they keep meeting.

However, I found the book not all that it was hyped to be. I am quite used to 'slow' fiction, I read Anne Tyler happily and usually love her books. They have a charm which is hard to resist.

For some reason, I found the KJF book a little shallow. Sure, her characters are at some kind of crossroads, but they never really unfurl themselves. They don't walk out of the pages and grip us like the characters of Anne Tyler. Her story goes backward and forward in time, trying to give us an overview of her characters, but despite the intense focus on a character at a time, they never come together for us. Of all her characters, I liked Bernadette the best, but she wasnt allowed any 'action' in the story. The love story proceeds too slowly, in fact the love angle took me by surprise.

Umm... on second thoughts, as the book was on the bestseller list for a while, may be it was the hype that pushed my expectations too high, or maybe I did not read it in the right frame of mind, but this is my first impression and verdict on this book.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Hari Kunzru - Raj, Bohemian

Here is a reason why I like Hari Kunzru so much. Click on the title

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sidney Sheldon - Rage of Angels

I knew of Sidney Sheldon as a writer of racy books, mostly bestsellers. It was only later, while watching an episode of 'I dream of Jeannie' that I found Sidney Sheldon was a scriptwriter too. I loved IDOJ and began thinking better of SS. Then I happened to see Rage of Angels on TV as a mini-series. It was well made, with Jaclyn Smith, much younger and slimmer Ken Howard, a very twisted looking Armand Assante. A good cast that performed well too. Ever since, it was 'sorta' on my wishlist.

When I finally laid my hands on it via, I read it almost (ahhh .. like in the olden days) at a stretch.

It isn't literature, but it is well written. No wonder about that, as Sidney probably got a lot of practice writing scripts. It is very well presented and researched. (Or rather the law-references look authentic enough) The plot is ambitious. The characters are definitely interesting. All in all, a very satisfying book.

The plot goes like this - Jennifer Parker arrives in New York, a bright law graduate and is recruited for research by a hot-shot lawyer in middle of his big case. She is used by the defendant, a mafioso - Micheal Moretti to threaten a witness. The hot-shot lawyer loses his case and tries to wreck revenge on the unwitting messenger - Jennifer. He wants her de-barred. But fortunately for Jennifer, the case is handed over to Adam Warner who saves her. A lonely, destitute Jennifer falls hard for Adam. Adam is likewise taken by the beautiful and spunky Jennifer. But he is married.  They have a torrid affair. On the other hand, Micheal Moretti also falls for Jennifer and pursues her relentlessly, until, on a rebound, she gives in to him, and causes a lot of problems for herself.

The book was written in 1980 when evil and good were very black and white. It is easy to see that Adam Warner is absolutely Mr. Right, and were he not married, life would have been a breeze for Jennifer. They would have married, she would have been  an able spouse and they would have been a perfect President and First Lady. But alas, Adam married his childhood sweetheart when she lost her father. On top of that, Mary Beth wants all the goodies associated with being a First Lady and would not release her husband. Adam Warner is too much of a gentleman to 'insist' upon divorce, bearing Mary Beth like a cross. In the current scenario, he would be a wimp goody two shoes who could not stand up for the woman he loved, rather than the godly figure he cuts in this novel.

Micheal Moretti is the personification of the devil. In fact Sidney compares him to Satan a couple of times. He is totally unapologetic about his business, sneering at the corporate types and says they are 'saintly' because they aren't caught. He mentions to Jennifer that she uses devious means to win her cases for bad people at times, so what is wrong with fighting his cases. Jennifer is quite taken in by his reasoning and is smitten by his passionate love-making.

Too bad the novelist chose the beaten path of punishing the ungodly at the end of the novel. If it had been written in current times when the morality is more ambivalent, it could have been an interesting blurring of common perceptions of what is good and what is bad.

"I try to write my books so the reader can't put them down," Sidney Sheldon explained in a 1982 interview. "I try to construct them so when the reader gets to the end of a chapter, he or she has to read just one more chapter. It's the technique of the old Saturday afternoon serial: leave the guy hanging on the edge of the cliff at the end of the chapter."

Yes, the old man knew how to write and made pots of money too - writing similar unputdownables.

Monday, May 26, 2008

C S Lewis - Narnia Series and The Problem of Susan by Neil Gaiman

I still remember where the set of Narnia books were kept, in our house in Bangalore. In a cupboard in the dining room, all stacked up in order. I was not more than 13 then. I picked up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The three things appear in a reverse order in the book. We see the magical wardrobe first. Lucy, the youngest of the four Pevensie children sent out of London to escape the bombings during the IInd World War, discovers the wardrobe first. She finds a magical world behind it, Narnia, where it is perpetually winter. She wanders ahead, comes to the Lamp Post and runs into the faun Tumnus who entertains her for the afternoon and drops her back to the Lamp Post. Next to appear is the White Witch, the terrible ruler of Narnia. Edmund is bewitched by her and promises to bring all his brothers and sisters to her. The Lion, Aslan, the creator of Narnia, appears in time to restore peace to the magical land.

Charmed by the simple parable, and entirely missing the message of Christianity behind it, I devoured the other 6 books in the order they should be read. However, years have passed and only LWW, The Magician's Nephew (which explains the birth of Narnia, and how the wardrobe came to be made), The Horse and his boy and fragments from the The Last Battle remained in my mind. When I found the LWW was being made into a movie, I delved back into some of the books.

However, the movie raked up old memories about the books in the press, and I got to read about the latent symbolism and the criticism heaped on them. The most interesting arguments concerned the The Problem of Susan.

It's like this, in the last book in the series, The Last Battle, all the children who had ever been to Narnia reassemble there, with the exception of Susan. In a flippant statement one child says "She is too interested now in nylons and lipstick and invitations to bother about Narnia.'

This statement became a handle for a lot of arguments about the denial of a sexual/feminine choices allowed to a woman. And among lots of literature devoted to the issue emerged this short story by Neil Gaiman - The Problem of Susan,-by-Neil-Gaiman.html

The Last Battle also tells us that the entire Pevensie Family, with the exception of Susan was killed, and reassembled in Heaven (Narnia). It is implied that heaven was denied to Susan because of her silly indulgences. The short story deals with the problems faced by Susan and also questions a God who would punish a young girl so bitterly - leaving her an orphan on earth, for her preference for nylons/lipstick/invitations.

The whole argument is a riveting read, and loosens quite a few bolts and nuts in your head.

C S Lewis - Prince Caspian

I scrolled the mouse up and down on the list of my blogs. Should I write about Prince Caspian/Narnia/CS Lewis/Neil Gaiman on my book blog or the movie one! The train of thought and research started from the movie surely.

The Chronicles of Narnia - Prince Caspian is 2nd in the series after The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The Pevensie children are feeling miserable away from Narnia. The way they talk about Narnia makes you feel as if they are on some kind of drug, which they are deprived of. Lo and Behold, Susan's magic horn is blown in far away Narnia and the kids are transported back to Cair Paravel. They don't recognise it anymore, and realise after a bit of sleuthing, that time in Narnia has taken a quantum leap. They find Narnia has gone underground and the wicked Talmerines rule it. The silver lining is that they can help restore Narnia to its former glory if they reinstate Prince Caspian to the throne.

Thus begins the battle between the remaining Narnians and Talmerine. After the intervention of Aslan, the battle favours the Narnians and the children can return to London to catch their train to the school.

Some good special effects, a nice story, (and Ben Barnes) manage to keep the movie afloat. Fantasy aficionados agree that the movie could be better. It is certainly better than LWW.

We can look forward to the third in the series, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. This time around Peter and Susan Pevensie will be missing. Lucy, Edmund and a nasty cousin Eustace Scrubb are the ones who will make it Narnia and join the delicious Prince Caspian on an adventure to the end of the world. Ok, this is the movie part. Now over to for the book part of it.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Vikram Seth - The Golden Gate

Published by Vintage
Bought @ English Book Store, Sector 17, Chandigarh

If I were talented enough, I would write this in verse. Alas, I am not. Vikram Seth is. He chose to write a whole novel in iambic pentameter quite in the manner of Edmund Spenser and Pushkin. A novel has to succeed in two ways. One - the content should be good enough to grip the reader. Two- the style should be good enough to charm the reader. Seth scores on both counts.

The story is a very modern, a very American, a very eighties story of four friends, John, Paul, Liz and Jan. John Brown is a square IT engineer, workaholic, rather unscrupulous young man in search of a mate. Jan is his current best friend, ex-girlfriend, a sculptor and a musician who lives a solitary life with her two cats - cuff and link. Jan helps John find Liz through the Personals column in the paper. Liz is a rare combination of beauty and brains, the girl is a lawyer and goaded by her mother, is looking for a mate too. Liz and John get along like the house on fire, and start contemplating a future together. Paul is John's college friend, an activist and a sensitive, thinking man. He has recently been divorced and is a single father. The story brings the four friends together and changes their lives forever.

Like I said, the story is very 80s. It was a time when the term 'politically correct' was in vogue. Unlike the preceding decades, no one raised an eyebrow if a hero was a gay or a bisexual. In fact the novel also has a description of a homosexual love affair, the first I ever read about. Will and Grace came a whole decade later. It was uber-cool then, to be committed to some cause. In the novel, Paul is against big corporations because they promote nuclear war-fare, and also left his lucrative job because of that. Environmental issues and animal rights are deemed important topics. Although all the leading characters are strong independent people, Liz gets married and has a child to please her mother who yearns for a grandchild. So there is and endearing bit about loving and caring for your parents in there.

Apart from the leading cast, there are a number of other endearing and real characters in the book, that add to the landscape and make the book sound cheery.

Now for the style. Seth has a vast vocabulary in English and he knows how to use it well. Very handy when you are trying to rhyme words and make sense at the same time. Never ever does the rhyme ever sound laboured! The words trip off easily, readily describing the serious along with the cheesy. There are some amazing alliterations here (examples later). The verse sounds so effortless, that you scarcely notice that it is a novel in verse.

Whether it is love between Liz and John that is being described, a scene that lends itself naturally to poetry, or whether it is a peacenik march that is being described, a scene that does not lend itself naturally to poetry, the effect is always pleasing. I think that is the true success of this novel in verse.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Guy de Maupassant - Bel Ami

The novel traces the upward curve of the life of Georges Duroy from near starvation to riches and power. The son of poor innkeepers in Canteleu, his parents want him to be a gentleman and educate him well. He joins the military and serves for a time in Algiers. He leaves the army and comes to Paris to try and get ahead in the world. When the novel begins, he is working as a clerk in the Railway and barely able to survive on his salary, often giving up either lunch or dinner. He runs into an old army mate Forestier who is working as a journalist. Forestier gives him a break in journalism and Duroy begins his second life that finds him indulging in all the seven deadly sins, except sloth.

He comes face to face with some remarkable women who succumb to his irresistibile charm. He forgoes shame to accumulate wealth, and plays politics with a seasoned hand to bring himself to the top in any situation.

The chapter where Georges attends the fete thrown by Walter to exhibit his purchase of an expensive painting, is study in the cross currents of sexual and political power fuelled by wealth that run through the party.

There are a wealth of characters that are fullblooded, unholy, flawed and extremely real. Madeleine Forestier, who wants to rule by proxy. She wants wealth and power as much as the next man, and does not hesitate to use sex and manipulation to get it. She is almost like the female counterpart of Georges Duroy. If Georges Duroy finds himself outwitting her, it is merely because he is a man and has some unfair advantages because of it.

Then there is Clotilde de Marelle who shares a lustful relationship with Georges throughout the novel. If women want to learn about how to hang on to their man, they should study Clotilde for the Do's, and Verginie Walter, who lets her passion overrule her reason, for the Don'ts.

If the novel is by Maupassant can humour be far behind? The novel is an ironical study of success and what makes it so. The shenanigans of the ruling (or nearly ruling) class and the moneyed people are exposed blithely. There are passages and whole chapters that are so comic, so funny that they are a delight to read. The humour is cerebral and simply amazing. The chapter where the poor but upcoming Georges Duroy is turned to Georges du Roy de Cantel is so brilliant that you are left speechless.

It is a gem of a book, something all book-lovers MUST possess.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Some Short Stories

Short stories are like little gems, Cadbury Gems that look pretty, taste good and vanish without cloying. You can eat many at a time and again and again with renewed pleasure each time. Choosing 5 best short stories is an impossible task, and quite self defeating. How can you choose 5 best pearls out of an ocean-full of treasure? It is like picking 5 best stars out of a glittering sky. Leave alone 5 best short stories, it is not even possible to choose 5 best short story writers! Anyhow, I am picking these stories strictly on basis of the ones which have lingered in my mind the most. This is, again, not a very good benchmark. For instance, after I compiled my list, I was reminded of War of the Worlds by HG Wells. What a magnificent story that was! So awfully massacred by Steven Spielberg. Why can’t any filmmaker have the courage to make it exactly like it is? Idgah, by Munshi Premchand, that never fails to bring tears to my eyes. Most stories I have picked, barring two, were originally written in some other language, and translated into English. But I read them in English, whereas I have always read Idgah in Hindi.

The only thing to do is to excuse me for the ones I have ignored and just savor the ones I list here. Here goes my list, which is not in any order, I wouldn’t dare!

The Selfish Giant – Oscar Wilde

Now what can one say about Oscar Wilde? His witty writing, short stories, plays, poems are all delightful. His story, The Portrait of Dorian Grey is a masterpiece. His wordplay sparkles, makes you chuckle, and read on and on and on without tiring. But in this little morality tale, he adopts almost a biblical tone:

And the Giant stole up behind him and took him gently in his hand, and put him up into the tree. And the tree broke at once into blossom, and the birds came and sang on it, and the little boy stretched out his two arms and flung them round the Giant's neck, and kissed him.

The repeated use of the word “and” is in the style of the Bible. The sentences are short and descriptive “He was a very selfish Giant”. The simple little tale of a selfish person who realizes the importance of sharing and loving his fellow creatures is timeless, a classic.

The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka

If I were to choose the best short story ever, this would be it. The pathetic tale of Gregor Samsa tears your heart out. It makes you wonder at the fragility of our closest relationships, with our parents, our siblings, which seem so strong, but are often based on a mutual need. Good as long as they are fulfilling, cast out the minute they are not. The story has a chilling start

One morning, when Gregor Samsa woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin.”

From being a good son and brother, who works hard to support his family, he turns into a hated creature that needs constant attention. At first, his sister pitches in lovingly to care for him. But as time passes, he becomes a useless burden and is shunned by his own loved ones. Kafka paints an inexorable picture of Gregor’s travails that take us through emotions of pity and disgust, but also make us realize that we are human and possess all the frailties associated with our kind.

The Necklace – Guy De Maupassant

One of those tales with a twist in the end, like the Gift of Magi, which was bittersweet, borne of love, ending with a little laughter and love. But The Necklace is almost like a morality tale, chiding and punishing the heroine mercilessly for her vanity. Mathilde Loisel is a young pretty girl who yearns for good life. She is married to a poor man and is discontented with her life. Her husband brings home an invitation to a party, and Mathilde is besieged by the question familiar to all womenfolk, “What will I wear!” With great difficulty she puts together a desired ensemble that is worthy of her beauty. And for that night, she gets all that she wished for.

She danced madly, ecstatically, drunk with pleasure, with no thought for anything, in the triumph of her beauty, in the pride of her success, in a cloud of happiness made up of this universal homage and admiration, of the desires she had aroused, of the completeness of a victory so dear to her feminine heart.

Alas, this is the last happy night of her life. But then, didn’t DH Lawrence say “Let man go on his way to perdition”?

Old Fashioned Farmers – Nikolai Gogol

Gogol has written umpteen, magnificent short stories. What is so special about this one? In my mind this story is almost like a stately painting, with lovely detailing, that brings an old couple alive. Yes, there is a lot of romance in painting young and beautiful figures, but the painting of the old couple is like looking at LIFE.

Afansii Ivanovich and Pulcheria Ivanova are old-fashioned farmers. Their life has settled into a series of routines and habits. In their own way, they are a very devoted to each other. They spend their day tending to their farming affairs and household matters. They love welcoming guests into their house and are full of the old world charm. What happens when one of the couple dies? Gogol compares a mad passionate love of youngsters with the staid habits of an old couple who have been together forever.

Which wields the most powerful sway over us, passion or habit? Or are all our strong impulses, all the whirlwinds of our desire and boiling passions, but the consequence of our fierce young growth, and only for that reason seem deep and annihilating?" However that may be, all our passion, on that occasion, seemed to me child's play beside this long, slow, almost insensible habit”

A Municipal Report - O Henry

This is one story I am very very fond of. I read it through again yesterday while looking for quotes to pull out. Oscar Wilde and O Henry are the only ones on this list to have written in English. In their stories, nothing is lost in translation and we get the full impact of whatever they intend to convey. I could wax eloquent forever about his writing style, if only I could find words to describe it. Is it hard to sketch a character so well in a few lines that it jumps out of the pages of the book to come alive? Yes, but, O Henry can.

Nashville is a dull place that the narrator is commissioned to visit. He has to sign a contract with a lady, Azalea Adair, binding her to write for a journal at 2 cents per word. He also runs into a black cab driver called Caesar whose regal ways seem out of sorts with his ramshackle cab (horse-driven) and tattered clothes. He also runs into a despicable gentleman called Major Wentworth Caswell. There is also a dollar bill in this story, which is almost like a character itself.

I gave him two one-dollar bills. As I handed them over I noticed that one of them had seen parlous times. Its upper right-hand corner was missing, and it had been torn through the middle, but joined again. A strip of blue tissue paper, pasted over the split, preserved its negotiability.

Then there is button which is again a very important element in the story.

"The lone button was the size of a half-dollar, made of yellow horn and sewed on with coarse twine.

Our narrator is surprised when he finds a gem in Nashville in the shape of Ms. Azalea Adair.

While she talked to me I kept brushing my fingers, trying, unconsciously, to rid them guiltily of the absent dust from the half-calf backs of Lamb, Chaucer, Hazlitt, Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne and Hood. She was exquisite, she was a valuable discovery. Nearly everybody nowadays knows too much - oh, so much too much - of real life.

Expecting to be bored to death during the visit, the narrator finds excitement aplenty. A murder is done, and the narrator helps in shielding a murderer. To find out the rest, go read the story.


There are so many other excellent short story writers that I have missed here. Saki, DH Lawrence, HG Wells, Chekov, Dosteoveksy, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Antoine de Saint Exupéry to name just a few. I do hope the ones I have listed above whet your appetite for good writing.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird is related from the point of view of an 8 year old girl, Scout Finch. Scout and her brother, Jem have a pet game, trying to draw out Boo Radley, a ghostly neighbour who never leaves his house. While they are busy with school and play, their little town of Monroeville is rocked by a scandal. A poor white girl has accused a black man of sexually assaulting her.

Now Monroeville is a conservative town during the late 50s and enlightenment has not touched it yet. It is up to Atticus Finch to try his best to serve justice and try and rescue an innocent man from slander and prejudice.

As is with all amazing books, the story is never just what it seems, but has many layers of meanings that is up to the readers to unfold. There are endearing glimpses into parenting, learning, playing, respecting the rights of other individuals, developing sensitivity to others.

"Once I got to know him, I found he wasn't a bad person." Shares Scout with her father. "All people are good, once you get to know them" says Atticus simply. This displays the deep humanitarian message that underlays the novel. Whether it is the misguided, wretched Ewells, or the seemingly fierce Cunninghams, or the overly strict Aunt, or a sick neighbour who seems wicked, but is actually battling a deadly morphine addiction, all these characters are dealt with such a skillful touch that you can't hate them, no matter what their flaws.

The novel comes alive under the magical touch of Harper Lee, and try as you might, you cannot shake its characters from your mind. And forever, Scout playes with Jem and Dill and tries to bring out Boo Radley, while Atticus smokes and reads in a rocking chair inside the house, various neighbours call out, and Calpurnia cooks in the kitchen.

This timeless book continues to enthrall its readers year after year.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Jhumpa Lahiri - The Namesake

Anyone who reads books has heard about The Namesake, written by Jhumpa Lahiri. It won the Pulitzer prize and was on the bestseller list too, the blurbs tell us. Mira Nair even made a successful movie on the book.

A friend of mine who read the book raved about it, and lent it to me. Luckily I had some free time on my hands at the time and read through the book almost at a stretch.

The book started a little jerkily, just before the arrival of Gogol in the world. Ashima Ganguly, displaced from Calcutta to USA, is yearning for taste of home in her pregnancy and has made a bit of chivda (or whatever the Bengalis call it). She suddenly feels the labour pains coming on and is rushed to the hospital. She gives birth to a baby boy. Ashima and her husband Ashoke cannot even think of abandoning the conventions of their culture. Back home, the baby would have been named lovingly by some elder in the family. In fact, the name is on the way, posted by way of a letter. The baby's formal name is put on the hold, and the child is given a pet name, Gogol. Through a series of circumstances, Gogol never acquires a formal name.

The story, of course, is about how easily Ashima and Ashoke balance their Bengali and American way of life, and how hard it is for Gogol/Nikhil to do that. His attitude towards his name reflects his attitude towards the Bengali way of life and also towards the American way of life. He goes through his life, picking up American girlfriends, and an Indian wife. How he finally makes peace with himself when he says at one time "Actually, there is no such thing as a perfect name".

As we live, we learn more about ourselves (at least some of us do). And it is these lessons that are the most valuable.

However, the standout point of the books is not so much the theme, good as it is. The standout point is the style and language. NEVER PRETENTIOUS. So much so, that the first couple of chapters almost sounded humdrum to me. Then the effect kicked in. The author was skillfully picking up sounds inside the heads of various characters and relaying them to us. She knew exactly how much to tell us about the character and at what time. Some facts are held up to whet our curiosity, and when we learn about them, it makes shivers run through us.

I was blown away because the story is so ordinary, and is so well told that it seems extraordinary.

I have always loved the short stories of Nikolai Gogol. He was a favorite of Ashoke Ganguly as well. He was once in a train accident when he was a young man in India, and reading a book by Gogol at the time. This accident and his survival is his most life-altering moment, and is inextricably linked to Gogol. When time comes for him to name his firstborn, he thinks of Gogol. His son does not share his sentiments fully and hates Gogol the writer. At the end of the book, when he is at peace with himself, he picks up a book by Gogol, gifted to him by his father, and starts reading it.

Our names are the legacies bestowed upon us by our parents. Ram Khilawan may get a fancy schooling later and try to mask his downmarket name by calling it RK, or Ram K Prasad. Not being named flamboyantly like Amitabh Bachchan, poor Jatin Khanna calls himself Rajesh Khanna.

Ava wrestles with her unusual name and bears the jibes of her classmates and some insensitive elders. What kind of a name is Ava? ask the philistines who never heard (in those times) of Ava Gardner who inspired her name. But alas, I do not have the writing style of Jhumpa Lahiri and cannot write a book about my ordinary life and make it linger in the minds of readers like the fragrance of fresh jasmine.