Month: December 2016

The Sellout, a sell out

This is a review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

The novel is a political satire that can come off as a disturbing and disparaging reflection of the society. It’s about a black man, identified only as ‘Me’ or ‘The Sellout’, who is amused and angry with the American society for pretending not to be racist, and for forcing integration that many apparently would rather not be a part of. It hence provides a sharp reflection of the American society that has failed to become a society of equals.

His father, who home schooled him through unorthodox sociological and psychological conditioning methods, is killed in a police shootout. Soon after, his city, Dickens, is struck out of maps and left unidentified. Aghast, he tries to reclaim the identity of the city and figure his own identity out in the process. So, first, he goes about painting a rough boundary across the region to mark his city. Also, Hominy, a friend and a former side actor in TV shows, surrenders himself to Me as a slave (because “true freedom includes the right to be a slave”)! The Sellout then segregates his girlfriend’s bus, with a “whites only” sign. When he does it, the number of fights and complaints, typical to the bus, falls drastically. And what’s more, people try to reproduce such segregation in other parts of the ‘city’. Crime rates drop and people are nicer. Even the city’s elementary school is segregated with the help of Me and Hominy the Slave, leading to better performance of the students.

Eventually the State catches on, and a case is filed against Me. The case is escalated to the Supreme Court, where the Judge asks, finally, “whether a violation of civil rights law that results in the very same achievement these heretofore mentioned statutes were meant to promote, yet have failed to achieve, is in fact a breach of said civil rights.” This is the crux of the book. Is forced integration, which is mostly pointless and often debases a man, the right thing to do? Is it not better to not enforce integration if that’s what the people concerned want? Or as Hominy asks, “are we missing the forest for the trees”?

This review may make The Sellout seem like it’s a serious and highly political novel. But it’s also hilarious. At many instances, you’ll find yourself smiling at the genius. And you’ll be astounded by what is happening too. Beatty continuously disturbs, offends and jokes, through passages imbued with too much meaning to be called merely comedy.

My only real and major grouse with the book is that I didn’t follow some of the American popular culture references. The novel doesn’t really have a plot, but rides along just fine with the help of the biting humor. It also rolls like a speeding truck, from one crack of dry sarcasm to another, so it gives you little time to breathe between the lines.

Beatty incessantly pokes fun at literature, movies, etc., for selling out to the majoritarian views of the society. That made me wonder, now that The Sellout is as world famous and is being sold out at bookstores due to its apparent conformity to the majority of the buyers’ views, does that make this book a sellout too?

The final verdict: The Sellout is meant to be re-read till one is tired by the irony of the world one lives in.

4/5.

Here’s an excerpt (that I thought needs to be written in bold, underlined and italicized):

“What does that mean, I’m offended?”… “It’s not even an emotion. What does being offended say about how you feel?”… “If I ever were to be offended, I wouldn’t know what to do. If I’m sad, I cry. If I’m happy, I laugh. If I’m offended, what do I do, state in a clear and sober voice that I’m offended, then walk away in a huff so I can write a letter to the mayor?”

Advertisements

To Tinder, or not to Tinder?

This is my review of Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari.

This book is basically Freakonomics, but about dating and relationships. Also, Aziz Ansari is so cool. Anthropology tickles me because it forces me to look at social practices from a third person perspective; things I take for granted suddenly seem ridiculous (and pretentious, but that’s just me).

It asks questions that may or may not be interesting to you, like:

  • What’s the best way to seem attractive via text message?
  • How and why did online dating catch on?
  • How has the Information Age changed relationships?
  • What should my Tinder profile picture look like?!

Honestly, these aren’t things I’ve ever thought about. But what appealed to me was his scientific approach to a decidedly unscientific process. The evolution (and lack of evolution, at times) of social norms over generations never fails to amaze me. Online dating started out as a practice that was looked down upon, but in a matter of decades went mainstream.

3.5/5 from me. Take a look if you’re a light-nonfiction fan.

Wonder

This is a review of Wonder by R J Palacio.

81zdsfzjh2bl

August Pullman is not ordinary. He was born with a facial deformity. He has been home schooled till now, owing to the numerous surgeries that he needed. But now he’s about to attend fifth grade in a school near his home. He’s nervous because he knows that he’s not ordinary, at all.

Wonder is narrated by Auggie, his friends, his sister Olivia, and her friends. Each has a slightly different style of narration, believable and authentic. Auggie is smart, kind, and understands that he stands out in a crowd. He’s pragmatic and doesn’t seek to play the victim card, ever. His sister, as a teenager, is also incredibly supportive (but also acts her age, to balance out the halo on her head). His parents are god sends – perfect.

Auggie is intelligent and is a loner. He gets good grades and makes few friends because he’s not very popular. The school bully (and most popular kid), though, dislikes him, and keeps trying to pull him down. He also gets the kids to play horrible games on Auggie. August, though, does have a couple of friends who stand up for him. They simply believe that it’s the right thing to do, not brave or kind, but just right.

The book is warm. For a protagonist like August, who has to deal with insensitive bullies, the book could have been made more mushy. But it’s not. You don’t feel bad for Auggie. He also tells you, subtly, that you don’t get a pretty ribbon or badge for being nice to people with deformities (or disabilities, I might add); you only don’t get called an arsehole.

It’s not really a book for adults. But I know a lot of adults who can learn a lesson or two from it. Anyway, Wonder is my book recommendation for young adults and children. 4/5.

Greek mythology for the mortals

This is a review of the Percy Jackson books, by Rick Riordan.

Percy Jackson and the Olympians is a set of 5 fantastic books based on Greek Mythology, which one will learn is no myth, but reality set in The USA today. The Greek mythology is fun. Obviously. After all, many human years ago it was part of a religion which, anthropologists like Malinowski believed, held societies together. Despite being as larger than life, the inspiration that the books draw from Greek Mythology is just right.

Percy Jackson is a dyslexic 12 year old when we meet him. He cannot seem to keep a seat in a school for longer than a year, because he always causes some inexplicable problems that get him expelled. He and his lone friend, Grover, join the school trip in which Percy is attacked by the former math teacher, Mrs Dodds, current monstrous bird-like thing that tries to kill Percy. With the help of his Latin teacher, Chiron, who lends him a ballpoint-pen-turned-sword at the right moment, Percy valorously, and to his own surprise, defeats the monster. However, after he does, noone around him seems to remember a Mrs Dodd, never mind the attack that Percy survived. We soon learn that the memories of the mortals (humans) was altered by theĀ Mist (a spell of sorts that alters memories and imagery). As one can guess, Grover and Chiron, are not human – and were, in fact, protecting Percy from the monsters. After this incident and a bunch near-fatal meetings with more monsters, he, his mother and Grover drive to theĀ Half-blood Hill, where other children like Percy live.

At camp, Percy learns that he is the son of Poseidon, the god of seas; one of the Big Three (the other two being Zeus and Hades), and a “mistake” in the sense that despite the gods’ oaths not to sire children with humans, Poseidon did (although Zeus did it first, but his child almost, sort of, did not really survive). Our protagonist is hence no more a dyslexic and lost little lad, but one of the most powerful 12 year olds alive.

The books of the pentalogy are strung together by the doings of the gods, some prophecies and the heroism of Percy and co. They track Percy’s adventures as he first tries to stop a war from occurring, then tries to restore the health of the camp which loses its protective properties due to sabotage of its border forces. In the third book, Percy and his friends try to safeguard other half-bloods, and in the bargain, he loses and gains friends. In the fourth part, Percy and friends try to safeguard the camp, which they believe is compromised due to a labyrinth underneath. The last part is the culmination of the series, where the games played by Kronos (the Titan lord – very important and dangerous) is drawn to the close as he attempts to destroy Olympus (which is situated in New York, by the way), the house of the gods.

The series is short and fast paced. It has no unnecessary descriptions of scenery, for instance. It throws up some perfunctory surprises and twists to keep it going; some enrich the reading, some turn things upside down, and some are very predictable. You’d enjoy the series like I did, if you like the idea of gods roaming in running clothes, driving a Maserati, a Harley Davidson, wearing beach wear and the like. There’s almost never a dull moment. The funniest bit for me was when Percy and his friend (and daughter of Athena), Annabeth, try to enter the Underworld, Hades’s abode. Watch out for the three-headed dog, Cerebus.

What I felt was a bummer was the repetitive nature of the adventures, and the lack of maturity of the characters despite the years. Percy is perceptually confused and surprised at his own abilities. I had to keep reminding myself that he’s only a little boy (um, who saves the world!). Also, he’s too noble. Bah. That apart, as a Potterhead, I came across somethings that sounded too familiar. In Percy Jackson, as in Harry Potter, there’s a prophesy which might fit the protagonist (including the apparent confusion about the subject of the prophesy – Harry or Neville; Percy or ). The villain of the story is almost dead, but not quite, and is trying to rise once again. This guy first tries to steal an instrument that will hasten his resurrection (philosopher’s stone, the golden fleece) before he goes full mental and uses the services of his cowardly loyal followers. In one of the books, there’s a maze with monsters littered all over it (remind you of the third task in the triwizard tournament?).

While the books were good company, their brilliance dulled towards the end (the final book tries too hard to be funny, and is condensible to half its length). But to be fair, the monsters and other creatures throughout the series are entertaining and slightly adorable scary. For instance, there’s a cow-like sea creature which says ‘Moo’.

For making a comedy out of those witless gods, here’s to you, Rick Riordan!

3/5

Half of a Yellow Sun

This is a review of Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

More than a work of fiction, this felt like a work of history. The Igbo Pogrom (or genocide, if you’re not being fussy about words) of the 1966 and the politics of Nigeria in the 60s has been captured in these pages through the eyes of Ugwu, a young man who goes to the city to cook for Odenigbo, a college Professor.

During this period, about 40000 – 60000 people were killed, by bullet or through starvation. Through it all, there remained people who survived, mentally and physically, and built the country after the Pogrom. This novel is a fictional account of one such family.

Odenigbo introduces the city life to Ugwu, through his liberal friends, and by his own eccentricities. As Ugwu settles into his “Sah’s” house, he learns to cook, tend, and looks after Odenigbo very well. Odenigbo’s girlfriend, Olanna, comes down as well. For a while, things seem normal; great, in fact. Olanna and Odenigbo adopt a child (whose biological father is Odenigbo, but mother is.. well, not Olanna; you’ll have to read the book to know more about the descent of the baby girl). Still the houseboy, Ugwu joins school, and hopes to become a professor like Odenigbo one day.

But soon, the Igbo Pogrom breaks out. The tribes in the north of Nigeria (Hausas) kill Igbo tribes, including Olanna and Odenigbo’s families and friends.

Through the novel, Odenigbo is chockfull with disbelief at what is happening. During the most peaceful and hopeful times, he and his colleagues (all liberal professors) publish journals, demanding a more democratic government from the short lived Republic of Biafra. The Republic of Biafra was established in a coup that has since been infamously known as the precursor to the Pogrom; due to its brashness in supporting the Southern Nigerean people, Igbos, over the Northern ones. The feeling of humiliation felt by the Northerners is said to have sparked off the anger that the Hausas took out against the Igbos.

When the civil war (the Pogrom) breaks out, he, Olanna and their baby move to his mother’s place, at the very last minute, away from the violence. Soon the Hausa tribes come close to finding them there as well. Then, with no choice left, they move to the refugee camps, where life hits a low. Olanna and Odenigbo suffer through blows, as they are unable to feed or clothe their child, never mind themselves. Ugwu remains loyal and supports them throughout. The way they flee from the refugee camp when the Hausas descend on them there as well, is a tale in itself.

As in this review, the book is deeply attached to the chilling history of Nigeria. The characters have not been compromised in the bargain, though. Their descriptions are rich; they’re likable and still very flawed. I’ve come to think that this is Adichie’s hallmark (despite my admittedly limited exposure to her work) – characters that one can like, but characters that are not Mary Sues. The development of each character, Olanna, Odenigbo, Ugwu, is memorable; not perfect, but so well done that I still remember little details about them. Like Ugwu’s anger at some of Odenigbo’s friends because he felt they were disrespectful towards his Master; Olanna’s wit and sharpness as a writer, and then a mother; Odenigbo’s spirited debates with his colleagues every evening in his house, etc. There are other characters, too, that are cunning, crazy or incredibly principled, who evoke certain distaste or respect from me even after months of reading the book.

Adichie sparkles in every page of this page turner. The human spirit and the bloody politics of Nigeria is so remarkably interwoven that you cannot see one without the other. If only one could study all of history this way!

4/5