Month: August 2017

You’ve been warned

This is my review of the short story anthology Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman.

One notable thing about today’s children’s/YA authors is that they’re approachable, and celebrities in their own right. John Green has a vlog and is active on social media, JK Rowling expresses her political opinions freely on Twitter, and Neil Gaiman- Neil Gaiman is basically the hero that my emo, pretentious, teenaged self needed but did not deserve. He is unabashedly geeky and frequently drops nuggets of inspiration that probably keep tired young writers plugging along for an extra edit, or a few hundred more words.

The reason this stands out to me is that many classic children’s authors took a very different stance- they tried to teach us lessons or preach morality. Enid Blyton got a lot of criticism for her depiction of naughty black golliwogs, since the original toys were overtly racist. I’m inclined to see this as a sign of the times, rather than deliberate spite towards people of colour. I’ve read conspiracy theories on homosexual undertones in Noddy and Big Ears’ relationship, but that’s unlikely. CS Lewis intended his Narnia books to be a religious allegory, with Aslan representing Jesus, but the metaphor flew over my preteen head. Herge’s Tintin in America has several pages that so offensive to Native Americans that the book was not published for several decades. It was re-released in the 2000s with a disclaimer, and I was shocked to see panels of ‘foolish’ brown natives worshipping Tintin as a god.

With all these precedents, I’m glad to see authors being more responsible about the influence they wield over young minds.

Trigger Warning refers to the warning (D’oh) on content that may be frightening or emotionally disturbing to people who have experienced trauma, or who are sensitive to gore or violence. Say, PTSD sufferers or rape victims. Gaiman points out that very often, literature is meant to take us out of our comfort zone. The experience is not always pleasant, but almost always educational.

Funnily enough, Gaiman himself does not venture far out of his writing comfort zone. He sticks to urban fantasy for the most part. I found that after a point, the stories sort of blended together until I felt like I was slogging through the same twists again and again- not an accurate impression, but one that I just couldn’t shake off.

There are some gems in there- The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury hit me right in the feels. For best effect, listen to the audio version. There’s an interesting take on Sherlock Holmes and his bee-keeping efforts (remember, after he retires he takes up bee keeping in the country!). There’s an interesting Doctor Who story as well. But most of the rest of them were Gaiman’s usual fairytales. The book starts off with a sort of meta-description of how he developed the ideas for each of the stories. This little peephole into his brain is sure to delight any wannabe writers. As a casual reader, however, I found that it disrupted my reading experience since I couldn’t map the anecdotes to the right story and had to keep flipping back and forth.

Or maybe I’ve just outgrown his writing (the horror!)

I would still recommend this if you’re a fan of urban fantasy, or you want some short stories to dip into from time to time. 3.5/5

Water for Elephants

This is a review of the book, Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It’s a story set in the 1930s in America, during the Great Depression. The narrator, our protagonist, is Jacob Jankowski, a ninety or ninety three year old man who wants, more than anything else, to sink his teeth in apples and to be able to walk independently. He tells us about his life, a good life, a big life.

Back in 1931, a couple of days before Jacob was to appear for his veterinary science final exams at Cornell, he gets a telephone call from home – his parents have met with a fatal car accident, and he is called to identify their bodies. His world crumbles under his feet. The house and his father’s veterinary practice are taken away by the bank, due to the mortgage that they had drawn for Jacob’s tuition fees. Homeless, he returns to Cornell to write his exams, only to undergo a mental breakdown and walk out of the exam hall without writing a word. There was no turning back for him.

Hours of walking leads him to a railway track, where he realises he’s penniless, without a degree, homeless and has nothing to lose. From the dark veil of the night comes the train carrying the Benzini Brother’s Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a circus. He gets on to it, and thus begins the story.

Water for Elephants is a heartrending tale about how circuses are (were?) run. There’s class-ism, murder, systemic brutality, torture, love, fear, madness and passion. But it is also a heartening tale about the success and joys of a team of people dependent on each other for their daily bread and for their boost of ego.

At Benzini Brothers, Jacob is taken in as the resident veterinarian. There, he falls in love with Marlena, the wife of the boss, August, a paranoid schizophrenic. The circus grows during the time Jacob is with them, to acquire a bull (elephant) called Rosie, who August has to train (which he does in the most dastardly fashion). Rosie doesn’t understand a word of what August says, and August doesn’t try harder than to strike at her with the bullhook. Over time, Benzini Bros run out of food and a good deal of humanity as well, as losses strike. In the meantime, the charming love affair between Jacob and Marlena grows.

One of the quirks of being a part of the circus is that there’s a hierarchy of statuses – the workmen come last, after the animals, and the bosses come first, above God. At times of adversity, the workmen who can be disposed of, are disposed off of, by throwing them off of running trains. Jacob discovers that this fate is not limited to workmen alone, though, and is open to be used on anyone who dares anger the bosses. As Jacob and Marlena fall in love, Jacob sets himself to be the best man to be thrown off the train and down a gorge. But Jacob is smart, Marlena sharp and Rosie, the Bull, is hilariously and cunningly terrific.

Rosie is a delight, the star attraction of the book – she steals from people’s backyards, steals all the water and lemonade, drinks alcohol like a skunk, and doesn’t understand a word of English. As August vents out his misgivings about Jacob and Marlena, the failings of the show, he harms Rosie in vengeance, going so far as to throw a lit cigarette into her mouth. And in the end, Rosie has her own smart ass way of getting back at him, and how!

The only issue I have with the book is that the character of Marlena was under developed and, worse still, she turns out to be a Mary Sue. Tsk. The best part, however, is that some of the scenes that stand out in the book are borrowed from true stories, like those of Rosie’s adventures.

I’d give Water for Elephants a 4/5 for being such a thoroughly enjoyable book, an almost perfect page turner meant for a long weekend. You might give it a higher rating if you visited a circus, or rode a horse, or even touched an elephant’s tough skin, while reading the book.

PS: The movie that goes by the same name does not hold a candle to the book.

In an old house in England…

This is my review of the play Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard.

I was led to this play via a mention of the grouse population problem in another work of fiction. A Google search told me that this is a modern play that has mathematical references. Since I’m a sucker for Sci-Fi, I had to give it a shot.

The last play that I read was the much-maligned Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. I’ve read film scripts before too, out of sheer laziness. What I’ve realized is that scripts are, by necessity, a very crude medium for storytelling. Yes, spells can be cast non-verbally and very destructive spells do exist. But it is far more visually appealing to have duellers dodging blasts of colourful light. On film or stage, visual effects are necessary, even at the expense of a plot hole or two. For more obvious reasons, you also cannot have any trains of thought, or flashbacks, or any other crutches to help a dull audience member understand a character’s motivations.

I tried very hard to keep all these constraints in mind while reading Arcadia, because a lot of the subtler plot points are given away by casting and set design commentary, and a reader loses out on the experience of piecing the clues together on their own.

The first scene shows us a young man with then improbable name ‘Septimus Hodge’ tutoring the young Thomasina. It’s the early nineteenth century, and tutor and tutee(?) engage in some Oscar Wilde-worthy banter. It’s clear that Septimus and Thomasina are both extremely intelligent. The first few scenes are a delight, both for the wordplay and the way that anachronistic science and mathematics is discussed from a perspective that is very different from today.

In the present day, a scholar is studying the architectural style of the house; a scientist plays with data he finds in old hunting records; and a historian tries to uncover the story behind an eccentric genius who lived in the house nearly two centuries before.

These two storylines are interleaved with each other, with many visual parallels- the old house, lookalike characters. It’s set up as a mysterious collision with some revelations at the end. Unfortunately it’s not quite subtle enough on paper, and one doesn’t have the chance to appreciate the set design.

I would recommend this play, but only if you really take the time to sit down and visualize how the story pans out- don’t just follow the (overly simplistic) storyline like I did!

4/5. I’m not great at visualizing narrative, but if you are you’ll probably enjoy this one!

 

Sapiens

Survival of the fittest and generous amounts of luck (probably) has ensured it is us, here, rather than any other species. Thus, the tone of the book, Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, is set at the very beginning – we’re here by chance, so let’s appreciate and respect that.

From there on, the run begins, from one thesis and hypothesis to another. Some of them stood out. Such as the one that it was a sort of data processing system that was one of the most seminal reasons for civilisation. “The Sumerians called it writing.”

The genre of the book falls somewhere between history, anthropology and sociology. In its study of humans and their ways of life, it devotes substantial attention to cultures – their diffusion across communities, their thorny myths, etc. Harari asserts that every bit of human life as we know it is cocooned in myths, or the “most gigantic lies” ever told, which include human rights, justice, religious beliefs, nationalism, patriotism, etc.

Harari writes about various interesting evolution-determining topics, including culturally prescribed ideas of what is “natural”, human tendency to be or not to be xenophobic, social institutions like patriarchy (but he touches too few theories for any sociologist to turn the pages, satisfied), and most importantly, about the three factors that are seemingly universal and have cultivated thick cultural bonds across societies – the monetary order (money, currency exchange, banking, etc), the imperial order (with the expansion of powerful empires, their ideologies and practices and the wiping away of diverse and unique cultures), and the religious order (with universalistic religions that propounded good of mankind, like Christianity, Buddhism, Islam; or ideologies like Communism, Capitalism etc).

Harari asks, poignantly, if we are happy, after all the progress that Homo Sapiens have apparently made since our forager days. The answer is predictable – yes and no. He suggests (with a twinkle in his eye, I think) that if the objective of humanity is to attain happiness, we should indulge in some soma (Brave New World, Aldous Huxley), a mild drug, to feel a constant and harmless high all the time. Ha-ha.

Finally, he speculates on the future of evolution. He writes that Homo Sapiens will be (or did he say may be?) wiped off and survival of the fittest will be (may be?) replaced by intelligent design – cyborgs, bioengineered beings etc. This was, by far, the most dissatisfying chapter, but it was entertaining too, nevertheless.

Despite the superb narrative style and flow of thought in the book, I have a criticism or two to make. Some of the ideas presented felt far fetched, and were obviously not backed by research or evidence. Take, for instance, the idea that humankind has been colonised by agriculture, with a life that’s far poorer in quality when compared to the forager, who was apparently more intelligent than his agriculturist progeny. This was a rather sweeping judgment on agriculture and man’s potential, I thought. It also tended towards romanticising the life of the forager, whose lifespan was no more than 30years and whose children dropped dead like flies. In Harari’s defence, he acknowledges this defect in his argument, but he brushes it under the carpet anyway.

There are also some theories that I found to be slightly off-the-cuff and hence undeserving of place in the book, such as his idea on why most societies are monogamous (you’ll have to read the book to know what he’s suggesting), and how that has translated to the hierarchy and nepotism in North Korea and Syria (!). Such extrapolation didn’t sit very well with me.

But, these little faults made the book a good read, because it held my attention as I volleyed assertion after assertion. It is a thorough page turner and entertainer with its unceasing trail of ideas, witticisms and pop-cultural references.

The book is a must read for anyone who is even slightly interested in anthropology, history or/and sociology; or for anyone who loves well written stuff about things that they would otherwise not bother to read or think about; or just to know a little something about the past so as to understand the present, as well as the probable extinction of the Homo Sapiens in the future.

It was a 4/5 read for me, primarily because it is the most interesting and well written short version of liberal arts subjects that I have come across, and will go back to time and time again. Whatever its faults, it surely is an unputdownable and relevant read that belongs to the ages.

I hear that the book, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, is even better – more objective and slightly, helpfully, more elaborate without compromising readability. Can’t wait to hit the bookstore for that one!

Feature image: Cave painting in Cueva de las Manos, Perito Moreno, Argentina. Dates between 13,000-9,000 BP (Before Present).


Excerpt

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The Salviati World Map – this mostly empty map was an admission of the European Scholar’s that they didn’t know it all, thus providing for intellectual space to explore and know.

“What forged the historical bond between modern science and European imperialism? Technology was an important factor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but in the early modern era it was of limited importance. The key factor was that the plant-seeking botanist and the colony-seeking naval officer shared a similar mindset. Both scientist and conqueror began by admitting ignorance – they both said, ‘I don’t know what’s out there.’”