Author: aliensarewatching

World War II, V2.0

I haven’t been reading much at all lately; blame Philip K Dick*. His book, The Man in the High Castle, has been on my nightstand for months. It is both fascinating and terribly difficult to read, which accounts for the procrastination…

I picked out this book because I really liked Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It brings an abstractness and emotion to sci-fi that one rarely sees in a genre filled with stereotypes and action. After that, I had less luck with A Scanner Darkly, which is a very evocative account of a man’s descent into drug addiction. The beauty of Dick’s work is that the strong plotlines are bolstered by an immersive writing style- A Scanner Darkly gets more and more choppy (and incoherent) as the protagonist, a cop, gets drawn in to the murky world that he was meant to be investigating. He does a good job with the garbled stream of consciousness of a drug addled mind (PKD had his own struggles with drug abuse)- so good that it is hard to follow.

Anyway, I went in with very high expectations, and while I wasn’t disappointed per se, I still didn’t enjoy this book. A failing on my part, not PKD’s.

The Man in the High Castle is a speculative fiction book, set in an alternate reality where the Axis Powers won World War II. The Japanese now rule the west coast of the USA, and Jews are unwelcome. This genre of fiction is very exciting; I would have appreciated it more had I been more familiar with the historical details of the end of World War II (mostly in relation to the USA- this is clearly a large hole in my knowledge).

There are three parallel storylines that are loosely connected. One involves some good old fashioned espionage and murder. Another is about forgery of ‘traditional’ American manufactured items (that, perversely, have collector’s value in this world). The third revolves around a one night stand between strangers in a small town in Colorado that rapidly turns dark.

There are several relatively minor plot points that really stand out: all the characters use the I Ching to make decisions and divine the future; there are strongly racist feelings expressed by a white man towards the ‘superior’ Japanese- something that is prevalent in today’s world as well**. Even better, there’s a novel in the book that speaks about an alternate-alternate history in which the Axis powers were defeated. Meta enough to satisfy even the most discerning sci-fi fan.

This book is truly an immersive experience- nuances are conveyed via language and narrative pace. The scenes set in Japan-ruled San Francisco are told in choppy, metaphor-heavy language vaguely reminiscent of Japanese. In other chapters, panic is conveyed with short sentences and incomplete trains of thought.

3.5/5 from me, but PKD is still da man.

*He apparently died in 1982, and I doubt he would be heartbroken by this anyway.

**Though ‘this reverse racism’ may be obvious only among the melanin-blessed population.

Showbiz

This is my review of Bossypants by Tina Fey, narrated by Tina Fey.

All right, yes, audiobooks are cheating. But Tina Fey’s a comedienne, so her narration is likely to be better than her prose, right?

Bossypants is a memoir of Tina Fey’s life and career (up until a few years ago). She starts off talking about her childhood and early career. This part was quite amusing, because she no doubt had several anecdotes to choose from, and it is evident from the narration that she is a very talented at comedy. One of my favourite quotes: “Now every girl is expected to have Caucasian blue eyes, full Spanish lips, a classic button nose, hairless Asian skin with a California tan, a Jamaican dance hall ass, long Swedish legs, small Japanese feet, the abs of a lesbian gym owner, the hips of a nine-year-old boy, the arms of Michelle Obama, and doll tits. The person closest to actually achieving this look is Kim Kardashian, who, as we know, was made by Russian scientists to sabotage our athletes.”

It’s nearly impossible to go wrong with topics like this. Nearly every girl has memories of awkward adolescence. And the terrible first job, where you’re simultaneously incompetent and also infinitely superior to your coworkers. It stops being relatable when she begins her stint at SNL, though. Instead of juicy showbiz tales, she focuses on her (in)famous role as Sarah Palin and walking the fine line between humour and mockery. The section on starting off 30Rock is also disappointing.

The best part about this book is the complete lack of preachy-advice-for-young women. Fey acknowledges her relatively privileged upbringing and television success without seeming self deprecating or resorting to false modesty. She is talented, definitely, and spent years honing her skills in touring improv groups before hitting the bigtime. Her family life is also refreshingly ordinary, and she expresses genuine appreciation and respect for many of her colleagues. All in all, this is a very readable book, unlike other certain other memoirs *cough*.

3/5 from me, listen to the audiobook for amusing narration that doesn’t require (or provoke) too much thought.

What I particularly disliked was a section towards the end that seemed like a stream of consciousness discourse on the topic of whether or not she should have another child (she eventually did, Wikipedia says). I realize that motherhood is a life-altering event, and work-life balance, the biological clock, and childcare are all major issues for working women. However, as someone who cannot relate (and honestly, was just there for the comedy), this seemed like an almost awkwardly personal commentary. I would suggest just skipping it if you can.

Heroes in Habits

This is my review of Call the Midwife, a memoir by Jennifer Worth.

Not too long ago, when I was on my BBC bender, Netflix suggested a British television series named Call the Midwife. At first glance, I assumed it was a clever parody of other hospital dramas. After all, it’s about a group of nuns who deliver babies in the mid-twentieth century; and as we know, typical hospital series today basically involve a lot of sex in on-call rooms. But it’s a serious drama, and could not be more different from ER or Grey’s Anatomy. While I don’t particularly enjoy dramas without a tight plotline, some historical issues they brought up were interesting from a historical perspective. For instance, the thalidomide tragedy. So I looked up the memoir on which the series was based, hoping for some poignant anecdotes.

 

Jennifer Worth decided to take up midwifery, with all the idealism of youth. She joined a nursing group run by a Catholic organization and staffed mainly by nuns. They worked in London’s East End, a run-down, poverty-stricken area. From domestic abuse to poor hygiene to fatal ignorance, several events had the naive Jennifer questioning her decisions. But her ever-cheerful coworkers and the patient nuns inspired her to plough on through all-nighters and tragic losses.

I was a bit disappointed with this book. There were several anecdotes, as promised, but most of the challenges faced in the East End were sociological and not medical. It is, however, a stark reminder of how far we have come in terms of scientific progress and medical technology. At the time, anaesthetics were just being introduced; I cannot imagine how painful childbirth must have been back then.

Read this book if you’re looking for a historical memoir of a different kind. 3.5/5

Solanin

This is a review of Solanin, a manga series by Inio Asano.

For many of us, comics are a childish hobby. I haven’t read much manga, but the ones I have were thrillers- Death Note and Monster. The closest I’ve seen to romance is probably the Archie comics that I used to read over the school holidays. But Solanin is very much a romance, and couldn’t be more different from the romcom antics of Betty and Veronica. It’s a slow paced coming-of-age story that’s definitely targeted at the twenty-something crowd.

It reminded me that manga isn’t limited to teenaged geeks, it’s just a different medium of entertainment. One that I am beginning to appreciate more and more. There’s no hiding a weak plot with big budget special effects. A lack of character development isn’t compensated for with clever wordplay. It’s just dialogue and pencil sketches, and that makes good pacing and a tight plot essential.

Solanin is about a young couple, Meiko and Taneda, who have recently graduated from college and set out to build lives for themselves in the big bad city. While Meiko is frustrated with her dead-end job as an office assistant, Taneda’s low paying job is keeping him from his true passion, music. In a low moment, Meiko quits her job and decides to pursue her true calling- but she’s not sure what it is. With her savings dwindling, Taneda finds himself under pressure. Inevitably, their relationship becomes strained. Book I sets the scene and ends in a twist that reminds the reader that life does not wait for one to get one’s shit together.

Book II was relatively disappointing and ventured into Hollywood cliché territory. Still, weak plot resolutions and character development can be forgiven in a story this short.

One of the reasons I liked this is that the quarter-life crisis is very relatable. It’s not so much a crisis as a vague feeling of discontent- a distinction that’s emphasized by the very real crisis that demarcates part I and part II. And maybe the author has tried to trivialize Meiko and Taneda’s quarter-life crises, but it does make people take very real risks sometimes; I’ve experienced it first-hand, as have several of my close friends.

Secondly, there are some minor plot points that are very realistic as well. Meiko’s friends are skeptical about Taneda’s financial dependence, Meiko’s mother doesn’t know about their living arrangements, and Taneda’s band struggles with the burden of mediocrity. After all, it’s the little troubles that make one’s twenties so trying- we don’t have mortgages or kids, but that doesn’t mean our lives are simple.

Read this if you have a couple of hours and don’t mind emotional stories. 3.5/5

Anglophilia

I haven’t been reading much at all, but I still have the compulsive need to express opinions. Sorry.

I’ve recently fallen down the rabbit-hole of British TV. It went something like this: “Netflix wants me to watch Broadchurch. Machine learning? Please, it’s clearly a marketing strategy. Mustn’t let them get to me. Oops, finger twitched. Might as well watch. Hey this is pretty good! …. (Several days later) Welp, back to work. Those actors are pretty good, wonder what else they’ve done? Oh, Amazon wants me to watch Doctor Who. Not falling for those tricks again. Hmm, but I have that hugely important exam tomorrow! How else will I procrastinate?”

Rinse and repeat.

The results of my inefficiency, for your consideration:

  • Doctor Who

This is definitely one of the most popular series from the BBC. It has an interesting history as well- it started out in the 60s and was immensely popular, but got cancelled for a decade or two before being revived in 2005 or thereabouts. It’s BBC label means that it must be clean and family friendly (and low budget). Given that I grew up watching the weekly Mahabharatha on DD1, this show is very impressive.

I started out with the 2005 episodes, because NewWho is more readily available for streaming.

Doctor Who is essentially a Sci-Fi/Fantasy show with standalone episodes (more or less, some character development happens over time). The Doctor is a Time Lord who navigates space and time and fights baddies. His low-budget equipment of choice is a time machine, the TARDIS, that looks suspiciously like a phone booth, and  a nondescript LED torch, the Sonic Screwdriver.

Since the show has been running for SO long, it has seen quite a few showrunners (basically writer/producer) in its time. Oh, the Doctor also has the ability to regenerate, thus allowing the actor, and his overall persona, to change periodically. This lets the BBC experiment a bit and keep the stories modern. It’s also an interesting reflection of viewer demographics and culture- while the older Doctors were middle-aged white men, the 9th-11th Doctors have been much younger and more energetic. The 13th Doctor is tipped to be female or black. I’m excited to see what direction they’re taking the show, because there’s a new showrunner next season as well!

Recommended for the young at heart.

  • Broadchurch

Broadchurch is another series by the BBC. It’s primarily a crime-suspense-whodunnit, and I really liked it for the lonely scenery and the amazing acting performances. Olivia Colman is brilliant.

There are 2 completed series- one deals with the murder of a young boy, and the second is a follow-up of the court case. The third series is currently airing in the UK. The murder mystery plot was excellently done. The only gripe I had was that there wasn’t nearly enough foreshadowing before the culprit was revealed- but there were red herrings and unresolved threads galore. They sacrificed the smoothness of the plot for shock value.

I would still recommend this to anyone who likes suspense and mysteries.

  • Bletchley Circle

This was another unexpectedly good show, albeit short. It’s about a group of women codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WWII. What happens to them after? Well, they’ve been sworn to secrecy, but still have apparently superhuman mathematical skills. Which they use to… solve mysteries? I’ll take it.

The first series has a very likeable main character who balances pragmatism with the stereotypical ‘genius’ impracticality. Unfortunately, the subsequent series have a much more Nancy Drew feel to them. I’d have liked to see more than 9 episodes though!

Recommended for anyone who likes historical drama and feminism.

  • Black Mirror

This show has become very well-known in the past year, and its popularity is well deserved. Each episode is a standalone dystopian thriller. While I love this genre, these are dark dark stories. Binge watching is impossible, because of the shock value- it makes sure you have food for thought. Which is a good thing!

The sci-fi hits very close to home- I can imagine some of these issues coming up in the next decade or two. Social media for keeping tabs on people’s behaviour?  Already exists. Crazy murderous drones? Possible. VR hell for people convicted of crimes? Why not?

Watch this if you don’t shy away from serious television.

Fan Fiction vs Canon

This is my review of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by JK Rowling. Well, the script at least, I haven’t had the good fortune of seeing the play live yet. Someday…

I’ll start off with a spoiler-free review first:

This is a next-gen story, focusing on Harry & Ginny’s youngest son, Albus Severus Potter. If you recall, the epilogue of Deathly Hallows saw young Albus was worrying that he’d be sorted into Slytherin. Well, he is! This, of course, is not a good thing to happen in the Potter-Weasley clan. Cue family drama and rebellious escapades.

What I found exceptionally interesting was the short length and lack of narrative. Instead of a ginormous 900-page tome, we get a one hour long script. Dumbledore can no longer ‘twinkle wisely’; for a writer like JKR, who relies on the generous use of adverbs (sometimes entirely too many!), this had to have been a huge limitation. The result is a deftly paced self-contained plot, with much more prosaic themes.

She can’t resist her usual comedy though, and we get some entertaining lines from Ron and Scorpius Malfoy. In all, this would make for a very interesting TV show. The relationship between Harry and Albus is realistic and (luckily) free of the overdone teenage angst that made The Order of the Phoenix such a drag.

Funnily enough, JKR has stuck to many plot points that are widely accepted amongst the fanfiction community- thus making them canon!

I’d give this a 4.5/5, because it is a bite-size chunk of nostalgia with a satisfying plot.

Now for some minor spoilers:

Once again, an important theme is that one’s choices are more important than anything else. Albus and Scorpius are Slytherins, and they’re undoubtedly the heroes of the story.

There is a generous amount of time travel in the story, enough to remind me of the wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey approach of Doctor Who. Some of the jumps are not very convincingly explained, but, hey, it’s fantasy.

 

Another shoutout to fan fiction is the Scorpius+Rose pairing that is much beloved by the HPFF community.

Are we all the same in our differences?

This is my review of Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. SD already reviewed this one here, and clearly she did a brilliant job of selling it.

I chose to review it again because I saw it in a very different way (a view from the other side, maybe?). Anyway, I’ll keep this short.

This is the story of Ifemelu, a college student in Nigeria. Her peers, and society at large, is quite obsessed with emigration. They apply for visas, travel abroad, and immerse themselves in Western culture. But as the daughter of a middle-class family, Ifemelu has no opportunity to travel and feels left out. When her education is disrupted once too many times due to administrative troubles, she applies to college in the USA.

The rest of the book is about Ifemelu leaving her family and boyfriend Obinze in Nigeria to move West in search of a ‘better life’. Obinze himself moves to the UK a couple of years later. They have very different experiences, and grow closer (and apart) as a result.

To me, this was not a romance at all. Most of the story focuses on how Ifemelu builds a life for herself in the USA, beginning with illegal employment. Eventually, she becomes a true ‘Americanah’. She writes a blog, a snarky account of the cultural differences between Africans, African-Americans, and white Americans.

Many parts of the story were relatable; maybe some aspects of foreignness are shared by anyone outside their home country. The panic and frustration when someone (Uber drivers, doctors, your landlord) cannot understand your accent. The realization that your skin colour will always be the main-sometimes only- talking point between you and Them. The infinite small differences that those sitcoms and novels never mentioned. The fragility of your connections with friends and family back home- so easily snapped when things get hard.

My only issue with this book is that it is pretentious. Everyone in the book is vaguely self absorbed, and Ifemelu is convinced of her superiority both in America and Nigeria. Despite all her independence and resourcefulness, she does need (and gets!) help from friends and family, but does not seem to acknowledge that. The emotions I listed in the previous paragraphs aren’t unique to those overseas, they can, and are, experienced by any adult in a heterogeneous society.

In conclusion, I (also) give this book a 4/5.

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.

An unsolicited TV recommendation

I just got done watching Master of None (available on Netflix, and uh, less legal sources on the Internet). And I had to write about it, even though we don’t usually do TV reviews here.

Friends was my first ‘adult’ sitcom. Rewatching it for the 128938th time, I came to the slightly depressing realization that I can (finally) kind of, sort of relate to the topics. Dating, cheap apartments, strangely formal parents- these are issues that a mid-twenties single working person would face, not a teenager living with her parents. But at the same time, the show presents a very suburban white American view of these issues- and an old fashioned one.

Master of None, however, captures the Peter Pan mindset very accurately. Today, Ross would be weird for being married by his mid-twenties; Rachel wouldn’t be alone in her cluelessness about jobs and laundry. MoN updates the single yuppie in the big city stereotype to fit today’s multicultural America. We’re single until our thirties, we’re passionate about our tacos, and don’t compromise on our careers or love lives.

Aziz Ansari, the protagonist, is the coolest guy ever, seriously. (No, he didn’t pay me to say that) He is the kind of guy I’d like to hang out with- laid back, spontaneous (except for food) and surprisingly politically correct for a comedian.

Watch watch watch. 4.5/5

Lean In (or be pushed in)

This is my review of Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg.

I ought to start with a disclaimer- I have a whopping 14 months of experience in a full-time job, so it’s entirely possible that my youthful optimism (ha!) is influencing my opinions on this book.

I’ll start with the good:

  1. Sheryl Sandberg is unquestionably a very successful woman. She has proved her worth in more than one leadership position. Any kind of advice she gives is definitely invaluable to anyone looking to climb the corporate ladder.
  2. She is open about her flaws and the compromises she has made to get ahead of her career- how many mothers would admit that their kids are more attached to their nannies than their parents?

Now for the criticism:

  1. Most Several of the obstacles she describes facing are, quite honestly, first world problems. She describes being late for a morning meeting when pregnant because of the long, slow walk from her car to the office. She then walked into the CEO’s office and demanded that special parking spaces be assigned to pregnant women- a request that was immediately addressed. Maybe it’s my third world mentality, but this does not really seem like a problem- it was an inconvenience that was removed promptly, without any sexism involved. Most women in the world face much bigger struggles, ones that cannot be so easily overcome.
  2. She is frequently condescending. She wants her mentees to be like a patch of sunshine in a busy day- think about how that would sound coming from a middle aged man. Creepy, no? Yes, being mentored by someone as successful as Sandberg would be an amazing opportunity, and she is definitely not obligated to spend time guiding clueless 22-year-olds. But if she does, it seems wrong to expect anything but gratitude in return.
  3. She expects everyone to make the same sacrifices as she has. I have no sources for this apart from my own observations, but there are lots of women out there who have different family structures. Their husbands may have demanding careers. They may have lower earning potential than their partners. They may be single moms. They may need two incomes just to make ends meet. They may not want to miss out on their children’s formative years. There are dozens of very valid reasons why a woman might want to ‘Lean Out’ or make different choices, but still she urges all women to put their careers first.
  4. While women have their share of societal pressure and constraints to deal with, men aren’t exempt. It is less ‘acceptable’ for them to seek a work-life balance or take time off to bond with family. They are inherently expected to shoulder financial responsibility. They are under-represented in certain careers like nursing and teaching. The list goes on. Women cannot always play the victim card.

All in all, this is a good mix of anecdotes and statistical analyses of gender bias and the Glass Ceiling. It also provides some insight into how the people at the top get there- and what they are forced to give up. As someone just starting out in a tech career, I think this was a worthwhile read. As an Indian woman, it was frustrating to read about the privileges some people take for granted. We’ll get there…

2/5