3.5/5

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.

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

Will the Adivasi dance?

‘Adivasi’ is how most tribes in India identify themselves, at least as far as names go. Adivasis or Tribes have long confused the Indian State and her non-tribal people. Indeed, the diversity among tribal groups is astounding. While the Nagas tribes were notorious for head hunting, and the Andaman Sentinel tribes are brutally protectionist about their territory, the Nagas are also a political compact of people who aspire to political autonomy from/within the state, and the Dhongria Khond people are one of the most notable nature conservationists.

The non-tribal people (non scheduled tribes (ST), that is) can attribute their knowledge about tribes mostly to films that depict a colonial viewpoint of tribal people, as brutish, terrible, and uncivilized. On the other hand, the State knows just how powerless these groups are, and in far too many cases, exploits them due to it. For instance, in P Sainath’s book, we saw a tribe was asked to move out of their land and were subsequently ‘rehabilitated’ four or five times in a single generation; for such is the authority that the state commands with eminent domain (right to acquire private land for public use).

In the spectrum of perspectives that one may have on tribal groups in India, there are two that have been made into books recently – one, in the form of short stories, speaking of the lives of some tribal people, and the other, a book on the history of a violent struggle waged by many tribes against the State. This is a review of The Adivasi Will Not Dance and Hello, Bastar.

Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, 2015, for his book, The Adivasi Will Not Dance, a collection of stories set in the mineral-rich Jharkhand. The book includes stories about a young man who migrates to Gujarat only to find that eating meat is subject to heavy social sanction, a young girl who is moving to West Bengal in search of work who has to sleep with a policeman at the price of two soggy bread pakoras, a Troupe-Master who is beaten up because he refuses to dance for the President of India, a prostitute who falls in love etc.

These stories are written with a sardonic tone of a man who seems to have seen it all; the raw human desire, the vulgar display of power, the chill of fear, the gnawing hunger for wealth, love, power, status. His stories are not meant to entertain as much as they are meant to help you introspect, such as when you read of a young woman being thrown into prostitution as a way of life, you wonder why there is no alternative for her. But his stories are also slightly over-dramatic in their style. It might just be my personal preference talking, when I say that too many of the women in the stories exclaim and over-react altogether too often,  making the narrative seem like it’s meant for a play rather than a poignant story book. The best part about this book, however, is the diversity of issues Hansda brings out, ranging from religion, tradition to persecution, patriarchy, and what not. They mostly feel like a collation of stories out of a newspaper, and hence must be read that way, with some piping hot chai or coffee in the garden. 2/5

Hello, Bastar, written by Rahul Pandita, on the other hand is a whole different ball game, while still being on the subject of tribes; but this time, it’s the tribes of Bastar, in Chattisgarh. The book steers away from the topic of tribes and traces the history and life of one of India’s biggest security threats. The essays (or stories?) in the book describe the beginning and acceleration of the “Maoist” movement, the crackdown on the movement in Andhra Pradesh, the infamous Salwa Judum, the capture of the (in)famous leaders of the movement etc. More importantly, while doing so, the book also allows us to pore over the motivations and simple ambitions of the armed men and women.

Rahul Pandita travels and lives with the “Maoists”, and provides us this chilling tale of their lives. The offhanded tone and the apparent normalcy of the movement makes the essays all the more disturbing. The repression of the state and the ideology of the Maoists is described in the book to give us a perspective other than that obtained in the mainstream media, and that’s reason enough to read it, in my opinion. What the media doesn’t always tell us, but which Pandita covers eloquently, is that the movement is a mixture of ideology, repression and revenge, unattended peoples, lacunae of the state, and army-fatigue clad Naxals who fill that void. While one might hear people say that there should be no sympathy for such “Naxal movements”, I don’t think not listening to them will solve this security threat either. Understanding what troubles them, their motivation, and their wishes, is an important part of our democracy. To that end, this book serves one well. 3.5/5

The Adivasi Will Not Dance may seem like a cute book on the lives of faraway people, and Hello, Bastar, may seem like a war-memoir. The beauty of both the books is that they have a subtext that is intensely human and pleading with us for attention. The exploitation and treatment of Adivasis, as if they’re meant to be in zoos, must give way for a decent and “good life” for them as well. An emerging economy like India cannot afford to continue to watch her Adivasi children die of malnutrition related ailments (death by starvation, some call it) or wither due to lack of education; and she cannot shell and persecute her people in the name of internal security, without incurring heavy damage to her democratic psyche. We, as a people who choose our politicians, have a moral duty to understand the Adivasi’s dreams, persuade the state to guarantee her the right to life with dignity, negotiate with her if she’s upset, and not wait long enough that she takes to army-fatigues and gunfire.

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.

Crime Club

This is my review of Dark Places by Gillian Flynn.

Yes, the same Gillian Flynn who wrote Gone Girl, that masterpiece of mindfuckery. And this novel is much of the same.

Libby Day is a bitter woman with a terrible past that has left her scarred, both mentally and physically. As a child, her brother Ben murdered the rest of their family, and was subsequently thrown into prison for life. She has lived most of her life as a hermit, getting by on donations from well wishers. But now she’s short on funds, and willing to do anything to make a living (except, God forbid, get a job). She becomes involved with a group of oddballs who get their kicks from solving crimes that have received a lot of media attention- and they’re convinced that Ben Day is innocent.

They pay Libby to help them with their investigation, and she is forced to revisit repressed memories and approach estranged relatives. Eventually, all is revealed and the magic *DNA evidence* saves the day (pun intended).

Gillian Flynn’s writing style really stands out in this book- the gritty, dreary atmosphere is palpable. She strings the reader along with vague, improbable clues, revealed just when it seems that Libby and co. have reached a dead end.

Overall, this one isn’t as good as Gone Girl, but it makes for a good weekend read. Recommended if you are a fan of gloom, doom and crime thrillers. 3.5/5

Don’t we all want happy endings?

Nobody reads this blog. Sigh. This is what you get when two electrical engineers decide to “pollute the internet” (quote credits to SD) with their unqualified thoughts on Literature.

This is my review of The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. After the dramatic fantasy of The Night Circus, the ordinariness of this book was a welcome change. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely above average. It’s just that the setting- middle class, football-obsessed American suburbia- is very ‘non-fantasy’.

Pat Peoples has just moved into his parents’ basement. Don’t judge, it’s a step up from where he was before- a psychiatric hospital. He has a simple plan: 1. Get fit. 2. Win back his ex-wife. 3. Live happily ever after.

But it’s not that easy. He became mentally unstable after he split up with his wife, who now has a restraining order against him. And he has a long way to go in terms of psychological recovery as well. He has the love of his mother, the occasional, grudging support of his father, a badass Indian therapist,  well-meaning friends and a brother who go out of their way to make him feel at home. But it takes a fellow ‘loony’, his sister-in-law’s sister Tiffany, to help him accept reality again. By means of a modern dance contest.

If that sounds like a movie plot to you, then you’re absolutely right. But despite sounding like the script to Step Up x++, it’s surprisingly heartwarming. Sort of like The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for adults. Also a very light read, recommended for flights/boring classes etc.

3.5/5

Fantasy^2

What’s the most fantasy-esque book theme you can dream up? A wizard’s duel, perhaps? What if said wizard’s duel was set in a circus? There you go, (fantasy)^2.

This is my review of The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern.

Two children, one boy and one girl, deemed to be ‘special’ by wise old magicians, are selected for a contest. They are bound by magical rings to be competitors for life. “Neither can live while the other survives”- oh wait, that’s the other magical duel. But the same principle applies. They both have miserable childhoods, training hard for their final face-off. As adults, both become involved in a travelling Night Circus. The Night Circus is famed for its spectacular performances, and has its own cult following. Of course, its ‘magical’ performances are supported by real magic.

Eventually, each become aware of the others existence, and sparks fly. There’s a ‘twist’ that I should have spotted a mile away but didn’t, because I was expecting a straightforward fantasy.

I realize that my summary wasn’t exactly coherent- I just listed plot points in the order that they are revealed to the reader. I chose to read this (relatively) new novel because I’d heard a lot about its descriptive writing style, and I’m a sucker for a good adverb. The Night Circus didn’t disappoint here- the prose evokes visuals without being too wordy. In fact it’s a fairly short book. The plot, I have to admit, was a huge let down. The above-mentioned twist seemed convenient and predictable, and overall the premise wasn’t very well set up.

I would still recommend it if you don’t mind pretty words with not much else. 3.5/5

 

Mad Scientists Are Mad

This is my review of Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.

I’d previously read The Handmaid’s Tale by the same author and didn’t like it much. It is like what happens if you lock an emo-goth feminist into a room for a few months- a dystopian novel about the subjugation of women. But I kept seeing the MaddAddam trilogy mentioned on the Internet, and decided to give it a shot. I’m glad I did!

The protagonist of the story is Jimmy, alias Snowman, who appears to be the last human alive after a bioengineered virus epidemic. The evil mastermind behind the epidemic is revealed to be Crake, Jimmy’s childhood friend. We learn about their formative years while present-day Snowman fights to stay alive in a land overrun by vicious animal hybrids.

The novel is set in an unspecified future time, when scientists are the elite of society, living in separate gated communities. Jimmy’s father is a genetic engineer, working on developing modified animals, mainly for human consumption. He attends the high school in his community, where he meets Glenn, a borderline Aspergers biology prodigy. They become fast friends, indulging in the usual (?) teenage vices. Jimmy’s mother, formerly a lab technician in a biological lab, begins to have serious doubts about the ethics of genetic engineering, and soon escapes from the high security community- she is a fugitive until her death later on in the book.

Jimmy and Glenn separate to go to different colleges- Jimmy to a rundown liberal arts school and Glenn to the prestigious Francis Crick Academy. They are in and out of touch for the next several years. After Jimmy learns of his mother’s death, he falls into a depression, questioning his mediocre job in advertising, his numerous casual relationships, and even his premature hair loss. Glenn, now referring to himself as Crake, visits him to offer a job marketing his latest drug. Further trouble ensues when they fall in love with the same woman, Oryx. It becomes obvious to Jimmy that something is being planned, but the full extent still shocks him.

Like many other sci-fi novels, this book will blow you away with its attention to detail. Jimmy, self-described as ‘not a math person’, doesn’t fit in with his father’s (and Crake’s) scientific background. He studies a watered-down version of the now neglected humanities in college, and though his degree is looked down upon, it allows him to critically evaluate the world-building plans of the scientists. His skills at rhetoric also stand him in good stead as the plot progresses. The genetically modified creatures have some neat features, like insect repellent scents.

And the drawbacks. This is book one of the MaddAddam trilogy, and feels very much like a prequel. The ending is more a cliffhanger than an ambiguous climax and that annoyed me a little bit. Jimmy’s mother is a two dimensional character, despite having an interesting point of view that could have been elaborated. In fact, most of the female characters in sci-fi are strange to say the least- the wives in Fahrenheit 451 and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep are also pointlessly neurotic. Just saying, it seems like a weird literary trope.

3.5/5, and I’m definitely going to check out the rest of the series. If you liked Oryx and Crake, try reading some Robin Cook for more medical mayhem.

Grown-up children

This is my review of Jacob I Have Loved by Katherine Paterson.

Have you read Bridge to Terabithia? It’s impossible to get through it without tearing up- I dare you! Katherine Paterson is clearly an author who knows how to bring depth and emotion to the shortest, lightest stories. So I picked up Jacob I Have Loved with high expectations. To be honest, I was let down.

The protagonist of the story is Sara Louise “Wheeze” Bradshaw, who believes that her twin sister, Caroline, gets a lot more attention than she does. Which is probably true- Caroline is a musical prodigy, while Wheeze spends most of her time fishing. But this isn’t ordinary sibling rivalry; Wheeze has nightmares of killing her sister. The situation worsens when Caroline gets a generous scholarship to pursue music lessons at a boarding school. Wheeze drops out of school and helps her father with his fishing. Eventually she works up the courage to leave her tiny town and build a life for herself elsewhere.

I had several problems with this story. Firstly, it’s quite dated and uninspiring. Wheeze studies hard to complete her high school exams and begin college, where she decides to pursue a degree in medicine. Her professor tells her that medicine is a difficult career for a woman and encourages her to switch to nursing instead… Which she does, without a second thought or regret. Secondly, I felt that Wheeze “settling down” was itself unbelievable. She spends so much time in the book struggling with her ambitions and frustration with being stuck in a small town, that I found it hard to accept that she was satisfied in another small town, even if she did have a loving family and rewarding career. Her animosity towards Caroline didn’t get closure either. The same for her inappropriate crush on a family friend who is older than her father.

The book is not all bad though. It is a good coming of age story and in a strange way reminded me that teenage angst often simply fades away, however overwhelming your troubles seem. Like in Bridge to Terabithia, Paterson shows that she can take children seriously, and that’s a rare quality in an author.

3.5/5 from me.