book-to-movie

A Country Doctor’s Notebook

Remember the Netflix show A Young Doctor’s Notebook I mentioned last time? Daniel Radcliffe plays a newly-minted doctor who is chucked into Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia, to run the hospital there. He faces syphilis, gangrene, and boredom and lives to tell the tale. It’s dark, dark humour, friends. Not for the faint of heart.

Well, when I realized that it was based on a real-life memoir (or stories-based-on-real-life, rather) , of course I had to read it. The show got over much too quickly for my liking and I wanted more stories about the horrible doctor Nika.

But- much to my dismay- the memoir was written in earnest by a sincere and competent doctor/author who lived and worked in Russia a hundred years ago. Imagine the guilt. A Country Doctor’s Notebook, by Mikhail Bulgakov is a short book but packs a punch.

A hundred years ago, Mikhail Bulgakov kept a journal about his experiences in a village hospital in Smolensk. In 1920, he published a compilation of short stories based on these years. Bulgakov comes across as an earnest young man, far from the show’s portrayal of him. The simplicity and humility of the narration (courtesy a Russian-English translator) reminded me of RK Narayan.

Unlike Malgudi Days, however, this book did not have me longing for a simpler time. It’s hard to feel nostalgic for the days of poor anaesthesia, disinfectants, and primitive amputations. Oh, and also the Russian Revolution. There is no romance, or comedy- only homesickness and desperation. It’s difficult to say any more about the stories for fear of spoilers, but suffice to say that doctors back then had unimaginable struggles.

I’ll stick to my policy of not rating real-life stories, but be warned that this collection is not especially eventful or entertaining. Interestingly though, its original publication date of 1917 makes it one of the oldest books I’ve ever read (with the possible exception of ‘classics’).

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The Idiot Box, for pseudo-intellectuals

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching television series. The advent of streaming services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu and what-have-you means that a much larger variety of programmes are being released, and some of them are real gems. Plus, they’re now released one season at a time, which makes patience-deficient people like me very happy. This post will review Parks and Recreation, A Young Doctor’s Notebook, and Anne With An E. I’m not sure whether to attribute credit to the directors or producers or actors, so I’ll just say that these shows are all available on Netflix.

Anne With An E

This is an adaptation of Anne of Green Gables by LM Montgomery, which has always been a favourite of mine.

It’s the story of a cheerful young woman who is accidentally sent from her orphanage to be adopted by an elderly brother and sister, who wanted a boy to help them on the farm. They’re too kind-hearted to send her back, so she grows up on the beautiful Prince Edward Island in Canada. Despite being a bit of an airhead, Anne is bright and makes Marilla and Matthew proud. I like this book because it’s full of escapism- Anne avoids her problems or embellishes them with the Power of Imagination. She’s ambitious and despite getting into many scrapes always manages to endear herself to the people around her. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be a charmingly clumsy, intelligent successful girl with a fairytale romance and a ‘genius for friendship’?

But then Netflix happened. Today’s television is about gritty realism, and realistically, a young girl who’s been abused as much as Anne was is bound to have problems. Her imagination is a symptom of PTSD, Marilla is a feminist, and Mathew is NOT Mathew. It’s a completely new take on a much-loved story (especially in Japan) and fans will either love it or hate it. I, for one, couldn’t bring myself to watch more than a couple of episodes.

Watch this if you’re a fan of the original series and are interested in seeing a very new take on it.

Parks and Recreation

This show is adorable. I fully acknowledge that it is girly and derivative, but it is undeniably a feel-good show, and sometimes after a long day at work that’s just what you need.

It’s a mockumentary (much like The Office) about the employees of the Parks and Recreation department of Pawnee, a small town in the American Midwest. The government employees are exactly what you would expect- disinterested, disillusioned, incompetent (totally mucked up the alliteration there, oops). With the exception of Leslie Knope, a geeky woman with a mission to improve Pawnee’s parks- and become president.

The show really changes its dynamic after the second season and I’d recommend you start there if you don’t like the first episode or two. Watch and laugh as Leslie fights the patriarchy and bullies everyone around her into finding happiness. Seven seasons of pure cheese.

A Young Doctor’s Notebook

This show is the polar opposite of Parks and Rec. Where P&R is all about sunshine and nature and friendship and success, AYDC is about snow and wrong intentions and gangrene.

Nika is a newly-minted doctor who has earned 15 fives in his Moscow University exams. It’s unclear what the significance of those fives are, but he seems pleased with himself. Unfortunately, his book learning proves insufficient when he is assigned to a small rural hospital in Middle-of-Nowhere, Russia, during a revolution.

This is a black comedy that takes things almost too far. Be prepared for gratuitous gore… and syphilis. My biggest issue with this show is that it’s so frustratingly short- there are currently a total of 9 episodes over 2 series, and each episode is only 20 minutes long. Otherwise, it’s a very enjoyable show, if a little too brutal.

Now, back to the book reviews…

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.

One Day

This is my review of One Day, by David Nicholls.

Nicholls is a well-known screenwriter, and wrote the screenplay for  Starter for 10 (and the novel on which it was based), which is a charming indie-ish comedy about quizzing. One Day has also been adapted for the big screen, but does not translate nearly as well.

One Day is a stereotypical romance novel, except it’s not. Nicholls seems to revel in de-romanticizing relationships and situations.

The story is almost simplistic. Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley are two university graduates who meet by chance on the day of their graduation. Despite a brief attempt at romance, they decide to remain friends. The book follows them and their relationship over nearly 20 years, from 1988 to 2006.

By necessity, the whole novel is made up of a series of vignettes from Dexter and Emma’s lives over the years, always on St Swithin’s Day (don’t worry, no-one knows what that is). It’s fairly obvious what the outcome is going to be- the DexAndEm EmAndDex best-friendship is clearly a cover- but the journey is long and winding and riddled with obstacles. Emma is stuck in a dead-end job despite her academic brilliance; Dexter’s career is threatened by his alcoholism; both have serious relationships.

What I liked was the brutal insight into romantic cliches. Like turning on a tubelight behind an Instagram-filtered selfie (poor analogy, but you know what I mean.) Picture this: a man and woman lie together in bed on the morning after their graduation party. In Nicholls’ version, the man has just realized that the woman is not as good-looking in the light of day. The woman is terribly nervous, and terribly pleased that she has caught the eye of this handsome, popular boy. Awkwardness ensues. Another interesting observation is that the poor, plain Emma must become well off and attractive before she finds love.

What I didn’t like was the overwhelming clichedness. We only see the characters’ personalities via dialogue, served in witty anecdotes. Each of which is repeated in two points of view. It gets tedious, but it’s still a very light, quick read.

3/5 from me. Read Love Story by Erich Segal if you want the original, classic version of this story.

Size doesn’t matter

This is my review of the short story The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang.

I rated this story 5/5, so you might want to skip this review and go straight to the story.

Still here? Let’s see if I can persuade you.

This is a sci-fi romance revolving around physics and linguistics and philosophy. Sounds intimidating? To be honest, it is a fairly dense work and packs a lot of content into its brief 33 pages. But you can get away with just a superficial understanding of the science (it took me a while to get my head around it, I’m not sure I would put in the effort if I hadn’t liked the story).

There’s not much I can say about the plot without spoilers. It’s mapped out so you have a sudden whoosh of understanding halfway through the book. It raises the interesting question- if time didn’t progress linearly, then there would be no causality, or ‘sequence’ of events. Does that mean that we would no longer have freedom? If our entire lives were prewritten, we’re just actors in a play.

An interesting thought. Back when classical physics was in its nascent stages, science was looked at as natural philosophy. A way of looking at the world that helped natural phenomena seem less random. We’ve come a long way since then, and no longer rely on conjectures to dictate scientific thought. But this story reminded me of how much the theoretical aspects of science- physics- mathematics- relies on intuition to formulate new ideas. Along these lines, doesn’t language count as a more constructive science, like engineering? I think that the non-linear temporal perception should be a prerequisite for  learning the alien language depicted in the story and not the other way round, but that’s just nit-picking.

I found out recently that the movie Arrival is based on this story. It would be interesting to see how the complex timeline of this story is translated into film.

The art of translation

Translations have the ability to ruin or enrich a piece of literature. In this review, I look at two books that were translated to English. Chemmeen, written in Malayalam by T. S. Pillai, was translated by Anita Nair, and One Part Woman, written in Tamil by Perumal Murugan, was translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.

The problems of translation are many, and I don’t pretend to know all of them. But, even to a novice, many of those problems become evident when it’s a translation of a nuanced story. Likewise, the beauty of a good translation is evident when a reader is moved by the literature, an artwork by itself, despite the translation. To be able to accomplish the latter requires responsible and dedicated translation, which, I’m afraid, is rare to find.

One Part Woman was written in Tamil under the title Maathorubagan. The book kicked up a storm when it was published. A section of the society demanded that it be banned. But fortunately, in an unfortunately flawed judgment, the courts allowed the book to be published.

The book, One Part Woman, is about a couple, Kali and Ponna, who are deeply in love with each other. The tenderness in their relationship is touchingly written; allowing me to forget that this is a translation! Their attempts at conceiving a child go in vain, and they are hounded by the social sanction of being childless. But then there comes relief – a chariot festival, where consensual sex between any man and woman, married or unmarried, is allowed; all for the benefit of the barren women. According to this tradition, the acts committed on the occasion of the festival are sacred and fully sanctioned by God. But will it push Kali and Ponna’s relationship too far if she participates in it?

The tale is harrowing because of how human it is. It examines, with nuance and lyricism, the ways in which society manipulates our choices, emotions, relationships. By the end of the thin book, I was exhausted and moved. The story is exceptional, goosebumps-worthy. It made me wonder how exquisite the Tamil version would be. But thankfully, the translation is excellent in that simple English is used to tell the tale without any jarring pitstops.

maadhorubagan

The Tamil book, Maathorubagan

And then there is Chemmeen, an epic story, and a regrettable translation. Chemmeen is more famous as one of the best Malayalam movies, than it is as a Malayalam book. The story is gold! However, the intricately woven themes and the strong characters have to be rescued by the reader against the tide of the grammatical errors that steal the treasure – the story. The flat tone used, with a mechanical translation, was highly off putting.

“It was bone-chillingly damp. Then one morning the sun rose in a clear sky. The boats were launched. There was a good catch. The boats came back to shore and brisk trade happened.”

“A few days later a huge quarrel erupted on the shore. All the fisherwomen who sold their fish in the east ganged up against Karuthamma and abused her.”

Lines that may have sounded poetic in Malayalam lay diminished in this translation.

Apart from my grievance about the translation, the story is beautiful. It’s a classic. It examines the lives of a community of fisherfolk in Kerala, their interpersonal relationships based on status, class and religion. It is essentially a love story, though. All the characters are built expertly, except Pareekutty, who remains slightly mysterious and romantic till the end. The protagonists of the love story, Karuthamma, Pareekutty and Palani, are honorable, loving, flawed, passionate people. Even though Karuthamma loves Pareekutty, she marries Palani. She does so because, among other myriad reasons, Pareekutty is not from her religion, because her father asks her to do so, because that’s her duty to the community, as a fisherwoman. As you can see, from this very short snippet of the story, multiple themes are intertwined in the story. And the story itself has many twists and turns. What happens to Palani, Karuthamma and Pareekutty? Do Palani and Karuthamma live as a happily married couple? Or do Karuthamma and Pareekutty get together? The richness of the story merits every high praise. But, as for the translation, the lesser said the better.

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A still from the 1965 Malayalam movie, Chemmeen


Chemmeen and One Part Woman share some similar themes, but Chemmeen, I’d say, is more layered and complex, and is a better drama; a classic! One Part Woman, though, has won me over with its simple, yet nuanced, story.

TS Pillai’s Chemmeen deserves a 4.5/5 for being such an epic story, but I’d rate it at 3/5 due to (despite) the disappointing translation by Anita Nair. Don’t read it if you cannot stand a beautiful story being lost due to the ineptitude of the literature.

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman fully deserves a 4/5, for its story and the translation that does it justice. Read it if you enjoy heartwarming lyrical love stories.

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 the 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 the 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

The Rosy Project

This is a review of The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion.

It famously featured on Bill Gate’s recommendations. Contrary to what Bill Gates says, this book did not keep me up for hours into the night to read it.

Firstly, The Rosie Project is a short novel. It’s written in simple language, sans much depth (say, like Dorian Gray). Secondly, it’s predictable, so I sort of guessed how it would end by the time I had read one fourth of the book. Lastly, The Rosie Project reminded me of TV characters, something that was highly off-putting. So I finished reading it in a total of four hours, was not very curious, was not enraptured, and was slightly irritated.

That said, the book is hilarious if you can get past the (odd) ways of the protagonist, Don. Plus, it’s a pleasant chick-flick-esque story. It’s a happy and rosy book; a “happily ever after” kind of storybook. As an added bonus, it also makes you chuckle every five pages or so.

Don is an extremely smart person who teaches genetics in a famous university in America. He is also fit, has a favourite chair in his house, has a fixed meal system, times his appointments to the minute etc (remind you of anyone?). He is on a quest to find a wife. He calls this his “Wife Project”. While he’s at it, he meets a woman, Rosie, who is unconventionally awesome, beautiful, etc. She tells him that she’s looking for her biological father. So Don tries to help her in what he calls “the Father Project”. In the process he does a lot of entertaining off-beat stuff. In the meantime, he also meets a super-hot super-nerdy woman, as she ‘applies’ to his “Wife Project”. But he eventually figures out that he loves Rosie. Ergo, The Rosie Project, to win Rosie over.

It’s a 2/5 from me. The movie adaptation (duh!) starring Ryan Reynolds might fare better. Might.

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

Yes, I like adaptations

And now for something completely different… Poetry adapted into movies. “How,” you ask, “does a poem have anywhere close to enough content for a movie?” Well, you haven’t been reading the right poetry. We’re talking narrative and imagery, not daffodils and brooks.

The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock is just bleak enough to be romantic without the sweet aftertaste. A Yale student Yulin Kuang has adapted it to a short YouTube clip. I like the poem, most of it, but the video seemed lackluster and too literal. But it’s worth a shot- being an English-as-a-second-language learner in school meant that I never really was exposed to any poetry more recent than the nineteenth century. It was nice to find that yes, there is poetry that is edgy and dark.

Aaaand now for our feature presentation. The Song of Lunch, featuring Alan Rickman. This is no joke. The talented Alan Rickman and Emma Thompson play middle aged ex-lovers in this BBC short based on a poem of the same name. I hadn’t heard of the poem before, but had a sneaking suspicion than Alan Rickman (may he rest in peace) would make a narrator to rival Morgan Freeman. In the wave of RIP Snape mania, I managed to find an undoubtedly illegal print on YouTube, and watched it immediately (thus procrastinating my homework for 50 minutes- instant gratification is my vice).

The first segment is hilarious- Rickman sneaks out of his office at lunchtime, with no intention of returning for several hours. Any cubicle-dweller will relate to the rush of adrenaline that comes when you take the first couple of steps out of the building without being spotted.

The story gets serious afterwards, though. Rickman has a date with an old flame, who ran away with a more successful man. He is clearly not over her, and tries to drown the initial nostalgia and disappointment in several glasses of red wine. Which does not end well.

Once again, I was surprised that poetry could be so, well, contemporary. This short reminded me of cynical indie movies with unpopular-geek protagonists, despite being a regretful poem about unrequited love. Rickman’s badass-ery might have had something to do with it.

Watch this. 4.5/5