Humor

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

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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.

The Sellout, a sell out

This is a review of The Sellout by Paul Beatty.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4/5.

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

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

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

Happy New Year!

Hello again! After reading American Psycho last month, I detox-ed my (very traumatized) head with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. It is a semi-autobiographical coming of age story about a young second generation immigrant in Brooklyn, New York. It fit the bill perfectly- cheerful (for the most part), uplifting, inspiring- but I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a preteen girl. Even then, I’d point you to Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl instead, for more hard hitting and realistic content. This gets a 2.5/5 from me.

Now that the trailer’s done, on to the review of the day/week/month!

The Gun Seller- Hugh Laurie

Some people read to improve their general knowledge, broaden their worldview, and become acquainted with world culture. I read for entertainment. That’s probably why I liked this book. It provides laughs without demanding much investment of time or intellectual effort. I would place it at a 7 on the laughter scale (with 10 being PG Wodehouse and 1, Khaled Hosseini).

This is a fast paced comedy/thriller book, set in the world of spies and industrial espionage. It starts off slowly, with more focus on witty puns and character development for the protagonist, before quickly diving into the twisty plot. It’s almost as if the author suddenly remembered that yes, stuff needs to happen here. To be honest, I lost track of the plot about three quarters of the way in (“So is she with the good guys or not?”). Luckily the conclusion considerately summarizes the story. Our hero defeats the baddies (terrorists/ gun runners/ drug smugglers, I’m not completely sure) and needless to say, he gets the girl in the end.

The spy theme is deliberately cliche, there are shootings and pretty girls in abundance, but it’s the brilliant humor that’ll keep you hooked. 3.5/5

If you liked this, you might like Plugged by Eoin Colfer (author of the extremely awesome Artemis Fowl series). It has a similar storyline- ex-military chap who finds himself investigating the murder of an acquaintance, all the while worrying about his premature balding.

PS: And yes, Hugh Laurie is the comedic genius behind A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Blackadder.

The darkest of dark humour

American Psycho- Bret Easton Ellis

First off, I’m not a squeamish person. Watching House M.D. and Hannibal has given me a stomach of steel. But my stomach of steel couldn’t stand up to this killer of a novel.

Book starts with a day in the life of Patrick Bateman. He and his group of Wall Street friends are vain, self obsessed, racist, sexist, name dropping yuppies. They squabble over reservations at the newest restaurants in New York, and discuss fashion while checking out women. Bateman seems relatively charming, except for his unpleasant habit of mauling/ murdering homeless people and prostitutes.

Being the nitwit that I am, I was immediately put off by the graphic violence. Almost banished the book to the murky depths of my Recycle Bin when he painfully dissects a dog (Cold bloodedly murdering a puppy makes you a psycho in my books! Unless it was a Pom, of course). After a while, though, I got the hang of the satire. Bret Easton Ellis captures the perception of the yuppie lifestyle of the 1980s, when Wall Street started booming, and twists it into a dark comedy. Patrick Bateman is a metrosexual man, long before it became mainstream. He keeps himself abreast of the latest fashion trends and designers, and spends hours on manicures and facials. His lavish lifestyle is starkly contrasted with the beggars he attacks. This particular aspect of the book (plus the psychological twists that are thrown into the plot in the second half) reminded me a lot of Fight Club, a book I particularly like.

Unfortunately, as I began to appreciate the humour, the story got more and more violent. I had to skip many of the sex-and-violence scenes that were described in particularly gory detail, but I didn’t have any trouble following the plot later. There are a couple of interesting revelations towards the end of the book that give the plot more depth, but these are not dwelled upon, as Bateman spirals rapidly into complete madness. The ending is abrupt and keeps you guessing.

This book is an entertainer that will keep you up at night. The satire leaves one with something to think about, too. I definitely felt uncomfortable the other day when I met up with a bunch of friends who were discussing the fancy restaurants they’d visited- it seemed worryingly similar to the shallow conversations of Bateman and his colleagues. Have we become stereotypical yuppies?!

I’d have given it a 4, but it kind of took away my innocence (what was left of it). 3.5/5.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to return some videotapes…

Seeking a great perhaps: Looking for Alaska

When my friend suggested that I read Looking for Alaska, I did not go tearing into a book store to buy one, as he expected me to do; instead I downloaded the e-book that this maniacal reader suggested, like the equally voracious book reader that I am, after reading which I vowed to buy a copy. Alaska is a girl who seems to live as though she were perpetually preparing for something life changing. She studies in Culver Creek Preparatory High School in Alabama where Miles Halter, the protagonist, joins to attend junior year – “…to seek a great perhaps.” 

He has a fetish for people’s last words. Endearing in a morbid way, really, even to the other characters in the book.

Miles Halter makes friends, one of them being Alaska. As a fivesome, his friends and he pull off pranks- an annual tradition- at the school. The fun and frolic, with the smuggled alcohol and cigarettes, and the smart conversations they have around their ‘coffee table’, funnily enough, will resonate with teenagers and adults.

The Coffee Table

The Coffee Table

With extensive quotes from beautiful poems by great poets, in typical John Green fashion, the book keeps your curiosity alive, while it taps at your witty bone, with it not-so-parliamentary jokes and subtle humour. Looking for Alaska certainly shows you how and why John Green, the world historian and the charming writer can steal many a heart away with mere words.

Alaska steals your heart away. @John Green: Well done, with the character building.

I will leave you with what my friend said when I asked him for more such book recommendations “I just read it, I want it to sink in, it’ll take a while before I think about a next…

Three and a half.