Monday, November 30, 2009

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

Impressed at the kind of information that was put into this book and the way it is put across.
Slow start, but good one, loads and loads of astonishing information about known things - go for it only if you are a Dan fan .

Bravo Dan, for the effort put in compiling this book.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

2 States: The Story of My Marriage - Chetan Bhagat

5 Point Someone (released in 2004) is a cult book for the average Indian reader who sees a book as a medium of relief rather than a machine for time travel. There have been plenty of books which have tried desperately to cash in on its success, so much so that IITs have become the background for numerous books (Mediocre but Arrogant, Anything For You Ma'am and more recently Above Average). Such was the popularity of this book that when Chetan Bhagat released his next two books One Night @ Calling Center (2005) and 3 Mistakes of My Life (2008), they were unfairly compared to this book and labeled as failures (relatively, the author and the publishers laughed their way to banks is a different story). So the expectations of this new book 2 States: The Story of My Marriage were huge and the best part is, it lives up to these expectations and perhaps even surpasses them!

     The strength of the author is not his lucid style of writing but his ability to make even the most frustrating moments in life seem funny and this is exactly the USP of this book. The characters in this book are the ones we easily identify with and we relate to their trials and tribulations. As usual, the protagonist of the book is a male just like every other book of Chetan Bhagat but the pleasing part is the girl is not a supporting character of the story anymore and is an integral part of the story. The story is unofficially the sequel to 5 Point Someone because there are numerous references to the earlier story. The highlight of the book is not the humor used in generous amounts throughout the journey but for the basis on which the story is constructed - Cultural misunderstandings in our cosmopolitan society.

     For ages, there has been an invisible veil between the north and the south of India. Both have a baggage of preconceived notions about each other and most of them are, of course, not true. The author uses this as the underlying foundation for the story. There are stereotypical characters of each culture and the clash of these cultures is shown with hilarious consequences (for the reader, not the protagonist). Love marriages in India though more widely accepted now than before are still a major hassle for the people who go through it. But if the couple happen to be from as different cultures as Punjabi and Tamilian, then you know its an uphill task for the couple. No two cultures are perhaps more misunderstood than these two and the fact that these two cultures are in stark contrast to each other in terms of their lifestyles, makes it more vulnerable for them to be prejudiced.

     There are hilarious descriptions of Delhi and Chennai, the unofficial capitals of these two cultures (Delhi for Punjabi and Chennai for Tamilian cultures respectively, clarifying for people who know more about the dung beetle insect in Africa than their neighbors in the apartment). It is not easy to outdo something like 5 Point Someone but somehow, the author has managed to do that by picking up a subject which is more universal than the education system of the country (again subjective, the assumption comes from the fact that more people relate to a couple trying hard to convince their parents to give their consent for their marriage than to see a guy struggle in IIT). 

     This book is screaming to be exploited as a film, though the quality of the outcome depends on the film maker. But that is looking into the future too soon. If you haven't read the book already, take time out to go through it. Regular readers can finish it in half a day but the number of times you laugh would be enough to make your stomach ache. It is by far one of the best books I ever read though my personal favorite will still be 5 Point Someone, more for personal reasons than the quality of its storyline. This is worth its every penny and is a welcome break from books like Above Average which make you feel disgusted for your own existence for having read such books! 

     On a more serious concluding note, you don't need to know Carnatic music or Bhangra to respect the emotions of these cultures. Every culture in the country plays a major role in shaping who we are and if we are only a bit more sensitive than the annoying guy in my office who talks so loud on the work phone that we know the make of the bathroom fittings of his home and the number of times the carpenter has visited him to fix the creaking door of his bedroom (I even know the name of the nephew of this guy in my office who is in BITS Pilani and has had constipation problems on his trip to Goa last month! He gave his pearls of wisdom in consolation saying what goes in must come out. I was never more disgusted with Bell for inventing the telephone than that day), we will be more adept in understanding the feelings of the other person. Give the book a read, you might become more sensitive towards others. I even smiled at the irritating guy of my office last week :)
-- Rj

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Chronicles of Narnia - C.S.Lewis

Book 1: The Magician's Nephew
Book 2: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe
Book 3: The Horse and His Boy
Book 4: Prince Caspian
Book 5: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Book 6: The Silver Chair
Book 7: The Last Battle

This set of books has been with me for the past one and a half year and yet I never touched it. And now that I've started reading them, I realize why they were so widely accepted as good books for kids to begin their foray into the world of reading novels.

Things you would notice right away about the series is the way its written. The typical novels we read take you into the storyline generally through the eyes of one of the lead characters. This series however is like a narration of events from your grandfather (knowing that the books were written over half century ago, it may even be your great grand father :D ). The English used in the books is one you wouldn't hear anyone use these days. Written very much in the English used during the Colonial period, one might even classify it as Classical (unless of course you really are into studying literature, in which case it might be a colossal blunder). The books are written in an easy to read language with enough dialogues and description of the scenery as well. It doesn't go too much into the description of either the events or the scenery probably because of the target audience - kids, who are likely to be either overwhelmed or turned off because of the details. The gory details of battles which you see in the motion picture adaption of the novels are explicitly avoided in the books - probably because of the audience again (I said explicitly because the author actually mentions that they are not needed in the book).

Coming to the storyline of the series, its primarily about a fantastic world called as Narnia. The story begins with the creation of the world in "The Magician's Nephew" all the way to its end in "The Final Battle". This fantastic world has visitors from our world every once in a while when there is some dire need in their world. In fact, Narnia has visitors from our world when it is created and also when it comes to an end. All of these visits are orchestrated by Aslan, The Great Lion.

Aslan, The Great Lion, is like a guiding light, hope and joy. He (chauvinistic I know, but take it up with C.S.Lewis, not me) is a God-like figure in the series. Through the course of the books you would learn quite a lot about morality, ethics and responsibility from him based on his words, actions and sometimes the lack thereof. One example would be that in "The Magician's Nephew", a boy commits a mistake without meaning to. You would expect that in a fairy-tale kind of story, a great benevolent King would forgive him for committing the mistake; however, Aslan does not. He makes the boy realize his mistake and then makes him responsible to correct that mistake. (If you believe in Chaos Theory and the Butterfly effect, you would appreciate the changes that happen because of your mistake, say a millennium down the line).

While Aslan is the guiding light, the story really revolves primarily around the visitors from our world to Narnia. As mentioned earlier, these visitors appear in Narnia when it is in a dire need (come to think of it, these visitors could either be a sign of hope, or indicators of how pathetic things really are). During each of the visits, there is a very specific task at hand for the visitors, upon completing which they are sent back to our world (only to be called back later if needed - raw deal if you ask me :D).

The world of Narnia with all its beautiful talking beasts, trees, fauns, centaurs and unicorns gives a very good opportunity for you to let go of the mundane and let your imagination flow. It gives you a chance to unlearn what you have been believing so far and think of what could be possible; unless you are a kid and this actually reinforces what you have been believing instead of unlearing. And if you really think that this is all fantasy and not possible at all, then you could be safely classified as a 'grown-up' and hence no entry for you into Narnia (tough luck is all I can say). If I've to quote one of the characters, I'd say "What do they teach in schools these days". Of late, the books I've been reading have been pointing to the same thing - belief. To be able to enjoy the books completely, you have believe that its possible. Maybe not accept that its entirely true, but at least believe that it is possible. (For all you science geeks, science has still not proven that such worlds cannot exist. Or better still Stephen Hawkings himself has proposed parallel universes, so take that for a scientific argument that a world like Narnia could really exist).

At last, coming to the conclusion, the series of books is really a refreshing read for an adult and an amazing beginner for a kid. All of them are about 250 pages and have enough content to keep you glued to it while you read and enough enchantment to make you grab the next one as soon as you are done with one book.

A passing thought....
With the count of books being 7, I wonder if there is any significance to that number. Harry Potter series also has 7 volumes, and according that canon, 7 is arithmetically a significant number (and hence he 7 Horcruxes).

- Sudhi

Monday, October 26, 2009

Above Average - Amitabha Bagchi

There are good books and there are bad books but in most cases you know what you are getting into relatively soon in the above scenarios. But what about the ones which are neither? Well, you are just glad that the ordeal is over. That's how you feel when you finish Amitabha Bagchi's "Above Average" which lives up to its names in terms of merit. I usually finish an interesting book in a week at the rate of around 50 pages on weekdays and 200 pages on weekends. It took me 2 weeks to finish this. Not an impressive introduction for a review? Well, I am living up to the potential of the book :)

I picked this book because of Amitav Ghosh's recommendation but I regret paying heed to his word of praise now. It is not that every book which is based on the protagonist coming from IIT Delhi, which seems to be the center of universe for all kinds of stories these days, has to be as interesting as Five Point Someone, but we already have an overload of such books that I am beginning to think of IIT Delhi as a genre of fiction now like thrillers and romantic comedies!

     The book is about a protagonist who is as broad minded as the tunnels of araku valley, as focussed as Rakhi Sawant is in her attempts to be considered as a mature and sensible human being. But these are not the real drawbacks for the book. Au Contraire, this could have been the focal point of establishing the connection with the user in portraying the vulnerability of a young man coming of age (The Inscrutable Americans). People identify with the emotion of pain and angst more easily than quixotic ones like ideals and noble principles that money is not a factor at all in today's middle class society.

     The only highlights of the book are the 50 odd pages in the end when you are so tired of the monotony of the story that it almost comes as a breath of fresh air. The author has tried to take the best of Chetan Bhagat's humor and Amitav Ghosh's narratives to create what eventually turned out to be a mish mash of confusing emotions for both the protagonist and the reader following his story. Yes, there have been sincere attempts at showing the different strata of our society through the characters but sadly, only one or two leave a lasting impression on you and the lead protagonist is not one of them.

     It is the first book for the author and one would have excused him for the lack of charisma by giving the benefit of doubt for his lack of experience but Chetan Bhagat and Arundhati Roy have spoiled my expectations of how a first time author's work should be rated. It would be rude to call him another wannabe of that league but I personally found his style lacking a lot of the substance. He has a long way to go if he is to be considered a part of the new breed of interesting writers. Read it if you want to realize that there is something more boring than boredom.
-- Rj

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Inscrutable Americans - Anurag Mathur

Recently I read an article of how a new trend in the world of Indian literature had caught the fancy of the average young minds in the country. The success of Chetan Bhagat led to many young authors muster the courage and come out with their works but the credit for the rise of this SMS generation of young Indian authors with small books of not more than 300 pages and costing as much as a movie ticket would perhaps go to Anurag Mathur and his iconic book "The Inscrutable Americans". 14 reprints and sales of a few million copies down, this book continues to remain the starting point for the young reader. Sure there are authors like Salman Rushdie and Amitav Ghosh, known for their American style of writing with some heavy duty works but for people who might want to unwind after a hard day's work, The Inscrutable Americans has paved the way for what is a refreshing genre of light hearted books.
     The Inscrutable Americans has tasted the success for its classic narration of a young man coming of age. The clash of cultures through the eyes of its protagonist Gopal is a hilarious account of how a man from a small village 'Jajau', which according to him is 'The Paris of Madhya Pradesh' discovers America on his trip. While the sexual awakening of Gopal forms the underlying theme of the book, it also lets the reader see America from a different point of view. Americans have for long been considered to be inscrutable (mainly by the Europeans and Asians) for their free 'I care a damn' lifestyles and that is the perception of Gopal which is shattered through his journey in the book.

     The book takes the reader on the adventures of its protagonist and is thought provoking in the way issues like sexual abuse, racial discrimination and cultural notions are tackled through his innocent encounters in America. Every culture has preconceived notions about other cultures either because of prejudice, or basic lack of understanding about the intricacies of others' customs and practices. America is no different, perhaps a little more fortunate, due to its exposure in the world today, but it is not exactly what Sam Mendes portrays in The American Beauty just like India is not the way it is shown to be in a Sooraj Barjatya or Karan Johar movie!

     The Inscrutable Americans is your coffee table book, which really is a nice account of how you should understand and more importantly appreciate the simple things of every culture and how prejudice towards anything makes you realize how stupid you can be. The story might be based on the American culture but the lessons we learn from it are very relevant in our country with its rich culture where we still harbor ill-conceived ideas of every other culture within. The divide between North and South in the country or between West and East is partly due to the game of divide and rule played by our politicians for vested interests (Maharashtra-Bihar and Karnataka-Tamil Nadu off late) but more due to our lack of understanding about our neighbors. 

     This was the first fiction I read as a kid and a lot of the credit goes to Anurag Mathur and later on Chetan Bhagat for keeping the average Indian take up the habit of reading books. Surprising as it may be, but this humorous and light hearted book does tell us to take a serious look at the bright side of things. If Gopal can understand and appreciate the Americans, can't we make an effort to do the same in our very own culture? 
-- Rj

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

Still in the process of reading

The story so far (no I'm not divulging the plot here so its safe to read further)

    Dan Brown is back with his fifth installment of highly successful novels and if you've read the previous four, this one doesn't disappoint you much. The keyword here is "much". After reading Angels and Demons and the Da Vinci Code, you get a decent feel for the way the story-line is written - an unassuming symbologist gets dragged into a plot that he has no clue about and eventually starts unraveling the mysteries through his knowledge about cultures, symbols and history in general.

What sets this book apart? Well nothing much really.
Is it worth reading? Definitely.

    You might ask about what the point really is in reading a book which is not that different from the previous ones. Well the point is that its like a roller-coaster ride - every time you look at one, you know its going to put you through the same adrenaline rush and the same stomach churning G-forces. And yet we look forward to it and actually enjoy going through the same thing over and over again - let alone a different roller-coaster.

    Written in a typical Dan Brown style, this book is not merely a novel with a thrilling plot - its a combination a good plot, a primer to the field of symbols and history, a thought provoking scientific argument and definitely something which will make you realize that what was taken for granted was not that way always. Confused? Well if an author has to describe an old home, they generally talk about the color of the furniture, the lush feel of the velvet carpet and so on and so forth. This kind of description although gives you a good picture of the scene, tends to make your brain tuned off after you are used to reading novels for a while (our mind processing capability is roughly 4 times our reading capability) since we already have a mental image in our mind and the elaborate description doesn't add much value to it.(I'd have added some stuff from Information Theory here but that seemed off-topic). On the other hand when Dan Brown describes the same house, he would still go over similar details but also adds facts like "in a typical Victorian style" - now that's what makes it interesting; you are not just creating a mental image of the house, but your mind also registers how a Victorian styled house is supposed to be.

    The book "The Lost Symbol" deals with the story of Robert Langdon, a symbologist who is brought in to find a portal to a lost realm and hence the "Lost Symbol". So far I've finished 37 chapters (1/3rd of the book) and if time permits, I'd likely post something about the book itself in this week. (But knowing the lazy guy that I am, its likely that I'd end up making minor edits to this post and stop it there)

Angels & Demons - Dan Brown

You need not believe in GOD,
you need not believe in atheism,
you need not know about CERN,
you need not believe in demons,
you need not even know what a demon is,
you don't have to follow The Bible,
you don't have know the Pope,
you don't have to know about The Vatican
you need not know about nuclear physics,
you need not be from Europe,
you need not be very good at reading English,

Read this book and if this your first book, you will cultivate the habit of reading books especially by Dan.
If this is not your first book, this will go into your collection.
It is fast and beautiful