Sunday, November 24, 2013

Review : Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

First published:-August 19, 1999
Star Rating:-

"I wonder what happened to him, I wonder what happened to all of them, this wondering is the nature of matter, each of us a loose particle, an infinity of paths through the park, probable ones, improbable ones, none of them real until observed whatever real means, and for something so solid matter contains terrible, terrible, terrible expanses of nothing, nothing, nothing..."

Ordinary human lives, sometimes crisscrossing, sometimes briefly touching, sometimes swiftly passing each other by through the fabric of space and time, creating imperceptible ripples on the surface of some invisible lake of our collective consciousness that eventually lead up to an event of cataclysmic significance....

Everything considered, Ghostwritten is an imperfect masterpiece. In the sense it makes its far-reaching ambitions of being viewed as a tour de force of its generation apparent at the onset but when one sets about to allow oneself keener examination of all its narrative intricacies, it smacks of amateurishness. If, at its best, Ghostwritten is a fascinating meditation on the hollowness of human lives, human fallacies, urban alienation, intertwined fates and our unslakable thirst for validation in the 21st century then at its worst it is a rather complicated mess of styles and themes usually identified with two masters of the craft - Calvino and Murakami. I'd, thus, refrain from calling it masterful and call it the work of a master in the making instead.

There is something so blatantly Murakami-esque about this book, that I am tempted to label Mitchell as Murakami Lite and this is supposed to serve more as a mild chiding rather than approbation of any form. It is like Murakami's ghost (excuse the unintended pun) continuously haunts Mitchell's characters and their lives, his voice reverberating in their unvoiced musings, innermost stream of thoughts, conversations and his invisible presence subtly influencing the magical-realist aspects of the book. So much so there's even a minor character who fleetingly mentions spotting his own doppelganger on the streets of London one day. I almost began anticipating the appearance of talking cats or strange sheep men after this point, although thankfully none were found in the end. 
But regrettably enough, this book failed to give me any of those goosebumps-inducing moments of pure intrigue which I have often come to categorize along with the effects produced by Murakami's surrealistic vignettes. 

It is also quite obvious Mitchell has distilled the essence of Calvino's Invisible Cities into his own deconstruction of modern day cities like Tokyo, Hong Kong, St Petersburg, London and New York in a 20th-21st century set up. The concept of islets of human existence huddled together in their own miniature niches, disparate yet suffering from similar fates, their ideas of the city they dwell in coalescing clumsily to impart the city its true identity, comes into play here but not under the guise of Calvino's beautifully rendered symbolism. 

Prior to picking up this book, I had heard so much about Mitchell and the widespread adoration he enjoys especially among my Goodreads friends, I was expecting something life-altering and unforgettable. And despite the narrative sweep and all-encompassing nature of the subjects Mitchell touches upon here, Ghostwritten seems to be neither of the aforementioned. At least not in my opinion. And as the novelty of the interconnection among the short story length snippets wears off with the gradual progress of the narrative, the lack of finesse in Mitchell's writing becomes all the more prominent.

"God knows darn well that dabbling in realpolitik would coat his reputation with flicked boogers."
Inclusion of quite a few crude metaphors like the one above just felt jarring to the overall tone of the novel.

I hope Cloud Atlas is more accomplished.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Review : On the Road by Jack Kerouac

First published:- 1957
Star rating:-

This is the book which has given me anxiety attacks on sleepless nights. 
This is the book which has glared at me from its high pedestal of classical importance in an effort to browbeat me into finally finishing it. 
And this is that book which has shamed me into feigning an air of ignorance every time I browsed any of the countless 1001-books-to-read-before-you-die lists.

Yes Jack Kerouac, you have tormented me for the past 3 years and every day I couldn't summon the strength to open another page of 'On the Road' and subject my brain to the all-too-familiar torture of Sal's sleep-inducing, infuriatingly monotonous narration. 

Finally, I conquer you after nearly 3 years of dithering. I am the victorious one in the battle in which you have relentlessly assaulted my finer senses with your crassness and innate insipidity and dared me to plod on. I can finally beat my chest in triumph (ugh pardon the Tarzan-ish metaphor but a 1-star review deserves no better) and announce to the world that I have finished reading 'On the Road'. Oh what an achievement! And what a monumental waste of my time.

Dear Beat Generation classic, I can finally state without any fear of being called out on my ignorance that I absolutely hated reading you. Every moment of it. 

Alternatively, this book can be named White Heterosexual Man's Misadventures and Chauvinistic Musings. And even that makes it sound much more interesting and less offensive than it actually is. 

In terms of geographical sweep, the narrative covers nearly the whole of America in the 50s weaving its way in and out of Los Angeles and New York and San Francisco and many other major American cities. Through the eyes of Salvatore 'Sal' Paradise, a professional bum, we are given an extended peek into the lives of a band of merry have-nots, their hapless trysts with women, booze, drugs, homelessness, destitution, jazz as they hitchhike and motor their way through the heart of America. 
Sounds fascinating right? (Ayn Rand will vehemently disagree though). 

But no, it's anything but that. Instead this one just shoves Jack Kerouac's internalized white superiority, sexism and homophobia right in the reader's face in the form of some truly bad writing. This book might as well come with a caption warning any potential reader who isn't White or male or straight. I understand that this was written way before it became politically incorrect to portray women in such a poor light or wistfully contemplate living a "Negro's life" in the antebellum South. But there's an obvious limit to the amount of his vile ruminations I can tolerate.

"There was an old Negro couple in the field with us. They picked cotton with the same God-blessed patience their grandfathers had practiced in ante-bellum Alabama."

Seriously? God-blessed patience? 

Every female character in this one is a vague silhouette or a caricature of a proper human being. Marylou, Camille, Terry, Galatea are all frighteningly one-dimensional - they never come alive for the reader through Sal's myopic vision. They are merely there as inanimate props reduced to the status of languishing in the background and occasionally allowed to be in the limelight when the men begin referring to them as if they were objects.
Either they are 'whores' for being as sexually liberated as the men are or they are screaming wives who throw their husbands out of the house for being jobless, cheating drunks or they are opportunistic and evil simply because they do not find Sal or Dean or Remy or Ed or any of the men in their lives to be deserving of their trust and respect, which they truly aren't.

And sometimes, they are only worthy of only a one or two-line description like the following:-

"...I had been attending school and romancing around with a girl called Lucille, a beautiful Italian honey-haired darling that I actually wanted to marry"

Look at Sal talking about a woman as if she were a breed of cat he wanted to rescue from the animal shelter. 

"Finally he came out with it: he wanted me to work Marylou."

Is Marylou a wrench or a machine of some kind? 

And this is not to mention the countless instances of 'get you a girl', 'get girls', 'Let's get a girl' and other minor variations of the same strewn throughout the length of the book and some of Sal's thoughts about 'queers' which are equally revolting. 

Maybe I am too much of a non-American with no ties to a real person who sees the Beat era through the lenses of pure nostalgia or maybe I am simply incapable of appreciating the themes of youthful wanderlust and living life with a perverse aimlessness or maybe it's the flat writing and appalling representation of women. Whatever the real reason(s) maybe, I can state with conviction that this is the only American classic which I tried to the best of my abilities to appreciate but failed.

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Monday, November 11, 2013

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Star Rating: 

The only thing about Ready Player One that I can even remotely appreciate is the nostalgia it might stir up in readers who grew up in 80s America. Cline, in his debut offering, uses his love and knowledge about yesteryear pop culture to cleverly mask its many technical shortcomings. He lays out a plot that guarantees fun - an elaborate 80s-themed treasure hunt in a futuristic virtual world. And judging by the high average rating on GR, he seems to have gotten away with it.

How "fun" this book is depends on how much you know, or want to know, about the movies and video-games and music of the 80s. Forget the west, I hardly know anything about Bollywood movies from that era. So reading this book was like being stuck in a fangirl/fanboy convention without a clue about what the gush-fest was for. My initial curiosity kept me entertained and Cline's long explanations made sure I could keep up but that lasted only for the first 30 percent. The onslaught of pop culture was so relentless that fun turned to exhaustion pretty quickly. My patience finally ran out around page 300 and I skipped straight to the rather-obvious end.

Let's keep the pop-culture aside and look at the rest.

Characters? Flatter than cardboard. One-dimensional. Painfully contrived.

Writing? I won't call it terrible, but it's not something worth appreciating either. Mediocre at best, annoyingly juvenile at worst. I've come across better sentence construction in fanfiction.

Plot? It is one long sequence of duex ex machinas. Crazy coincidences. Stumbling across lifesavers by chance. Inane plans that work out. Every. Single. Time.

World-building? If you're going to give me amazing virtual reality, you must first make me believe in a real world where such a thing can be thought of as feasible. But as detailed as the OASIS is, Cline's real world is just as vague. All I know is that it's 2044 and the Earth is ugly because there's climate change and energy crisis and starvation and all that. So everyone escapes by logging into the OASIS - something that requires a special console, haptic gloves and virtual-reality visors.
Yeah right.

What frustrates me most is the lost potential in the tale. We're talking about people who are so fully attuned to their virtual selves that they have no life outside the OASIS. There is so much to explore here - the psychology of these characters, the clash of identities, the perception versus reality debate. But Cline takes all that potential and throws it out the window. No wait, he mentions a lot of deep things and then leaves them be. Because how can thought-provoking and fun exist at the same time, no?

There is nothing wrong with fun. But there is also nothing spectacular about fun. Which is why I'm more than a little surprised with all the gushing reviews and high ratings. I expect this to be the most unpopular of all my unpopular opinions yet, but I believe Ready Player One is the most overrated book I've ever read.

1.5 rounded off

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Review : The Awakening by Kate Chopin

First published:-1899
Star rating:-

Often, I have witnessed a few women, who proceed to talk about misogyny, sexism, or give their views on a piece of feminist literature, starting their discourse with something along the lines of "I'm not much of a feminist...but". As if it is best to put a considerable distance between themselves and this feared 'word' at the onset and deny any possible links whatsoever. As if calling herself a feminist automatically degrades a woman to the position of a venom-spewing, uncouth, unfeminine, violent creature from hell whose predilections include despising all males on the planet with a passion and shouting from the rooftops about women's rights at the first opportunity. 

Attention ladies and gentlemen! Feminism is not so cool anymore, at least not in the way it was in the 80s or 90s.
Don't ask what set off that particular rant but yes I suppose the numerous 1-star reviews of this one could have been a likely trigger. 

So Edna's story gets a 1 star from so many people (on Goodreads in case you are wondering where) because she is a 'selfish bitch' who falls in love with another man who is not her husband, doesn't sacrifice her life for her children and feels the stirrings of sexual attraction for someone she doesn't love in a romantic way. Edna gets a 1 star because she dares to put herself as an individual first before her gender specific roles as wife and mother. 

But so many other New Adult and erotica novels (IF one can be generous enough to call them 'novels' for lack of a more suitable alternative term) virtually brimming with sexism, misogyny and chock full of all the ugly stereotypes that reinforce society's stunted, retrogressive view of the relationship dynamics between a man and woman, get 5 glorious stars from innumerable reviewers (majority of whom are women) on Goodreads, the most popular bookish social networking site on the internet.

This makes me lose my faith in humanity and women in particular. 

Edna Pontellier acknowledges her awakening and her urge to break away from compulsions imposed on her by society. She embraces her 'deviance' and tries to come to terms with this new knowledge of her own self. She desires to go through the entire gamut of human actions and emotions, regardless of how 'morally wrong', unjustified or self-centered each one of them maybe. 

Because THAT is the whole point of feminism. 

"Feminism is the radical notion that women are people." - Rebecca West

A woman to be recognized as a human being first - imperfect, flawed, egocentric, and possibly even as a bad mother and an irresponsible wife. Just like the way society accepts a bad husband as a bad husband, a bad father as a bad father and moves on after uttering a few words of negative criticism. Somehow being a bad father is reasonably acceptable, but being a bad mother is blasphemous.

Edna's husband is equally responsible for abandoning their children as she is. He limits his role as a father to performing minor tasks like buying them bonbons, candies and gifts and lecturing his wife on how they should be raised without bothering to shoulder some of her burden. As if raising children is the sole forte of the mother and the father can nonchalantly evade all responsibility.

I have seen readers being kind to unfaithful literary husbands, being sympathetic to their existential dilemmas (case in point being Tomas and Franz in 'The Unbearable Lightness of Being' which I am currently reading) and even trying to rationalize their incapability of staying in monogamous relationships. But oh heaven forbid if it's a woman in the place of a man! Women are denied entrance into the world of infidelity or sex without romantic love (and when they are allowed they are stuck with labels like 'slut', 'whore', 'tart' and so on). They need to be absolute models of perfection without fail - angelic, compassionate, thoughtful, always subservient, forever ready to be at your service as a good mother and a good wife and languish in a perpetual state of self-denial with that forced sweet smile stuck to their faces. Double standards much? 

Edna is flawed and hence, very humane. Edna is all of us. And her cold refusal to let societal norms decide the course of her life, reduce her to the state of mere mother and wife only makes her brave in my eyes, not selfish. 

[Wikipedia extract:- 
The Awakening was particularly controversial upon publication in 1899. Although the novel was never technically banned, it was censored. Chopin's novel was considered immoral not only for its comparatively frank depictions of female sexual desire but also for its depiction of a protagonist who chafed against social norms and established gender roles.]

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Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review: Parasite (Parasitology #1) by Mira Grant

Published on Oct 29th 2013 by Orbit

Star Rating:

The first thing I thought of when I read the blurb of Parasite was Animal Planet's Monsters Inside Me. Yes, that super-gruesome documentary that can kill your appetite or make you throw up, depending on when you watch it, if at all. And tapeworms! I remember there was an episode where this girl went blind because tapeworms had eaten away her retina. Gross, I know, but for real.

I mention this because it may have something to do with why this book fell flat. I was, quite simply, disillusioned. I went in expecting some freaky horror-show about parasitic tapeworms and while the idea was right there, the horror was not. Hardly one or two scenes stood out for their creepiness. The rest was bland and so much tamer than what Animal Planet had me expecting.

Parasite envisions a future where people can opt for genetically engineered tapeworm implants to oversee their health and thus do away with manual medication. SymboGen is the corporate giant behind these revolutionary tapeworms and when a nearly-dead Sally wakes up from a coma, SymboGen claims the tapeworm implant saved her life. Sally, however, is a slate wiped clean. She remembers nothing. Six years later, Sally is still struggling to fit in with a family she doesn't remember, even as she's unwittingly becoming the poster-child for SymboGen.

The first 40 percent of this book is all talk and no action. Okay, there's some action but that is like a tiny island in a sea of dialogue. Mostly, we get to follow Sally around and hear her talk. Sally talking to her father. Sally talking to her boyfriend. Sally talking to the staff at SymboGen. Sally talking to the co-founder of SymboGen. A lot of these conversations are meaningless jibber-jabber. They are also very boring, since Sally is not particularly witty.

There's a big brain-bending revelation around the 50% mark, which is where the book truly shines. There's another big revelation that you can logically infer from the first one, even if you are no genius. Except, it takes Sally the rest of the book to arrive at that conclusion. Yeah, she's not particularly bright either.

Actually, I'm not sure what to say about Sally. I'm just going to quote what one of the other, more interesting characters had to say about her:

"She's annoying, she's whiny, she has the learning curve of lichen."

Yeah, that sums it up. Except I feel guilty because the poor girl has amnesia.

Also, many events in this book are hinged on happy coincidences. Sally's sister is a scientist, so is her father and so is her boyfriend. There are other things too, that I cannot delve into without giving away spoilers.

VERDICT: Parasite could have been shorter and scarier. A great idea like that should have resulted in a great book, but the extraneous stuff got in the way. Overall, Parasite was just okay. And it definitely did not scare me.

If you are looking for parasites of the scary kind, watch the Animal Planet documentary. Provided you can stomach it, of course.

*With thanks to Netgalley for the ARC*

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