Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Review of Manu Joseph's Serious Men

Serious MenSerious Men by Manu Joseph
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
"If you stare long enough at serious people they will begin to appear comical"
"Of all deformities, genius is the most useful"

If there is any doubt about the tone Manu Joseph's debut novel Serious Men would take, the book's opening lines -- "Ayyan Mani's thick black hair was combed sideways and parted by a careless broken line, like the borders the British used to draw between two hostile neighbours" -- clear it up for us. Manu Joseph's wit and cynicism are in full display in Serious Men, which is set in Mumbai ("the humid crowds, the great perpetual squeeze, the silent vengeance of the poor"). Hidden beneath the clever one-liners is an intertwined tale of two vastly different men in dissimilar circumstances trying to break free from the stereotypes on them.

Ayyan Mani is a son of a sweeper, a Dalit - among the lowest of castes in Indian caste hierarchy. He is extremely well versed in the ways of the World, deeply cynical, and is capable of getting things done. His anger is Manu Joseph's anger, his perversions are our perversions. However he is not where he wants to be in his life, and he has a strong sense that this is due to his caste. "If you only had the fathers that these men had, you would have had a room of your own today with your own secretary", a character tells him, and one can only agree. Ayyan Mani lives with his wife Oja and 11-year old son Adi in a densely populated tenement for the poor. "In a way, this was the easiest place to be a man. To be alive was enough. To be sober and employed was fantastically impressive. Ayyan Mani was something of a legend". Ayyan Mani has one opportunity to use his cruel sense of humour and get back at the World. The risks are immense, especially to his partially deaf son Adi. But Ayyan senses that he may not be able to stop himself before it is too late.

Arvind Acharya is the director of Indian Institute of Theory and Research. He is a Tamil Brahmin, and has a "newsworthy rage and tragic brilliance". Tall, good looking, arrogant, incisive, but past his prime. His reputation is spotless, and his words carry respect through-out the scientific community everywhere. Acharya is not a man bothered with the practicalities of the World, and he is in pursuit of higher truths (whereas Ayyan believes that there is "no such thing as truth." There is "only pursuit of truth and it was a pursuit that would always go on. It was a form of employment"). He loves his wife Lavanya in the per-functionary way a couple whose marriage has been arranged love each other. He laments that scientists are more focused at research in "time reversal, black holes, dark matter, dark energy, invisibility, intelligent civilisations", or what he terms as "Exciting rubbish". He has his own eccentric theories on life. However he faces an institutional opposition, and a threat to his own sense of morality.

Having read Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People earlier (review here), I felt that there are some commonalities in his work. A bit of science in the plot, and a memory that cannot be explained away by Science; a random set of facts that are memorized and repeated; a disregard for male friendships ("That men, in reality, did not have friends in other men" in Serious Men and "that any two men in the world have real affection between them is itself a myth, chiefly of the two men" in the Illicit Happiness of Other People) and much more. Needless to say, I enjoyed both his works thoroughly. Serious Men is largely funny, and is littered with unexpectedly poignant moments. Manu Joseph is the ultimate troll, and he is endurable because his wrath is not directed towards a single idealogy or group of people. Dalits, Brahmins, Christians, Tamils ("Most Tamilians so tiny and genetically predisposed to believing something is wrong with others"), the rich ("Rich people have a name for everything. They even have word for the time a man spends with his family.. they call it 'Quality Time'"), the poor, the random motorist ("After riding like a moron all over the place, observe the face of an Indian when he crashes. He is stunned."), the educated and the irresponsible - no one is safe from Manu Joseph's vitriol. In my review of The Illicit Happiness of Other People, I had compared him with Oscar Wilde and written that "he throws up aphorisms which sound attractive but are not necessarily true". The same pattern is evident in Serious Men too, which is littered with witty one-liners such as "The fate of every love story, he knew very well, is in the rot of togetherness, or in the misery of separation" which are not falsifiable.

The only discernible downside is that the conclusion of Serious Men seems a bit forced, with some filmy moments. This is exactly what I felt about the conclusion of "The Illicit Happiness.. " too. But once again, I see that there are not many logical ways the plot could have ended. The supporting characters are all caricatures, and this contributes immensely to the humour. I enjoyed the simple-mindedness of Oja, who keeps throwing folk sayings such as "the end of an ox is beef, the end of a lie is grief". Serious Men is a worthy read, especially for privileged Indians (such as me) who wish to know how easy things have been for them.

I remain a fan of Manu Joseph, both his fictional works and his weekly columns.

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Monday, May 15, 2017

Review of Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise

This Side of ParadiseThis Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"It was always the becoming he dreamed of, never the being"
I picked Scott Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise from my local public library for two reasons : I wanted to read a classic; and having moved to an area not far away from Princeton, I was attracted by the blurb that indicated that a major part of the story takes place in Princeton. It occurred to me a bit later that the place would have changed immensely in the last century and that I might not be able to relate to the geography after all. With Scott Fitzgerald's semi-autobiographical debut novel set in early 20th century, not only was I not able to relate to the place, I was not able to relate to the characters too for the most part of the book.

This Side of Paradise is the coming-of-age story of Amory Blaine. Amory's father is dismissed off quickly as "an ineffectual, inarticulate man". We learn that Amory takes after his mother ("But Beatrice Blaine! There was a woman!"). Beatrice comes from an European family of wealth, and ensures that for a good part of Amory's life, he does not have to worry about petty things such as money. She treats her son in a way we could only envy, with advice such as "dear, don't think of getting out of bed yet. I've always suspected that early rising in early life makes one nervous". Amory's initial education consists of private tutoring, until he decides to attend prep school at America. These were different times, and Amory attends a boarding school with the grand motto "To impart a Thorough Mental, Moral, and Physical Training  as a Christian Gentleman, to fit the boy for meeting problems of his day and generation, and to give a solid foundation in the Arts and Sciences". His teachers think of him as "idle, unreliable and superficially clever", but he does not get the message. Amory completes school thinking highly of himself, and with disenchantment from his first love.

At Princeton University, Amory is in single minded pursuit of his ambition to maintain a high status, as are most of his fellow students. He discovers literature with his friends, and attempts a lot of not-so-ambitious poetry. He is terribly self-concerned (as Fitzgerald points out, he is just a "romantic egotist"). If you are a fan of such things, there are some beautiful lines here that describe the passage of various seasons, and there are many references to other literary works of the time. I am not, so I had through hurry through this phase with as much disinterest as Amory had on his studies. There are some exhilarating sequences, such as the one where a set of students elope for an unplanned vacation and eat a lot of expensive food without paying much. Amory, in the mean time, falls in love, and falls out of it once again. He also comes across Monsignor Darcy, an old friend of Beatrice and a mentor figure to Amory. Darcy is "intensely ritualistic, startlingly dramatic, loved the idea of God enough to be celibate, and rather liked his neighbor". Monsignor Darcy gives some important advice to Amory, such as "we're not personalities, but personages". However Amory does not seem to be taking much note.

World War 1 intervenes, but we do read much about it. Amory's outlook towards the war is described as "the attitude he might have held toward an amusing melodrama, he hoped it would be long and bloody. If it had not continued he would have felt like an irate ticket holder at a prizefight where the principals refused to mix up". The whole World War passes away as an interlude of a few pages. Amory is a changed man after the war, or so we think. But he falls in love once again with a girl artfully described as "her philosophy is carpe diem for herself and laissez faire for others". It takes a few more episodes, and a few more flings with various women before Amory realizes that he has run out of the considerable sum of money he had inherited. Amory turns a new leaf, and even starts to develop an affection to communism ("However the brain and abilities of men may differ, their stomachs are essentially the same"). 

This Side of Paradise has an unpredictable narrative, taking the form of prose, poetry, and even drama. This in itself is extremely innovative. The writing is brilliant at times, and let's just say that I couldn't recognize the brilliance at other times. What kept me going was the fact that Scott Fitzgerald does not pretend that his protagonist is a hero. The writing is self-aware, and is self-critical of Amory's narrow-mindedness. This was after all a generation at the beginning of a new century, a generation that was caught in a war unlike anything else preceding it. The importance of this book, is thus, more contextual than objective. This Side of Paradise makes more sense for students of literature than to the lay reader.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Review of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them"
There are two possible reactions to Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time : people either love it, or people hate the fact that other people love it. Mark Haddon's debut novel has been compared by many to Catcher in the Rye, and both books are similar in at least this respect. Additionally, both Catcher in the Rye and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time do not dwell on emotions. But I believe the comparison ends there, for the latter has a genuine reason for being emotionally indifferent. The story is narrated in first person by Christopher, who has an unusual thought process. There is clearly a psychological condition he suffers from, and apparently the psychological condition was named in the cover of the initial versions of the book, but the later versions do not specify it. The crux is that Christopher lacks emotional intelligence ("I find people confusing"), but makes up for it with his photographic memory ("I see everything") and his mathematical and analytical abilities. Christopher hates most people  (“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I'm not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are”), but he loves dogs (“I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk”). He hates novels, but loves detective fiction of the Sherlock Holmes kind. He hates metaphors ("metaphors are lies"), but is willing to suffer similes and even use a few of them. Christopher equates his own mind to a computer. And like a computer, he behaves unpredictably when he finds himself facing the unfamiliar or the disorderly.

When he finds that his neighbor's dog is dead and that the accusation of the murder falls on him, Christopher takes it upon himself to do some "detecting" and find the murderer. In what follows, we learn about the emotional turbulence of people around him, and we develop a special attachment to Christopher. The narrative technique is unusual, and things are not described as how a normal person sees them. For instance, instead of describing people's faces, Christopher describes the kind of shoes and socks they are wearing (for he does not look them in the eye). At times, he just doodles out what he wishes to describe with a "it looked like this". There are numerous digressions with puzzles, mathematical calculations, maps, and listicles. Some readers would find the meandering narrative to be novel and attractive, whereas others would dismiss it as a distracting gimmick.

The general accusations against Mark Haddon are two-fold : that the plot does not have much apart from the gimmicky writing and that he portrays a mental condition inaccurately. I did not feel either of these to be a major turn-off. The narrative technique held me till the end, and I am not going to take a fictional depiction as a model to judge people with special abilities. Personally, I was more interested in the character arc of Christopher's flawed parents. Probably Haddon's larger point is that the people considered to be normal by societal standards are not in complete emotional control too. Of course, I felt it strange that except for the parents and an intriguing teacher we never get to meet in present tense, all other characters were glossed over, some of them becoming just caricatures. However in my personal opinion the book is engaging and short enough to read quickly, and one can ignore such minor flaws. That puts me among the first group of people who love The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And I love this simplified explanation of love from the book :
"loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble, and looking after them, and telling them the truth"
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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel : The fates of human societies

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human SocietiesGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1532, 168 Spanish men faced nearly 80000 men of the Inca empire at Peru. What was supposed to be a parlay between the Incas and the visiting Spanish men was actually a subterfuge by Spanish Conquistador Francisso Pizzaro, and in the ensuing battle, around 5 Spanish men lost their lives. They won the battle though, having killed approximately 7000 Inca army men. How was this possible? Jared Diamond's answer is "Guns, Germs and Steel". In his Pulitzer winning "Guns, Germs and Steel : The fates of humans societies", Jared Diamond attempts to answer a question by a New Guinean politician Yali on why there is a fundamental wealth inequality in the World. At first glance, the inequality seems to arise from an intellectual and cultural difference - after all, most major modern inventions were centred at Europe, the cradle of Industrial revolution. Jared Diamond wants to explore deeper though and arrive at the "ultimate causes" rather than the "proximate causes". To do this, he attempts to re-look at human societies since the Ice Age around 13000 years ago (approx. 11000 B.C) to get to the bottom of Yali's question. In fact, he actually starts 7 million years ago ever since human beings are understood to have walked the earth in Africa (though the history until 11000 BC is compressed into a single chapter of nearly 20 pages).

To summarize the history of the whole of humanity, that too in just a little more than 400 pages, is no mean feat. It becomes harder considering the amount of subjects Jared Diamond attempts to deal with - archaeology, epidemiology, biology, geography, linguistics, botany, and much more. The author largely pulls it off though. He does this because he identifies broad patterns throughout human history. The broad pattern is simple - humans were initially hunters and gatherers, but some regions were blessed with edible, nutritious wild plants and domesticable animals. Some plants are easier to cultivate than others, some animals are easier to domesticate than others (or as Diamond puts is, The Anna Karenina principle). These regions favoured food production, leading to a sedentary society with large population density and a centralized decision-body, which in turn led to people with specialized skills and occupation. As a side-effect, the societies also developed immunity to various diseases by being in close contact with animals. These were hence the societies that had the time and labour to invent things. Also, geographic factors such as connectivity, climate, topology, the orientation of the landmass, and presence of similar societies around hastened the whole progression. He concludes that Eurasia was blessed in this regard, and hence European countries came out on top. The inequality, Jarod Diamond repeatedly stresses throughout the book, has nothing to do with the inherent superiority or inferiority of one race over another.

The range of subjects Diamond deals with is insane. As a lay reader with almost zero knowledge on most of the subjects being dealt with, I found this book to be highly informative and educative. That is not to say that the book was not entertaining - Guns, Germs and Steel is written in an accessible and engaging style, encouraging lay audience to read it. I was mildly dissapointed about a few things that are not personally convincing to me, despite the fact that Jared Diamond touches upon these concerns towards the end of the book (and in an afterword written 6 years after the book's publication). The most happening place in the World in Jared Diamond's epic work is the Fertile Crescent, which is, I understand, roughly in the middle east surrounded by countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria. This is still the most happening place today, but for all the wrong reasons. Diamond seems to attribute this to the the geographical features being reversed, probably due to excessive deforestation; which seems to me to be a very simplistic explanation. A similar personal disappointment was with the fact that not much of the book deals with India, which finds only passing mention throughout the book. The epilogue and the afterword attributes India's current state to "caste system" and too much "fragmentation" between various regions within the country (prior to independence) and leaves it at that. In general, Diamond seems to concentrate on historical events that fit his pattern and quickly gloss over those which might not fit in easily. Also I felt that the humorous tone Diamond puts on at times did not work out. This was particularly true for me while Diamond describes why certain animals were not domesticated, making the chapter morose.

I looked at a few other reviews of the book, and the negative ones point out that the book endorses "Geographical determinism" and does not give importance to individual brilliance or cultural characteristics that may have determined many critical moments in history. I do not find this to be an issue with the book though. In fact, science already looks at humanity impersonally as a biological accident. I don't find it far fetched to think that geography has as much influence on us as, say, genetics (Jared Diamond thinks it has much much more influence than genetics). The caveat with such a thinking is that it supports determinism, and removes moral responsibility. When Jared Diamond implies that if Indian Americans from Mesoamerica and Europeans from Europe had geographically exchanged places in some sort of mass Freaky Friday scenario, the Indian Americans would have invented the motor car. And further more, they would have gone on to brutally kill millions of Europeans. He basically absolves Europeans of their ingeniousness as well as inhumanity. This is a tricky slope, and one needs to be careful of what the conclusions are. The impunity with which Europeans exterminated societies throughout the World is worthy of our disgust, and nothing should make us forget that.

Despite the minor disappointments, I am very grateful I picked this book and persisted till the end. I now know a lot more about human societies than I did. For example, I know now that the people in New Zeland and Hawai actually originated in China, probably Taiwan. I also know that the same people developed into a race that conquered Madagascar, which is all extremely fascinating. Most importantly, my interest to learn more history has been kindled. Do give this book a try, and you are unlikely to regret it.

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Sunday, April 9, 2017

Review of V.S.Naipaul's A Bend in the River

A Bend in the RiverA Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

V.S.Naipaul's A Bend in the River begins with Salim, a muslim in Africa with Indian ancestry, moving from the eastern coast of Africa to an unnamed town situated at the bend of an unidentified river in Central Africa. There has been a revolution we learn; Europeans have taken control of large parts of Africa from the Arabs, and Africans from the "bush" -- natives who feel they have had enough -- unleash violent reactions on Europians and all other kinds of foreigners. Considering that I know very little about African history, and lesser about most of the demographics in question, I had to read through many interpretations of the book to confirm my understanding of my book. I agree with some of the interpretations, and disagree with a few others, but like the book itself, all of them are worthy of considerable thought.

I know very little about African history because I gain most of my knowledge from the backdrops of fictional works ("Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies."), and I have not read any books set in Africa. I did try once, and picked up a novel by a famed author. For a long time, the book described the narrator getting high on some African drink, and the language was so confusing that I gave up without finding out if the author was too clever for me or if I was too clever to read this author. There are no such problems with A Bend in the River - the language is simple enough, but V.S.Naipaul is much cleverer than me. The prose flows like a river as we follow a part of Salim's life. He settles down on the said unnamed town and witnesses drastic changes to the anonymous country that affects his life. The country is Congo, say many readers who know about such things. It doesn't matter though, for V.S.Naipaul is driving at the larger picture. Looking at it one way, he seems to say that individuals do not have control over their lives when put in such volatile backdrops. Like Shakespeare remarked, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport". Looking at it from another angle, things become more problematic; for he seems to suggest that Africa was better off under colonial rule. In other words, some people, such as Africans, are incapable of ruling themselves.

As Salim sets down to live life in his own modest ways, he meets a handful of personalities all of whom are struggling like him for their own identity and place in the World. Revolutions come and go, and slowly, an authoritarian dictator referred to as "Big Man" strengthens his hold on his country. The foreigners, the natives, the elites, the uneducated are all pawns in the Big Man's plans, to be elevated and discarded at whim. The Big Man uses patriotism as a glue to try and extend his control. We get a glimpse into the Big Man through an array of characters, prominent among whom is an European historian who is more of an academic. In my opinion, Indar has the best character graph. A couple of monologues from Indar are still relevant to migrants across the World - people stuck between the past, the present and the future; people stuck between here, there and nowhere.

While Naipaul's writing has won him a nobel prize and appreciation from across western press, there are some glitches if you look hard in a certain way. Salim is a problematic narrator. There is a curious passage where he unleashes violence on a woman and and she shrugs it off. Also there seems to be a definite lean towards western civilization, and scorn towards Arabs. An offhand remarks suggests that some slaves like to be slaves, and are better off as slaves. The problem with the book is not these biases alone, for each of us have our own biases. It is rather that Salim seems to think he is much better off than the people of the bush, when there is not much evidence to back this up. We do not see much of Salim's modus operandi. He buys things, he sells it to others. In contrast, certain characters like Nazerudeen have discernible business acumen. Salim seems to think that though fate has its own vagaries, he deserves more than the many unnamed and unrepresented people of the bush. To this, I do not agree. I was surprised that V.S.Naipaul's own views from many of his interviews coincide with Salim's, making the book more autobiographical. Hence, Salim is an endorsement of the author's views, and his actions can not be overlooked as the quips of a fictional character.

On the whole, A Bend in the River is a good starting point for me to explore more on African history, which seems to have a lot to think about. As a novel, it does not have a conventional plot, but V.S.Naipaul is in absolute control of his prose. And the book is short enough. I would definitely suggest A Bend in the River. Chances are that you would love it more than I did.

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