Imagine, if you will.

In nearly 22 years, I can honestly say I have never totally stopped reading books for more than a week at a time (ever since I started, at least). When I did not have physical books, I had ebooks on my laptop. When I did not have my laptop, I had my iPod. When I did not have my iPod, I had my phone. Yes, I shifted books even though I was only half way through them but the advent of technology made sure I didn’t have to bother about keeping bookmarks with my virtual copies and could start where I left off. No, I do not have a Kindle. I do not find it cost effective over a full fledged tablet. Arguments to the contrary about the awesome e-ink technology can please find the under side of their buttocks and stick them there.

With books, there is always a phase when a genre prevails in your life. I won’t go so far as to say it defines what that phase of your life meant because frankly, I’m not even close to philosophical. But I will go so far as to say, they show a certain bent (bend?) of mind at that point in your life. I can clearly remember my own phases. I won’t bother trying to guess what they meant about my bent of mind. But here goes (in no particular order):

1) The Enid Blyton phase:

Everyone has gone through this phase – devouring books of the great author one after the other. It helps that at this stage, your parents are supportive of your extra curricular reading and will allow you to buy or rent books indiscriminately. Allegations of her being racist apart, Enid Blyton was my favourite author as a child. The simplicity of her stories and the rendition of things in black and white (absolutely no pun intended) kept me hooked. And I can honestly say, as someone who grew up reading almost all her books, I haven’t a single racist bone in my body.

2) The Hardy Boys phase:

This is one of those phases when you start loving detective novels. I was in fourth standard when I read Hardy Boys the first time and I didn’t understand most of it. It started making sense only in sixth but by then I had moved on to other books. I name this the Hardy Boys phase but it covers most detective novels I read as a child including the Famous Five, the Five Find-Outers and the Secret Seven. While the latter three were much easier to comprehend, I preferred them more for the image of England that Blyton portrayed. Sweating like a pig inside my room in Chennai, I could only dream and conjure up images of winter in the British isles and how I would’ve loved sitting through the winter just bundled up in a chair with hot chocolate (I still hadn’t had my first coffee sip back then).

3) The Harry Potter phase:

I needn’t elaborate. Every kid I know of my age has read the series and was waiting for the seventh installment as eagerly as I was back in twelfth (or was it eleventh? I forget).

4) The J.R.R phase:

This started for me somewhere around eleventh standard – about the time when I saw the three movies in a trilogy DVD box set my dad brought home. Frankly, I had never heard of the fantasy genre and I was trying my damnedest to understand the movie. But it moved all too fast and I’m not ashamed to admit it. So I resorted to the books with some mild interest. To say I was blown out of my mind would be an understatement. I was mesmerised. My love affair with fantasy fiction was clearly going to last long.

The one criticism everyone makes of JRR’s books is that they contain a little too much graphic information about little things. My friend keeps reminding me of one page in the middle of the Lord of the Rings series where Tolkien describes a leaf falling for one entire page. I am not sure if I was more intellectual (I’m an elitist bitch, as another friend keeps pointing out) or if the others never bothered, but that was the part about Tolkien that I loved. His well crafted descriptions of things that existed in an imaginary land were my most cherished passages in the books. I kept them earmarked with small pen markings in a library book (I defaced those with impunity back when I did rent them out). Unfortunately, my mom returned the book before I could note them down somewhere permanent and I just didn’t get back to it.

Most people know Tolkien for Lord of the Rings but as any Tolkien fan would tell you, his greatest work is Silmarillion. I got that book from some girl in my school in twelfth and it was as good as I expected. This led me on to discover other books like The Children of Turin, The Lost Tales volumes among others. Tolkien remains my favourite fantasy author to date.

5) The elitist phase:

As I previously said, my friend keeps pointing out that I’m an elitist bitch because I can’t stand people who don’t get joke references from famous works of fiction. I call this the elitist phase in tribute to her because most of the books I read are her recommendations. My elitist phase (which still continues) consists of high standard authors – people who’ve won the Man Booker or the Nebula award (science fiction phase comes later on) – like Amitav Ghosh, Vikram Seth, Hilary Mantel, William Dalrymple etc. While their works span from historical fiction (Amitav Ghosh) to actual history told in a fictional manner (Dalrymple), I admire all their works because they have the most important skill to keep a reader hooked – the masterful art of storytelling. I still haven’t picked up a Hilary Mantel but I’m sure I’ll love it as much as I love Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy (or a duology as it remains now). I will probably cover all the Man Booker candidates and winners in my life time because honestly, they are the Man Booker winners for a reason – they’re really good. Unlike the Academy Awards where I feel the best movie never wins the Oscar, I don’t have much complaint about the Booker. Of course, that could be because I see all the movies that release but I probably don’t read even 1% of all the books that release in a year.

6) The DNA phase:

Yeah yeah, it’s DNA’s b’day today. I know that as does half of the world, thanks to Google. My bench mate in class introduced me to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Combine bull shit with really awesome scientific thought experiments and you get somewhere close to what DNA achieved. Futurama may have better bull shit as a serial but DNA pioneered sci-fi bull shitting. With no seriousness to his 5 books, he brings out some *really* whacky concepts. Like the bistromathic drive (thank god for Google and their spelling corrections) where the ship is powered by a waiter taking orders inside a ship’s restaurant. And of course, the crux of the entire story – the infinite improbability drive which lets you travel space based on how improbable it was that you were in a particular place at a particular time. Very nice stuff.

People may wonder how I left out the Wodehouse phase. Honestly, I haven’t read much Wodehouse. Yes, I can hear you gasping. I will get down to it one of these days, I promise. It’s just that I find Wodehouse sarcasm so heavy (I have read a few books) that I need to concentrate on actually reading every single line instead of blithely skipping ahead with half-assed attention as I can do with even the best of books.

I’m also skipping out on the Sherlock Holmes/Hercule Poirot/Perry Mason phase because almost everyone has been through it. I’ve seen very few people who’ve either not seen the movies, the famous BBC series, the Elementary series or at least read the books. The magic is evident. I needn’t sit here and try to explain it.

The DNA phase introduced me to the world of science fiction but it was not until my bench mate told me about Isaac Asimov that I seriously started considering a genre I had classified until then (inside my head) as a minor spin off of classical literature with a wilder imagination. I’ve since then devoured all the science fiction I could find.

This whole post was more to talk about why science fiction is so awesome. The rest of it can just be considered preamble. Yep, that much more to go. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

As I said before, I started reading science fiction with DNA. It took me quite some time to read all 5 books (I was having some trouble adjusting that with studying). I stopped after that even though my friend kept pestering me to move on to Asimov. Sometime in the twelfth holidays, I made the jump. I downloaded the entire chronology and started reading them as ebooks. I cannot quantify as to whether it was the fact that I was reading ebooks or the fact that I was doing it in spurts (because my college days were going to start) but I never really appreciated it. Then, sometime in second year, I really read  the books (from the start) and found the magic that had been lurking before my eyes.

The premise of most science fiction (if not all) is a future where mankind has advanced to stages of near immortality or a stage where technology seems like magic. Some science fiction authors like Asimov deal with certain events that happen in this world set in the future. Some others, like Philip K. Dick talk more about how the technology has affected mankind. Still others, like Arthur Clarke create a suspense story in a world where we can never guess what could possibly happen but we still feel we must find out. Then there are others, like Frank Herbert (of Dune fame) who wrote in a similar fashion to Asimov but spanned his stories in a different arc altogether. Of all these stories – short ones or novellas – I’ve found nothing that comes close to “The Last Question” by Asimov. In fact, you can read it here after you finish the post. I won’t elaborate with spoilers, promise.

My greatest problem with famous science fiction authors – be it Asimov, Orson Card, Herbert or who-have-you is that I won’t start reading until I have the entire collection and I can assure myself that I’m going to do it in the right chronological order. I am a stickler in this sense. I’ve shifted from Asimov to Clarke to Frank/Brian Herbert just because I couldn’t find the next book chronologically, even though I had other books in the series. Although it’s an irritating OCD to deal with, I suggest most people do the same. The intermediary stories or prequels/sequels may never be as good as the first book to be published in a series but reading them in order always gives a better experience.

The part I like about sci-fi is that it is so wildly imaginative, so absolutely out of the box that I cannot guess what is going on. To a caffeine addled hyper active brain, that is very important. However much I try to arrange the sequence of events, I just do not have enough information to make a guess at how the story is going to end. This is especially true of the short stories by Philip K. Dick, which are absolutely nowhere close to reality (they were mostly written during and before the Cold War period) and have really out-worldish ideas.

The best science fiction, in my opinion though, are the ones which Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert write. They are truly epic series of novels/short stories which span many centuries and sometimes, even millenia. With shifting focus, they somehow propel you through something like 15-20 millenia and you enjoy the ride because it’s just that un-guessable. Be it the eternal struggle between man and artificial intelligence, or the galactic wars between alien races or the struggle of mankind trying to fit into a society where their every aspect of livelihood is affected by the advent of machines, the stories grip you at every stage – the start (because you don’t know anything about this new world), the middle (when the premise of that particular story becomes clear) and the end (there is just no way you can guess until the last page as to what’s going to happen).

My tryst with science fiction doesn’t end here though. I’ve watched movies (Terminator, Star Wars etc), cartoons/anime (Ghost in the Shell), shows (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who etc) and what not to quench the thirst for the absolutely bizarre (I’ve carefully avoided use of this term before this point in the post). It just doesn’t seem to die. But I’m not perturbed. As the saying goes, I’m “cool cool cool”.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

One could not count the moons that shimmered on her roofs,
Or the thousand splendid suns that hide behind her walls

A thousand splendid suns is a book by Khaled Hosseini. It’s incredibly famous and that quote above from some Persian poem was made famous because of the book.

A thousand splendid suns follows the story of 2 women – Miriam and Laila. Both of them are from entirely different backgrounds but they meet and their lives intertwine in the most unexpected of ways. Of course, this is just the foreground, the topping to the base that the author is trying to convey.

Both women get caught up in the afghan revolution that affects all of the country and a large part of Kabul as well. The author explores in vivid detail the power shifts that Afghanistan went through – the soviets supporting the communists, the mujahideen overthrowing the communists, the mujahideen fighting among themselves, the coming of the Taliban and the overthrow of the Taliban.

I have always been interested in the kind of politics that went on in that region. It is intriguing that a country with such less diversity (I mean they all follow islam) can have so many power shifts. After reading this book, I realised I was too much of a simpleton.

Each of these parties and power houses had their own motives. The mujahideen didn’t want socialism. The Taliban wanted to establish order but they were pro wahabbis who wanted to establish a pure Islamic state. They burned down posters, books and any other forms of creativity in favour of reading the Koran and saying prayers. Their coming into power was welcomed since they were a change from the ever fighting mujahideens but their rule was one of absolute terror. They were overthrown by the present government which is still under the rule of president Hamid Karzai.

The book is profound in that, although the author follows only one family, he projects all the pros and cons of the change in rule. He also shows how brutal the Taliban rule was on the afghan women.

Those are the good points. There are some cons to the book as well. The antagonist (if such a term can be applied to any character in this particular book) is an afghan named Rasheed. I am not into character sketches so much but I must say – this was a very badly designed character. He is projected as a conceited and shortsighted afghan from the villages. But there is absolutely no reason given for his character, his behaviour, his attitude towards women in general etc. Only way you can surmise all these details is because there is some mention in a small paragraph about his upbringing in the mountains. Also, the events in the book with respect to the characters (not the events of the power struggles) is a bit too outrageous. I mean .. tricking a woman into marriage and all that – it’s a little overboard if you ask me. I thought all this happened only in those horrible soaps in Hindi and Tamil channels.

Overall, the book is worth the read. Alternating between a slow and fast story line and having a happy ending, it’s a very formula based novel, in my opinion. In my mind, there is no doubt that the sufferings of the people of Afghanistan have been portrayed in a brutally vivid manner. It is enlightening to read the book when you have no clue what went on in that region during the Cold War when you were just a child.

Consensus: 3.5/5 (I’m stingy and have a very snobbish outlook on what a good book is, so there :P)

Must read. If you are as intrigued by the politics in that region as I am, this will be a brilliant read 🙂

1984 – A review

Yes, it’s been a long time since I blogged. A lot has happened. For instance, my college has started. But more on that later.

Classics is a very ambiguous word. I believe it’s a classification given to anything that has stood the test of time with a large set of people. It is not necessary that most people you know will like what has been termed a classic – be it music, books, movies or anything else (even the good old Irodov).

I’ve always had a fascination towards the classics. I am intrigued by why something was labeled a classic. I’ve come to learn that, in most cases, it is justified. There is something about the book, movie or music that has made it alluring to so many people over such a length of time.

It was with this trepidation or lack thereof that I started reading 1984 – a novel by George Orwell. I was not disappointed.

1984 - George Orwell

1984 by George Orwell

1984 is, as the name suggests, a story set in the year 1984 as imagined by Orwell when he wrote the novel in 1950. He paints a bleak future where the world is divided into so called 3 “super-states” – Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia.

Our protagonist lives in Oceania in modern day England. Oceania is ruled by the Party – an oligarchical dictatorship – whose founder/leader/dictator/ruler is a man only known as Big Brother. The Party is completely authoritarian and rules every aspect of people’s lives by watching them through telescreens, rewriting all newspapers and historical books to wipe out the trace of any history that existed before the Party itself did and other absolutely despotic and mind blowing stuff. The Party aims at killing emotions, like love, in their subjects and fueling them with hate while the endless war with the other super-states goes on.

The protagonist – Winston Smith – is still capable of independent thought and cannot take in the whole agenda that the Party propagates. He sees through all of it, unlike most of the population of Oceania which has been brainwashed over time and where people like Winston are slowly being wiped out (vaporised) from the society. Winston finds love in a similar minded woman named Julia. But – and I quote directly from the back of the book – “Big Brother does not like dissent. For people with independent thought, the Party invented Room 101 … ” . Gather what you will from that statement because I will not tell you what it means.

I rate the book among the best ones I’ve read. Yes, I know I rate all books as awesome but this one strikes a little closer to the heart.

Why? Zombie – my pal – and I have long chats on certain nights. We exchange not only intellectual ideas and what our latest fascination is but also what we imagine our perfect future would look like. I always emphasize on freedom in such discussions. Freedom to study what we want, freedom to contribute to society however we want, freedom to stop worrying about such things as a job, family etc. The future depicted in the book is the exact opposite, in every way, of what I’ve been imagining. It is, at once, daunting and intriguing. The measures the Party takes to curb all the basic freedoms has been depicted in such detail in the book that it fascinated me no end to just look for loopholes. Yes, I found some few and far in between but they do not seem obvious to you unless you’re looking for them.

You want to know how good I found the book? I’m giving it a second read in a few days. Yes, I’m serious. The book is absolutely terrific. I have a feeling that concepts for movies like Equilibrium and V for Vendetta were taken from this book.

Edit1: Wikipedia proves me correct.

Edit2: Apparently, Big Brother, the reality show which started in UK, takes its name from the character in the book.

Consensus – Must read for any intellectual.

War is Peace.
Freedom is Slavery.
Ignorance is Strength.

The Calcutta Chromosome

So, my reading habit has taken a back seat for the last few months. But that did not stop me from buying books and storing them for later. With a little help from Abinaya and other fellow bookworms, I was able to read about a book every month in college. Considering they were mostly James Patterson books on the David Cross series, it was quite a handful. I will review that series a little later once I get the chronology right considering I’m reading the books in some random order.

Then again, after my first tryst with Amitav Ghosh in Sea of Poppies, I couldn’t resist buying some other book of his I saw in Odyssey the other day – The Calcutta Chromosome. The book belongs to the sci-fi genre and it won the Arthur C. Clarke award – something I didn’t quite understand why it deserved until the very end.

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The Calcutta Chromosome is, in all ways, different from the books I’ve read in the genre. Considering I’m an avid fan of Arthur Clarke and Isaac Asimov, I should say I’m not kidding about that.

The story starts with an Egyptian dude at some point in the future and consists of flashbacks either in the form of letters or documents recovered by his all-knowing machine – Ava. In this sense, it reminded me of The Fourth Estate by Jeffrey Archer where every chapter would start like a news article. This wasn’t exactly the same but it gets the job done.

In gist, the story follows the Egyptian dude – Antar, as he traces the steps of L. Murugan, his former, presently missing colleague who in turn in tracing the steps of Ronald Ross, the man who discovered the means by which malaria is transmitted.

If you ask me, the novel can also be partially categorised in the Fantasy genre. But that’s beside the point.

I found the novel pretty interesting actually. I could never have guessed most of the twists the story takes and I’m a guy who can predict Agatha Christie novels through sheer statistics – the least likely is the most obvious. But this novel had some very interesting twists. Since I hate giving spoilers, I will not delve any further into the story.

The novel is really small .. as in only 276 pages in the version I bought. It is a definite page turner, unlike Sea of Poppies which took me ages to finish for all it was worth.

Any more description and I would be giving away plotlines and spoilers.

Consensus: VERY different sci-fi thriller. Read it if you love the genre. Romantics will love this. Logically inclined people will find this a big bore and worth bitching about a lot. Personally, I loved it 🙂