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Top 13 Books – The other 6

February 24, 2010 Leave a comment

This is a continuation of my previous post, the first 7 of my Top 13, which you can find here.

Bram Stoker – Dracula

It’s been a long time since I’ve read and enjoyed something in either the vampire or fantasy genre of literature. My vampire reading dates back to late high school when I read a few of Anne Rice’s books and my fantasy reading dates back even further, to early high school when I was a fiend for David Eddings and Terry Pratchett. Since then it’s been all literature, politics and various other similar or interrelated things.

Dracula is of course literature also, a true classic that set an entire genre on fire and has seen movie adaptations, other inspired films, TV shows and many vampire novels in its wake. One could argue that it is the Twilight saga’s great great great grandfather (or something like that).

Call me a wanky purist but I can’t help but think that it’s Dracula FTW, the original and the best. The novel is written in the style of a journal from multiple viewpoints and its dark, gothic style and vivid descriptions of the Transylvanian countryside contribute to a general sense of foreboding as you read the book. Although it’s ending (SPOILER but really everyone knows the story of Dracula by now, surely) is what’s now seen as a typical Hollywood-style band of ‘good’ protagonists triumphs over evil antagonist that doesn’t detract from how enjoyable the book is and how it keeps you on your toes throughout. It was un-put-downable for me and I highly recommend it.

Albert Camus – The Plague

I’ve been a big fan of Camus for some years now, ever since I read The Outsider (The Stranger) and The Plague but my fanboy status of him has since been eclipsed by my newly minted adoration of JP Sartre. Although both are known to be of the French existentialist school of literature, their two writing styles are pretty different. What I like about Sartre is that he exposes the existentialist dilemmas in the hearts of men. His characters (and their development) are key to his fiction and key to exposing his worldview and philosophy as they stumble around key questions in their obviously meaningless lives. Camus is quite different, prone to the semi-heroic protagonist (Meursault, Dr. Rieux), in The Plague he uses a Kafkaesque allegory of a horror-stricken town as a symbol for the German invasion of France and his condemnation of the French people’s slow reaction to the invasion.

“… we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away…”

Camus also takes a swipe at religion, as embodied by the character of Paneloux, and weaves into the plot a situation where a child dies of the plague and the child’s innocence is placed in stark opposition to the church’s preaching that the plague is a punishment from God.

Parts of the book also generally lampoon the absurdity of society. Part of why Camus’ town of Oran makes for such a good symbol is because it’s also the average town, much like our towns, all of which could also be struck down by plague and invasion:

“… [in Oran] everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits. Our citizens work hard, but solely with the object of getting rich. Their chief interest is in commerce, and their chief aim in life is, as they call it, ‘doing business.'”

Jean-Paul Sartre – The Age of Reason

As I mentioned earlier, I was previously a Camus devotee and, although these things are not mutually exclusive, I now give my bromance over to Jean-Paul Sartre. The man is a genius, he somehow has the ability to encapsulate exactly how I think and interact with others in one book, The Age of Reason.

The plot of the book is focused on three days in the life of a philosophy teacher, Mathieu Delarue (I like his surname, ‘of the street’), and his efforts to procure an abortion for his mistress Marcelle. The plot is incidental to the thrust of the book, however, which is involved entirely in the development of its characters, their interactions, thoughts and meanderings in the big, uncaring world that was Bohemian Paris in the late 30s, still living the good life with World War and invasion approaching.

The book is the first part of Sartre’s “The Roads to Freedom” trilogy and the concept of freedom is central to Sartre’s existentialist thrust: that it is the ultimate aim of human existence. Through a variety of decisions and obstacles placed before the characters, Sartre shows what it means to be free in modern society and how difficult it can be.

The idea that Matthieu has to fund an abortion is a good concept to debate freedom around, an abortion is clearly a politically and morally loaded action to undertake, particularly in late 1930s France. It was, of course, possible to procure one, but not without difficulty. One example of an interaction that occurs as a result of it is Matthieu’s conversation with his brother. Matthieu needs 4,000 francs for the abortion and his wealthy brother, an example of a man who has ‘made it’ in a socially approved way, offers him 10,000 francs to achieve ‘the age of reason’, to grow up, accept society and his responsibility as a member of it and marry Marcelle. Matthieu refuses because it (marriage) goes against his concept of freedom.

There is too much in the back for me to quote and analyse so I won’t bother. All I’m saying is, read it. It’s now definitely one of my favourite books of all time and one that had a lot of impact on me, definitely one to take to a deserted island.

Rohinton Mistry – Such A Long Journey

Rohinton Mistry is also one of my favourite authors, and one of the best at recreating the whole post-colonial India vibe that has gotten pretty popular of late (and one several major literary prizes). Such A Long Journey is based in Mistry’s hometown of Bombay, as are many of his novels. Politically important also, set in the year 1971, the book goes into some detail about the problems experienced by Indians living under the Indira Gandhi regime. Mistry has been critical of Indira Gandhi before, in his book A Fine Balance, and I love this kind of political criticism via fiction.

I prefer to read Mistry than some of his contemporaries, such as Salman Rushdie, because I find Mistry’s writing to be honest, emotional and direct. Not overly clever like Rushdie’s, not overly flowery like Arundhati Roy’s, but just good honest character development that really gets you to the heart of his characters and his plots. His ability to paint a picture through the characters is a testament to India’s humanity and Mistry is one of its greatest exponents. In this case, it’s the Parsi colony that Mistry recreates for us through its vividly depicted characters, particularly the long-suffering protagonist Gustad Noble and the trials and tribulations of living a life where the factors that impact us are often chaotic and outside of our control.

Mistry’s novels are for and about people, their real emotions and lives, and the tragedy and joy that go along with them, and Such A Long Journey is a wonderful example and one of his best works.

Hunter S. Thompson – Hell’s Angels

I’ve long thought about making journalism my profession, part of the reason why I maintain my political blog The Zeitgeist Politics and get so involved in Middle Eastern issues. If journalism was a way, one of my heroes would definitely be Hunter S. Thompson. Famous for his ‘gonzo’ style of journalism (the word ‘gonzo’ is apparently derived from South Boston Irish slang referring to the last man standing after an all night drinking marathon). Gonzo journalism is when the writer gets as close as possible to his subjects, not ditching editorial objectivity and distance entirely but at least ditching it for a little while in order to create real emotion and connection. The writing itself is also highly stylised and has often been accused of favouring style over substance. This may be true in some cases, accuracy is put on the backburner a little bit, but if Thompson’s writing is interesting to read, keeps the reader engaged, doesn’t straight up lie but just fails to include some key details then I don’t see anything wrong with that.

To use Hell’s Angels as an example, the book is incredibly engaging, very interesting, gives a first-person account of everything that went on and includes much of Thompson’s own opinions and a few embellishments. In that way it’s similar to a book-length editorial that doesn’t shirk taboo topics, doesn’t have any particular agenda or editorial line, and still allows the reader to make up their own mind. Considering the danger that Thompson went through to write the book, the beating that he did eventually receive, and his commitment to the story, I would say his work is laudable and he deserves his success.

But the style of his writing is what draws me in, here’s one choice excerpt. Guaranteed, it should make you want to read the whole damn book:

Filthy Huns Breeding like rats in California and spreading east. Listen for the roar of the Harleys. You will hear it in the distance like thunder. And then, wafting in on the breeze, will come the scent of dried blood, semen and human grease … the noise will grow louder and they will appear, on the west horizon, eyes bugged and bloodshot, foam on the lips, chewing some rooty essence smuggled in from a foreign jungle … they will ravish your women, loot your liquor stores and humiliate your mayor on a bench on the village square …


Alex Garland – The Beach

You could consider this a departure from the rest of my Top 13 as it barely qualifies as ‘literature’. It isn’t particularly well written and doesn’t necessarily deal with heavy philosphical or political topics but by golly is it a rollicking read. Everybody loves a page-turner and The Beach totally is one. You might remember the film adaptation with Leonardo Dicaprio? Well the book is way better. I’m not going to wax on about it because there isn’t really much to say but the basic gist is: every backpacker’s dream, find a secluded place away from the tourist circuit and just chill away from the world. But what if that dream turns into a Lord of the Flies-style nightmare? Alex Garland will tell you what happens and he will keep you reading to find out until the very last page.

Vikas Swarup – bad writer and rather ignorant, it seems.

April 3, 2009 8 comments

-WARNING SPOILERS BELOW-

Ahhh Vikas Vikas. What will we do with you? Why did you try to pack in as much crap as possible into one little narrative? Now I’m aware that the format you have chosen for your book, the random questions from a gameshow coinciding with events from the kid’s life in no particular order, allows you lots of “creativity” but why does your “creativity” have to have such lame and even ignorant results?

How did you manage, by page 168 (not even halfway) to incorporate film star pedophiles, Australian diplomats-cum-spies and even a Haitian voodoo practitioner (who apparently also is really good at sex, yay!) into an already eventful few chapters? I think just the regular poverty/crime/mafia/domestic violence/killing/slum-dwelling would have been more than enough to keep people entertained, dont you? I mean I would’ve thought that ridiculously philosophical 10 year olds with amazing vocabularies was enough implausibility

And on the topic of Haitian voodoo, get an education man! All I needed to do was look at wikipedia to know that all that black magic and voodoo dolls crap is bogus! It’s a myth! A MYTH! And it makes about as much sense as an Australian spy (honestly WHY would the Aussies want to spy on India, cricketing tips?)

I can clearly see why Danny decided to ditch like 75% of the book:

Mr. Swarup allows himself the occasional grimace in talking about the numerous changes in the script. But, ever the diplomat, he says the screenwriter, Simon Beaufoy, and the director, Danny Boyle, stayed “faithful to the central narrative structure.” [NYTimes]

The occasional grimace? Faithful to the central narrative structure? Dude, the man (and his scriptwriters) turned a lousy book into a decent film! You should be pleased with how many copies of an otherwise dreadful novel you’ve been able to sell!

The novelist Salman Rushdie savaged the novel as “a corny potboiler” and “the kind of fantasy writing that gives fantasy writing a bad name.” [NYT]

Say what you want about Salman but the man has a point, I’d say “corny potboiler” is actually rather mild in comparison to what the book deserves. Vikas, in turn, never skipping a beat replied thusly:

Mr. Swarup was certainly stung by the criticisms, but said he understood the strong reactions.

“Indians are sensitive to the way their country is represented, but the film was not a documentary on slum life,” said Mr. Swarup. “Slums provide the backdrop to the story of the courage and determination of this boy who beats the odds.”

Oh dearie, he was stung. Vikas mate, I don’t think it’s the slums that are the issue… I think it’s more… you know… the Haitian voodoo maybe? Wtf?

More ranting about the book here if you missed my earlier post. Looking forward to more good times as I approach the halfway mark, lol.

Categories: Literature Tags: , , ,

Reading Vikas Swarup’s Q&A/Slumdog Millionaire

March 30, 2009 2 comments

The more I read the more it hurts (and not in the good way), it’s one of those books. Let’s start with Vikas’ protagonist, Mr. Ram Mohammad Thomas. Firstly, wtf. I mean I know Swarup was probably trying to indiciate religious unity in his name, trying to make him the representative of all Bombay (what about the Parsis, Jains, Sikhs?) and whatnot but… really? Apart from his name, Swarup has chosen him to be his first person protagonist, a rather bad choice considering some of the language used in the book. For example:

I reflect on how good it is to have simple, uncomplicated ambitions, like shaking a film star’s hand.

This thought occurs to Ram during the first 1000Rs. chapter where he is supposedly a small boy living in a Bombay slum. The idea that a small boy, regardless of where he lives, can have meta-cognition of this level and be able to personally reflect to this degree suggests that he could be the next Tibetan Lama. I mean what kid of like 10 years old would be able to ‘reflect’ on ‘uncomplicated ambitions’. I don’t think so. And this is just *one* example where Swarup’s first person protagonist seems to have maturity and age (and vocabulary) far beyond his years.

Suddenly Salim looks up. ‘Do you think I could speak to her? Maybe I could persuade her to come back to Armaan. Tell her that it was a mistake. Tell her how sad and contrite he is.’

Speaking of vocabulary, Ram’s childhood friend Salim also appears to be blessed with an advanced lexicon. Even assuming that Swarup’s characters would speak in Hindi and Swarup would be pseudo-translating to fictional English, ‘contrite’? Lol. Who uses that word in general conversation, let alone a bloody kid?

I mean Swarup obviously has a decent understanding of Indian society, even its lower echelons, and Bombay (as evidenced by his recounting of how things in a police cell work, his characters’ preoccupation with the female film stars’ breasts and male film stars action sequences, cat calls at cinemas, etc.)… well good enough for me anyway, but his dialogue and prose is so spectacularly terrible that it makes me cringe. Rohinto Mistry this man is not.

And finally, the main plot point in the first 1000Rs. chapter, the idea that a film idol would don a false beard and come to a cinema screening his film to molest a pre-pubescent slum dweller (who by coincidence, idolises him) is so ridiculous that it makes me giggle (and pedophilia is not funny).  Now I see why Danny only ‘loosely’ based the film on this novel.

So far so bad, Vikas Swarup. I’m sure you’re an impeccable diplomat. But you suck at writing.

Slumdog’s Freida Pinto’s sexy photoshoot for Complex Magazine

February 26, 2009 11 comments

 

Hmm one has to wonder what her mum will think of this… and what will the Sri Ram Sena think? Will Amitabh Bachchan blog about it? I for one welcome Freda’s openness to such photos, they aren’t too racy and I particularly like this one. 

Her choice of magazine, however, is not so commendable. Nothing against Complex but couldn’t she have chosen a classier publication? Vanity Fair this is not.

Some excerpts from the interview:

Would you ever do nudity or a sex scene?

I don’t think I’d have an issue [doing a love scene], but it all depends on the director—what kind of work he’s done in the past. In India, I probably wouldn’t do something like that; it’s kind of taboo. It usually gets cut off at the censorship board level, so what’s the point of having shot it?

 

And her inanely bimboistic responses to some interview questions continue…

What’s the best way for a guy to approach you?

Back in college, if boys did the most stupid thing, like compose a silly song, I’d listen. It could be something really stupid, like a rap for all I care. 

Have you ever used your acting abilities to manipulate men?

Hmm… [Laughs.] If you have it, you gotta use it.

*shudder*…

Join the pink underwear protest in India

February 12, 2009 8 comments

Those of you that are familiar with Indian “popular politics” and the related shenanigans of various Hindutva organisations will, along with peppering your sweethearts with love, be checking Indian newspapers with vigour on Febuary 14th to see what carnage/misery/humourous protesting has occurred. I don’t want to treat the matter lightly, in many cases it can get quite serious and has done so in the past.

In the leadup to V-Day we have already had a major event occur in Mangalore where a bunch of goons from a small group called the Sri Ram Sena ran into a pub and decided to beat up some women, Chris Brown style:

Reports say that 40 activists barged into the pub, found the girls and boys in what they called “objectionable positions’ and attacked them. The girls were chased and thrashed, slapped and kicked. They were tripped while they were running away while trying to escape. In the television reports, one could see at least one girl being tripped, resulting in her falling flat on her face.

This is, of course, nothing new in India, but it is completely reprehensible nonetheless. A group has arisen on Facebook titled A Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, which at the time of this post has 29,855 members including males & females of various nationalities. The group promises to send the Ram Sena a pink chaddi (pair of lady’s undergarments), a novel idea but hopefully not one that will excite the young men and thereby not achieve its objective (as pointed out on Sepia Mutiny)

The underwear protest has been gathering serious press and in addition:

The Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women, which was formed on Facebook last Thursday, has also exhorted women to “walk to the nearest pub and buy a drink” on Valentine’s Day.

 

 

I joined the Facebook group in support and so should you (and check out the blog). Those murderous hindutva bastards must die (or at least go to prison)