Kindling my Nook, bungling my book

It’s very unlikely I’ll buy a ebook reader – Amazon’s Kindle or the new Nook, from Barnes and Noble. Even if I ever do, out of curiosity more than anything else, to me they they will always remain a poor surrogate, something of a novelty that I might tinker with or even carry on a flight, but never take seriously. It cannot replace the feel of paper between my fingers, the crisp smell of new print or the seductive mustiness of a crumpling paperback. Most bibliophiles would scarcely trade that romanticism for an electronic screen and scroll bars(or buttons and what have you). So – no. I do not fear Kindle replacing the book stores, or even coming anywhere close. Yet, the PBS News Hour segment on the recent price war in the publishing industry, and on the rise of such devices was intriguing.

Dang! WordPress won’t let me embed the video, so here’s the link: http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business/july-dec09/books_11-02.html (from where you can launch the actual news segment video).

In summary, an ebook reader to me is cool, it’s nice, but it’s just that. The real magic is still in the words.

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Funniest Tintin snippet, ever?

My three year old son has realized the quite American way of emphasizing his speech with a trailing “ever” –

I don’t like this food ever…

I don’t want to take a nap ever..

and so on. Along the “ever” line, I decided, while re-reading several of the Tintin comic books this summer, to choose my favorite funny sequence from the lot. Somehow, it was easier than I imagined. There’s a particular scene from Seven Crystal Balls, the bumbling Captain Haddock running amok backstage, that has never failed to amuse me, often to laughter, and this time too was no exception. The pièce de résistance is Haddock’s bewildered expression staring at the tongue wagging cow mask after crashing into a timpani. Hergé’s artistic ingenuity accomplished so much without sparing a lot of words!

Ah, a late lunch on a warm, lazy afternoon (no harm pining for it amidst the drab Pacific Northwest fall), then curling up unmindful with a Tintin – one of the small pleasures of life I have enjoyed this summer.

King’s Ransom by Ed McBain (or, High and Low by Akira Kurosawa)

HighAndLow In the fifties, Ed McBain wrote a rather nondescript book, a crime thriller which had all the cliches and ingredients of a potboiler – wooden, flat characters mouthing banalities, the stereotype business tycoon, the tough cop etc. etc. There was, however, a distinct complexity to the plot, which though the author could barely leverage, but which the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa recognized and transformed into a far more potent and profound film. King’s Ransom, the book, became High and Low, the film. But apart from the basic plot, the difference between the quality of the two, if one could reasonably compare the contents of two differing media, is vast.

King (or Kingo, in the film), a shoe company executive, gets a ransom call from a kidnapper for an astronomical sum. But the kidnapper bungles. He mistakenly picks up the chauffeur’s son, the same age as King’s own, and who was dressed in the son’s outfit while playing cops and robbers outside the King mansion at the time of the kidnapping. But the kidnapper is unrelenting, and wants King to pay up all the same. King is aware of the stakes. He has bet his life’s fortunes, including his house, to secure majority stake in the company so he can oust his adversaries and take control, a deal that must be sealed within a few days. Paying the ransom would mean losing the opportunity. Not only that, he’d be thrown out himself, facing obscurity and financial ruin, a fact he tries to desperately make his wife understand. But nothing, to her, is more valuable than a boy’s life.

Kurosawa fully utilized this conflict to create a riveting drama of plot and character. While sticking to the basic premises of the original story, here are some of his master touches that transforms an ordinary book into an extraordinary film:

  • Gondo Kingo (King) is torn between the choice of saving a boy’s life or protecting his own (and family’s) interest. If he pays, he is a hero to his wife and the public, but loses everything he has worked his entire life for. Kurosawa adds a human touch to the ruthless tycoon image crated by McBain, when Kingo eventually agrees to pay. Gondo, played convincingly by the redoubtable Toshiro Mifune (Rashomon, Seven Samurai), transcends himself by this heroic act. This is the single most powerful aspect of the film, a dimension that Kurosawa invokes and the book neglects.

  • The criminal mind is explored far more thoroughly in the film. It adds a socio psychological aspect to the motive. The original Japanese title of High and Low is “Tengoku to Gigoku”, the literal English for which would be—Heaven and Hell. Heaven is where, at least from the miscreants low lying slum, the rich live in their beautiful villas on a hill, insulated from the sufferings of the world, the atrocities of the weather (the stiflingly humid Yokohama summer in the film or the barren cold of a mid-western autumn in the book).

  • Investigation and detection: This is where the book miserably fails and film soars to new heights. From the tracing of telephone calls, the ingenious bullet train sequence where money changes hands (I have a video clip at the end of this piece, that I could not resist adding*), to the eventual trail and pursuit, all are brilliantly conjured in the film. The book does little to grab the reader— the thug sort of falling into the hands of the cops in an insipid ending.

The end results underscores the fact that there is little correlation between the quality of a film to its original source. One could make a terrible movie out a literary masterpiece or sculpt a gem out of an inconsequential potboiler.

*Unfortunately removed due to copyright issues. But here’s an excellent recap from NY Times Critics’ Picks – 

The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

MarriageBureauforRichPeople

I read Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy over two years ago. Yet many of the characters, even lesser ones – like Mahesh Kapoor, remain vivid in my memory. I can almost see the man when I close my eyes and try to imagine a scene from the story. One could argue that it’s unfair to compare with “A Suitable Boy”, where Seth left no stone unturned in developing the characters, where even lesser ones are given meticulous attention and volume to help the reader eke out in their minds, the flesh and blood aliases. The point I’m trying to make is this: without interesting characters, or even apparently ordinary characters cast extraordinarily by the author, a book – a work of fiction that is – will not leave a mark in the reader’s imagination. Mr.Zama’s debut novel is such a book.

There’s no need to brace yourself – I am not going to flay the author. Even today, with the plethora of publishers and writers, it remains quite hard to get one’s work published (and I don’t mean on the Internet). That, in itself, is quite an achievement. One needs persistence (let’s forsake talent for while, we’ll get to that in a bit), and some luck. Sometimes luck alone works. Zama probably has both. At least, this book is not as cheesy as Vikas Swarup’s Q & A (source of the hit movie Slumdog Millionaire). What it is is a mixture of excoticism (with an overdose of spices), avuncular wisdom, a paean to secularism, a jumble of none too memorable characters (except perhaps Aruna) all afloat in a drama devoid of any significant conflict, a probable cause being Mr. Zama’s over inclination to resolve all problems, and resolve them fairly easily. There, I’ve violated my promise, but it was unavoidable.

At times, the book reads like a manual for Indian cooking:

“Aruna’s mother lit the second ring of the gas burner and put an aluminum pan on it. She poured a couple of tablespoons of oil into it. When the oil was hot enough, she took out an old round wooden container. She slid the lid open on its hinge. Inside, there were eight compartments, each holding a different spice. She took a pinch of mustard seeds and put them in the oil. When they started popping, Aruna’s mother dropped cloves, cardamom pods, and a cinnamon stick into the hot oil. She added a small plate of chopped onions to the pan. The lovely smell of frying onions filtered through the kitchen and into the rest of the house”

…and this goes on for another paragraph. I mean, come on! Almost any major city of any consequence has an Indian restaurant, and with YouTube and the zillions of recipe websites, one no longer is in awe of popping mustard seeds and the smell of fried onions in spices. These so called tactile mechanisms are a bane and detract the reader, but perhaps there’s a selling point that I’m missing. Through such deviations, mediocre writing, and failing to latch on to the potential latent in the Aruna character, Zama’s work never really picks up, stuttering on through its three hundred odd pages, letting in too many inconsequential people walk in through Marriage Bureau’s doors. Mr. Ali, Mrs. Ali – why not just use their names? And their son, Irshad – I was hoping to see some real conflict when he was arrested in a protest against farmland acquisition. But Zama fritters away that chance too, and with the bloody battle of Singur still fresh in many a mind, what a miss it is.

Now, talking of talent, one doesn’t expect every Indian author to bear the promise of a Vikram Seth or Amitav Ghosh. We have become, are becoming, a more and more egalitarian society, with most of us finding it easier to accomplish one’s heart’s desire – be it launching a startup company, scuba diving or writing. This is a good thing. Seriously, I mean no irony or cynicism even if there’s a whiff from my take on the book. There’s a playing field for everyone, and that’s how things should be. Now as far a reading goes, it is fair to say that one needs to be choosy in this avalanche of media, and finding a good book to read (and that of course, as many might quickly point out, is purely subjective) remains difficult, for talent, unlike opportunity, is less common. Read the jackets carefully, sometimes they help. The “About the Auhor” section at the end of this one says –

“…He works for an investment bank and writes on his commute and sitting in front of the TV after dinner.”

I wish I had read it prior to my venture. Now that I have, I am not surprised of the outcome. Quite an achievement, Mr. Zama! (See, I didn’t use his first name at all in the essay, barring the title. Doesn’t sound so good, does it?)

Rating: 2/5

Maximum City by Suketu Mehta

MaximumCity

I would disagree with those that have classified Maximum City under “Description and Travel”. A typical book of travel is mostly an outsider’s perspective. Here, the outsider’s perspective notwithstanding, is a lot more – nostalgia, and a sincere attempt to contextualize and understand a culture one has left behind or never known in the past despite proximity.

What begins as a vent for frustration while readjusting in the home country after a long absence, emerges gradually into a study of characters which are by no means ordinary, in the backdrop of a city pushed to its limits. The main sections of the book close in on the lives of gangsters, politicians and cops(Power), bar dancers and film personalities(Pleasure), a family of billionaire Jain renunciates in transition, among others(Passages). In Mehta’s own words –

“In Bombay I met people who lived closer to their seductive extremities than anyone I had ever known”.

Mehta is drawn into their lives in an ineluctable way, drawn to self-discovery.

“…I followed them closer to my own extremity, closer than I had ever been.”

The writing is thoroughly contemporary, clear and even across its vast length. But it could have been been concise in parts without losing its essence. Parts of the gangsters’ and bar dancers’ lives appear repetitive, in all possibility because one has already had enough to move on. Then there are sections that are sedate, reflective, philosophical even, as the book matures into its later phases, as his awareness of the city and empathy for its inhabitants grows. The closure, ending in an epiphanic vision in a crowded Bombay street, is simply brilliant, one of the finest pieces of writing I have read in a while. But what keeps the reader arrested, despite the length, despite the cynicism of an outsider, is the tenacious pursuit of understanding, of assimilation, the genuine search for meaning in chaos. This is where Mehta abundantly succeeds.

Rating: 4/5

Booker longlist announced

The Booker longlist is out: http://www.themanbookerprize.com/news/stories/1252

Their website says that the long list was chosen from a total of 132 books. Curious, and and unable to find it on the internet, I’ve emailed them a query for the list of all the 132 books – part of the reason is to find out which (if any) Indian (or diaspora) authors were considered. Wonder if I’ll hear back.

The only author whose work I’ve read (that too a single, but singular, book) is Coetzee. Amazon says that the book is not yet available, and not a blip on my library either. Yet.

Mélange

Several months back, I began reading Salman Rushdie’s “Enchantress of Florence”. Even brilliance of prose can be tedious, as I realized not too far into the book. Nonetheless, it did trigger in me some interest in history. Out came a dusty paperback from my bookshelf, an old edition of History of India Vol. 2 by Percival Spear. A trip down its pages was so much more refreshing than the gibberish (sorry Mr. Rushdie, I like your writing, but everyone should retire one day, no?) I’d been digesting, that I returned to it with much reluctance. The end result of course was that my persistence fell short of my impatience, and I abandoned the book more than halfway through it.

Then came another book that I was hard pressed to finish – Manil Suri’s “Death of Vishnu”.  I did finish it though (with much gritting of teeth), overcoming the profusely ornamental style and unending series of cliches. The ennui of plodding through two (well, almost) painstaking books clearly signaled that I needed a break, perhaps into stuff not classified as “literary”, or even non fiction for while.

Michio Kaku’s “Parallel Worlds” was as intriguing read, next. But physics itself seems so limiting in trying to explain the non-physical, that I have a hard time carrying on, at least beyond one book. Projecting something as the pinnacle of knowledge when the source itself is dependent on our perception is a futile, if not unwise, exercise. Interestingly, I picked up Kaku’s book after watching a few episodes of the hilarious sitcom – Big Bang Theory (The title, science, books … you know, one thing led to the other). It’s about a bunch of bungling Caltech geeks and their hot neighbor.  Incidentally, I’ve become a fan, and recently watched the entire Season 1 on DVD

From physics to metaphysics – I re-read Dr. David Hawkins’ “I: Reality and Subjectivity“, the third of his trilogy(or what I knew as a trilogy till today before I checked amazon.com. I really need to catch up on his more recent works), a profound piece of work that highlights the importance of kinesiology for the serious spiritual seeker, a vehicle for intuitively discerning truth from falsehood. Yet despite the depth, I feel he should have kept away from opining on politics and other trivia (which seems oscillate more towards the right wing, to a degree). They act as  mere hindrances. Still, a very valuable book, for its insights. The book itself is in a question/answer format, somewhat like the compilaiton of Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj’s discourses “I am That“, an advaita classic. David Hawkins himself greatly revers Maharaj, who, in his kinesiologic test, calibrates at 740.

But wait, I haven’t entirely given up on ficiton and literature. I couldn’t. One refreshing read was Gita Mehta’s “A River Sutra”. Written simply, it’s an allegorical tale of a retired bureaucrat’s search for meaning. It reminded me of Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha”. Perhaps I’ll write about it next. In the meantime, I’d very much welcome tips on anything recent (Booker perhaps? Haven’t paid much attention to it), or even the not so recent.