2 States (and Chetan Bhagat)

I hadn’t read any books by Chetan Bhagat until a friend passed on 2 States to me and asked me to read it. I took my time getting to read the book and when I did I finished it pretty fast.

I didn’t like the book well enough to read Bhagat’s other work but I now get why people read his books. The book was fast-paced, the story was reasonably good and overall, the book was entertaining. In fact, the book reminded me of Bollywood.

Feel free to skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read about why I didn’t enjoy 2 States. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner talks about “the fictive dream” and how good fiction makes readers feel like they are part of a dream. He also mentions how writers can, by doing various things wrong, jar readers awake. When I read 2 States, at times the writing snapped me out of “the fictive dream” and some plot twists felt too convenient. So, I am probably not going to read Bhagat’s novels again because it’s hard for me to ignore these things.

Coming back to Bollywood. I don’t watch too many Bollywood movies because, most of the time, I find it hard to deal with the interruptions: the needless songs, the unbelievable plot twists, the (sometimes) over-acting, etc. But, I get that millions of people find that Bollywood movies are a great source of entertainment.

Similarly, I can see why so many people find Bhagat’s work enjoyable. Critics who are mystified by his success need to look at Bollywood’s. The mantra in Bollywood is entertainment and that’s what Bhagat delivers to his fans. It’s one of the reasons that he’s been so successful.

A great many people read to be entertained and if Bhagat is giving them what they want, why should we begrudge him the success he’s had. At least he’s getting people to read books.

PS: I enjoyed reading this Caravan essay about Bhagat’s popularity: Paperback Messiah

Dreams in Prussian Blue

Disclosure: The author of Dreams in Prussian Blue, Paritosh Uttam, is a friend, so take whatever I say with a pinch of iodized salt.

Dreams in Prussian Blue (DiPB) is the story of the relationship between a promising young painter, Michael, and his girlfriend and patron, Naina. When an accident causes Michael to lose his eyesight, Naina is forced to make some tough choices. What these choices are and how it affects their relationship is the meat of the book. The author also introduces the back story – how Naina and Michael meet – at regular intervals through the book.

DiPB is a nicely told story, it moves at the right pace, and the suspense keeps you interested throughout. I read a short review in the Deccan Herald saying that the novel’s pace was slow, but I couldn’t disagree more — I felt that the pace was perfect. Also, the book was a light read and enjoyable.

One thing that many first-time and some experienced authors get wrong is that their characters feel flat (cardboard characters) and not real. Not so with DiPB — the characters in the book feel like real people, which isn’t an easy thing to pull off. In addition, you think about the protagonist, Naina, after you’ve finished the book.

So, while I bought Paritosh’s first book because he’s a friend, I’ll buy his second book because I enjoyed his first. I’m looking forward to reading what he comes up with the next time.

Thoughts on Infinite Jest – Part 1

It’s been a while since I finished reading Inifinite Jest and I wrote down my thoughts about the book down the old fashioned way — stylus and papyrus. This is part one.

  • Infinite Jest (IJ) is unlike any novel I have ever read because it is simply one of those books that defies classification. If someone asked or asks me what IJ is about, I’ll have a hard time answering that question. IJ has themes, stories, characters but try to slot it into the standard body of fiction and you’ll find it won’t fit. Seriously, this novel defies pigeon-holing in a good way. There’s no nice way to wrap things up in a box and tie it with a lovely bow. At least I couldn’t do it.
  • David Foster Wallace (DFW hereafter) somehow makes you care about his characters, even the ones that you don’t like, in the sense that you want to know what’s going to happen to them.
  • DFW had a wicked – and I mean that in a good way – sense of humour. In IJ, the humour is sometimes dark, sometimes a play on language, sometimes juvenile, or sometimes situational but it’s almost always funny.
  • DFW was a genius. He could’ve been a mathematics professor or anything else I guess but his readers are lucky that he chose writing. Also, there are parts of IJ that would not have been out of place in a philosophy book.
  • DFW’s take on addiction and Alcoholics Anonymous is brilliant as is his description of what it feels like to be depressed and/or suicidal. DFW explains the two in a way that you can’t help but empathize.
  • The chapter where Erdedy waits for pot is one of the most brilliant pieces of fiction that I have ever read. It can be read as a standalone story. So read it already.
  • In the same vein, the essay – Why the video phone never took off (or something similarly titled) – is pure DFW – funny, insightful, and a tad neurotic.
  • IJ has some of the most horrifying scenes that I have ever read and it’s not just the explicit stuff that is scary but what is implied.
  • After I finished IJ, I went back to the beginning of the book to read it again. There is a circular kind of narrative and because the beginning is the end, it’s almost like you’re pulled into going back again. I’d like to call it a vicious circle except that it’s not vicious – in some ways, the book itself is like the movie cartridge that people are trying to find, you can’t tear yourself away from the book and you want to keep reading. At some level, maybe DFW intended this to be an effect for the reader. Just maybe.
  • I read IJ after DFW had passed away and I felt incredibly sad throughout the book knowing that he was no longer alive to create more works of fiction. (Greedy I know.) DFW’s writing is powerful and the connection he makes is at a deep, primal, human level. I could even say that there’s a connection at a subconscious level because the book really affects you.
  • I didn’t like the ending of IJ except that the ending is not the ending. I should say that I didn’t like where the book stopped. You kinda got the feeling that it would end in a way that wouldn’t give you the resolution that you hoped but still you could not stop reading. Also, because DFW doesn’t bring things together in the traditional sense, you are forced to think about the characters that you spent time with, make assumptions, and figure out the ending. It’s somewhat like proving a theorem in mathematics, for the geeks among you.
  • IJ should not be the first work of DFW that you read. His essays are far more accessible – as a reader – and should be the appetizer before the IJ main course. His writing style takes some getting used to and you’re better off doing that with the essays.
  • There are very few works of fiction that have blown me away. Lord of the Rings is one book that comes to mind, Infinite Jest is another. Some writers are on a different plane, rarefied atmosphere so to speak.
  • Dave Eggers’ introduction to IJ explains why reading literary or serious fiction has its rewards. (If you have this particular edition or chance upon it, read the introduction. It’s great stuff from another very talented writer.) I’m one of those who used to shy away from literary stuff because most of the time I found stuff hard to read and even if I read the stuff, it didn’t necessarily seem all that good. There is a great deal of effort involved in reading IJ but it’s worth it. After reading IJ, I realize that some literary works are just authors trying to show you how smart they are. This is not the case with DFW or IJ.
  • More thoughts in part 2, when that happens.

Dracula, the book not the movie

I read Dracula when the folks over at Infinite Summer were doing the reading. I started with them but finished way earlier because the book was really easy to read and the suspense kept you moving along.

Dracula had been retold so many times in movies that I didn’t know what the original version was. So, it was interesting to read what Bram Stoker had to say about his frightening villain. (For starters, when Stoker described his Dracula, it got me thinking of Christopher Lee who can look pretty scary. Stoker’s description does not match Gary Oldman who played the Count in the movie version, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.)

The book is told via different points of view, sometimes as letters, sometimes as journal entries, and it’s a brilliant example of how to pace a novel. Through the different characters, who seem so real, Stoker paints a picture of Dracula that is scary and chilling. (Another purely writing point: Stoker makes the voices so distinct and even uses confusing English for a non-native speaker, which is really such a tough thing to do.) If I had read the book without having heard of Dracula or seen the movies, I imagine that I would’ve been shocked at the boldness of his approach.

For me, the scenes when Jonathan Harker goes to meet Dracula and gets to know about him — this is mainly in the beginning part of the book — were especially chilling because you can feel his apprehension as he gets to know the Count a little better.

I am not going to go into the story of the book here because you really should be reading the book. Dracula has been around for so many decades and yet it remains a classic, a fresh classic if you will. It will probably be around for a few years more.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker, is truly a masterpiece.

An Infinite Summer ends (at least for me)

I just finished reading Infinite Jest (IJ), David Foster Wallace’s monumental work of fiction. Regular readers of this blog know that I am a big fan of Wallace’s work and if you read the links section — over on the sidebar — you’d have noticed several links about him or his work from time to time.

Infinite Jest is a huge book and it took me months to finish it. The sole reason for being able to finish the book was a wonderful initiative called Infinite Summer. My thanks to the guys behind the website for doing this – I really don’t know when / if I would’ve read the book. It had been sitting on my to-read pile for a few months.

I will post more about the book and about reading the book later. I just wanted to share a few preliminary thoughts.

  • IJ is the longest work of literary fiction I’ve read (1000+ pages including footnotes).
  • It is not the toughest work of fiction I’ve ever read. Contrary to many people’s experiences, I’ve found other novels much harder to plough through. True History of the Kelly Gang is one book that comes to mind.
  • It is the most haunting book of fiction I’ve read. (And, No, it’s not a ghost story.)
  • It is the most non-linear work of fiction I’ve read. The book’s structure apparently has fractal-like qualities.
  • It is a book that, initially, I couldn’t wait for to get going but towards the end, I didn’t want it to end. (I have a sneaking suspicion that Wallace made the book harder to put down towards the end when you don’t want it to end. Think going down a hill on a bicycle with no brakes.)
  • It is the only book that I started re-reading (the first few pages) immediately after I had finished the book. Seriously.
  • It is a book that makes me want to try giving literary fiction a chance again. (I’m a notorious non-reader of all things literary.)
  • It is a brilliant, earnest, and an enriching piece of fiction. Every time I read pages in the book, I was always amazed by the sheer genius of David Foster Wallace. He was truly a great one.

I don’t know how to end this post.

Michael Crichton passes away

Michael Crichton passed away last night apparently after a battle with cancer. He was 66. My introduction to Crichton came via his dinosaur novel Jurassic Park, which you may have heard of, one of many books that I read. He was also the creator of one of my favourite television shows, E.R.

I enjoyed Crichton’s early work which includes The Great Train Robbery, Eaters of the Dead, The Terminal Man, Andromeda Strain, as well as the later ones like Congo, Disclosure, and Rising Sun. Crichton knew how to tell a story and he told it well and in a way that was enjoyable to the reader.

My favourite book of Crichton’s though is not a fiction book but a non-fiction one called Travels, which has interesting anecdotes about his travels across the world. Maybe it’s time for a re-read.

May he rest in peace.

The Ghost Brigades

The Ghost Brigades (TGB) is the second book in the Old Man’s War (OMW) series by John Scalzi. Now this book was released a gazillion years ago, but I got it only recently along with two other Scalzi novels. (Oh the travails of living in a third-world country.)

I even thought about rationing the books but there’s only so much patience you can have and only so much temptation you can resist.

Scalzi intentionally wrote his books so that they could be read stand-alone, so even if you hadn’t read OMW, you won’t find it a stumbling block in reading TGB. Given that I’d read OMW a while back, that was good. If OMW was primarily about the Colonial Defense Forces, TGB is about the Special Forces, the soldiers who have more capabilities but are apparently less human.

A scientist, Charles Boutin, working on consciousness research fakes his own death and is intent on destroying the Colonial Union with the help of alien races. Since he has worked on the BrainPal technology used by the Union’s soldiers, they are understandably eager to stop him. To achieve that, they create a Special Forces soldier named Jarad Dirac and transfer Boutin’s consciousness to him. Jane Sagan, a character we meet in OMW, is assigned to keep an eye on him, given that he does share Boutin’s consciousness. Will the Special Forces be able to find Boutin and stop him from bringing down the Colonial Union? What will Dirac’s role be in this mission? These are the questions that are answered in the book.

TGB is a good read, though in some parts the “science” felt a bit heavy. It isn’t as pacy as OMW probably because it gives you a lot more insight into the Special Forces and the OMW universe. But it is, in my opinion, a better book. There is one incident which stood out in my mind, for the brutality of the Special Forces and the agony it causes — which really is terrific writing.

You don’t feel like the book’s been plotted or that incidents that happen make you roll your eyes, which is always a good thing in a work of fiction. The sub-themes of consciousness and what makes us who we are is also handled well. Scalzi draws you deeper into the OMW universe, takes you on a lovely ride, and at the end of it all, you still want more.

So little surprise then that after finishing this book, I could not resist picking up the third book in the series, The Last Colony.

And, all this while I’m not a big science fiction reader, so what does that tell you about the books?

The Poisonwood Bible

A preacher and his family (wife and four daughters) travel from Georgia to the Congo. The preacher is intent on teaching the “natives” about the Bible and God. The wife and daughters have to adjust to the drastic change in the lifestyle in Africa. The Poisonwood Bible (TPB) by Barbara Kingsolver is told through the point of view of the four daughters and the mother, predominantly through the daughters’ experiences.

Here’s an excerpt:

We came from Bethlehem, Georgia bearing Betty Crocker cake mixes into the jungle. My sisters and I were all counting on having one birthday apiece during our twelve-month mission. “And heaven knows,” our mother predicted, “they won’t have Betty Crocker in the Congo.”

In addition to the cake mixes she piled up a dozen cans of Underwood deviled ham; Rachel’s ivory plastic hand mirror with powdered-wig ladies on the back; a stainless steel thimble; a good pair of scissors; a dozen Number 2 pencils; a world of Band-Aids, Anacin, Absorbine Jr.; and a fever thermometer.

Set against the political turmoil of the Congo and the angst in the family’s lives, TPB is a breathtaking book about family and about change. Kingsolver writes with the right amount of detail and keeps you involved in the lives of the characters. She manages to keep the narrative thread going even as she moves between characters to tell the story.

I rarely like literary fiction but I could not keep this book down as the storyline and the characters were captivating. Great book and worth a read.

The Chosen

I would never have bought Chaim Potok’s book The Chosen if it were not for Pradeep Sebastian’s recommendation in his column in the Hindu. Glad I bought the book.

The Chosen is about the relationship between two boys, their transition into adulthood, and their relationship with their own fathers. They are both Jewish but belong to different sects and yet form an unlikely friendship.

The scene in the book that l’ll always remember would have to be about a baseball game in the beginning. The author’s description and the tension that is set up is brilliant and it left me holding my breath like I was actually watching the game. Potok builds the tension nicely in the other parts of the book as well.

Reading about the dissection of the religious text was the part that I found hard to follow, but that’s a minor blip when you consider that the book is well worth the read.

The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency

Alexander McCall Smith’s The No 1 Ladies Detective Agency (TNLDN) is set in Botswana and is about a woman named Precious Ramotswe (Mma Ramotswe), who decides to set up a detective agency using the money her father left her after his death. The book tells stories of Mma Ramotswe detective work interspersed with back stories of her life and her father’s, all told with simple language, a keen sense of observation, and a kind of humour that I can’t seem to pin down but one that is palpable.

I enjoyed reading the book and the only complaint I have is that I sensed a lack of a coherent thread through the book. There are many interesting stories in the book but I felt that they could’ve been tied together better. The book is a different kind of book though and is fun to read.

I wouldn’t mind reading the other books in the series. Not at all.