Thursday, October 11, 2007

Time Stops At Shamli

Time Stops At Shamli
A Collection of short stories by Ruskin Bond

It is at once a matter of great privilege and huge responsibility to write about the works of a great author and a childhood favourite like Ruskin Bond.

Before I actually speak about the book itself, I would like to throw some on the bond I share with Ruskin Bond. I was touched by the magic of Ruskin Bond’s writing at a very young age. Our otherwise ineffectual education system must get credit for this. The mundane English reader at school, named after a famous tree that blossoms in the peak of summer in north India would carry utmost one piece by this great man, just enough to whet my appetite for more. The earliest opinion about these stories was the immense simplicity with which they were written and how they seemed so refreshing however many number of times one read them. (Being a part of the school curriculum generally ensured that every lesson had to be read umpteen number of times).

I never got a chance to get more than a sampler of Ruskin Bond till I laid my hands on ‘Delhi is not far’ and now ‘Time Stops at Shamli’.

Time Stops at Shamli is a collection of stories, some of which I had read in some other collection by this wonderful author. The chance incidence of finding a piece of writing that I may have read sometime in the past unlocked a box of memories and transported me to a different realm of time and space.
The collection is named after the story ‘Time Stops at Shamli’. The story delivers the priceless lesson of letting go of people and associated memories when memories only bring pain and despair.

The collection is uniquely Bond in the sense that it doesn’t suffer from the one-dimensional nature that many such collections are guilty of. The stories cover diverse aspects of the human nature-from the mundane and the everyday to the supernatural. The railway watchman who watches trains speed fast, the young boy who waits expectantly for his dead father, the uncle who poisons with arsenic or the professor accused of forgery-the characters remain etched in the memory long after their stories finish.
The stories bring to life an India not to many of us- the rural and rustic India, an India of village bumpkins-stupid and affectionate at the same time, an India of bicycles and dusty trails, an India of Re2 evenings snacks, an India that belongs to wild animals and singing birds, an India untouched by the sleaze and ‘glamour’ of urban India, an India complete and content in its existence.

The common thread in all of his stories remains that the real happiness lies in simplicity. Ruskin Bond’s simplicity of writing echoes this sentiment all along.

The collection is a must read in this world of chaos, complexity and anxiety.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Blind Man's Buff - Scintillating Short Stories : Chetan Joshi

I took up this book since I've always enjoyed short stories which give just a small window into the lives of the characters and convey a lot instead of a lot of meandering and unnecessary detailing.

I'll be honest and very liberal in my review. The stories are depressing, frustrating, highly negative and completely cynical at the best and at times even sick! The "scintillating" sub-title doesn't fit to any of the 25 stories.

Chetan Joshi, it says in the introduction was a software engineer (I see where the frustration is coming from) who did a lot of odd creative jobs like editing, copy writing before finally becoming a full time author. He worked on scripts of Aahat on Sony TV and somehow hasn't come out of the highly irritating TV suspense/horror mold. Some stories did have a Panchatantr(a)-ic feel to it but the story line is so mediocre that it literally blows to pieces even a good setting. I don't have problems with tragedies but the plots more than once cross over to the sick-mind domain.

At points where a story had two possible routes to choose from, the author has very conveniently ignored knowledge about any route going towards a whiff of brilliance. The only point I admire the author about is his ability to come up with such diverse plots having the same mediocrity associated with them.

I'm not divulging into any story in particular since I want to erase every memory about this traumatic experience as soon as I'm done writing this review. Even if I leave aside the plots and stories there is very little to appreciate in this book. It's not often that I feel I have literally been cheated into paying any amount for a book but then this is a really special case! This could well one of those books which evokes extreme emotions (I'm just giving the author some breathing space) but this type certainly doesn't work for me.

I highly recommend this book in case you're a sadist, cynic or a psychopath. You'll even find it worth a read if you're a pessimist and like to be submerged in a sea of weird emotions. If you're a normal, level-headed, sane individual you can ignore this book quite conveniently. But in case as you're unfortunate as me to fall in the optimistic/ positive category, in your own best interest kindly flee as soon as you even see the cover of this book.

I believe it would be in the best interest of all involved that Chetan Joshi makes a sea change in his stories... a change of profession would also suffice!


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Marley and Me!

A small disclaimer before I actually start this: I LIKE dogs. It’s just that I don’t see them as man’s best friend. A good book takes up that slot for me, a good sporting event being a close second.

A dog is best left to the neighbors or friends. A small dose of friendly petting is all I can take. No licking, no jumping and none of that crazy “You throw and I will fetch” game that dogs so love. These were some of the thoughts as my mind evaluated the prospect of picking up “Marley and Me”. The fact that the book was now available in paper edition and that it had 289 pages (=17 squared… don’t ask me why that’s important to me but it is) tilted the decision to give it a try. “May be I will finally understand the whole business of keeping a dog” I thought to myself.

Now to the book itself…

The book by itself is no literary masterpiece but then no best seller ever is. It’s not really meant to be one of those literary wonders that you can boast to people about. But that’s not what “Marley and Me” is about. The book is an honest portrayal of a family’s relationship with an errant, slightly lunatic but overall a lovable and earnest Labrador.

The book is fairly predictable and is divided into chapters that trace the events and incidents in a more or less chronological order. Any dog owner or dog lover will identify with the contents of the book. There are however certain incidents that are dealt with a great deal of finesse. Marley’s fall from grace in Jenny’s eyes and the events following it are as intensely portrayed as would be a tussle between two close family members. These are the moments when the author has been able to take the book to a completely new level. I was able to notice these only on a second read, the first read dedicated merely to tracking the events as they unfolded.

Thus my advice: Read the book not merely as an account of a pet owner’s fond and not so fond memories of an errant pet, but a treatise on how to live life. Hidden in paragraphs describing early morning dog walks, half-chewed shoes, dog poop, lunges at people and trash cans alike, are some pearls of wisdom. To quote a few

On Life's missed opportunities: “For months we could not get Conor out of his superman pajamas. He would race through the house, cape following behind him, yelling “Me Stupe Man”. And then it was over, another missed video moment.”

On life: “I had never thought of Marley as any kind of role model, but sitting there sipping my beer, I was aware that maybe he held the secret for a good life. Never slow down, never look back, live each day with adolescent verve and spunk and curiosity and playfulness. If you still think you’re still a young pup, then may be you are, no whatever what the calendar says.”

The endearing part of the book is that Marley is not the “perfect dog” but rather a complete buffoon. I enjoyed the book because it doesn’t turn Marley into a hero at all times. The author has his feet grounded firmly in reality and Marley doesn’t take up the persona of a larger than life pet that most pet anecdotes are guilty of. Through Marley I could see some of my own imperfections and eccentricities and for once be at peace with them. The most comforting thought that permeates every page of the book is that you don’t need to be perfect to be loved. An earnest “You” is all that is important to the people that matter.

My take on the book: 4 stars out of 5 or should I say 4 woofsJ

Friday, July 27, 2007

The Rule of Four - Ian Caldwell & Dustin Thomason

This is a story of four Princeton under-graduate roomies - Tom, Paul, Charlie and Gil. Tom (son of a renaissance scholar) and Paul have a passion to decrypt a mysterious 15th century novel, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which is supposedly a collection of cryptic clues which lead to a "pot of wisdom".

You might be tempted to classify this as just a treasure-hunting page-turner in which pages have been filled up with some senseless unrealistic connection between destinations. This is nothing like your conventional treasure hunters' tale. It is more like a first person account given by Tom about his life in a period of a few years in his life.

It does not feature just a single minded pursuit of some treasure with other aspects of their lives completely ignored which is what I loved. This has clearly etched out characters. All the aspects of their lives during that period have been depicted in a manner which occasionally almost dwarfs Hypnerotomachia Poliphili.

It’s the lighter moments, the sub plots and deviations in the story line that make the story even better. The reader is always reminded of the fact that these are students and not professionals of any sort, leave alone treasure-hunters. They couldn’t possibly have the same intoxicating pursuit of their goal. They have a life and a friendship which they share. Things would’ve been quite fulfilling even without this 15th century addition.

It’s evident from the writing style and the plot that this book has been written by someone of tremendous IQ. Even the sub plots have been created with great craft. The meandering route of the story really makes you value the journey more than the eventual destination! It would’ve been a really taxing read had it not been for the way in which the story has been told because the way in which the actual puzzle is solved leaves a lot to the reader's understanding, imagination and some degree of intellect.

The reader actually starts living with Tom day after day because he knows so much about this character.When things start to unfold it’s a complex web of solving the puzzle, internal fights, misunderstandings, murders, deceit which lead us to the climax. It does seem a fitting end to a gripping tale.

My guess is this was just a one-off attempt by amateur authors, who also happen to be Harvard and Princeton alumni, since they haven't written before or since this book. I hope I'm wrong!


Monday, July 16, 2007

The Interpretation of Murder - Jed Rubenfeld

The Interpretation of Murder

The reason why I chose to read this book was I love murder mysteries & those in which the criminal is out-thought and not out-run. The thrill of reading how a psychiatrist like Freud solves a murder mystery was really what got me to read this book. Quasi-fiction stories do make quite an interesting read. Or so I had thought.

The plot takes us back to 1909 when Sigmund Freud arrives on his sole visit to the land of opportunities with his then student Carl Jung to deliver lectures at the invitation of his American disciple Stratham Younger. A young woman is found strangled in her apartment the very day that Freud arrives. The next day another attack; again a young woman but not quite murdered. Freud and Stratham take up the task of reviving the memory of the young woman and ultimately catch the murderer.

The story really starts on a high and that is just about as high as things get.

The author does an excellent job in recreating the early 20th century New York. You really get to know a lot about what was happening around that time. A surreal historic thread runs through the story. It also explains quite a few of Freud’s concepts in easy-to-understand manner. So it is a great text to read for history and psychology enthusiasts. But that isn’t all that this book was meant to address. If Rubenfeld forgot this was also supposed to be a thriller!

There are many meaningless sub plots and quite a few illogical twists and turns. I personally don’t have any accurate information but the depiction of Carl Jung as some kind of a shady, negative character was untrue and really uncalled for. It just seems a meek attempt to glorify Freud.

I as a reader hardly felt any connection with the half-baked characters so found myself losing interest quite rapidly. The low point of the book is the climax. A fair guess can be made about how the story would end by summing up the occurances but I dismissed it as to being rather amateurish. I was right and wrong. My guess was correct, dismissing it was the mistake! It left behind a not-so-good taste.

It would’ve been great to see Freud to be a part of the actual investigation and read him working to nab the criminal but I guess he had already done his psycho-analysis and knew how weak the plot was for him to get involved so he just stays in the background!

A decent start for Jed Rubenfeld considering this is his first book. So we could expect better legal/criminal stories from him in future. And after a start like this… he can only improve!


Friday, July 13, 2007

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman - Richard P Feynman

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman : Adventures of a Curious Character (Sequel:What Do You Care What Other People Think?:Further Adventures of a Curious Character)

If you think people with a high I.Q. are not interesting or you are under the impression that scientists spend majority of their time in a lab with no concerns about the external world then this book is an excellent reality check!

The one who worked on the Manhattan project, one who learnt to pick safes on his own, one who took part in the Brazilian carnival as a Bongo player, one who could sketch quite remarkably, one whose favourite hangout was a topless restaurant in LA and one who has many more such distinguished accomplishments was the brightest mind of the 20th century... Richard P Feynman. And when he wasn't doing all these things he found time to win a Nobel Prize for Physics!

The case with this book is since the life of this man is so colourful and so very completely unique that we forget to appreciate the skills of the author. It's different from a conventional biography. It's like a series of posts which Feynman would have had on his blog if he was around to be a part of the blogosphere. Thoroughly entertaining, entirely factual and completely awe-inspiring!

It transcends time and space with ease. At one moment you're in Los Alamos working on the Manhattan project and a couple of pages later you're in Brazil learning to play Bongo! And you actually love the complete switch in context... Every chapter holds a new facet of his personality and I'm not spoiling the fun for those who haven't read it by disclosing more than what's needed.

The stories in these books are amusing enough, but they take on a special resonance because the protagonist was also a theoretical physicist of historical proportions. It's not just about the great things that he did but also about his regrets, weaknesses and frailties which have an even stronger message for all of us. The chapters when Feynman is next to his dying wife are truly moving.

However there are instances where Feynman refers to dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a strange casual tone (as if he was distributing toffees) and with complete disdain to human life! That was probably the only part which didn't go down too well with me and actually takes away some of his greatness.

On the whole these books are inspiring and certainly taught me a lot of lessons. The most important one being that understanding the concept behind anything is the key to unravel a seemingly impregnable mystery!

In the words of Hans Bethe, Theoretical Physicist and Nobel Laureate... "There are two types of genius. Ordinary genius do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician"

I can't possibly add anything more!


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Red -Irwin Allan Sealy

RED -Irwin Allan Sealy

I had bought this book because I liked the style of writing. In short spurts. Like thoughts. The next one comes along before the first ones finished. Thoughts that start midway and end no-where. Raw thoughts.

RED has 2-3 different stories which intertwine in haphazard unpredictable ways. Jerky twists & turns.

The book is written against a background of painting and music.
There are many moments built around paintings of Henry Matisse called “The Red Room” and “The Red Studio”. And now as I look at the same paintings I experience similar sentiments as written in RED.

The book goes into detailed analysis of the paintings. The same book also shows the bond between father and daughter. Between the past and present. Between art and life.
RED talks about robbers stealing oil paintings. About downloading images of paintings on the net. About love and lust. Having coffee with friends at the local café. And the cheesiness of Internet cafés. The book travels. And how!

The book travels an alphabetical journey where every letter of the alphabet represents a momentous incident or a place that’s described in that chapter. The book also literally travels to St. Petersburg and Dehradun. And through letters to New York.

What was wonderful about the book was that every few chapters there are these marvelous sentences that leap out at you. And they stick with you. Such as:

In letters to an estranged spouse:
“Have you seen those missing ads- “Putli beta. Come home. All forgiven. No questions asked. Papa Serious.” --- That’s me.”
“I exercised, had a shower and went to bed. (The beds too wide. Come home)”

Or this one I really loved. After this guys daughter (Manda) has gone away after 2 months with him.
“She left something behind. Manda’s touch on every light switch” :-)

My Epiphany:
Right from the beginning of the book I caught myself trying to make sense of the story. Trying to second guess what would happen next. Trying to guess how the lives of the different characters would meet. How the book would at some point come together.

In the beginning of the book by trying to second guess at every step I forgot to enjoy the book. However after a few chapters I forgot about trying to figure out how it will end. And I let myself get lost in each chapter I was reading. And I found myself loving the beauty of each chapter, each moment of reading the book. And then I had an epiphany. This book was like life. You have to sometimes just let go and enjoy the moment. Stop trying to figure out how your life is going to turn out. Take it one step at a time. And every chapter will be lovely.

The book comes together in the end. And so will life. Stop trying to second guess it.