Book Review: The Vegetarian

Vaguely, at the back of my mind, I remember hearing about this book in 2016. It was about a year and change after I had turned vegetarian [lacto-ovo-vegetarian, more specifically], and I thought it would be an interesting read. However, this was not a factor in my decision to buy the book, or to read it.

I just liked the cover. A white bird’s wing, on a background of pink and black. The note in the corner saying it was a Man Booker prize winner did my impression no harm either. So I bought it.

And then I read it.

Author: Han Kang

Story: Yeong-hye is a young woman, who is afflicted by violent dreams one night. As a result, she becomes vegan from the next day onwards. Her decision rocks her marriage, and the book chronicles her descent into what appears to be mental illness through the perspectives of first her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister.

Writing: The original novella is in Korean, so I obviously read a translation. Having read translations of Indian works, and seeing the cultural tones denuded in the process of literal meanings, I am reluctant to form any opinion at all of this book. That being said, there is a stark simplicity to the writing, but often it feels detached and somewhat cold.

Characters: Practically all the characters have demons; whether they acknowledge them or not. There are very few likeable characters, including Yeong-hye herself, who inspires pity rather than empathy. Yeong-hye is such a fragile being, almost a shell of a person rather than an actual person, it is hard to understand anything of what she is going through.

As for the narrators, her husband is a shit-head. There is no other way to describe his utter lack of empathy and total self-absorption. Her brother-in-law is conflicted and troubled, tortured by his artistic obsessions. Ultimately, a weakling. Her sister, though. She is the only person in this book with any degree of character. She has depth and dignity, and yet she is so fundamentally human – which is strange in this collection of one-dimensional people. I would say that she is the true protagonist of this book. [Of course, this is because I can only empathise with her.]

Pace: Short and therefore quickly read. It was a riveting read, because I could barely comprehend what I was reading at all.

Conclusion: As I mentioned before, my experience of translated novels has been far from satisfactory. I don’t think any one can get the right sense of Korean culture via this book, as it is firstly a story with a narrow focus, and secondly it does paint the culture in an extremely poor light. That being said, coming from an Asian background, I can see that the elements of patriarchy are more than plausible. It is the lack of love within families and the extreme reactions to vegetarianism that strike me as off the mark.

When I finished this book, I was very confused as to what the takeaway was meant to be. It is a harsh story with horrific elements, but there was no conclusion or resolution. Each section rests in mid-air, and the reader is very much left to imagine the end results on their own. I am not against this type of storytelling, but then such an extreme case leaves me wondering what the point of writing the book was at all.

The book has left an indelible mark on my psyche, as evidenced by the fact that I finished it over a month ago and I can still remember the arcs. I initially spent some time looking for someone to talk to about the book, in the hope that it would make sense to me. However, the book is meant to remain as an abstruse puzzle, where I cannot fathom the point at all. I did visit a few Reddit threads about it, but the conversations usually devolved to comments about the translation.

This article, though, was an interesting take. I found some measure of relief after reading that someone else disliked this acclaimed book too.

Rating: ✩✩

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Book Review: Why I am a Hindu

There were many reasons I pounced on this book when I saw it in the bookshop. I enjoy Shashi Tharoor’s language skills, because they really are effulgent. The second reason is that I had already picked up Era of Darkness, and although hadn’t got far, was rather enjoying it. And the third reason is that a bunch of boys off Tinder have likened me to the guy. I thought it was mildly funny, and in some sort of solidarity with the dude, I got his book.

Author: Shashi Tharoor

Premise: As far as I can tell, this book is meant to reclaim liberal Hinduism from the clutches of the Hindutva brigade. And the path the author has taken to do so is by loudly proclaiming how 1) he is a Hindu; 2) why he is a Hindu; 3) what parts of Hinduism he feels are relevant; and 4) how this is heavily divergent of the Hindutva brigade.

Tharoor is not an expert on the religion; nor does he claim to be. He is writing this oeuvre from the standpoint of an ordinary practitioner of the religion, even though his standing as a public personage makes him rather less ordinary overall.

Writing: The language and sentences are smoooooooooooth. The vocabulary is top notch, and fulfils all expectations of Tharoor’s ability. It reads very much in his voice, so there is no doubt that the man himself has penned this book. You can almost hear his unique cadences in the prose. Interesting experience for me, because it is one of the few times I’ve read an author who I have heard speak. [Stephen Fry is another example.]

Pace: Absolutely excruciatingly slow. I could barely read 4 pages at a time, before falling fast asleep. There is much pontification in the book, and I will sum up my disjointed thoughts in the following section.

Conclusion: At first, I was thrilled to read the first parts of this book. It felt like my thoughts and feelings were admirably and articulately described. However, as I progressed further, I am less than enamoured because there is nothing new for an ordinary Hindu with a reasonable amount of exposure to the religion.

The second thing that struck me was the nearly consistent referrals to his other works. It felt rather self-aggrandising. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, because I feel that there must be a better way to convey his messages.

Furthermore, as the book progresses, it becomes a series of quotations from other people’s work, slightly padded out with his observations. I perhaps expected too much when I anticipated some analysis that was new and thought-provoking. Here, I read his thoughts, which are then buffered by expressed thoughts of other thinkers. The converse is also true: to give credence to the divisive thinking process of the Hindutva brigade, he quotes from their works liberally too. It is all very confusing to ricochet from one consciousness to the next with such rapidity. Perhaps this was a major contributing factor the extreme boredom I felt while reading the book.

Finally, this was my biggest takeaway, although it forms a tiny part of the narrative. Tharoor should really not talk about caste. He sounds elitist, even though I can understand exactly where he is coming from. For any upper caste person to speak about the trials of casteism is a tricky situation. And even his smooth eloquence cannot overcome this hurdle. Read this rebuttal to an earlier article he wrote about caste.

Rating: ✩✩

[PS: This last bit about caste gave me a lot of food of thought, which I might turn into a post some other time. All these years, I assumed that I was raised to be casteless because of upper caste privilege. Turns out, my mother is from a famously egalitarian movement (Lingayat) and my father didn’t know his caste at all.]

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Movie Review: Moana

I am seriously late to this particular party. The movie was released in 2016, and I didn’t watch till yesterday. There was no reason as such, because I do know that it got rave reviews. But there was one thing that put me off slightly, even though it had nothing to do with the movie as such.

I happen to be Facebook friends with the guy who did the Hindi dialogues for the Hindi version of this movie. And while he is not precisely someone to dislike, he is rather full of his own self-importance. The aggressive self-promotion [which I am chronically incapable of doing!] becomes a barrier for me to overcome, and in this case I just didn’t. Same reason I didn’t want the new Jungle Book forever. So mature of me, I know.

Story: The story opens with the legend of Te Fiti creating the world. The story goes on to show the demigod Maui stealing Te Fiti’s heart, as it is said to have the power to create life. His theft causes Te Fiti to crumble, and he soon is faced by Te Kaa, a fiery lava demon. In the fight, he loses his magical fish hook and the heart to the ocean depths.

Centuries later, toddler Moana is listening to her grandmother tell this tale. Soon after, she runs onto the beach and the ocean gives her the heart. She loses it soon after though, when her father comes to carry her back.

As she grows up, Moana is shown to be drawn to the ocean, and her father constantly pulls her back. It is a tussle which she initially succumbs to, but overcomes when she feels her island is dying. She then sets off on a quest to find Maui, his fish hook, and for him to restore what he stole to the goddess Te Fiti.

Review: The movie is magical. The story is not any different from an ordinary hero quest, but interestingly has a female protagonist. It is very coming-of-age in the true Disney style, and Moana finds herself in the bargain.

Story: Doesn’t break with any traditions, and predictably follows the classic three-act structure. No surprises, but that’s really all right.

Characters: Lovable characters all around. Even the villains are adorable! Coconut pirates? *squee*

What I liked: Sigh. Everything! The movie was uplifting and happy. It was lovely to see female protagonists, and persons of colour as major characters. I love that Moana finds herself on her own steam, and is not a damsel in distress. And the music was better than Frozen’s. [Don’t kill me please.]

What I disliked: Absolutely nothing.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩✩

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Movie Review: Love Per Square Foot

I first heard of this movie in a tweet I happened to read, one day when I happened to be scrolling through Twitter after absolutely ages. It was completely by chance, is what I am saying. Since I was hoofing it to Pune for 10 days, I figured that I could watch it on my downtime over there. [Which is essentially all the time I am there.]

There is very little chance I would have this movie any other way though. But I am rather glad I did!

Story: Sanjay Chaturvedi has one goal in life: to have his own home. His father is retiring soon from the railways, and the family is set to move back to Kanpur. Having been raised in Mumbai, and spent the bulk of his life there, Sanjay is not happy with this status quo. He wants to own his place, because he sees in it a culmination of all the dreams that he cherishes.

Karina D’Souza feels much the same way. Her mother and she are stuck living in a home that is quite literally falling down around their ears. It is her uncle’s house, and they stay there out of the goodness of his heart. Or something like that. Karina believes that her own home will solve her problems, while her mother thinks that her daughter needs to marry the nice neighbourhood boy with the big house, and that will solve their problems.

Both Sanjay and Karina work for the same bank, and their paths eventually cross at a colleague’s wedding. They are instantly attracted to each, and come up with a crazy scheme to buy a house together: a marriage of convenience. But, there is many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, and things don’t always fall neatly into place.

Review: The movie is adorable and, while the premise is slightly outlandish, the trials and tribulations are quite relatable. I would definitely recommend this movie and a light-hearted one-time watch. It has dramatic moments, but no Bollywood-style rivers of tears and recriminations. Just normal people reacting normally to situations that normally slip our of their control and understanding in the best way they can.

Story: The story moves forward at a rapid clip, and there are no dull moments. The editing is sharp and concise, and at no time is their time to feel bored. That being said, the movie potentially suffers a little from not exploring all its angles sufficiently. The interfaith relationship, the practical aspects of Indian feminism, the infidelity angle, and so on are resolved rather hastily. They could have withstood a little more scrutiny, but it doesn’t feel rushed either.

Characters: I loved the strong characters. The independence of each protagonist in their own right was refreshing. It is one of the few Hindi movies that is so light, content-wise, and yet doesn’t feel like the female lead is cast opposite a male lead, but they are cast together. It was magical. On a side note, I do wish some of the other supporting cast [like the friends] had meatier roles. They looked interesting.

Acting: Ratna Pathak Shah and Supriya Pathak Kapur. Unbelievable those two are. The others were great, but clearly new. The girl playing Rashi though? Good grief, over the top.

What I liked: It is nice to see different cinema coming out of the Bollywood stable. I am rather tired of the big blockbuster style movies, which are thinly scripted, overly designed, and lack in practically every aspect. In my opinion, it is possible to have relatable fun cinema without having it cover the underbelly of a city, or explore the ravages of mental illness, or have everyone sobbing in their seats. After all, laughter is also a part of life!

What I disliked: Nothing specific. I quite liked the movie!

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

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Book Review: Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage

Life is tough, so entertainment presents a great escape from real life grittiness. I tend to opt for potboilers, comedies, and the like when I choose a movie to watch. Similarly, I love fantasy novels. The odd non-fiction has seeped into my reading list of late, but my one true love is fantasy.

Of all the series that I have enjoyed over the years [Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, etc.] the offbeat Wind on Fire trilogy was my favourite, followed closely by the His Dark Materials series. So when I saw this book on the shelf of a bookstore? There may have been some excited leaping and squealing that took place.

We shall never know.

Author: Philip Pullman

Story: La Belle Sauvage predates the beginning of the Golden Compass, and Lyra is still a baby. [Thus she can’t do anything is the point I am making here.] However, she is central to the plot of this book, as is Malcolm Polstead, an intelligent boy, who happens to be the local innkeeper’s son.

Malcolm spends his time in school, at the inn, or in the neighbouring priory with the resident nuns. He is quick to learn, and has picked up knowledge through waiting on his father’s inn tables, and speaking to the other adults that form his small, happy world. One of his greatest joys is to paddle around on the river in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage.

The peaceful pace of life is soon interrupted when three men stop at the inn, and ask Malcolm a few searching questions. Soon, through a series of events far out of his control, he becomes embroiled in the tussle between the Magisterium’s forces and the those who are determined to oppose them.

Writing: I maintain that I always prefer British authors because of their ability to sound self-deprecating, minimalist, and dry, whilst also painting vivid pictures filled with motion and sentiment. I loved the previous series by this author for his richly imaginative scenes, which while they share common threads with our world, and still magically different enough to be pure fantasy.

Characters: The characters are trite in this novel. Malcolm is repeatedly described as intelligent, but he lacks sparkle. His parents are background characters. Alice is one-dimensional initially, and grows into a complex character later, but remains woefully underdeveloped even then.

Bonneville is the villain of the piece, but could have had his shades of genius gone horribly wrong brought about more adeptly. Dr. Relf is a steady, sturdy character, again underdeveloped.

However, the saddest part for me was the dearth of descriptions of the numerous magical beings in the story. The episode with Diania, for example, was incredibly powerful, but there is no explanation as to her motives or any other insight into her world, nature, or desires. Since that part of the story is conclusively finished, I can’t even hold out the hope that it will be explored in subsequent novels.

Pace: Abysmal pace. Sticky in places, and several boring bits thrown in. I would preferred a deeper understanding of the characters and the various other plot points thrown into the narrative, rather than a detailed geographical expose on the countryside of Oxford and London.

Conclusion: It could have been so much better, it is almost tragic. That said, the story is beguiling enough for me to pick up the new installments in the series. [Who am I kidding? It is because I *have* to finish the series.] Additionally, the story doesn’t resolve in any way, and everything is open-ended. Extremely frustrating to have something end on a cliffhanger, so that’s a minus point in my opinion.

Rating: ✩✩✩

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Book Review: American Gods

I had a soft corner for Neil Gaiman, even before I read a single one of his books. This was largely due to Coraline and Stardust, both movies I loved. I picked up Norse Mythology last year, and devoured it. Of course I will review that book separately, but suffice it to say, I was hooked onto Gaiman.

I hadn’t planned on reading [buying] any more of his work in the near future, but I did Instagram a picture of Norse Mythology. The next thing I knew, a friend was asking for my address, and my copy of American Gods landed on my doorstep the next day.

So there were two reasons I was excited to read this: one is that it is by Neil Gaiman, whose magic realism is tremendously exciting, but more importantly, it was a gift from a much-loved friend, just because.

Author: Neil Gaiman

Story: Shadow Moon is in prison, but he is due to be released by the end of the week. He is looking forward to stitching his life back together again, with his beloved wife Laura.

Only, she dies in a car crash a few days before his sentence is up, and he is released early. He stumbles towards home in a daze, disbelieving and shell-shocked. On his way there, he is seated beside a man in a suit, who offers him a job. Shadow initially turns him down, but later on accepts once he realises that his life as he knows it is irrevocably changed.

The story follows Shadow’s incredible journey with Mr. Wednesday, as the man in the suit calls himself.

There are also side plots that I found unexpected, but enjoyed nevertheless.

Writing: The writing is fluid and unpredictable. I reckon it has much to do with the the changes in character viewpoints. Sometimes you are in Shadow’s skin; others there is the narrator describing the story arcs dispassionately. Either way, the story is a rambling one, and yet manages to grip without faltering once. There isn’t a boring sentence in this book, and that is a huge testament to the consummate skill of Gaiman’s pen.

Characters: Bizarre characters, but likeable in their own ways nonetheless. There is a vulnerability, a weariness, and finally a diminished persona of each of the gods that is ultimately very endearing. You find yourself rooting for them to triumph over their antagonists. I would like to write more, but there is a very real danger that I will give up some of the intrigue built so carefully into the narrative.

Pace: Ripping pace overall. There is much momentum in the story, but it does have quiet moments too. The stunning part is that even the slower portions make for excellent reading, because they are deftly used to fill in knowledge gaps about the characters or their situations.

Conclusion: An incredible, dizzying modern fairytale with all the grit of frontier America. I still have many unanswered questions, some of which I can’t even formulate and register just an overall sense of confusion. The novel isn’t for someone literal who wants all their answers laid out in front of them [me], but someone who is open to loose threads that one fills in on one’s own. Impeccable in every other way, the only drawback for me was the grittiness. I am not a fan of grit.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

PS: My copy came bundled with Monarch of the Glen, which is a novella with Shadow in it. Goodreads indicated it was a separate book, so I had to increase my 2018 Reading Challenge to account for it. Compulsive much? Sigh.

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Book Review: Nocturnes

I picked up Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro entirely on a whim. I liked the look of the cover, which had an unclear image of a girl dancing. It was in yellow and blue, and fairly evocative.

Additionally, I happened to be at a wholesale book exhibition, where books were organised according to genre – and that’s it. This book was in the generic fiction section along with thousands of others. As I was browsing through, a girl exclaimed loudly from behind me, pointing out the book in my basket to her companion. “Where did you find that?!” she demanded of me. I was rather bemused by this extreme reaction to a book in the middle of thousands of other books. “From the fiction section,” I said, waving vaguely at the general area in which I had found it. She took off like a bullet, leaving her friend to mutter apologetically, and say that it was unusual to find his work in a place like this.

Suffice it to say, if I wasn’t 100% convinced about buying the book before that incident, I was totally sold after it. Any book that can turn what seemed like a normal person into a lunatic was worth one read at least. [There were classics also, in their own section, incidentally, and those had some real beauts.]

I must say, I am supremely glad I bought the book. Because it was an excellent story, and led me elevate Mr. Ishiguro to the ranks of one of my favourite authors.

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

Story: The books is divided into 5 short stories. The common threads between them are, at least on the surface, music and love. But there is a definite undercurrent of melancholy to them all. Each of the practitioners are musically gifted, and the love is in various stages of being lost. Ultimately, the stories appear to be plucked out of each character’s life in an anecdotal style, and put forward as an experience that changed them to some degree.

In trademark Ishiguro style, none of the stories have definitive endings. They seem to stop with the salient points of the anecdote themselves, and giving the distinct impression that the lives in the stories carry on, and other things happen to them which are not part of the scope of these particular stories. [I know exactly how idiotic this sounds, but it is an ephemeral sort of quality that exists in all the author’s writing.]

Writing: The writing is exquisite. The words are simple, as are the sentences. What shines through, leaving the words behind on the page, is the story. They weave an illusory realm where the reader becomes less of a reader and more of a viewer. It is powerful writing to have such a visual impact. Again the ephemeral quality abounds, and although the reader ‘sees’, they don’t see clearly. The characters are not bounded by the words, nor by the situations. They are incomplete depictions, because people are not meant to fit into definitions. [Again, I know how crazy this sounds. I just have no other way to describe it.]

Characters: Overwhelmingly, the principal characters are caught up in events beyond their control. They seem to be spectators in situations that are centred around them. There is the cellist who is tutored by a mysterious lady, and she calls the shots of that relationship. There is the man whose friend wants him to stay over for his unlikeability and lack of direction in life, whereas the friend’s wife thinks his only value lies in his exquisite musical taste. And three other stories along the same broad strokes. Each character is caught in a maelstrom of emotion, predominantly of confusion, at the unfolding of these events. Understandably so.

Pace: Short stories necessitate rapid momentum. The stories are not rushed, but they do not linger over details. There is no comfortable pause in narrative, where the reader is allowed to flit across without investment. You want a break while reading this book? Stop between the stories. There’s your break.

Conclusion: The tone of this book is infectious. I felt a deep melancholy after reading it, and in someone with a greater tendency to be depressed, it might prove to be a trigger. Having said that, with an abundance of caution, I would wholeheartedly recommend the book to those who enjoy a touch of unreality in their literature. Perhaps that’s my takeaway, and someone else could have had an entirely different experience. Another one of the charms of the book.

Rating: ✩✩✩✩

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