A rock star brain

Professor Steven Hawking passed away on the 14th of March and since then there has been a tremendous amount written and said about him. That in itself is remarkable because how many physicists at Cambridge or any college for that matter have the fan following that he did? It’s not for nothing that they asked him to appear on the Simpsons. And it is rare these days for someone to gain that kind of popularity because of their intellect.

His appeal went way beyond scientists or science students or even those who are just vaguely interested in science. We read his book, A Brief History of Time, a long time ago. Though written for persons without a science background, it was still tough going. But the fact that we even attempted it speaks for his ability to get non science people excited  about physics.

Leaving aside his scientific theories and discoveries, he was a person with a stupendous brain but was willing to remain within the overlap between science and popular culture. Unlike a lot of scientists he did not closet himself in an ivory tower. This meant that people were constantly quoting him or referring to something he had said. The cheat code to winning an argument was to quote him and then the other person would really have nothing to counter you with.

Perhaps for Stephen Hawking, being imprisoned within his body is what sent his mind soaring out into the furthest reaches of the Universe, even to the very beginning of it. Maybe that was his way of finding freedom and mobility. We certainly hope so. But the best part was that he took a lot of people along on that journey. His grit and determination in the face of such adverse circumstances have inspired many over the years. The most unexpected people have been commenting on social media about his passing away. It’s also possible that a lot of recognition came his way from people who would not have picked up his books but then, they watch the Big Bang Theory.

Whatever the reason and over so many years, he received the kind of adulation usually reserved for rock stars or sports personalities but tinged with the sort of respect that they don’t normally encounter.


What a con!

22D359C7-4D9C-4F84-86FA-37C3960D8F2D.jpeg The Rooster Bar by John Grisham is about a trio of law student crooks who, disgruntled with their student debt, decide to con a whole bunch of people and make some money. In the process, it is the reader who gets right royally conned. Why did we ever read this book? Well, because it is John Grisham, who has in the past managed to engage his readers with packed, interesting, legal thrillers. And we have enjoyed his earlier books. We tend to forget how bad the last few books were and keeping thinking about the earlier ones and hoping that each new one will recapture the magic. Wrong thing to do. The disappointment just keeps happening.

 The Rooster Bar takes the cake with the list of agonising, sheer waste of time books and all we want to do is to fling it at Mr. Grisham for having lured us to read it. It has nothing appealing about it. Narrated more in the style of a documentary of a heist, the story drags and even half way through the book one keeps waiting for it to get going. But it never happens. We couldn’t identify or sympathise with any of the characters because along with being financially bankrupt they are also morally bankrupt. In which universe is it ok to con others just because you have been conned? It’s one thing for a protagonist to use extra legal methods to right a wrong but surely not to perpetuate a wrong? Besides, stories where the crooks are the protagonists only work if George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon are acting the parts, with Julia Roberts thrown in for good measure.

 This sort of trading on his goodwill is not going to stand Mr. Grisham in good stead for much longer. At least with us. In most of his books, towards the end, the main character manages to make a huge amount of money, throws up his/her career and then retires to an island in the sun to enjoy life. We think it may be time that Mr. Grisham, having made enough money out of us, does the same.

Let’s Fantasise

As is common with big awards functions looming over the horizon, bets were being placed last week as to which movie would win the best picture at the Oscars. We now know that the award has gone to The Shape of Water, a small quiet fantasy film. Apparently the bookies placed its chances second to Three Billboards, purely for the reason that it is a fantasy film and fantasies rarely win big awards.

The Shape of Water is only the second fantasy movie to have won a best picture Oscar, after Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (the third Lord of the Rings movie) swept the 11 categories it was nominated for in 2004. But we feel that was more a case of the Academy waiting for the three movies to get over and then giving all the awards in one go. Besides Lord of the Rings is not just a fantasy story but also a classic.

The Shape of Water however is a real win for the fantasy genre and we don’t entirely agree with people who are saying it’s a win for ‘inclusion’. It may be that too. But we see it largely as part of a trend which started with TV; the mainstreaming of fantasy. A movie about a humanoid sea creature being experimented on in a government facility and developing a bond with a mute cleaner does not seem the stuff of usual award candidates. The movie is visually beautiful and has a softness which belies the dark viciousness underneath. But the subject is undeniably fantasy and cannot be considered anything else. Every such win is a win for a much neglected genre. Why it has been neglected, is incomprehensible. We agree with Dr. Suess when he says “Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living, it’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope, and that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.

Let’s then fantasise that next there is going to be a Booker win for a fantasy novel. Surely we are getting there.

Tasting the word

88E22C08-7FDD-486D-8972-2813FCF30F6B  Surprisingly,  a bit of news that escaped our notice about a month back was about Peter Mayle, the author of A Year in Provence and numerous other books, having passed away on the 18th of January. The Indian news media, in its mysterious wisdom, felt it was not noteworthy and it was hardly reported upon. This despite his first book having sold something like six million copies worldwide, and which was extremely popular even here. The film ‘A Good Year‘, based on another one of his books, continues to be shown repeatedly on movie channels. We were particularly saddened by the news being ignored as A Year in Provence, though a little book, always has a big impact on whoever reads it and the author’s passing deserved more attention.

Peter Mayle moved to Ménerbes in Provence after selling up in England and wrote of his experiences of finding a house, refurbishing it, settling into the community and discovering the local food and wine. When published in 1989 (but we only discovered it in the mid 90s), A Year in Provence sold a dream to people around the globe, either overwhelmed by the rat race or running the treadmill of daily, mundane existence. The book, with its monthly chapters covering the changing seasons, descriptions of Provençal countryside, lavender fields and small market towns is the perfect vicarious escape for a reader. The descriptions of hearty, rustic Provencal food are written with such savour that the reader can almost taste it. And it doesn’t  matter if one is a vegetarian or meat eater. We have known vegetarians, otherwise experts at being grossed out at even the thought of meat, happily consuming Peter Mayle’s books and relishing them.

Over the years we have found ourselves recommending A Year in Provence to people as a good distraction from anything and everything. But it is a very difficult book to lend as it rarely makes its way back to the owner. We learnt this after losing a few copies and being forced to buy more for ourselves; because it is also a book that one keeps returning to. It was wonderful that Mr. Mayle was able to share this slice of his life with his readers. And perhaps he also inspired many to try a similar lifestyle for themselves, though not always as successfully. Ultimately it is the attitude that matters when moving to a new country or even a new community and in his humour and voyage of discovery, he seemed to have gotten that right. He is also credited with having inspired the trend of food and travel reality shows on TV which are so avidly watched but which are a pale comparison to the sensory experience of Peter Mayle’s words jumping right off the page.

What in the world!

  The recently announced Staunch Book Prize is for ‘thriller’ novels which keep readers on the edge of their seats without resorting to extreme violence against women. The words used by the prize are ‘where no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’. Is this because books where men are murdered or eviscerated make much better reading at bed time?

There seems to be some kind of a movement happening. Every other day news pops up; like the annual VIDA count has again, in 2017, found that there seems to be some sort of a bias, male authors and their critics constitute two thirds of those published and critiquing. Maybe these numbers prompted writer Kamila Shamsie to urge publishers to take a stance and make 2018 the year of publishing books only by women writers. A pipe dream obviously. It’s a different matter altogether that of the top ten selling writers in UK  in 2017, only one happened to be a man. Mr. Murakami held the side entirely by himself. But is that any reason for women in the literary world to get a big head and expect more? And then there are the bunch of women writers (around 250) who, unhappy with the number of women poets (4) included in the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poetry, have decided to boycott anthologies and festivals that do not have a fair representation by women. Seriously? Is anyone even paying attention?

Just because they got the right to vote, women now want to take the mile? Is it possible that after centuries they have started believing that they are entitled? These days, especially after the appearance of the #MeToo movement, there seem to be no limits to their expectations.

  Where will this all end? …Fair play?

A mixed bag

  What happens when Netflix/Amazon/Hulu or any of the regular TV channels produce a series based on a little read book which was published 20 or 30 years back? Or even a more recently published one, popular mainly with genre readers? The answer to that question is that suddenly the books start flying off the shelf, much to the publisher’s delight. In the case of the authors, the feelings are probably mixed as new found popularity will have them scrambling around in their brains to explain to interviewers why they wrote what they did. After all, thirty years is a long time and who remembers?

  Terry Brooks wrote the first book in the Shannara Chronicles forty years ago and now finds his events packed with very young people who have watched the series and as a consequence have discovered his books. The libraries have huge queues for books which had indolently been sitting on the shelves for a long time. Margaret Atwood’s amazingly thoughtful and disturbing book, the Handmaid’s Tale is being considered the story for this age although it was published in 1985. People who had never heard of Margaret Atwood are now reaching out for her books and attempting (or pretending) to read them. If nothing else, they look good on the book shelf or the side table. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman wrote Good Omens in 1990 and it is being made into a mini series to be released on Amazon Prime next year. Amazon has already released the TV series of Gaiman’s American Gods.

  This happens with classics all the time, with each new movie or TV series, the author is back in fashion. Not that people like Gaiman ever went out of fashion but their readership is limited because of their books being classified, ridiculously so, as genre books. For the writers, to find books they had written years ago as the hot topic of conversation and reviews, it must surely be a surreal experience. Though no doubt a very pleasant one. Readers who never read fantasy are watching these series and then getting drawn to the books. The flip side is that those who have read the books and loved them are sometimes up in arms about the depiction of favourite characters and vent to the author. This happens particularly with fantasy books as the fandom tends to be vocal and strident. And it is a rare director or scriptwriter who can truly understand the essence of the genre and deal reverently with the book. Not many realise that fantasy is not just sword and sorcery or dungeons and dragons. Sometimes, even if they do, they are too lazy to explore the depths. This happened catastrophically in the series adaptation of the Earthsea books. The readers were horrified at the clueless and careless production based on an amazing series of books. As indeed was the author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who called it a ‘generic McMagic movie’.

  As fantasy readers, the increasing trend of adapting fantasy books to the screen is exciting because we are wondering what’s next and keeping our fingers crossed that a complete hash would not be made of a much loved book. After all, there is only one more season left of Game of Thrones and there are so many, many books that could fill that slot. More power to the magicians.

A roller coaster to nowhere

9793AEDD-156B-4F54-B3BE-AD1C60F87CFD.jpegCaraval by Stephanie Garber is a good example of why one should not go by covers and reviews when picking up a book to read. Although, there is little else to go by these days. It was a good thing that we borrowed the book from the library instead of buying it.

A magical game on an isolated island to which you need an invitation and you can choose to either participate or watch, had so much potential. The main character Scarlett had been writing for years to Legend, the mysterious game master of Caraval, requesting an invitation. From the time she and her sister were little girls, they hoped that a participation in the game and the chance to win a wish would help them to get away from their tyrannical father. After years of no response forthcoming, the invitation finally comes just before Scarlett’s wedding. But she is now reluctant to participate and her sister Tella pretty much abducts her and takes her to the island where Scarlett finds herself unwillingly drawn into the game.

The rest of the story is a roller coaster where the reader along with Scarlett does not know what is real and what is part of the game. The game takes place within what seems to be a large amusement park type setting, which can be, at times, quite frightening. Everything gets turned on it’s head at some point and none of the characters are what they seem. The descriptions of Caraval are lavish and Garber successfully  brings out the decadence of it all. The story  could have been exciting had it been strung together a little more tightly and had the characters not been so shallow. Events are just randomly put in without much explantion to make the story move to the author’s convenience.

There were no plausible reasons given to explain the intense cruelty of the girls’ father or their grandmother’s obsession with Legend. Scarlett’s haste to get out of the game after having spent her entire life trying to get there and her constant guilt for one thing or another becomes irritating. There was no real sense of a competition taking place and the ending was just too convenient and contrived.

While reading, the book moves at a rapid pace and the reader goes along willingly with it, accepting the twists and turns, with the expectation that all will be explained and answers will be found. It’s only once the book has ended that one feels cheated and hence irritated since there are no answers. Unless the author has left everything to the sequels, which in itself seems unfair. Besides, even fantastical magic should have some rules and explanation for the way it works. world building for a fantasy novel is of the utmost importance. This was truly a YA book in the sense that it lacked depth and the numerous comparisons to The Night Circus are totally unwarranted. Frankly we can’t understand why the book got such amazing reviews and was mentioned all over the place last year. It can be read if one has nothing better on hand.