Friday, June 19, 2009

Between the Assassinations - Aravind Adiga

Aravind Adiga's second book, Between the Assassinations is a set of short stories which describe life in Kittur, a fictitious town in coastal Karnataka. The title refers to a period of time between the assasinations of two former Indian Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi (1984-1991). The stories are set during this time frame, when India yet had to liberalize its economy, and had not seen the economic growth witnessed during the latter half of the nineties.

Although I am not a big fan of short stories, Adiga's storytelling makes for some really delightful reading. Comparisons with his more famous 'Man Booker Prize' winning "The White Tiger" are inevitable, and I felt this book was equally enthralling. As is the case with 'The White Tiger', most of the stories deal with crushing poverty, casteism, the innumerable injustices and ironies of Indian life. Each story describes a certain aspect of life - a clash of ideologies, the fury of an underprivileged worker etc.

I could not help comparing the book to many of R K Narayan's stories from another fictitious town Malgudi. I think a major similarity between the two writers is that R K Narayan's stories are simple, delightful tales of everyday life of a common man. 'Between the Assassinations' is similar, the striking difference being that Adiga depicts casteism and excruciating poverty and the gap between haves and have-nots in India in close detail.

Some thought provoking words from Aravind about his books:

"At a time when India is going through great changes and, with China, is likely to inherit the world from the West, it is important that writers like me try to highlight the brutal injustices of society (Indian). That's what I'm trying to do -- it is not an attack on the country, it's about the greater process of self-examination."

His books are about self-examination alright, 'brutal' self-examination, if I might add. You will love it if you have liked 'The White Tiger' or even R K Narayan's writings.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Andromeda Strain - Michael Crichton

After reading a lot of non-fiction it was starting to get a bit dry and I wanted to read a fast paced thriller. So I picked up Michael Crichton's 'The Andromeda Strain', and I must say I was not entirely satisfied in terms of what I was looking for. Maybe the movie would have been more interesting, or I am not entirely into thrillers dealing with a heady mix of biology, physics and chemistry. Let me give just a brief inkling of the plot and not play spoilsport in case you may want to read it.

The Andromeda Strain’ refers to a class of virus which is not found on earth, and enters the planet via a satellite probe that was sent to orbit the earth for military purposes. Once exposed to open air, it rapidly kills humans by blood coagulation, based on the chemical composition of the individual’s blood. Project Wildfire comprises of a team of scientists trying to study and neutralize the possible dangers of an alien life form entering the planet. The project's facility has all the technological know how to quarantine and neutralize any extra-terrestrial life forms. There are a few survivors on whom the virus seems to have no effect, and the team of scientists gets to work of studying and testing the strain of virus to discover how it replicates and kills humans. They find its amazing ability to mutate and adapt to the environment. Crichton frequently explains concepts ranging from biology to physics in order for the reader to understand the developments the scientists are making. The novel alternates between being thrilling, informational and fictitious. This is a decent thriller, and you can finish it in one go. I plan on getting my hand on another of Crichton’s books the next time I am bored with non-fiction.

BTW, does the name ‘Michael Crichton’ ring any bells? No? He was the author of the original novel ‘Jurassic Park’. The movie became part of popular culture, and had me spellbound as a kid; it showed Hollywood’s expertise in bringing a plot to life. Later dozens of other movies of similar genre came out and computer graphics became mundane.

The Andromeda Strain was made into a movie in 1971 and a TV series in 2008.

A number of scientific documents are presented to support claims for the strains characteristics. I later came to know that this fabrication of scientific documentation (numbers, charts, etc.) is part of a false document literary technique. This is fiction written about apparently real, but actually fake documents.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

American Pastoral - Philip Roth

'American Pastoral' by Philip Roth is the story of third-generation Jewish-American Seymour "Swede" Levov. A legendary Newark high school athlete and local hero, Swede serves in a military role at the end of WWII and eventually inherits control of his family's Newark glove manufacturing business. Some family strife results from his choices of marrying Dawn, an Irish-American, Catholic former Miss New Jersey, and moving into an old Jersey country farmhouse far outside Newark, but his life mostly resembles a suburban fable of peace and success.

Swede and Dawn have a daughter Merry, who transforms from a delightful child into an angry teenager consumed with violent leftist fanaticism. Roth's protagonist in the novel Nathan Zuckerman was a childhood acquaintance of the Levov family. Decades later, after meeting with Swede and later his brother Jerry, Zuckerman explores the Swede's story, and most of the book is Zuckerman's account of the Swede's disintegrating life during his middle age.

The united States faced some turbulent times during the late 1960's and early 1970's like racial discord, the Vietnam war, the Weathermen and Watergate all of which feature prominently in the novel. The reader needs to have a basic understanding of these historic incidents in order to fully understand Merry's reasons for her extreme views.

Swede's father bemoans the transformation of Newark into a blighted, crime-ridden failure, and urges his son to move the glove factory elsewhere. Even though the plot fades towards a somewhat unsatisfying end, this novel offers strong, memorable characters powered by vivid human emotion. Philip Roth's writing is arduous to comprehend at times for his first time reader, but also is very genuine and well written where dialogue among characters is involved.

Some trivia from wikipedia:

"The novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998 and was included in "All-TIME 100 Greatest Novels"."

"The film rights to it were later optioned by Paramount Pictures. In 2006, it was one of the runners-up in the "What is the Greatest Work of American Fiction in the Last 25 Years?" contest held by the New York Times Book Review."