Friday, August 31, 2007
Moving on to what I think of Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost:
There's really nothing I have to say about this book that hasn't been said already, far more eloquently too, but I liked the book enough to risk the repetition charges so here goes. (But I promise to keep it short)
In 1984, ten year old Kate Meaney opens her own detective agency Falcon Investigations and sets out to find crime in Green Oaks shopping center. Kate lives with her grandmother in a run down Birmingham neighborhood and goes to school with kids from the housing estates. She spends her summers and holidays at Green Oaks hoping to nab bank robbers. Kate is intelligent and diligent, and her attempts at being a real detective makes those of us who attempted this at fourteen feel very stupid. Kate thinks she has a prospective suspect, and the book moves on to 2003 to the lives of a security guard Kurt who sees Kate's ghost on CCTV, and Lisa, a duty manager at a music store whose brother was suspected of having something to do with Kate's disappearance. Green Oaks has grown too during these years, into the sprawling monster that we all know by different names - Schaumburg Mall, Oxford St, The Forum. Kurt and Lisa, miserable in their dead-end jobs and lives, get together to find the little girl gone missing nearly twenty years ago and the mystery is finally unraveled.
Life as seen through a ten year old's eyes is not exactly easy to do, but O'Flynn does this almost effortlessly - the first part of the book which deals with Kate's drab life and her adventures, or rather her search for exciting adventures is charming and utterly delightful to read. (Of course premium office supplies are very important to an effective investigator. Who among us has not been enamored by the stationery cupboards in school and in the stores and not deemed them essential for whatever it is that we were doing right then?) The professionalism that Kate displays in her investigative work is exemplary, something that only a precocious ten year old is capable of, and something which will make you fall in love with this child with her monkey.
With Kurt and Lisa, O'Flynn is not as comfortable - a bit clunky when Kurt and Lisa talk about their unhappy states of mind but O'Flynn doesn't delve too long there; she switches to their everyday tasks and the people they work with, and these parts are lovely. A missing brother who sends birthday tapes every year, a mother who still shops in the High St, a conversation with a co-worker given to violent urges, a corporate trainer who goes on about helicopters and ladders, the imminent store inspection which (almost) never materializes all manage to be so depressingly funny. The most important character in the novel other than Kate is Green Oaks itself and here, in describing the mall and the people who inhabit it, who make it the monster that it has become, O'Flynn is just perfect. How does one manage such a scathing critique of the lives we lead in what is clearly an emotional story about a missing girl? Or wait, is it really the loss of our moral and intellectual lives that O'Flynn is talking about while cleverly inserting the poignant story of a ten year old detective? Well, you will have to go read the book to figure that out.
So all's perfect then, you ask? Not really. In an attempt to tie in all loose ends, the plot becomes way too twisted. But if you think this book is about the plot once you have read it, you need to get your head checked. Really. Oh, and one more thing. Falstaff mentions this in his review but I have a feeling this will sound more credible coming from me - What Was Lost is one of the most accessible books that I have read in recent months. Just because Falstaff loves it so much does NOT mean its not readable. Quite the contrary. It is a fast read and in all probability, you will finish it in less than three hours. O'Flynn's success is precisely that she manages to put in so much in what is a hugely enjoyable read. (And it is to find authors such as O'Flynn that we have long lists. And Melas!)
PS: Just received word from library that three of my reservations Mister Pip, Winnie and Wolf, and Darkmans are all available for pickup. The weekend is looking very good, methinks!
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Important lessons learned:
- Climbing up a waterfall isn't as difficult as you think. Climbing down is another story however
- Always listen to the Don. When he tells you that your toenails are too long when he says goodbye at the airport, they are too long. You better clip them as soon as you get home. If not, you will go to Scotland to climb mountains and while descending one of them, your long nail will get mashed against your hiking boots and that is not fun
- If I ever write a book, it will be called Climbing the wrong mountain. So what if we have compass and OS maps and everything?
There are a few good stories from the trip but they will have to wait. This stupid laptop is Bill's which means it runs on Linux and for some reason, it is refusing to let me upload pictures. Bill refuses to help (as usual), so you will have to wait till next week. Of course I can go on without pictures but you know, I also have pictures of a few heavenly lakes (among other things) that I want to show off too!
Friday, August 24, 2007
PS: Anoop, no, that's asking for too much, don't you think? He booked the car in my name, I am driving.
Thursday, August 23, 2007
"What is not sustainable?"
"What life are you talking about?"
"What did you do today?"
"Hmm..let me think. After you left, I read for a bit. Saw a movie. Had lunch, went to library and got some other books and DVDs. Walked in the park. Came home, talked to mom. Reading now"
"You could have cooked something na?"
"Didn't feel like it. One of these days, I will"
"What did you do yesterday?"
"More or less the same. Why do you want to know all this now?"
"And the day before?"
"Similar stuff only. Wait, yesterday I figured I will do some shopping. Not that I wanted anything but you know, let me go see what all these shoppers do and maybe get something"
"Usual only. Got so sick of it after fifteen minutes. Oxford St is so claustrophobic. And all those people..eeks!"
"You know you only go shopping when you want to feel all superior to those shoppers who have nothing better to do"
"Could be true. But really, it puts me off so much. If I want anything, I will fly to America and shop at a mall there. If nothing else, its so not pretentious like it is here. And next time I tell you that I want to go shopping when I don't have to buy anything please remind me of the last time I did that"
"My pleasure. But coming back to the point, this schedule you got going, this is your life now?"
"Well, no. Next week I am thinking I will go to a few museums. There are some special exhibits which sound interesting"
"What about planning for this Scotland trip?"
"I have to plan for that now?"
"Well you are the one sitting at home with nothing to do"
"Not entirely accurate. I am getting so much reading done"
"Why can't you spend some time and plan this trip?"
"You know why"
"No, I don't"
"Where is the money going to come from?"
"The money for the trip. Now that I don't work, we can't afford it you idiot. Where are you going to find the money?"
"Its not like before. We can't take off anywhere we want to"
"And for some reason, you are so happy with this life"
"I am just getting used to it. Now that I have lived it for three whole days, I see how this can grow on you. I am beginning to understand how you could do five years of your life doing nothing. Its fun"
"Isn't it? Why did you do it if it wasn't?"
"Hello, I was working the last five years of my life"
"Yeah right. Towards what? As far as I know, you don't even have a PhD"
"Lots of people don't graduate"
"Yeah yeah. You know what? Falstaff, even Falstaff is writing his dissertation ok? Look at you!"
"That doesn't mean anything. Even I have written my dissertation"
"The point is that you have to get your act together"
"I have to do what? Hello, I am happy the way I am thank you"
"You can't live this life!"
"Why? I will be happy. And anyway, you promised me food and clothes"
"I did what?"
"I have photographic evidence ok? And BM was there too. After the wedding when we were in Cal, they got you to give me one plate with sari and food and they said it meant that you will provide with clothes and food for the rest of my life. I don't forget such things"
"Oh my God!"
"I am a woman of modest needs. Food I can even cook when I feel like it. And I don't particularly like shopping. Very low maintenance. You have the dream wife!"
"No no no, I had the dream wife. She used to pull in more than twice as much as I made. And she wanted to go to Scotland and everywhere else. Now I am left with you!"
"So what are you going to do?"
"This is not what I signed up for. I want my money back"
"Excuse me, what money? If anyone is getting paid in this, its me. Shall we do accounts now?"
"Oh no. Leave that alone, I didn't say anything. Oh God, what am I going to to?"
"What was that?"
"Nothing. Nothing at all"
Wednesday, August 22, 2007
In a cafe in Lahore's Old Anarkali district, a bearded Pakistani named Changez converses with an American who happens to be in the area. The conversation is one-sided, humility mixed with a good amount of sarcasm. The narrator talks about his life in the States and his reasons for his return to his homeland. His intentions and the identity of the American remain unknown; they are immaterial. Changez's story goes something like this:
Changez comes from an upper middle class family from Lahore where even the women are professionals. His upbringing is that of a typical upper class male (though slowly dropping off from that strata) in the developing world. He goes to Princeton on a scholarship and his life there is unremarkable. After a successful interview with a valuation firm called Underwood Samson (US), Changez moves to New York. He takes to NY and US, and the focus of his life is on "fundamentals" as US wants it to be. He rises fast and becomes the Boss's favorite. He also gets into a relationship with an all-American Princetonian called Erica, and through her is inducted into NY society.
While on a business trip to Manila, Sep 11 happens and watching it on TV, our man smiles at the symbolism of it. Back in the States, the world is changing. The attack on Afghanistan, racial profiling and slurs that he is subjected to, a trip back to the homeland, another trip to Chile where the client talks to him about janissaries and most of all, the alienation of Erica who now lives only in nostalgia all make Changez realise that he is wasting his time in the States. He quits his job, packs his bags and moves back to Pakistan. Whether he is a different kind of a fundamentalist now, one which the world is more familiar with, is left unanswered.
Its a nice enough setup, interesting in a number of ways. Hamid's writing is smooth and the book is a real fast read. The atmosphere is just right - one gets the feeling of sitting in a cafe, chilled out, listening to this man's story. Hamid, like good diasporic writers is very good with cultural displacement - his comparisons between Manila and Lahore, his reactions to Erica's father's remarks on Pakistan, the lack of refinment that he finds in his fellow Princetonians, their disregard for money, even the smile when the Towers come down are nice touches which most immigrants in the New World will be able to associate with. But beyond that, there's nothing more to the book - the plot is trite, Changez's transformation is too simplistic. The characters - Jim, Erica, Changez - are engaging but they all seem etched out by pop Western imagination than by anyone who's walked the streets of Lahore and Mahattan. The monologue, Changez's relationship with Erica which mirrors his relationship with America, the names of the characters are all interesting but in the absence of a credible storyline they seem mere stunts that are there to make up for the lack of a plot.
The other issue that bugs me about the book is this: we live in times when conversations between the West and the Islamic world are absolutely essential. Fundamentalism can be of more than one kind, everyone who disagrees with America is not a terrorist are all ideas that everyone should be made aware of and Hamid is to be appreciated for starting this conversation. But here's the thing: this book is currently on the Times bestseller list. Millions of Americans read this and (perhaps) think that they understand the other side, the terrorist psyche, they understand Changez. For some reason, that's a little disconcerting.
Don't get me wrong, its a nice enough book and I liked it. I would readily pick it up at an airport bookstore to keep me entertained on a short flight. As long as its understood that this is mostly entertainment, and it is not hugely insightful or substantative. Which is why I think that the right tribute for this book is not the Booker (though considering the times, its not surprising that it made it to the longlist) but a Hollywood adaptation. Which I am sure will happen soon enough.
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
Just got back after a couple of weeks of eating fish and lazing about. Three flight related questions:
1. Can anyone please tell me why is it that in all major London airports (Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted), it doesn't matter which gate you fly into, you always always walk at least 20 minutes to get to the immigration counters? In no other country this seems to be the case. I mean, its not like other airports aren't busy or anything. The most flights that I have taken have been into or out of O'Hare and the most one takes to get to immigration is about 10 minutes. And yes, its busier than Heathrow.
2. Who decides in-flight entertainment on Emirates? They have some comedy where they claim to bring in news tickers from the BBC. On my flight from Calcutta to Dubai, the only two pieces of news that happened were regarding: a China Airlines place that caught fire in Japan and some enquiry into last month's Brazil plane crash. Right after these news stories happened, the pilot announced that we were going to land in Dubai in 20 minutes. That helped me feel better for a few minutes until I realised that we didn't seem to be going anywhere - the plane was just turning around. I checked the aircraft map (which is the only inflight entertainment I usually watch) and I was right! The plane had turned 180 degrees and was heading straight back into the Gulf, at this rate we will be in Karachi in an hour. I was sure this was a hijacking but no else seemed concerned. I immediately tuned to air traffic control (which ofcourse is the only inflight channel I listen to) but only static there. It was another 20 minutes before the pilot announced that we were in some sort of holding pattern which would continue for another hour.
3. Are there any bookstores in Dubai airport? It has numerous department stores and stuff but I couldn't find a single bookstore. On my flight here, I was reading Ryszard
Kapuscinski's The Shadow of the Sun: My African Life and in an essay on Ethiopia, he talks about how there is only one bookstore in the entire country and even that's filled with empty shelves. Obviously this is just the airport, but the airport is a reflection of the country and consumer traffic through it, no?
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
Saturday, August 11, 2007
Here's the complete longlist. Please let me know if you plan to review any of these before Oct, the 16th.
Darkmans by Nicola Barker
Self Help by Edward Docx
The Gift Of Rain by Tan Twan Eng
The Gathering by Anne Enright - Falstaff
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - Veena
The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies - Falstaff
Mister Pip by Lloyd Jones - Falstaff, Veena
Gifted by Nikita Lalwani
On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan - Falstaff, Bill
What Was Lost by Catherine O'Flynn - Falstaff, Veena
Consolation by Michael Redhill - Falstaff
Animal's People by Indra Sinha - Falstaff
Winnie & Wolf by A.N. Wilson
 I have read lots of new authors this year but mostly bite-size portions thanks to Granta's Best Young American novelists, so it cannot be counted. I LOVE Gary Shteyngart btw.
Wednesday, August 08, 2007
We enter the store, the Rooster points out the mocha frappuccino and jumps up and down, bemoans the absence of Starbucks in Sweden, goes to counter, orders the frappuccino and a couple of Belgian chocolate brownies (yes, now you know why I like this guy),turns on full charm and makes small talk with the girl at the till. Nothing strange. Then,
"Here, let me give you change"
The Rooster pulls out wallet which is the size of a football. He takes out a couple of bills, and then empties all his change on the counter. There are about 35 coins.
"Let me see now. Here's 50p, no, that's Swedish krona"
The girl at the counter, in an attempt to be helpful, picks up a couple of coins.
"No, not that. That's Danish 20p. Here, take this"
She looks a little confused.
"This doesn't looks like..."
"Oh I am sorry, that's Finnish"
The girl is more than a little upset now.
"Here, take this"
"That's Euros Sir"
"Oh, I am so sorry but I always end up with different currencies in my wallet and its confusing"
I pull out my wallet, and take out a few coins and give it to the girl.
"Here, I have change. That's 2.80...that's enough, right?"
"Yes, thanks ma'am"
The Rooster glowers at me.
"What? You don't want this money now?"
"No, its alright"
Five minutes later.
(Bill) "What was that about?"
"Yeah, what was that I am Scandinavian, I travel all over vibes you were putting on? And don't look at me like that. What did I do?"
"What did you do?! I had this nice little thing going on there..."
"Yeah right. That girl was going to throw you out any moment"
(Bill) "Wait, that whole thing is your pickup line?"
"More like pickup process"
"Pickup process? But wait, Finland is Euro"
"But why confuse the hell out of that poor girl by throwing out so much change?"
"Billster, don't tell me you can't figure that out"
"No, I see it but I was just thinking that I can't calculate tip"
"Nobody said you can do arithmetic"
"I see. Does it work?"
"Wait, hang on both of you, you are telling me that you pulled out all those coins because you wanted to test her arithmetic skills?"
"She is cute but you know, I have standards"
This next segment isn't exactly funny and I am not comfortable posting all of it, so this might seem more choppy than usual. I couldn't resist posting this mostly because of the dig at the end!
An hour later, we are on the grass at Regents Park enjoying some rare sunlight and talking about the Rooster's future plans. Astute readers no doubt remember that our Rooster is another Sergey Brin in the making.
"Yes, if this takes off, then I will have to move to San Francisco for a while"
"Yeah, that makes sense"
"If I live there for a few years, its not unlikely that I will meet someone I like"
"If you stop working 255 hours a week, yes, that's probably true"
"That can be managed. Its also likely that she will be American"
"In San Francisco I won't be that sure. But I see your point"
"Anyway she would want to live in the States"
"That's a problem?"
"Yes, because if we decide to have kids, then they will be American"
"They will be American. That's unacceptable"
"Why? You don't mind living there but you don't want your kids to grow up there!"
"Of course. Can you imagine your kids growing up to be American? Why are you both laughing so hard? What's funny?"
"Just thinking of people I know who don't want their kids to be American"
"No, just that they reach the same conclusion for diametrically opposite reasons"
"Oh, I see. Anyway, it is unlikely that I will end up with an American woman"
"I thought you just said it was likely"
"Yeah, but there are so many cultural differences. It will be difficult to make it work"
"Cultural differences? Between you and this woman you will meet in San Francisco? Right"
"No really. I agree, its not the same as A~ and M~ where one of them is Indian and the other is American but still there will be differences"
"Gender issues, I guess. That's the main one"
"How many American women do you know who are feminists?"
"Well, you are most likely to meet them in San Francisco than anywhere else in the country"
"That doesn't mean much to a Swede"
"You are telling us that you will meet no one in the States who has similar views on gender?"
"No, not that. Its easy to be that way right now"
"When we are young and single and there's just two of us all this is easy"
"Yeah. This happened in Sweden during the second wave. But once people settle down especially once they have kids, women just revert to gender stereotypes"
"Stop working or switch to part time, move to suburban obscurity, become a soccer mom types?"
"Yes, that's all that happens in the States. That's a little difficult to take"
"Oh! So all you want to do is to sit at home while poor partner does all the work and brings in money"
"No, that's not what I said. That's your husband you are thinking about there"
In other news, a whirlwind trip to Chola land is happening tomorrow, so will be out of commission for the next 48 hours or so
And yes, just saw the Man Booker longlist. We will do a proper mela this time. There's so many authors in there I know nothing about and should rectify that. Will put up Mela post once I get back. Falsie, as usual, you are signed up for everything except the one you couldn't even finish.
Monday, August 06, 2007
“When is the Rooster getting here? It thought he was supposed to be here by now”
“Yeah..maybe I should call him. Wait, here’s a text”
“The usual what?”
“Terrorist stuff! Whatever that means. You think they stopped him?”
“Yeah, he looks so much like your friendly neighborhood terrorist”
“Who knows man? Maybe nowadays there are these Swedish terrorists roaming freely in the small island”
Just to give you an idea of what the Rooster looks like, lets say that if you were teaching a bunch of school kids in
“No, not mistaknen. Nowadays they are just careful about Swedes”
"Yeah right""No seriously"
“Why is that?”
“Look around you”
Bill and I looked around.
“Because you are on some most wanted list?”
“No, don’t look at me. Look around you. Look at your apartment and tell me why Swedes are dangerous”
We looked around again.
“You don’t mean what I think you mean?”
“What else could it be?”
“What do you see around you?”
“I see both of you”
“I see two couches, this armchair, bookshelf, dining table and chairs..”
“What? Oh, wait. You mean, you mean Ikea?”
“What has that got to do with anything?”
“Ikea. Ikea terrorists. That’s what they are afraid of”
“Because of the stampede that results when a new store opens? Or because people die every year in the process of assembling their furniture?”
“Yes, that definitely. But its not just that”
“They think Ikea is the first step”
“Sweden taking over the world? How many of you are there again?”
“Nine million. But that’s hardly the point. How many officers were there in the India service again?"
"Yeah ok. But Swedes aren't exactly Brits. And this is 2007"
"So? A country of nine million and we have Ikea, SKF, Volvo, Saab, Bergman, and Bamse. Among other things. And not to forget, Absolut!”
“Yeah, a state owned vodka company. I have always wanted to move to Sweden”
“If they let us in, they are afraid that soon the world will convert”
“Everyone will be a social democrat. All states will become welfare states with a thriving market economy”
“And that’s bad because? No one wants to have the Swedish quality of life, I suppose”
“You guys know that. But they don’t agree. That’s why we are hunted”
“Hunted? Did you say hunted?”
“Yes. You know that EU passport line in the airports for instance. The only people they are learnt to be careful about are the Swedes”
“Yeah, they ask us all sorts of things before letting us through”
“They ask us whether we work for Ikea”
"They might just be curious. I would do that if I were this immigration officer. I mean, I have always wanted to know the two people who come up with names for the products.”
"Two women in their late 40s somewhere in the Swedish heartland. You can meet them if you want to"
"Two women in their late 40s somewhere in the Swedish heartland. You can meet them if you want to"
(Bill) "Wait, so what happens in immigration?"
“If we say No, we don't work for Ikea then they ask us if we plan to open a new store”
“And we have all been taught to say No”
“Taught? By whom?”
- One all-Mallu flight from Gelf to Trivandrum. First timer on one of these things and must say that it is way too much fun (as long as you are not the flight attendant). For some reason, food was served before beverages which created a huge uproar with everyone complaining (in Mallu) that the travel agent had promised them beer. The flight attendant tried to explain beer is on the way but somehow couldn't get her message across as she could speak only English and Mandarin. Apparently in a flight that was more than 95% Mallu, the crew spoke every single language in the world (incl. Swedish) except Malayalam. Anyway they finally started serving beverages but the beer got over before row number 22. These Mallus!
- Two propah fights with auto-drivers in Kochi. It always happens in Kochi. Probably because I had already fought with every auto-driver in Trivandrum that no one dare fight with me nowadays. Also think its something to do with Central Kerala being slightly xenphobic because the minute they realise that I am Tam, the price goes up exponentially. And explanations of how in Tamland they cheat you more start happening. Soon they realize that's bad argument
to use with me but its already too late. This time, among other things, I nearly whipped out my Std X marksheets to show him my Malayalam marks but the Don stopped me. He is a little soft on such things. Its because of people like him that auto drivers think they can do what they want. Anyway.
- Kappa, karimeen, and fish curry meals at Grand Hotel. Which is really the only real reason to visit the city.
- Trains, yes trains. So Don and I took the 6.25 Janashatabdi to Ernakulam, reached there at 9.45, went our separate ways, finished visa appt/meeting at 11, regrouped somewhere on MG Road equidistant between the two Ernakulam stations (Jn and Town or South and North) Don had forgotten to take the railway timetable with him and so we made our own. We wrote down all trains that go from Ernakulam to Trivandum, back calculated Ernakulam timings based on the arrival time in Trivandrum and whether the train is routed through Kottayam or Alappuzha, and wrote down whether the train stops at North or South. Based on this timetable, we had about 2 hours which we spent very diligently (at Grand Hotel), and then turned up at North station at 13.05. Three trains in the next hour as we had calculated - Parasuram (yes, from Mangalore, look at the name, where else will it be from?), Sabari and Korba. Caught Parasuram and got home for late afternoon tea. Checked railway timetable, we had gotten all trains to TVM, and all of them were within 20 minutes of estimated time! Cool, aren't we? (The only train I missed that the Don caught was Sabari which is supposedly a relatively new Hyd - Tvm daily)
Other than that, everything seems to be the same in God's own land. Rains are still around though the ferocity is gone as this is August, fish season isn't great but Rani manages to get the good stuff, Don and Amma are fighting over everything as usual, and the thirteen thousand nephews and nieces are all around. Things have quietened down a bit and the Rooster stories will continue soon.