Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Playboy's College Fiction - Edited by Alice .K.Turner


Synopsis:
A collection of 21 years of Playboy’s College Fiction writers, these short stories span from 1986 to 2006.

Category:
Simple, Serious

Genre:
Fiction

Language:
It Is a Playboy Contest – what do you expect?

Favorite Quote:
None

Review:
Every one of us has a short-story writer inside us. It is, after all, an easy task – we have one episode, few characters and good language to make it work. There are numerous personal blogs dedicated to such stories. Despite the overload , very few stay in mind. Off the top of my head, I can think of the classics like The Lady or the Tiger, The gift of Magi and The Most Dangerous Game, and  the recent ones like Creative Writing published in New Yorker. The line demarcating a standard short story from an unforgettable one is a right mix of innovation and intrigue.
I was not aware that the Playboy Magazine published clean and critically acclaimed fictional stories. I was even more surprised to know that writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Woody Allen have been featured in the magazine at least once. So, when I chanced upon a collection of College fiction Collection, I was very excited and couldn't wait to start. 

The forward of the book reads thus:
Writing a great short story is like telling a good joke at a bar. You have to get in and get out with perfect timing. The least hesitation or nuance in the tone of voice can make the whole thing fall flat, especially if the joke sucks in the first place. There is little room for languorous description in a short story. There is no time for lengthy exposition, no place for detailed background information and digression. The characters may be compelling enough to carry a novel, but in the rigors of the story form the protagonist must be involved in only one perfect, complete episode.
I cannot agree more with that, but I t hink the author missed one word here – One perfect, complete and interesting episode. You can find no fault in the language, sentence formations or even the style of writing – in fact, it is impeccable. One can see that this book houses a set of innovative writers – however, story tellers, they are not.

I could not help but wonder why I could not like the stories, which were, after all, Contest Winners – selected out of 1000 entries. I came up with some theories on that.
  • There were four stories (out of the published twenty-one) which were marginally interesting (“Que Linda Takes the Rite Aid”, “1%”, “Fishboy” and “Gerald’s Monkey”) and all of them are post-1990 entries. It made me wonder if there was a disconnect because the rest were before my time. If that is indeed the case, I will go out on a limb to say that if a story is going to affect only the current generation, then it is not much of a story at all. I am sure that Kalki and Edgar Allan Poe will be read (and re-read) by generations after ours.
  • Being published by Playboy, it may have catered to the guy’s mentality more. Again, I can only scoff at the idea, for though all the stories were filled with testosterone (guns and girls and general stupidity), they were way too flat (for lack of a better term).
  • The final assumption is that considering the contents of the book, the non-exciting and dull narration would have been a welcome change.


The last theory seems plausible, and I can definitely live with that. By all means,  these critically acclaimed stories may make for a good read while leafing through the contents of an adult magazine. As a standalone collection of short stories, however, they are woefully inadequate.

Verdict:
The story lines are innovative and the language is impressive, but the stories themselves are neither interesting nor intriguing.

Alias Grace - Margaret Atwood


Synopsis:
Margaret Atwood’s fictional account of a real-life controversial double murder is dotted with passion, dignity and morbidity.

Category:
Simple, Serious

Genre:
Fiction, Non-Fiction

Language:
No profanity

Favourite Quote:
Just because a thing has been written down, Sir, does not mean it is God’s truth.

Review:
On July 23, 1843, a double murder took place in Canada – of Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper (and mistress) Nancy Montgomery. The murderers were believed to be their employees, Grace Marks and James McDermott.The trial for murder was held in November, 1843, where McDermott was found guilty and was hanged. Grace however got a life sentence due to her age, gender, and her apparent witlessness.Grace was then confined to the penitentiary, and despite some violent behaviour, worked as a trusted servant for the governor. Finally, in 1872, she was granted a pardon to a home provided for her.


Rarely do we read books where the reader is made aware of the sequence of events before dwelling into the details (Chronicles of a death foretold comes to mind). The above story forms the backdrop of Margaret Atwood’s Man Booker Prize shortlisted book “Alias Grace”. After an artful poem summarising the events leading up to the murder, the writer’s story of Grace’s past and present unfolds through a series of conversations between her and Dr. Simon Jordan. Set in 1859, the chapters are introduced with quotes, newspaper articles and expert opinions.  Atwood is clearly sympathetic towards Grace, and one gets a feeling it is because of her assumed “witlessness and weakness of sex”. There are many tongue-in-cheek conversations between the doctor and her , like this for example:
“Then You have given up hope?”
“Hope of what, Sir?” She asked mildly.
Simon felt foolish, as if he’d committed a breach of etiquette.“Well - Hope of being set free.”
 “Now, why would they want to do that, Sir?” She said, “A murderess is not an everyday thing.  As for my hope, I save that for the smaller matters. I live in hopes of having a better breakfast than I had today.”
There are three themes running through the narration – the introduction of the railway lines in Canada, the 1837 Rebellion and Spiritualism.  This motley mix provided a very rich background for the murdered and the murderers:  Grace’s family’s move to Canada for finding work in Railways, Mary Whitney’s pro-democratic thoughts and McDermott’s surly personality due to the after-effects of the rebellion and unravelling the mystery of Grace’s mind through hypnotism.
The book is written in first person narrative from Grace’s point of view and from Simon’s perspective in third-person.  It is unsettling to be inside Grace’s head, and one can immediately gauge that the narrator is unreliable. While talking to Simon, she ends up thinking on how to please him and what he would like to hear, making us unsure on what has been sensationalised by her. There are multiple shades to her personality, as noticed by the courtroom (in reality), by Simon and of course by Grace herself. As she herself admits:
Underneath that is another feeling, a feeling of being wide-eyed awake and watchful. Its like being wakened suddenly in the middle of the night, by a hand over your face, and you sit up with you heart going fast, and no one is there. And underneath that is another feeling still, a feeling like being torn open; not like a body of flesh, it is not painful as such, but like a peach and not even torn open, but too ripe and splitting open of its own accord. And inside the peach there’s a stone.
Atwood leaves tantalising hints throughout the book, giving us inkling on where she is planning to take it. The introduction of Mary Whitney (a la Daphne De Maurier’s Rebecca), the circumstances surrounding her death and its effect on Grace creates a kaleidoscopic groundwork for what transpired next.
By the end of the book, it is unclear whether Grace was suffering from Amnesia or was a cunning impostor. Her cool attitude after the double murders (she cleans up the house before dressing up in Nancy’s clothes) is complemented by her attitude when she is pardoned. In Grace’s words:
I was rescued, and now I must act like I was rescued. …It calls for a different arrangement of the face, but I suppose it will become easier with time.
It takes a seasoned writer to turn a simple story into a page-turner without introducing cheap-thrills. It takes a good researcher to weave Canada’s past into one of the most controversial murders seamlessly. Finally, it takes a skilled story-teller to create an unreliable protagonist, thus changing the outcome of the novel based on what one believes.

Verdict:
It is a long read, and not a very light one. However, the book is very absorbing and turns out to be engrossing purely because of Margaret Atwood’s writing finesse. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

It's your move, Wordfreak! - Falguni Kothari

This review is a part of the Book Reviews Program at BlogAdda.com. Participate now to get free books! 


Synopsis:
A blind-date between a couple builds into a passionate romance and meaningful relationship before it gets complicated

Category:
Simple, Witty, Funny

Genre:
Romance

Language:
Though there is no profanity, there are graphic love-making scenes.

Favorite Quote:
None

Review:
WordFreak, aka Aryan is a successful page-3 architect who is completely smitten when he meets his online scrabble partner, WordDiva (Alisha). Being a divorce lawyer, Alisha is naturally hesitant to jump into a relationship, an online one at that. However, there is a whirlwind of romance and they seem like a couple of puzzle pieces falling in place with family and friends filling the landscape up. Mid-way through the book, the expected twist happens, albeit from unexpected quarters.



It’s your move, Wordfreak!” unintentionally drives home an important point. While a title is not a determinant, it should nevertheless be relevant. The book was marketed with the following tag line – 
What do you get when you mix words and the World Wide Web? –  A Scrabbulous Romance.  
The nerd in me expected a lot of witty one-liners and a war-of-words. However, there is nothing Scrabbulous about it. The book mentions a couple of games between the two (with more focus on their chatting than the game itself), and other than the nicknames, it doesn't play any part in the narration at all. A more appropriate title would have been “Emotional Baggages” or some such.
Dissatisfaction with the title was compounded with an overdose of romantic-novel clich├ęs. The tall, handsome and extremely successful hero, the grounded, practical and sexy heroine, corny lines (After meeting her for the first time, Aryan believes He could move mountains, swim across oceans, leap into the cloudless sky just to see her sweet face and bask in her glory – Seriously?) and the cringe-worthy description of their love making scenes.  The witty dialogues are not so witty, and the funny one-liners seem contrived.

However, where first-time author Falguni Kothari stumbled with the naming and the language, she made up for it through her protagonists and plotting. 
Most of the new authors make a common mistake – they don’t build their characters. Even within a strong plot and superior language, they end up looking like roughly sketched caricatures mouthing the written lines. Kothari's character building is spot-on. All the female characters have been portrayed as strong and independent with a unique personality to match. Though their male counterparts were a tad unrealistic (A man may be able to move mountains, but he cannot change his beliefs in a course of 3 months just because his lover told him to), they are unravelled slowly and systematically. 
Strong characters required a stronger plot, and the author was able to provide it to them. Aryan’s inclination towards environment-friendly construction (loved the tree-house idea!) stuck the green chord in me. However, I wish he had been kept more realistic, and not made out to be a goody-two shoes, by using his money to finance rural projects (Only Margaret Mitchell had the guts to make her primary characters unabashedly selfish and the talent to make them so memorable). The importance given to auxiliary relationships (Uncle-Nephew, Grandmother-Grandson, Mother-Daughter and girlfriends) were heart rendering.

Verdict:
It’s a mixed bag, where the positives manage to outshine the negatives. If you can get past a couple of glitches, the book is an ideal relaxing read for the weekend. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Lord Of The Rings: Reviewing the book through the movie

There is LOTR, the movie and then, there is LOTR, the book. The movie will be watched more than once for its out-of-this-world (literally!) visuals, characters and of course, the story. The book will be read more than once for appreciating the beauty of written word, visualising the beautiful parallel universe created, learning some much-needed lessons, and more importantly, for trying to unravel all the riddles, big and small. 
It is very difficult to write a review of the book when the movie was so staggeringly successful -The movie, which did not follow the book to the letter; the movie which, in an attempt at commercial success, decided on compromising on the beauty and the purity of the book. 
Don’t get me wrong. I loved all the three movies – how can one not?! The places were spot on ( Be it the bleak Mordor landscape, the peaceful Shire or the beautiful Rivendell), the characters were almost perfect ( especially Legolas played by Orlando Bloom who still looks like an elf in disguise – I still think Aragorn, Arwen and Frodo could have been cast better) and the visuals were stupendous (how can anyone forget Gollum, the Oliphaunts, Balrog or even the Orcs?). However, the focus of the movie was totally different from that of the book. Through subtle omissions and additions, the feel of the story changed. 
Here are some I could think right off the top of my head:
  • Tom Bombadil’s absence: 
I have to admit that I didn’t particularly take to Tom Bombadil initially. Deep into the forest, in the middle of an unexpected trouble (from the forest itself, not the black riders), we are introduced to this Santa Claus –ish fellow, who can talk to trees and change weather through his singing. On re-reading the chapter however, it was clear that he was here for a purpose – to lighten the mood. We, as readers, had just been introduced to the black riders, and before we could start brooding about it, we are given some nonsensical songs (Hey Dol! Merry Dol! Ring a dong dillo!), and a hope to normalcy. 
  • Characterising Saruman: 
Saruman was made larger than life, almost literally, when the fellowship try to cross the mountains and they hear his voice asking the mountains to not let them pass, making them enter the mines of Moria. The book however, talks about “fell voices”, giving an scary and ghostly feel to the mountains, which were once occupied by evil kings much before Sauron. This simple explanation makes us realise that Sauron was not present since the beginning of time (in this world), and that there could be equally interesting stories in the past.
On hindsight, the book had one drawback which was taken care of by the movie. In the first book, Saruman is present only through Gandalf’s narratives, and even in the second book, he is introduced in person only briefly (One paltry chapter titled “The Voice of Saruman”). At least in this case, I prefer the movie, because we were aware of just how big a threat Saruman really was. 
  • The multi-faceted Merry and Pippin: 
Tolkien characterised (through Gandalf) hobbits thus:
"These hobbits will sit on the edge of ruin and discuss the pleasures or tables or the small things… if you encourage them..” 
By the end of the war, Pippin is a knight in Gondor, and Merry is a Swordthain of Rohan. They maintain their titles when they go back home. However, they had trouble waiting in Shire, for, unlike as depicted in the movie, Saruman manages to escape Isengard with Wormtongue, and plans his revenge by occupying shire with orc-like men. The hobbits, led by Merry and Pippin, fight with the men and restore it back to normalcy, while Saruman is killed by Wormtongue.
 It was heartening to read more about Merry and Pippin, even though it involved more fighting and destruction of the beautiful Shire. I’m sure the movie gave an alternate ending to shorten and simplify the story, but it reduced their importance, during and after the war. For despite their levity and silliness, they were brave and successful leaders – quite a rare combination. 
  • The bonding of Legolas and Gimli: 
Tolkien had his best brainwave when he decided to make best friends out of this unlikeliest of pairs. The friendship starts with Legolas defending Gimli to the guards of Lothlorien, and is strengthened through their mutual respect for Galadriel. These two then make a promise to accompany the other in his dream quest – Talking to the trees of Fanghorn for Legolas, and exploring the caves of Helm’s Deep for Gimli. This simple gesture symbolises hope (of returning after the war), forming unlikely bonds (between dwarves and elves), mutual respect despite the differences and changing instincts (Elves don’t like caves, and Dwarves are not comfortable in forests). 
  • Frodo Suspecting Sam: 
I’m still unsure on the primary motive for making Frodo doubt Sam before entering the caves of the giant spider, Shelob – For added dramatics, displaying Frodo’s increasing weakness or for showcasing Ghollum’s wickedness? 
Whatever the case may be, it compromised on the primary characteristic of the Frodo-Sam relationship – their unquestioned trust and affection for each other. It was heartening to know that neither Ghollum nor a ring could destroy something as simple and strong as that. 

  • Aragorn and Arwen’s romance: 
Maybe the romantic in me should have rejoiced on the extra screen time given for a couple which had almost no page-time. The chase sequence of Arwen with Frodo, though beautifully shot (that’s an understatement) still overshadowed the truth, where Frodo faced the black riders alone. Elrond opposing the marriage and Arwen dreaming about Aragorn with her son were borderline crazy. We get the briefest of glimpses on this relationship through a curious conversation between Aragorn and Galadriel (who was also Arwen’s grandmother). 
If a romance angle was indeed necessary, I wish the movie had focussed more on Faramir-Eowyn and Sam-Rose – the only two proposals in the book.  

  • The story of the Ents: 
Ents are Fascinating creatures, not because of their strength, but because of their passion. For example, with Ents loving the wild life, and Ent wives preferring the shrubs and gardens, the two got separated (Read this beautiful song written as a conversation between an Ent and an Entwife). When Merry and Pippin leave for Shire, Treebeard asks them to keep a look out for Entwives. This simple and heartfelt request makes us realise that the ring and Sauron were not a priority for him. The Ents were hoping for their happy ending – with or without Sauron in power. 

  • House of Healing: 
I was always surprised that Aragorn was accepted so unanimously by the people of Gondor. The truth, however, is slightly more complicated. They may have expected him as the king, but Aragorn was not ready to enter the city until he could prove his worth. And prove he did – by bringing the almost-dead back to life. Faramir, Eowyn and Merry were gravely ill when the healer mentions the prophecy that “the hands of the king are the hands of the healer”. Aragorn is thus summoned, who heals them back to life. 
A small scene maybe, but it potentially helped build Aragorn’s character. He was strong and brave indeed, but more importantly, he was compassionate, making him the perfect “king who returned”. 

  • The lack of music: 
The movie rang with the sounds of war and orcs. The pages of the book, on the other hand, swayed to the music of the songs of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pippin, Bilbo, Legolas and Aragorn. There are silly verses, love stories, and historical events in these songs which are a joy to the senses. 


It is clear that Tolkien wanted the wars to form a tumultuous background and nothing more. Indeed, even the one at Helm’s Deep is only 9 pages long, while the attack of orcs just before the fellowship is broken is not described at all. This book is more about the triumph of goodness over evil, where the goodness is not expressed in terms of skills (like Gimli’s axe or Legolas’ Bow), but in terms of the purity of spirit. 
The winning characteristic of the book, though subtle, is how there is a hint of more. While the story of the ring is undoubtedly fascinating, one gets a feeling that in the history of this world, it is not the most intriguing one. I, for one, would be very interested to know if the Ents finally found their Entwives, how Gandalf got the third elf ring (If you didn’t already know that, gotcha!) and who exactly was Tom Bombadil. 
Like Tolkien says, the only major flaw with Lord of the Rings was that it got over too soon.