Friday, September 5, 2008


A tool I just discovered - Gnooks. You can enter an author you like and the site shows you an animated map of other similar authors. The closer two authors are the more similar their styles. They also have a similar feature for movies. I tried Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and many of the movies that I like came up. Truman Show - check. Being John Malkovich. Adaptation.

Yes I know Amazon and other retailers have the "Customers who bought this also bought" section. But it's based on what customers bought. Money. Sales. Inherently dirty.

This tool on the other hand, at least from what I can tell, uses thematic or stylistic similarities to give you a recommendation. And it is a Google type clutter free site. Total kickass awesomeness.

Fear and Trembling

Fear and Trembling: A Novel
Amelie Nothomb
St. Martin's Griffin (2002), Paperback, 144 pages

In this book based on her own life, Amelie returns to her birthplace Japan on a year-long contract as an interpreter for Yumimoto Corporation. The corporation is a place of rigid hierarchy - "Mister Haneda was senior to Mister Omochi, who was senior to Mister Saito, who was senior to Miss Mori, who was senior to me. I was senior to no one" begins the author.

Amelie was born in a small Japanese village and spent her formative years there. For her, this job is a dream come true, a return to her childhood. Little does she know of the trials awaiting her. Early on, she incurs the wrath of Mister Omochi when she converses in fluent Japanese with a visiting Japanese delegation to Yumimoto. Her crime - discomfiting the delegation by not knowing her place as a Westerner within the Japanese corporate culture. She is immediately ordered to un-understand Japanese!

Amelie is taken under the wing of a well meaning Mister Tenshi who assigns her the task of writing a report on fat free butter being developed in Belgium. Her success with this report is immediately perceived by her ethereal superior Miss Mori as an attempt to rise too much too soon within Yumimoto without paying her dues.

Little transgressions like these get blown out of proportion and with each such misstep, Amelie is reassigned more belittling tasks. The final blow comes when Miss Mori banishes her to the toilets to clean them, both the men's and women's. Amelie enters a Zen like state by doing this task with all the dignity she can muster. She can quit over this, but doing so would be to lose face before all of Yumimoto.

All of Amelie's tribulations are detailed with a sparkling dry wit and even when you're laughing at Amelie's predicament, you're feeling terribly sorry for her. The most interesting part of the book was for me reconciling the character Amelie's life with that of the author. Amelie Nothomb's life details correspond roughly with much of the character's but you can't help but wonder if there isn't an element of exaggeration in this tale. In India, I've witnessed the fervor with which companies train their teams on Japanese cultural norms. But still, if this is the way most Japanese companies run, how are they the leaders in so many fields today?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Brother, I'm Dying

Brother, I'm Dying
Edwidge Danticat
978-1400041152, Knopf, September 2007

Edwidge Danticat has made a name for herself chronicling the lives of Haitian immigrants in the States as well as in the home country. In this autobiographical book, she writes eloquently of her own life. In 2004, she finds out she is pregnant while at the same time she gets the news that her father Andre is dying of cancer. Danticat's parents emigrated to the US on their own initially, leaving Edwidge and her younger brother in the care of Andre's brother Joseph and his wife. Danticat thus has deep and enduring ties to two sets of parents. During the duration of her pregnancy, her uncle is fighting his own battles in Haiti, targeted by the regime for his outspokenness as a pastor.

On hearing of his brother's illness, Joseph Dantica travels to United States, only to be held at the point of entry in the States when he innocently and honestly lets the immigration officials know that he is a victim of the political situation in his country, though he also states categorically that he plans to go back to his country and continue his church work. His admission of course raises red flags amidst the attending immigration officials; in post 9/11 America, anyone and everyone with a less than stellar past is fair game. Joseph becomes a victim of the heightened security situation in the States.

The author weaves her life story beautifully with those of her father and uncle - one in which birth and death, loss and gain, the personal and the political intertwine. If immigration is one of the compelling narratives of the 20th century, this book shows us the human costs of that narrative.

The Book of Chameleons

The Book of Chameleons
Jose Eduardo Agualusa (author), Daniel Hahn (translator)
Simon & Schuster
978-1416573517, $12.00

How are personal histories made? What exactly are memories made of? The Book of Chameleons (original Portuguese title O vendedor de passados) by Portuguese author Jose Eduardo Agualusa explores these fundamental questions. The protagonist of this book, an Angolan albino called Felix Ventura, is a vendor of pasts. For a fee, he will concoct a history for you, as complicated and detailed as you want it to be, provide you with adequate documentation such as birth certificates, family tree, even photographs and similar. In his home resides the narrator of this tale – a gecko named Eulalio, so christened by Ventura because his words are so pleasant to the ear.

Ventura’s client Jose Buchmann brings things to a head when he takes his fake past a little too seriously. A photojournalist, he traces the history of his fake parents, and sets out to visit and photograph his so-called birthplace. At Ventura’s home, he runs into Angela Lucia, a fellow photojournalist and professional nomad who roams the world photographing light. The connections between the characters become clear through a surprise twist in the end.

The book is enlivened by gecko’s perspective. He and Ventura dream individually but the stuff of their dreams is the same in content, and thus the two main characters communicate with one another. The gecko’s knowledge transcends this life into his past incarnation as a mama’s boy. In this book of fake and creatable pasts, Eulalio’s is the memory that is deepest.

The book is not without its flaws. The gecko/first person narrative leads to a few stilted sentences, since the writer has to explain how a gecko comes across this knowledge, but these are few and far between. The prose reads like poetry and the free flow of the writer’s style causes the pacing to suffer at times.

However the book also works on several levels – as a mystery/thriller, as a meditation on spirituality, as a satirical commentary on how money can buy anything –including a past. An interview with Agualusa at the end of the book reveals several interesting tidbits. The book is set at a point in Angolan history soon after the country gained its independence from its Portuguese rulers. A new class of nouveau riche came into power, and with this new wealth came a craving for new histories as well. The author mentions that he has based the gecko character on Jose Luis Borges.

We live in times of relentless and Google-able documentation, and hence poor memory may no longer be an acceptable excuse. As I write this, China’s doctoring of a gymnast’s date of birth is being unearthed via Googling, and a Bigfoot hoax was revealed after several incriminating videos were found on Youtube. But this tale shows us how imprecise histories can be and why it might sometimes even be necessary to have a certain fluidity to memories, histories and life in general.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Lord Vishnu's Love Handles

Lord Vishnu's Love Handles: A Spy Novel (Sort Of) by Will Clarke.
Tantor Media (2005), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD

The story veers sci-fi'ish - Travis Anderson can see into the future, random things like knowing before the phone rings that it is his mother-in-law calling or beating the computer all day long guessing the color of the cow's udders on (yes, they created the site as a promotional tool, and you can do it all day long too if you're so inclined).

So when he has dreams that his wife is doing his business partner, he believes it even though he's got no concrete proof something is going on. His wife it turns out is pregnant (is the child his or not, we never find out till the end). And if things can't get better, they really shouldn't get any get any worse - Travis' alcoholism gets out of hand and he starts seeing the blue skinned dude, the eponymous Vishnu of the title; his firm is audited and it is discovered that Reed Bindler, his partner has been swindling IRS of money and they collectively owe Uncle Sam something to the tune of 5 million dollars. IRS ropes in Travis to do psychic work for them in exchange for forgiving the 5 million debt. How he encounters enough dark forces for a lifetime and comes to love his wife and family in spite of her obvious promiscuity forms the rest of the book.

Part of the problem with the book is the use of dreams, visions and other such hooey as literary devices. It just stretches the imagination a little too tenuous, so I cannot imagine anyone other than a die-hard sci-fi fan actually enjoying the book. On the other hand, once I realized this book was more sci-fi and potty humor, I stopped expecting anything like religion or spirituality, so finding it was a pleasant surprise. The spirituality Travis Anderson ends up espousing is part Hindu, part mysticism. There're very Hindu concepts - for example both the dark forces, represented by the characters Ikshu and SageRat, and the light forces (Travis himself) work for the same master - the US government.

More interesting is the fact that this book was a breakout book on Will Clarke went from being a self-publisher to having his book picked up by Simon and Schuster. Who says self-publishing has to be the ugly redheaded stepchild to traditional publishing? Not Will Clarke who's laughing all the way to the bank with the optioning of this book by Hollywood. (Refer the exclusive interview with Lord Vishnu - it gives a glimpse into Clarke's thinking) This is a funny book, a little sophomorish (genre bending some reviewers on Amazon said - big No to that.) But to his credit, Clarke takes on some existential questions.

(Review crossposted on LibraryThing)

Almost Heaven

Almost Heaven by Marianne Wiggins.
Simon & Schuster (1999), Paperback, 224 pages

Last week I went to the library to borrow some books, armed with an NPR list, hoping to score some good stuff. But no. My library is way too ancient to have already invested in newly popular books. Not one of the books on my list was there. So I decided I would borrow some 4-5 books, just walking past shelves and picking up stuff that caught my fancy.

What catches my eyes is usually bright colors - lime greens, magentas, oranges. But lime green and magenta on a white background - dead giveaway - chick lit. Especially if there's a title in a scrolly font. It was the lack of a scrolly font that made me pick up Marianne Wiggins' Almost Heaven, even though the magenta and lime green were there, resting on a white sea.

I remembered Marianne Wiggins from her marriage to Salman Rushdie days - when he had that fatwa hanging on his head, and they were living in hiding, darting out of alleys and bus stops in the imagination I had. That didn't last - neither the fatwa nor the marriage. The book itself was about a woman who had witnessed her husband and children killed before her eyes in a tornado, and had suffered from a memory loss, as a result. A jaded news reporter who had witnessed the massacre in Srebenica, her brother's protege and close friend, helps her find her memory and finds his appreciation of his life. Even though I liked Wiggins' writing, I couldn't stomach the way I could foresee the dots.

Jaded reporter - finds out about his friend's sister having the accident - decides to visit - friend's sister is a stunner, even if she's prone to blank stares every time something from her recent past is brought up. You can see where it's going, right? Right into steamy sex in a trailer. Even if Wiggins explored nature and memory and loss, her plot points are way too Hollywoodish. I don't understand myself either. I love it when I can foresee the story line when I'm watching a film. Then why not a book? I don't know.

The most interesting part of the book to me was the dedication page. She had written something to the effect of "In memory of [some date], 1995". It just made me curious to know what that day was. Was it the day Rushdie's fatwa was lifted? Or when she got a divorce from him? Or her son was born? Who knows? Doesn't bode well to me that that is the most intriguing thing about the book.

(Review crossposted on LibraryThing)

This Earth of Mankind

This Earth of Mankind (Buru Quartet) by Pramoedya Ananta Toer.
Penguin (Non-Classics) (1996), Paperback, 368 pages

The other book I got was Pramoedya Ananta Toer's This Earth of Mankind (translated from the Javanese Bumi Manusia). I selected this book because it had a Penguin imprint on it. Penguin books is what I associated P. G. Wodehouse, and Love in the Time of Cholera. Penguin has an India office (a couple actually), and when I was growing up you could be sure the books they published were either serious literature, vernacular or otherwise, or stiff Brit humor. Something good, most of the time. I made a conscious effort not to look at the backcover and read the summary or read anything about the author. That was I wouldn't be prejudiced against or for it. I finished it this morning.

This Earth is set in 1898 Indonesia, colonized by the Dutch and tells the story of a young Javanese teenager, 18 year old Minke, who's a star student, attending a prestigious Dutch school, the only native there. He's challenged by his half-European, half-native (Indos they're called) friend to make friends with a concubine's daughter, and ends up falling in love with her. There's wonderful detail about Indonesian society, but it is an overtly political text.

And then there is Toer himself. He was a political prisoner imprisoned by Suharto's government for 14 years, and much of the book was told by Toer to his fellow prison mates orally. When he was finally released in 1973, he took a couple of years to write down this book as well as the stories of the other characters into a quartet. The books are called The Buru Quartet. Once I read about Toer's political life as a dissident (I googled him up about three quarters of the way into the book), it was impossible to separate that knowledge from the content of his book, so it was always as if there was something larger than what was being said in those pages. Someone on Amazon said, I think people are giving it 4 and 5 stars because of sympathy - for Toer's life. I also took it to mean that some sympathy finds its ways because it's a colonial work, and by a native author.

To some extent, I agree, I think it's an astute observation. The book offers a view into native people's mindsets, but sometimes the passages and the conclusions they reach seem too treacly. I've noticed this tendency among Western readers to automatically reward a foreign work with good reviews, even if something of written with similar skill from your own culture wouldn't pass muster. Colonial guilt so to speak. One other book that exemplifies this is The Kite Runner. It's on the NYT bestseller list, but I couldn't stand the second half of that book, when all the characters are busy being so good to one another.

But even with all the drawbacks, I'm gonna give this one an A-, but only because I'm in a good mood.

(Review crossposted on LibraryThing)