Monday, April 16, 2012

From a Train

There is something about train journeys. Takes me back to childhood. The long, long summer commencing with the yearly trip to my nani’s  place in Agra. The city of Tajmahal to most of the world. And to me, the place where I spent a glorious month, playing, fighting, dreaming, escaping and being the children that we could not be the rest of the year.

Today as I bring to you these words from a train coach en route to Agra, I feel suddenly nostalgic. No, this is not a long vacation. No, these are not school holidays. And we are not a bunch of half a dozen kids counting the miles to the annual reunion.

These are precious four days stolen from under the wings of time. From killing schedules and unreasonable professions. To attend a wedding that my grandma would miss. And she would want me there.

So, here I am. On another train journey to the shrine of my childhood. It is a journey that our kids would not really know in this jet setting age. And though the feeling would not last, in this moment, I feel almost sorry for them.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Hunger Games: the Book Review

This one’s on special request from Scarlett. Since I read the Hunger Games trilogy more than an year ago, I might miss out on some details. Bear with me on those.

I first heard of Hunger Games on some blog or on Goodreads. I can’t remember. There were people raving about it. Saying how it is one of the best things ever written but that had also been said about Twilight series. So, my scepticism was justified, I think.

Nonetheless, I was looking for a new author to try and I picked up Hunger Games  - the first book in the trilogy. The book opens with Katniss Everdeen trying to hunt game illegally with her best friend, the rather hunky Gale. It then proceeds to describe the covered with ash and coal dust District 12, with people toiling under an autocratic regime. A new class system has arrived in a post-apocalyptic  USA. District 12 is at the bottom of the food chain since it produces coal – that which cannot be eaten, worn or considered precious (no matter that in reality, it is perhaps one of the most precious commodities that we have).

So, the beginning is depressing but soon we come to the annual ‘lucky draw’ for Hunger Games. These games are like Roman fight-till-death arena meeting the voyeurism of modern day reality shows. These are held annually in Capitol, to remind the masses who the real bosses are, instituted after a revolt years ago, when the Capitol routed the districts, wiping District Thirteen from existence completely. Two Tributes from each of the remaining twelve districts – a boy and a girl between ages of 12 to 18 – are sent to Capitol to fight for their lives in a specially built arena that is changed every year and the entire contest is televised live. This is compulsory viewing and literally the last boy or girl standing wins.

Katniss’ innocent younger sister Primrose has the misfortune of having her name drawn and Katniss volunteers in her place. Going along with her is Peeta Mellark. As the spectacle before the game begins – there’s primping and styling like in a beauty pageant – and progresses to the blood and gore of desperate survival, you see both Katniss and Peeta growing in stature. They are not always likeable but they survive.

The games’ are described vividly – the tension, the desperation, the scheming, the hunger – all of it comes alive. I know that in recent times comparisons have been drawn between this trilogy and Twilight, primarily because of the obvious love triangles, but let me tell you Hunger Games is far edgier, ruthless, stark and gripping. And let’s not forget the characters. Katniss is no simpering, idiotic, perpetually damsel-in-distress that Bella is. Katniss is independent and human. She is not always right, focussed that she is on her own survival. She is not very astute either, unable to understand her own feelings or those of Peeta and Gale. But she is tough and needs no knight in shining armour though I like to think that she might like the idea of having one. For company.

Peeta and Gale are also real. Gale is more stereotyped as the good-looking, brave-heart guy who has fallen in love with his best friend. He also suffers from a slight martyr, I-am-the-hero syndrome, which can grate on nerves at times. Peeta, surprisingly, is the deepest of the three leading characters. He has heart but is not without cunning. At any point in time, it is his thoughts that I am most interested in. He is no knight. He is just a regular guy, who first chooses his destiny and then loses control over it.

The secondary characters like President Snow, the drunk and tormented mentor Haymitch, the startled kitten like Effie Trinket, Cinna, the stylist with a rebel’s soul, the heartbreaking youngest Tribute, Rue with whom Katniss forms first an alliance and then a true friendship – they are all drawn with detail and with bold strokes. None of them are subtle. Some of them more obvious than others and then suddenly, they could say something that completely takes you by surprise.

The first book, with its gripping climax, is the best. The end of the games really hooked me and I kept on arguing and counter-arguing as to how it would end.

If it has to be compared, compare it to Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. There are first very obvious difference. The stories are very distinct. Katniss’s world and her people are more humane somehow rather than Blomkvists and Erikas of Lisbeth’s Sweden. Plus, Katniss is not dysfunctional like Lisbeth. The similarity actually comes from how the first book in both trilogies are the best. They promise you so much more in the coming two books but then slowly unravel into a giant conspiracy theory. That is my biggest grouse with the series and I cannot explain more without putting in spoilers.

Collins’ books are, however, more coherent and each character has some role to play, unlike Larsson’s, who all become mere props to Lisbeth. And I have to hand it to Collins that she managed to keep me on tenterhooks about how the end would come. On the way, there are wars to be fought, machinations to be thwarted, heartbreak and insanity. No one emerges from the Games whole and they would never be whole again.

I was also impressed with Collins’ writing. The entire series is written in first person, present continuous tense. It is Katniss’ viewpoint. While I am not a big fan of first person narratives since it robs me of what other main characters are thinking, unless they speak out, I though Collins’ use of the technique was quite brilliant. You see the world not just the way Katniss sees it but also when she sees it.

My final recommendation: Read it. It is not always easy to read, the characters not always likeable but in the end, you have to admire them for sheer guts.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ian McEwan's Atonement: A Review

Book Cover of Atonement
This is my first Ian McEwan. It begins with an interesting premise - a child committing a crime because a combination of hyperactive imagination and prejudice makes her think that she saw a crime. And this is the story of her Atonement.

The backcover blurb of the book promises a saga spanning from 1920s/30s to WWII to nearly the close of twentieth century. So, technically the story of Cecilia, Robbie and Briony does follow that arc but it does not really span across such a wide timespan. One epistolary epilogue written in 90s does not a wide sweeping tale make.

That aside, McEwan writes a gripping narrative. He explores the psyche of all players - from the extremely fertile imagination of a on-the-cusp-of-adulthood Briony to the confused feelings of Cecilia and Robbie which are startled into clarity to the machinations of another child-woman, Lola to the still and active waters of Mrs. Tallis' mind. They are all explored beautifully. The metaphors are gripping, unusual. There is this one passage where he describes Briony's feeling of utter freedom as she runs. A simple and common image but he adds so many layers to the child's thoughts that you find each so intriguing. The chemistry between Cecilia and Robbie in the first scene where we see them together by the fountain is fraught with so much tension and is fairly crackling with chemistry.

So, it is a pity that when we move to Part II and III of the book, we see so little of these things. In fact, the way Robbie trudges across France, as the British troops retreat in the face of strong Germans, with only the thought of Cecilia waiting for him ("Come back. I will wait for you. Come back"), reminds me of Inman's journey to Cold Mountain and to Ada.

Nothing much happens after that. All we see are tableaux of wars - first through Robbie's eyes and then Briony's. And you feel a little cheated when you see Cecilia next, especially if you really enjoyed the romance between her and Robbie. Even The Confession (I am deliberately not elaborating here) loses the sharp focus that it needed. I did not really expect melodrama but it did not seem at all crucial. The characters' reactions are rather weary and tired and as if all of it has become inconsequential.

Before I close, I must, however, mention the slight intrigue that McEwan oh-so-subtly builds in the epilogue and which he never resolves. So, how you read it would reflect your outlook on life. I thought it was a clever touch.

Final recommendation: read it. It might not be perfect but it grows on you