Udhaya's Reviews

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I'm still learning.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Super Sad True Love Story--Gary Shteyngart


I just finished this dystopian novel that comes on like a torrent of hip tweets--only it's more elegantly written without a preoccupation on brevity. At 334 pages, it's shorter than most contemporary novels but like espresso to regular coffee, less packs more here. At turns satirical, unabashedly romantic, and scathingly political, this futuristic vision of New York (where live-streamed apparats rate everyone's acceptability and social value) lays bare the aching souls yearning to live, love, and thrive in a police state that favors the one percent. This novel isn't for everyone, but if you want an original book with a passionate heart beneath it, check it out.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Donald James', "Monstrum"

Donald James certainly can’t be blamed for lacking ambition. His Monstrum is set in a future Russia where a new party is in power with the promise of change, but people’s loyalties rest uneasy. While this grants enough drama as it is, stirring up this potent setup is a plot about a heinous serial killer who cuts up victims in puzzling ways, a subplot about an underground (literally) sex-cult, and the subversive rebels threatening the new government. Populating this universe is a gallery of colorful characters--an American profiler, an opportunistic police chief, a smitten doctor, a reluctant police force, the elusive monstrum itself, and of course the bumbling cop protagonist. Because of his political connections or despite them, a drunken cop is assigned to catch the serial killer. The doctor and profiler both pine for the cop, insisting on his affections, while the cop yearns for his ex-wife who abandoned him to lead a rebel group in guerilla warfare.

More interested in a failed past than the women he beds, more helpful to a subversive cause than his own principles, the cop sports split loyalties that would make for a great character were the story not told from his point of view. Even a first person narrative could’ve been arresting had the cop ruminated on the turmoil and drama inherent in his life. Even in novels, a passive character is a tough sell unless the character conducts enchanting inner monologues or provides colorful opinions on the surrounding life. Unfortunately for the reader, Constantin Vadim, the cop, is not a thinker. But then, nor is he a doer. Instead, Vadim blindly throws himself into every situation damning the outcome and his fate even further.

Since the reader is stuck with the cop, a dreary fatalistic sense of life sets in early like a hangover haze. The pacing is slow for nearly half of the novel as demands from many fronts overwhelm Vadim. The reader feels trapped and helpless as the blundering cop plods on without direction. After chasing red herrings and downing several gallons of Vodka through some ill-advised trysts, Vadim happens upon some clues. These are clues that an average detective would’ve found upon reading the case files of the victims. Meanwhile, fresh corpses pile up all around Vadim. The protagonist is a reactor to the plot, not it’s propeller. So, until the very end the story lumbers on aided only by secondary characters.

Monstrum is a distracted novel whose rich political underpinnings struggle for attention with a sensational whodunit story set in the future. A political novel would actually have been better served in the author’s hands for he’s certainly informed about Russia and its history. Were the intention to make the future a scary place unlike any before, the author fails there too. The new Russia is a Dickensian place and resembles the hopelessness and corruption of the past. Characters sprout cynicism like time-hardened prisoners. Only in historical details of Russia and rich character histories does the novel show its strength.

At least the serial killer investigation should have offered some thrills. There’s not a shred of tactic or cunning in the way suspects are formed or questioned. The police corruption, inept judicial process, the pervading paranoia are all tired retreads of cold war novels. One plot segment involves a character’s stint as a double for the new political leader, a scenario that exists only to serve as convenient plot resolution at the end. Besides, there are lost characters resurfacing, alliances breaking and forming all the time between characters to keep the reader suspicious about everyone’s motives. There are some plot points that seem so obvious that being drunk is Vadim’s only excuse for going along like he does. At novel’s end, I just felt enervated and accomplished; a suitable effect after an important non-fictional tome, not a dismissive novel.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Joe Sacco's, "Safe Area Gorazde: The war in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95"

This book is a special find for many reasons. The book is at once an in-depth account of a war from within its battlefields, an exquisitely drawn graphic report that betters graphic novels (to use the term "comic" or "illustrated book" betrays the gravity of this effort), or even the best war fiction for that matter. War photographs depict the physical destruction; magazines and TV news editorialize; novels make war poignant; but Sacco has surpassed all other available venues in capturing war with its historical, political, social, background statistically and spiritually intact that the effect on the reader is devastatingly personal.

Sacco clarifies what mainstream media stylizes. He puts the Bosnian war in objective context as a culmination of religious animosity that had been brewing for generations with each side taking its turn as victim and oppressor. In a very telling segment he mentions:
Croats are predominantly Roman Catholic, Serbs are Orthodox Christians, Muslims are generally descended from Slavs converted to Islam during a 500-year Ottoman occupation. Religion is the only distinguishing characteristic, otherwise, they are all South Slavs using pretty much the same language.

By illustrating others' personal accounts alongside his own observations, Sacco creates a spellbinding drama of operatic proportions. The narrative is as funny, ironic, and factual as a conversation with a loved one. The shock is in realizing that this is not fiction. Ethnic cleansing stemming from racial and religious intolerance is not just a distant nightmare. Above all else, this book informs the reader on the gradual disintegration of a harmonious society when divisive roots are stoked by rulers seeking greedy entitlement.

Dan Brown's, "Digital Fortress"

This is a high-tech thriller set in the U.S. government's shadow agency, NSA. Deep in the secure nest of the cryptographers' infallible decoding machine there's trouble in the form of an undetectable code. A rebel ex-agent has brought the proud big brother's, snoopy watchdog to a screaming halt. The premise pits us in an increasingly relevant dilemma: government's privacy-invading protection of its citizens versus the individual's unbridled freedom. Interestingly, the book's protagonist depends on which side you lean. Until midway, the author does a nice job of not picking a side. And until the last third, the search for the missing key is strictly trial and elimination of leads.

The swift pacing assures us that characters will barely register their agendas, let alone their characteristics or distinctions. Whenever characters ruminate or converse they betray every aspect the author lauded on them. Clearly, Brown would rather feed us tidbits on Japanese history or word origins than let his characters breathe. But when reading this genre we should only seek thrills not epiphanies, so with that mindset there's plenty to enjoy in this novel. While satisfying every genre convention of mounting obstacles with fortuitous turn for the good guys, a very original final act sends this novel soaring above the usual yarn.

The good guys do suffer long and hard and the journey has its sacrifices. After all the plot twists appear unraveled except for the final one, the villain is exposed. Instead of the anti-climactic resolution at this point, the novel goes on to a puzzle piece of a climax with enough frenzy and thrill to rival any chase or duel. With encroaching hackers, a varied group of experts tries to solve the puzzle and save the day. Surely in a tech-savvy valley such as ours, this novel might seem unsophisticated or inaccurate for its computer details, but Brown manages to move the story along without making technology the novel's main concern. Despite being roughly hatched, the larger social issues and the divisive nature of our dilemmas are clearly addressed by Digital Fortress. From Tom Clancy's post-cold war techno-thrillers, this might be the inevitable path for modern thrillers. In Dan Brown's hands this genre certainly shows promise. For the uninitiated, Dan Brown also wrote the blockbuster, “The Da Vinci Code”.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Richard Russo's, "Empire Falls"

Yet another novel that claims to understand middle-class America. Some novels are written with movies in mind. Reading Empire Falls, I couldn't help but wonder if an eventual TV series was the goal. HBO could do a more literary job than Russo has for sure. Left up to actors, the dialogues will instantly soar at least above Russo's tin ear. Talented actors, with competent direction would also know the value of subtlety when irony or symbolism abound. Not so with Russo who would subtitle mimes to ensure nothing was left to interpretation. This novel (as in, fall of the American Empire; very clever this Russo is, don't you think?) is rife with canny observations, dull melodrama, and bitter condescension--towards its characters as well as its readers. The narrative can be classified as a third-person-intentional where the author confesses character intentions in a commentary.

Empire Falls is a New England mill town. Much of the property and people in the area are owned or controlled by Francine Whiting, the queen bee. The Robys are the deadbeat parallel to the Whitings. Most of the locals are resigned to a depressing fate and live convinced that it will get worse. Everyone gets into everyone else's business, personal, spiritual, moral, and civil affairs. The novel hits its nadir whenever Russo attempts humor. He thinks trash-talking priests are hilarious. The only endearing moments are between the sad sack protagonist Miles Roby and his daughter Tick. Other likable characters--the rebel brother, lifer waitress, tavern owner--barely escape the straight jacket Russo binds them in. With teenagers, Russo is a few decades off and he slots them to represent tired high school cliques. A Columbine-like incident is also thrown in as an afterthought.

Certainly there's a good blueprint here to start a novel. A writer with class would skewer the surface and plumb unknown depths. Conjuring up disillusion through empathy and irony elevates the subject as Marquez and Morrison have shown us. No such luck with Russo, who comes off more as a snickering classist than a patron of the middle-class. Russo received the Pulitzer Prize for this novel. You the reader needs to know this. If you ever entertained thoughts of writing your novel, get out there and do it. Literature and the middle-class are both too precious to be left in the hands of the Russos of America.

Amelie Nothomb's, "Fear and Trembling"

This little novel won France's prestigious Grand Prix de l'Academie Francaise and the Prix Internet du Livre awards. Nothomb, a Belgian writer, achieves on many levels with this fictional work. The novel reads like an incisive look at corporate culture in Japan with a crash course on the inscrutable Japanese mindset. With the protagonist sharing the author's first name and other similarities, the book immediately imparts a closed-door intimacy akin to an autobiography. As a little helper in the Import-Export division of the Yumimoto Corporation, Amelie wreaks accidental havoc from scene to scene like a silent movie comedian; only her turmoil is all emotional.

In the peculiar way Amelie laughs at her misfortune her blunders that lead to harsh retributions somehow come off as tragicomic. Complicating further her situation is Amelie's unrequited crush on her unflappable boss, Fubuki. The more Amelie tries to impress Fubuki, the worse things get for both. The ambivalent Japanese business structure seems to reprimand initiative and honor submission to defeatist rigmaroles. Yet Amelie marches on like a love-sick Sisyphus through her constant reassignments which are apparent demotions. The end of the novel is affecting and satisfying without any melodrama.

Nothomb's flair for the language is apparent in every page. The shifts in style from observant prose to abstract thoughts or lucid feelings are flawless, as is the tone that accommodates whimsy, elegance, sarcasm, and romance in arbitrary turns. I have already begun shopping for her other books. You should at least try this one.

Rohinton Mistry's, "A Fine Balance"

Mistry has been lauded as a master storyteller who belongs among the 19th century greats. The American media is completely enamored with his writing calling it Dickensian. It was nominated by Oprah for her book club (should've known that it meant, "guaranteed to depress") . Mistry does create endearing characters that gain an intimate resonance from the careful details of their longings, motives, actions and the circumstances surrounding their everyday struggles. The intertwining stories of a middle-aged Parsi widow, a college youth who becomes the widow's paying guest, and two tailors who work for the widow form the core of the novel. There are plenty of secondary characters that aid and obstruct the lives of the four main characters. The Emergency period under Indhira Gandhi's reign and the fascist power wielded by the MISA act are the real villains in this novel.

Mistry is best when personalizing the political or social edicts through his characters. This was the remarkable beauty of his earlier novel, Such a Long Journey. But in A Fine Balance, Mistry elaborates the catastrophic reach of injustice in every corner that the reader feels like a participant in an ill-fated, masochistic video game. While the political and social corruptions are endemic to any Indian novel's concerns, Mistry's agenda of contempt is so unforgiving and deep-seated that his characters risk incredulity in their epic suffering. Other than catching the plague or being stoned to death, almost every other calamity is accounted for by the characters: fatal accidents, gruesome suicides, castration, forced vasectomies, hanging, lynching, slave labor, starvation, broken limbs, not to mention the lighter fare of bribes, extortion and forced abeyance on the victims.

The narration barely lets up before delivering the next heartbreak. Every lucky break afforded a character is a harbinger of a future calamity that the title's balance becomes ironic. There is no balance of joy and pain here, only a relentless parade of misery. The Emergency period was a dark era in India's history when the authorities were empowered with a fascist law. Historically the lower castes, and poor have suffered unthinkable atrocities under the hands of power in India. But these realities still need to be rendered in a way that doesn't lean on melodrama which ultimately sells short the real suffering endured by many.