Udhaya's Reviews

Location: United States

I'm still learning.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Circle -- by Dave Eggers

This novel interested me for its thorough indictment of Google and the Uber-social, share-everything-with-everyone society that we're becoming. Many of the points were well honed and aimed. The writing itself was staggeringly plain like a blog. While the depth of technological excess is well addressed the protagonist is such a sorry-ass ditz that it outrages one far beyond the intended reasons. It's still worth a look for those who have thought that all this technology is wonderful.

Shantaram -- by Gregory David Roberts

I arrived at this tome long after the missives had piled up either anointing it or debasing it. Reading Shantaram is not just a journey or a launch to a faraway place, it is a committed residence at an exhilarating vantage point. The mind that I followed, the voice that I listened to, the heart that I bled for, the shoulder that I leaned on, the spirit that I inhabited, the humiliation I shared, the despair I felt, the joy I embraced, the exhaustion of letdowns I endured as my own, the anger I expressed for his unlearned mistakes as if he were my own were all palpably real. Yes, that was the most remarkable thing, the unmistakable feeling like the narrator were my own. The kinship I felt with the narrator, I have never felt in any other book I have ever read.
A dreamer soul beats at every turn and save for a few self-destructive turns, the narrator and central character always forges ahead and never shies from life. The way he treasures the little gestures of people and the way he celebrates the dignity of the poor has never been illustrated better by anybody in any other art form in my experience. The majesty of the poor is not from their inability to better their situation but at their refusal to betray their souls to achieve it. This gem of a perception never dawned on me until this novel. And like the best of art, it is beautifully evoked without any machinations.
At times a novel about crime, at times a holy book, frequently an ode to love, and always a celebration of the human connection, this novel shows how best to immerse yourself in a culture, in a land, in an environment not naturally your own. While the author and narrator are Australian, and there’s no doubt that their souls will light up the darkest of human settlements, they certainly get the Indian way.
I could write more about the plot, the narrative, the characters, but why? Just experience it. The plot takes you places most lives will never tread, but then the narrator lives no ordinary life. Similarities and differences between the narrator and the author have been the subject of many critics of the novel. To those critics, I say, read it as a novel and let the truth of it settle in you. Do not settle your mind on the truth of the author’s personal experience. Like a magnificent painting with many focal points requiring many studious visits, the variety of characters that leap off the page is arresting. To me it was more than a book read, it was like a life lived.
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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Lovers at Chameleon Club--Paris-1932 -- by Francine Prose

This novel, inspired by an iconic photograph of a lesbian couple in 1920s Paris, uses multiple narrative styles and perspectives to overlap, contradict, insinuate, guess, and sum up history in many versions. The strain of Nazi occupied Paris is told from every social strata. Some characters resemble real life figures, some are entirely fictional, and yet others like Picasso and Hitler appear as themselves with talking parts. The scope is ambitious while the narrative is self-aware and academic in parts.

Ultimately, I enjoyed it like a substantial hike after gliding through a string of malnourished e-books by self-published authors. Any form of art that inspires me to practice my own has achieved something. That said, it's a bit like after eating Kale; you know it's good for you but damn, some garlic fries sound good right about now.

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”.