Thursday, 27 November 2014

1Q84? More like IQ 84

1Q84 (1Q84, #1-3)1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a first year graduate student, time is like money to me. Actually, I take that back, money is money, but time is a close second. Despite my hectic schedule, I recently managed to finish Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 in less than a week. This should tell you what a readable book this is, completely engrossing in some parts - especially the first volume. If you have been following my blog, you'd have noticed that I only review books that I utterly loved! There are some books that simply DEMAND of me to share my thoughts on what I loved about them. 1Q84 is the first book that I HATED that demanded the same from me.

Murakami is the toast of the world right now. He is the Chetan Bhagat of the people who hate Chetan Bhagat. My first experience of his works was through Sputnik Sweetheart, possibly his least famous book. It was a short novel about an aspiring writer who disappears while on a journey through Europe. It was as incomplete a book as you would ever read, but I was mesmerized by Murakami's ability to weave magical places that look and smell like reality, but somewhere in your gut, you feel this is not our reality. I read Sputnik Sweetheart cover-to-cover in one night and read it again the next day. Hence, I'm sure you would understand my excitement when I learnt that Murakami had written a three-volume tome called 1Q84 that dealt with similar questions on reality. At the first opportunity, I plunged into this book.

1Q84 takes place in the year 1984. About 100 pages into the book, I grasped the significance of the year. Much like Orwell's London, the Tokyo of 1Q84 is a gargantuan megalopolis which seems to be driven by an unknown force. The protagonists seem to be the only characters who notice something amiss in this world, while everybody else go along their mundane lives. Despite being a vast book spread over three volumes, 1Q84 has just a handful of noteworthy characters. This is the book's first major flaw. The two protagonists are Tengo Kawana and Aomami. Shorn of all its philosophical airs, this book is a love story of how these two people find each other after twenty years of separation. Their story plays out amidst  a cast of secondary characters such as Komatsu, Tengo's hardened editor, Fuka Eri, the enigmatic 'perceiver' of 1Q84's dark forces and others.

Each character in 1Q84 is a tired caricature of stereotypes without a whiff of fresh air to save your life. Each character seems to have a few key traits which are incessantly repeated/revealed from various point of views. For example, Tengo was supposedly a child prodigy in everything. This is affirmed by almost every character from Tengo's past, but the adult Tengo seems anything but a prodigious talent. His thoughts and actions are as boring as a gorilla lazing around after a full meal. About half the book is devoted to Tengo and once you get tired of him, his chapters make for excruciating reading.

The third volume introduces a new POV character, Ushikawa, for no apparent reason. This character is ugly ... so ugly that people literally flinch every time they cast eyes on him. This humiliation at every turn has obviously hardened Ushikawa and turned him into an endless cynic. But Murakami's writing is so repetitive that in EACH SCENE with Ushikawa, there is at least one reference to his ugliness or his imbibed anger. Such needless repetition is everywhere in this book - every chapter with Aomame ends with her pining for Tengo. Every chapter with Tengo ends with, you guessed it right, him pining for Aomame. Blurgh.

However, I believe all the above sins are pardonable. The biggest failure of the book is the concept of the Little People. I must admit, I was initially fascinated by this concept of demi-gods that periodically visit our reality through certain channels, their true purpose unknown or unknowable. There were even hints of an opposing force that will rise up whenever the Little People arrive. I would literally have goosebumps when Murakami would intersperse dialogues of the Little People amidst seemingly mundane conversations. But as the book entered the third volume, the entire plot of the Little People and Fuka Eri disappears. The same can be said about Sakigake, the mysterious farming commune turned into a xenophobic religion. Instead, Murakami doles out extra servings of Tengo getting Aomame pregnant despite not meeting her for two decades! No, I'm not kidding.

In spite of this horrendous work, I still believe Murakami is an excellent writer! The first volume in particular was quite good! Murakami's writing has a lot of contemporary & literary references which are very rewarding when you get them. For example, Ushikawa's internal monologue comparing himself with Raskolnikov was just sheer brilliance! Sadly such moments of brilliance are too few and far in between and cannot save this shoddy, unrewarding book. Best avoid it, unless you want to complete your Murakami collection.

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Thursday, 7 August 2014

My Review of ... Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Flatland: A Romance of Many DimensionsFlatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a must-read book. Written in really simple language, that even a school student can understand, this book has two distinct parts - each conveying a different idea.

The first part, under the guise of introducing the Reader to Flatland, is a brilliant satire on Victorian society. Retrospectively, one can supplant several obnoxious historical concepts to Flatland society - Nazi's Aryan supremacy & eugenics, India's rigid caste system, slavery etc. The obnoxious traits of Flatland society are narrated amiably by the narrator, a 'Square'.

The second part sees our two-dimensional narrator encountering a Sphere - a celestial body from a three-dimensional world, Spaceland. The Square also peek into lesser worlds - a one-dimensional 'Lineland' and a zero-dimensional 'Pointland'. Through these encounters, the Square postulates the presence of infinite dimensions. This part is remarkable! Keep in mind that this book was written way before Einstein's theory on time being a 4th dimension.
The second part also cautions humans against complacency - for the point, it was the Universe ; for the Monarch of Lineland, the Line was the Universe ; for the Square, Flatland was the Universe ; for the Sphere, SpaceLand was the Universe ... Who knows what the Universe really is?

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Saturday, 2 August 2014

My review of The Name of the Rose

The Name of the RoseThe Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Name of the Rose is not an easy book to read, but read it, one must. I finally finished this book yesterday, on my third attempt. The first time I gave up within the first 50 pages. The second time, I half-heartedly reached the 300th page and realized that I was not doing justice to the book, so gave up.

And I am really glad I did not try to finish this book on my second attempt. I am sharing some thoughts on how I finally managed to read this book -

The first 100 pages make for torturous reading. I read somewhere that Eco made it such that uninterested readers will stay away! Nevertheless, I urge you to make some notes while you are reading the first 100 pages. A list of characters will be very useful till one gets used to the medieval names. It was also useful to jot down the major power factions and who is for/against whom. The plot of the book unfolds in a politically charged environment and a lot of dialogue references the political changes afoot. It will help one to have a chart depicting the various power plays.

The book revolves around two Orders of medieval Europe - the Benedictine Order and the Franciscan Order. A number of 'fringe' elements of the Franciscan Order are also often referenced. Read up and make some notes on these entities before crossing the first 100 pages. This will be very useful to understand some nuanced dialogues between major characters.

There are two major plots in this book - the first deals with the mysterious murders in the abbey and how William tries to solve them ; the second deals with more profound questions such as inductive vs deductive reasoning, whether universality is feasible in a random world etc.
The first plot is obviously the more enjoyable one and by itself, it makes this a great book. The second plot is harder to appreciate in just a single reading. I had to read some passages several times just to get a high-level picture. The book deserves to be read multiple times solely to meditate on the profound questions raised in the second plot.

This book deals a lot with Christianity and several ecclesiastical questions such as the importance of poverty, relevance of humor in faith etc. At first glance, these may appear to be irrelevant to a reader like me (a Hindu living in India). However, I feel that, at a philosophical level, the questions raised by this book are valid to everyone. For example, the passages on the poverty of Christ and His Apostles throw up several ideas on the relevance of money on a spiritual quest, the idea of possession in a physical and spiritual sense etc. Similarly, the abbatial library, so central to the plot, raises several implicit questions on judging and preserving Knowledge and even on the purpose of any Knowledge.

A significant chunk of the dialogues is in Latin. Initially I spent a lot of time trying to find their English translations. I will urge you to avoid wasting time on that, at least in the first reading. The preceding or following lines usually give you a good-enough idea on what the Latin dialogue meant.

To summarize, this is a once-in-a-blue-moon book. Don't let the vocabulary, the Latin and the convoluted writing style dissuade you from a superb book. I plan to revisit this book once every few years.

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Saturday, 15 March 2014

Writer's Block - sighting the kraken!

I have always wondered if there are any patterns in my own behavior that will help me predict my bouts of writer's block.
A few days of retrospection revealed - there really are!

Read more, here