Sunday, July 27, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “L'Île mystérieuse” (The Mysterious Island)

Jules Verne tells us the story of five Americans - engineer Cyrus Harding, his servant Neb, journalist Gideon Spilett, sailor Pencroft, and his friend Herbert Brown, and Cyrus' dog Top - who escape the American Civil War by hijacking a balloon. Caught in terribly stormy weather, the balloon finally crash lands on an unknown island. This is the story of their fight for survival in an island that is remote and bountiful all at once, where near-death experiences and surprising windfalls cross their paths with equal force.

Although I hate to say this about the author whose "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" is one of my best books of all time, while this book certainly captured my interest, it did not quite hold it for long. As the tale weaves through the castaways' struggles to stay alive, and walks us through their discoveries made and lessons learnt, after a point it started to read like a very intense survival guide.

While it was certainly fascinating to grow along with the five as they started from creating fire and building safe dwellings and moved to making clothing, transportation and even made iron ore and an electric telegraph ... I felt, as a layman reader, there was no need to get into pages and chapters of how, for instance, to make nitro-glycerine.

That said, at every step of the way, I always had a very strong sense of "being there"; the writing was always powerful enough to make this a very real experience. And finally, the secret of the island revealed at the very end absolutely blew me away! The events that unfolded in the grand finale almost made me forget the arduous journey immediately preceding it.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “White Noise”

It's so difficult to coherently express my thoughts when I am in two minds about a book. Don DeLillo starts with an innocent picture of contemporary family life, with snippets of incidents at school, at home, amongst parents, teachers and friends; continues through an unnerving event involving a chemical spill and a black noxious cloud; and ends with the story of modern society's obsession with death as much as chemical cures. So. Did I like this post-modern snapshot of a degrading society or did I not? Hm. Ok, here goes...

I liked the basic concept of a society that is slowly breaking down into all-pervading white noise. However, this would probably have been more appreciated in the 80's when the book was published and social media was not as "obvious" a presence as it is today. I think every age of mankind has had its demons and its dependencies, and the current age is not a special case that calls for an especially negative depiction of it.

Added to that, the fact that (to match the theme of breakdown in society, I suppose) the narrative style was a random, broken down one - it drew my attention away from the story, to its telling, where I was tripping over the style, which was just that - stylistic, and nothing more.

That said, there were some concepts that did make me pause and think for a moment. Greatest amongst these was the section on the German nuns who talk about how they do not believe in god or heaven or angels, but feel the need to keep up the pretense for the sake of the non believers. Their contention that that's how non believers feel safe - that as long as someone was keeping up the faith, as a human race we are okay - that was such a brilliant concept.

I also really liked the character of Heinrich. His constant questioning and his stubborn refusal to accept such common truths as whether it was raining or not, opened up such a refreshing line of thought. At one point he asks, of what use is all our knowledge / how are we any better than cave man, when we can't even make fire or even recognize lint if we saw it; that when it comes down to it, all our knowledge just passes from computer to computer … Heinrich really made me think!

Overall though, all this talk of Hitler Studies, people marrying multiple times, people getting lost in mundane things such as the sights and sounds of the TV, chemical spills, modern society's dependence on drugs ... all this incessant pounding into the reader's head, of the message of a breakdown of society ... no, I just couldn't get into it.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “Expedition to Earth”

I was introduced to the fantastic world of Arthur C. Clarke very early on in life (with "2001: A Space Odyssey"), and till date I find myself going back to him whenever I feel the need to escape the dreariness and closed-mindedness of the world around me ... This collection of short stories took me on yet another memorable journey across space and time.

In "Second Dawn", I loved the perspective of a race so far advanced mentally, they have forgotten what to do with their hands. "If I Forget Thee, Oh Earth" has a touch of such sorrow and hope in a world where Armageddon has come and even gone long ago. "History Lesson" combines so beautifully a snapshot of the end of the world, a desperate attempt at recreating a civilization long gone - and the unforeseen comedy that can arise from the meeting of cultures too far apart. "Loophole" was a unique story about realistic events of politics and power play in an imagined future and "Inheritance" actually gave me goose bumps with its surreal tale twisting in and out of time.

The two stories that really stayed in my head for a very long time were: "Exile of the Eons" and "Expedition to Earth". The former is the fantastic story of The Master, the defeated military leader who escapes the end of the world; and Trevindor, the Philosopher, who is exiled for daring to challenge accepted norms - and their shocking meeting at the end of time. Expedition to Earth forms the basis of the opening sections of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is the story of a very superior race meeting a very, very young one and leaving behind that small seed of civilization which would go to someday form the incredible culture of Babylon.

I will end this blog with a special tip of the hat to "The Sentinel". I know I have talked about this one before, as it was part of another collection I read. But this story is so brilliant, it calls for numerous reads and endless discussions! This tale perfectly combines the excitement and the fear of unknown life forms and brings forth such strong passions of awe and terror all at once.

Clarke remains, in my opinion, truly the untouched master of science fiction.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “Santa Responds”

Oh dear. Another one of those books which has such an interesting premise, but fails so completely to deliver. "Santa Responds: He's Had Enough...and He's Writing Back!" When I read the tagline of this book - by Santa Claus - I really thought this was such a unique concept, and couldn't wait to get started.

As it turned out however, this collection of replies from Santa Claus to letters received from children across the world, is really nothing more than the kind of "jokes" you and I would make when we rant about our stupid jobs, or the stupid people around us, or those stupid politicians, or...

Sure, some parts were funny - from putting annoying, selfish, bratty kids firmly in place to taking (quite a few!) pot shots at America (everything from science becoming increasingly irrelevant in that country, to the fact that some people believe any stupid thing like the Iraq war not being about oil or petty revenge). Overall however, this was a one-joke book and that one joke got tiresome pretty quickly.