Ender’s Game : Orson Scott Card

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The practice of leadership is sometimes a brutal one when the targets are too step or beyond the horizons. Sometimes all that you have is a half cooked or defunct process that needs a fix with a not so very competent team to get it done. In such cases, the march to the target is an arduous one with every single step being taken with your sweat and blood mixed in. At a certain point in my professional career, there was a person at my workplace who was relentless in pursuit of getting things done and in the right way. Someone who believed in the maxim that human beings tend to perform best when stretched to the limits of their endurance. I reached the lowest pits and highest cliffs of my career under this person’s tutelage and memories of this flashed through my mind when I was reading parts of this novel. And the most interesting thing is that this only forms a tiny part of this whole novel. By the time I had crossed a hundred pages into to the tale, I was completely plugged in and totally in tune with the tale and its characters which was a signal for calling this one a favorite.

The tale of Ender Wiggin as recounted in this book cannot just be written off as a coming-of-age tale. It is a perspective of how smart people see the world, the anguish of having to deal with day-to-day monotony and its mindnumbing effect on your intellect, the social ostracism among your peers on account of you being smarter than them, the pressure placed on you by your parents and teachers to strive for bigger and better things are but a few parts of this whole picture. I was not especially a bright kid at school or college but I have seen characters like Ender, Peter and Valentine and also seen what they go through in their daily lives as children. Ender’s story is not built around academics but around the making of a super soldier. A journey of intense physical and mental preparations, social isolation, blood and toil, enemies and friends and ultimately the building of an astute intellect. Ender Wiggins is a superman sans the red cape and the fear of Kryptonite for he never fails in battle or hand-to-hand combat. He is a weapon shaped by humanity against a mindless and brutal wave of alien enemies. Ender is humanity’s last hope and the men and women who train him show no mercy in building a ruthless commander out of him. It is akin to the Spartan tradition of starting young and building a fighting machine out of a child. By the time Ender becomes the best commander from planet Earth, he loses all touches of being a human child and his mindset hardens to something that I can guess would be similar to what Napoleon or Caesar in their hayday might have had.

As a reader, I preferred Valentine and Peter as better studies of character. The way they grow up and evolve had more depth and made more sense to me than Ender’s growth. While as a reader I do understand that Ender is a super soldier, logic tells me that even the ultimate warriors of history like Alexander have failed in battles. This does not make Ender an unbelievable character but gives him a superhuman aura and always puts him a step ahead of others. This tale is a fine example of leadership under high pressure situations and I relished each little moment of studying the battles and the team work that won them.

Rating this book at five stars and calling this a favorite was cemented by the last chapter of the book titled Speaker For The Dead. This one chapter was the best part of the book for me in terms of its setting and outcome. The one part where Ender empathisizes with the enemy and sets forth on a new mission in life was a stroke of brilliance and what could have ended as a run-of-the-mill military thriller becomes something else entirely.

The feeling that can even supercede the swell of pride in victory is the compassion you show for the other lifeforms on this galaxy is the message I came away with !

The Birds & Other Stories : Daphne Du Maurier

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These are the six stories in this book :

1. Birds : The inspiration for the famous Alfred Hitchcock movie but entirely different in terms of the story. It tells us of a small family’s struggle against the vicious birds on a day-by-day basis. What is frightening about the tale is that there is no end in sight. The family is gritty and determined to see it through the crisis but the tale ends on a bleak note. The most atmospheric of all the tales and short,crisp and very effective.

2. Monte Verita : A tale of two friends both avid mountain climbers, a woman, a mysterious sect and a whole lot of blah blah. The tale started off very well and slowly became something that I would have expected from Lovecraft or Robert.E. Howard but lacking that aggressive tone of story telling. It is the weakest of all in the book and rather unnecessarily long in the telling. The weak point is that the tale fails to engage and also never finds a satisfactory ending. It just goes on and on and finally stops.

3. The Apple Tree : You have a person in your life who you are not very fond of but cant avoid having this person in your life. You carry it along as baggage until one day the person disappears as a stroke of luck. But what happens if there is an object that reminds you of this person at every point in time, intruding into your physical and mental world. How long will it take for you to go insane ? This is what is explored in this tale, it is a darkly comic tale of loss and of one person’s effort to find a space in the life of her partner.

4.The Little Photographer : A Marquise on vacation on the French coast decides to dally a bit with a young man who is rather unremarkable. She bites off more than she can chew and ends up in rather dire straits. This is a fine study of character especially of the Marquis and the young man Paul. There is a slow evolution of both these characters and it finely brings out the shades of grey in both of them. The ending is also well thought of and this was my second favorite story in the book.

5. Kiss me again, Stranger : Just a run-of-the-mill story of a man’s one night stand with a woman who is more than what she appears. This tale as a whole is bland for no mistake of the author. The reason for its blandness is that this plot has been used an abused countless times by authors and film makers that it has lost novelty.

6.The Old Man : If you would like to know Daphne Du Maurier’s skill as a story teller, then look no further. She walks you along a dreary, dry story and in the last three sentences blows you away ! It was simply brilliant and I cannot write even a word about the story for that will be giving away the plot.

A good collection, all considered. Worth a read.

The last ray of sunshine

Over the last two years, my reading sensibilities have been influenced by the Mathrubhoomi weekly. My relationship with this magazine has been rather interesting. A good six years or so ago, someone recommended it to me and I tried it out. Quite frankly, I was bored out of my skull with it. Then again I came back to it two years ago and since then it has formed a part of my life. The tag line that the magazine employs Aazhameriya vaayana, aazhcha thorum (Translates into : In-depth reading of topics, on a weekly basis) has become rather true for me too. Some weeks are rather funny when I do not read half the topics and on some weeks it is a cover-to-cover read. Spanning across social, political, economic, cultural and literary landscapes of Kerala and the nation is the range of this magazine. It has formed a part of Kerala’s literary history too. Many a legendary novel has been serialized in the pages of this novel : O.V. Vijayan’s Khasakinte Ithihasam, Kovilan’s Thattakam, Punathil Kunjabdulla’s Smarakashilakal, Mukundan’s Mayyazhipuzhayude Theerangalil and Lalithambika Antharjanam’s Agnisakshi are but a few of the major novels that first saw light in the pages of this magazine. Then again there has been the short stories, many of which were genre defining ones that were first published in Mathrubhoomi. I remember Sakhariya’s Oridam, MT’s Iruttinte Aathmavu, Unni’s Leela, Anand’s Vishnu from the top of my memory. So to sum it all up, this is one kickass magazine !

 I did not write this long paragraph full of gushing to talk about the magazine but about an article that caught my eye this week. The cover story this week has been on forest fires in the Wayanad area of Calicut district. To us city dwellers, a forest fire is just part of the background and not a newsworthy item. To the government it is another piece of statistics about the hectares of forest land lost in the fire and of the wood we lost and hence the monetary loss for the government. But what of the trees that died ? What of the birds, the squirrels, the snakes and the little creatures too small enough to even cry out in the pain of being burned alive ? The photographs published by the magazine are too harsh to look at. A one lush, green fertile forest is now a graveyard of burnt, dead trees and mountains of ash. We can always shelve it as an isolated occurrence and nothing much to worry about but look at where we are heading. The sun is too harsh, water shortage is a reality and we cannot always delve into the comforting softness of the air conditioning. After all, how long will electricity last ! I do bear the label of being an armchair conservationist for beyond these words of angst, I myself have done nothing to change the world I live in ! It is shameful yes and quite hard to imagine that one day this world will be without forests, without greenery and we will end up in a desert. As the saying goes, when the last tree is cut down and the last river dries up, man will know that he cannot eat his money.

 In the microcosm of my little World, to one side of my house was a sizably large tract of land lush with greenery. There were trees abound and they buzzed with the activity of birds. The place had quite a lot of rodents, snakes and cats and the occasional dog or two. Weekends and early mornings were a sight to behold for to see the sun shining down on that wonderful carpet of greenery or the rain falling on it were totally blissful. One evening, coming back from work I was treated to a most horrifying scene. The trees had been felled and the grass cut away and it looked a wasteland to my eyes. To my questions of what happened, the answer was An apartment complex is coming up there . There was nothing more heartbreaking than not hearing the birds or the little creatures anymore. And now, I wake up and see the ugly walls of the building looking down on me. Not many birds roost there, it is just a wasteland now.

 A tiger once came out of the jungle in Wayanad a few months ago and it was finally hunted down and killed. There was a statement made by a political leader that ‘Wild animals should behave themselves’ ! I did not know whether to laugh or look bewildered !

 Closing lines can never come better than Agent Smith’s monologue in The Matrix : I’d like to share a revelation that I’ve had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you’re not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You’re a plague and we are the cure.

Gone Girl : Gillian Flynn

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This tale could give a nightmare to newlyweds with all its darkness and tone of storytelling. But why just newlyweds ? It could be a nightmare for everyone, married or unmarried. If you come across a character like Amy Elliott in real life, run for the hills !

Right from the start, there is a darkness at the edges of your vision. The kind of darkness where you know something nasty is hiding waiting to reveal its hideousness to you when you are least prepared for it. There is a particular viciousness to this tale, a kind of slow and sadistic pleasure that the writer and the characters seem to relish. Imagine a kind of killer who loves to watch his/her victims bleed to death slowly, the feeling is something akin to that.

Amy Elliott Dunne is married to Nick Dunne for five long years and disappears on the day of their fifth wedding anniversary. Two years left for the seven year itch and she vanishes into thin air. A routine investigation begins and as luck would have it, it all points to the husband Nick. He is not quite as blameless as the author would have us believe at first but has his own share of skeletons in the closet. The initial two halves of this book are top notch. The first part with the slow undoing of Nick and us the readers getting to know poor, abused Amy and sympathizing with her. The second part is the turning of tables and the so called ‘twist in the tale’ which is all the more dynamite in terms of the feverish pace and devilish cleverness. And then there is the third and final part which is a genuine, 100%, solid gold WTF event ! By the time I ended the book, I felt as if someone had muddled up my brains royally. It is not a befitting ending for such a fiendish story and come to think of it, it is not a befitting ending for any story. A huge let down compared to all the build up that the author had created.

Interestingly, there is not even one likable character in the whole story. In the course of the tale, the characters all vie for who will be the biggest jerk of them all ! No trace of sunshine, no sign of happiness, no birds flying and definitely no smiles ( of course there are smiles but the kind a cat brings forth just before it attacks !) and that pretty much sums up the whole ambiance of the story. The black jacket of the book suits its contents to the ‘T’.

Interlude…of sorts

When I open this site and a fresh new web page, words dry up. A line or two is tapped up, half heartedly and then I go away. But to be fair to the whole aspect of expressing my thoughts in writing, I have had more luck with putting pen on paper than the online part. It was then that during a conversation, a friend of mine put across the idea of putting in my book reviews here on the blog. Considering the fact that I have maintained a steady pace of reviews on good reads and that I am pretty lazy to put in anything else here, this seemed a good thought. So here we go !

I will start with Gillian Flynn’s ‘Gone Girl’.

The cartographer up in the clouds

The best game from childhood would have been ‘lets pretend’ ! In a boy’s worlds, that would undoubtedly mean running around with a toy gun and thinking of himself as a police officer. A lot of characters enter and leave this stage of play acting : truck driver, elephant mahout, soldier, monster killer are a few such names that I can recollect. As years slip by, realisation dawns for a majority of us about what these jobs entail. Beyond the obvious financial implications and societal divisions of occupations, these fragile dreams of childhood disappear to be replaced by the orthodoxy of career oriented education ( in India this corresponds to the disciplines of engineering and medicine ). A few though choose to chase their dreams and either become shining stars or disappear in a contended if not mediocre oblivion.

The power of popular media can never be discounted in creating such colourful and larger than life images in the minds of the young ones. All this preamble of mine was to drop a quick anecdote about a popular movie in Malayalam named ‘Manichithrataazhu’ which dealt with the concepts of dual personalities and possession in an extremely popular fashion. One of the protagonists in the story is an established psychiatrist who is able to bring in reason and scientific thought to an otherwise open and shut case of demonic possession. The movie was so very popular that in the couple of years that followed, there was an influx of students wanting to study psychiatry ! Most of it came to nothing for they soon realised that reality is much less colourful.

All this came to mind as I was reading a book on neurology by V.S.Ramachandran whose work on the concepts of the phantom limb is something that I find to be infinitely interesting. There was one line that caught my mind in particular on a question about the nature of god. When asked what would god be like, an answer that a neurologist could think of would be that god is a cartographer. The reason being that the human brain is a collection of a mind boggling number of maps and pathways. A simple action of a smile or a hand gesture involves countless connections and relays going to work to get it done. Imagine what would it be if the maps went wrong even by the slightest bit or were plotted in a different fashion ! I am fascinated ! But no, I am not going to study neurology on a whim !

So what now ?

Knock knock !

Who’s that ?

Well….emmm….it’s me !

Me who ?

You don’t recognize my voice ?

Well you don’t have a voice that makes me go weak in the knees mister !

Oh but….I thought….

You still haven’t told me who you are …

I am the guy who created you my dear blog !

Ha ! So you have come back again….what is it this time ? came to see if I was still alive ? burial rites ? Or the same oh-I-don’t-get-time-to-blog hogwash ?

Wait. I can expl….

I don’t need your explanations ! You are too lazy to bother about reading. Tell me, wasn’t it a Stephen King book that made you come back ?

How did you know that ?

You pulled the same stunt a year or so ago ! And then it all fizzles out, just like that !

(blushes) But then King wrote that writing only improves with practice and so….

Yeah, he said writing improves with writing and not with thinking about writing !

Why not we give it a try ?

I ain’t trusting you again bud !  You do what you want to do !

 

For lack of a better topic, I mused how a conversation between my blog and me would look like now. In short, if the blog had a voice it would have admonished me in much the same fashion.

I’ve missed you my dear blog ! As they say, you always return to your one true love. It might be after weeks,months or even years but return is inevitable.

Yours truly

 

Another chance to brag !

1. How many books did you read in 2011?

88

2. What’s the best book you read this year?

For the spellbinding reading experience offered, I would pick these as my favorites:

  • The Constant Gardener & Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy by John Le Carre.
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.
  • Blood Meridian & The Road by Cormac Mccarthy.
  • The Snow Leopard by Peter Mathiessen.
  • The song of Kali by Dan Simmons.
  • Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt.
  • Francis Ittikora by T.D. Ramakrishnan

3. Any other reading highlights?

After long period of procrastination I finally begun reading the Harry Potter series and found it enjoyable.

4. What’s the most challenging book you read this year?

L.A. Confidential by James Ellroy would be the one for this slot. It took time to get used to the author’s style and I usually avoid Police procedurals but this one was rewarding in the end.

5. What’s the worst book you read this year?

That title would go to Inkheart by Cornelia Funke. A brain numbingly dumb book.

6. Which author featured most prominently for you in 2011?

I preferred two authors over the others : John Le Carre & Cormac Mccarthy. I have been practically gushing over their works this year.  

7. Were you part of a reading challenge? Did you meet it?

Yes to both questions.

8. Are you signed up for any in 2012?

No. Once was enough.

 9. What books are you hoping to get for Christmas (or buy next, if you don’t do the holiday gifting season thing)?

The site where I maintain a wishlist has now run to several pages in all. Not to mention the library where they keep on stocking up every other week. Temptation is everywhere waiting to hold me in her sensual embrace & only the power of paper money deters her & drives her farther away waiting for my next paycheck to come home !

10. Which books are you most looking forward to reading in 2012?

Finish off the Harry Potter series. LOTR, Narnia. I need to catch up on Virginia Woolf, Homer, Euripides, Sophocles, Asimov, Haruki Murakami, Calvino, Eco….blah blah blah. I have a feeling that I would read everything but these this year.

Before 2011 Vanishes : The Books

The time has now come to brag, to boast of the books that I have read in 2011. There were a lot of good ones this year and also the joy of discovering some good authors.

Here’s the list :

  1. Everything’s Eventual : Stephen King.
  2. Koko : Peter Straub.
  3. The Rite : Matt Baglio
  4. Amadeus : Peter Shaffer.
  5. The Constant Gardener : John Le Carre.
  6. Legends II – An anthology : Edited by Robert Silverberg.
  7. Lustrum : Robert Harris.
  8. The Italian Secretary : Caleb Carr.
  9. The Concise 48 Laws Of Power : Robert Greene.
  10. Silence Of The Lambs : Thomas Harris.
  11. The Graveyard Book : Neil Gaiman.
  12. The Veteran : Fredrick Forsyth.
  13. The Accidental Billionaires : Ben Mezrich.
  14. Heart Shaped Box : Joe Hill.
  15. The Girl Who Played With Fire : Steig Larsson.
  16. Blood Meridian : Cormac McCarthy.
  17. A Clockwork Orange : Anthony Burgess.
  18. The First Man In Rome : Colleen McCullough.
  19. The Rozabal Line : Ashwin Sanghi.
  20. Black House : Stephen King/Peter Straub.
  21. L.A. Confidential : James Ellroy.
  22. The Groaning Bookshelf : Pradeep Sebastian.
  23. Tinker,Tailor,Solider,Spy : John Le Carre.
  24. Hannibal : Thomas Harris.
  25. The Briar King : Greg Keyes.
  26. The Blaft Anthology Of Tamil Pulp Fiction : Edited by Pritham Chakravarthy.
  27. Eric : Terry Pratchett.
  28. The Road : Cormac McCarthy.
  29. Palpasa Cafe : Narayan Wagle.
  30. Sign Of The Cross : Chris Kuzneski.
  31. Night Train To Lisbon : Pascal Mercier.
  32. The Ring Of Solomon : Jonathan Stroud.
  33. Fragment : Warren Fahy.
  34. The Shadow Of The Wind : Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
  35. Iron Council : China Mieville.
  36. The English Assassin : Daniel Silva.
  37. Garden Of Beasts : Jeffrey Deaver.
  38. The Sunset Club : Khushwant Singh.
  39. Mister Monday : Garth Nix.
  40. Pyre Of Queens : David Hair.
  41. The Snow Leopard : Peter Mathiessen.
  42. Talking About Detective Fiction : P.D.James.
  43. Harry Potter & The Sorcerer’s Stone : J.K. Rowling.
  44. The Pirate : Harold Robbins.
  45. The Good Man Jesus & The Scoundrel Christ : Philip Pullman.
  46. In The Heart Of The Sea : Nathaniel Philbrick.
  47. Live & Let Die : Ian Fleming.
  48. A Murder Of Quality : John Le Carre.
  49. The Fourth Protocol : Fredrick Forsyth.
  50. Four Past Midnight : Stephen King.
  51. Anansi Boys : Neil Gaiman.
  52. The Dhammapada : The Buddha (Translation by Glenn Wallis)
  53. The Calcutta Chromosome : Amitav Ghosh.
  54. Harry Potter & The Chamber Of Secrets : J.K. Rowling.
  55. Collected Essays : Graham Greene.
  56. Presumed Innocent : Scott Turrow.
  57. Agents Of Innocence : David Ignatius.
  58. Vengeance Of Ravana : Ashok Banker.
  59. Shibumi : Trevanian.
  60. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest : Steig Larsson.
  61. The Eye Of The Needle : Ken Follett.
  62. Icon : Fredrick Forsyth.
  63. True Grit : Charles Portis.
  64. Satori : Don Winslow.
  65. Last Of The Amazons : Steven Pressfield.
  66. The Charm School : Nelson DeMIlle.
  67. The Song Of Kali : Dan Simmons.
  68. Inkheart : Cornelia Funke.
  69. Troy – Shield Of Thunder : David Gemmell.
  70. Night Of The Krait : Sashi Warrier.
  71. Haroun & The Sea Of Stories : Salman Rushdie.
  72. The Secret History Of Moscow : Ekaterina Sedia.
  73. Beatrice & Virgil : Yann Martel.
  74. Ragnarok – The End Of The Gods : A.S. Byatt.
  75. The Left Hand Of Darkness : Ursula K Le Guin.
  76. The Sisters Brothers : Patrick deWitt.
  77. Dreadful Tales : Richard Laymon.
  78. Honor Among Thieves : Jeffrey Archer.
  79. Archangel : Robert Harris.
  80. India Authentic : The Book Of Shiva : Virgin Comics.
  81. Ravanayan : Book 1 : Vijyendra Mohanty & Vivek Goel.
  82. Comic Jump : The Complete Season 1.
  83. Francis Ittikora : T.D. Ramakrishnan.
  84. Thrikkottoor Kathakal (Stories From Thrikkoottoor ) : U.A. Khader.
  85. Pannivetta ( The Pig Hunt) : V.M.Devadas.
  86. Paleri Manikyam : Oru Pathirakolapathakathinte Katha ( A Midnight Murder Story) : T. P. Rajeevan.
  87. Padmarajan Ente Gandharvan ( Padmarajan My Celestial Lover ) : Radhalakshmi Padmarajan.
  88. Thrikkottoor Vilakku ( The Lamp Of Thrikkottoor ) : U.A. Khader

Before 2011 vanishes !

The word tht comes to my mind right now is “cliche” for I am in the process of a ritual which I have repeated time and again. I have come back to my blog. Somehow from some distant work of fiction I remember a crow alighting atop a tree. One that stands stripped naked of leaves and pointing its skeleton of branches up to an overcast sky. Strange even to my own flights of fantasy for it makes no sense !

Another year will come to end in a few hours from now. As in the life of homo sapiens, this year too gave me its share of the good, the bad and the ugly. A lot of books, a much cherished journey to eastern India and the daily challenges that work throws my way. Yes, it was an interesting year. I just closed the browser window for Facebook where the Newsfeed page overflows with Happy New Year wishes from people in different stages of enjoyment. Here’s wishing them all a great 2012 !!

The rains started by ten last night and kept on battering the earth till the day dawned today. Some time at night I stood at the window and watched it pour. In the light of the solitary lamp by my house, the deluge raged on into the night like an angry goddess who was not tired of her primeval dance steps. Trivandrum is under a cloak of water today and there are a lot families who will sleep uneasily or not at all knowing that nature has swiped away their life’s savings in just one night. Another side to the beginning of a year.