Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jed Rubenfeld - The Interpretation of Murder - Book Review

Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder has all the typical characteristics of a book that you'd buy at the airport to help you pass the time on a long flight. It has the word Murder in its title, and starts off with a beautiful debutante being murdered. It has the usual breathless reviews on both covers. And its pages seem to turn themselves.

And yet, what sets the book apart is the detail - in the setting, in the characters, in the complex threads that make up the plot.

The setting is New York in 1909, and what a setting it is. The city is transforming itself. Skyscrapers are raising their heads one after the other, a new 'tallest building in the world' is being inaugurated every two years. Mighty bridges are being built across the Hudson River. The society scene is glittering, the police force is corrupt, the people are heady with possibility. Rubenfeld's New York is so fast-paced, the energy almost seems to seep out of the pages.

Into this scene arrives the founder of one of the latest fields in psychology - the field of psychoanalysis. Dr Sigmund Freud and his anointed successor Dr Carl Jung, both famous as yet only in Europe, arrive to give talks in the USA for the first time. Freud and Jung are not the only real people to walk the pages of this novel - there are lesser-known psycho-analysts, there are neurologists who are threatened by Freud's theories, there is the Mayor of New York City, there is at least one real-life psychopathic murderer.

Indeed, it is Rubenfeld's incredible ability to weave together real stories and people into a work of fiction that makes this book such a joy. Reading the book, I couldn't wait to google and figure out who was real and who was not, which incidents really happened and which did not, which of the landmarks did exist and which did not. It's a good thing the author has helpfully provided a note at the end of the book with the details. Rubenfeld admits that he has taken some liberties with the chronology, but most of the things the real characters say are extracted from their books and letters. The discussions on psycho-analysis are quite fascinating, in fact - especially when you know the impact the theories later had on the world.

I just realized that I've been raving so much about the setting and the characters that I've forgotten to mention a word of the plot - well, there are so many threads here that it's impossible to figure out where to begin. There's the usual murder plot-line of course - a beautiful girl is tortured and murdered, and an attempt is made to do the same to another. Then there is the politics of academia - scandalous rumours are spread about Freud so that his talks get canceled, mysterious forces try to play Jung off against Freud. There is a possible love story. There is the possible involvement of a convicted psychopath. There is a Chinese angle, brought in by a real-life inter-racial murder of 1909. Rubenfeld also throws around red herrings with a liberal hand, so that I for one had Carl Jung on my list of suspects almost till the end (it didn't help that Rubenfeld makes Jung sound like a most unpleasant character).

At first, it seems impossible that Rubenfeld will manage to unravel all these threads, but he does. His two heroes, both fictional, a psychoanalyst and an NYPD detective, manage to figure out everything. Given the complexity of the plot, the explanation is necessarily torturous - but it's unexpected and therefore satisfying.
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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Philip Roth - Everyman

All of us are scared of old age, aren't we? We're scared of the possibility of illness, we're scared of the repeated hospitalizations, we're scared of the loneliness, we're scared of the slow inevitable decomposition of our bodies.

Philip Roth's Everyman is about this fear.

Poor Everyman. We meet him at his funeral. Around his grave are gathered his colleagues from his advertising career, his hale and hearty elder brother, his two sons who hate him, his daughter who loves him, an ex-wife, a former lover, fellow residents from his retirement village.

Having started with his death, the book jumps straight back sixty years to his childhood, to his first hospitalization, a hernia operation that was scary because he was so young and because the boy on the next bed died.

Many years pass before the next hospital visit - this time a routine appendicitis. And then, a few years later, comes the inevitable heart trouble. His life almost seems like a telescope aimed at death - each succeeding lens represents each of his major illnesses, coming ever closer and closer together, until he is in hospital at least once a year, until the final surgery that kills him.

As Everyman grows older, sickness and death seem to surround him. Constant back pain drives a lady in his retirement village to commit suicide. His friends seem to be affected by different horrible diseases - cancer, heart trouble, depression. Even the incredible good health of his elder brother seems to make fun of his own sickness.

Throughout, there's the harsh contrast with his own previous life. Everyman is a swimmer, he swims an hour every day - in the sea! His sexual appetite led him to cheat on his wives and cost him two marriages. In fact, it's while he's on a secret weekend with his mistress in Paris that his mother dies.

Everyman's active life is maybe a warning to the reader - don't feel superior, don't feel that this can never happen to you. If this can happen to somebody who's a regular swimmer, who has no history of illness in the family, it can very well happen to you.

In some sense, Everyman's sickness seems foretold. During the childhood he spent in his father's watch-and- jewellery store, he was obsessed with the old watches that people used to exchange for new ones. He spent hours with them, playing with them, trying to fix the broken ones. And he always used one of the old watches, one of the rundown watches, rather than a new watch.

But still, Everyman somehow never makes his peace with death. He visits the run-down Jewish cemetery where his parents and grandparents are buried. He spends time with them, seems to feel that they are with him. He talks to a grave digger, finds out how graves are dug. All this seems to be in preparation for death. And yet, as he goes into his final surgery, he's optimistic. He feels like he'll survive. He WANTS to survive. He doesn't know enough about the nothingness that comes after death to want to go into it. 
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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Natwar Singh Walks With Lions

A book with stories from the life of a diplomat who was also later an External Affairs Minister sounds very interesting. Unfortunately, Walking With Lions promises much and delivers very little; it would have been better titled Looking at Lions in the Zoo, because that's pretty much what the reader gets - glimpses of world leaders, each of them with about as much personality as a cardboard cutout.

Perhaps I expected too much. After all, the book is just a compilation of fifty of Natwar Singh's newspaper columns. Therefore, each story is necessarily short. The language is terse to the point of brusque. Some of the chapters feel less like stories and more like disjointed sequences of thoughts and musings, as if written at the last minute to meet a column deadline. And sadly, most of the stories are not interesting enough - I guess the juicy stories must have been kept back for diplomatic reasons. Indeed, there's barely a story or two from his period as External Affairs Minister.

Admittedly, some of the tales are interesting - Margaret Thatcher's encounter with Chandraswami, for example. Another interesting revelation was that Nargis Dutt was almost caught for shoplifting in London. His essay on MF Husain is also excellent (part of the essay here). He also claims that Begum Bhutto told him that Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was not hanged - he hit his head and died in a scuffle with his guards the night before he was to be executed.

Be prepared for some sickening flattery of the Nehru-Gandhi family, especially Mrs Indira Gandhi. Natwar Singh was a huge fan of Mrs Gandhi, and the reverence seems to have extended to her son as well. Many stories are about how she dealt with world leaders on her own terms. His opinion of her nemesis Morarji Desai is made clear in the very first two chapters (vengeful; questionable dietary practices). He also raves about Rajiv Gandhi's eloquence, charm and charisma multiple times.

This would have been a much better book had the author chosen to expand upon the essays, fleshed them out and put them in context. The stories aren't even in any discernible order - at least categorizing them according to the period of Natwar Singh's diplomatic life would have helped. He could also have expanded upon the personalities and quirky characteristics of some of these leaders. But perhaps he didn't know some of them well enough.

Overall - avoidable. 
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Monday, September 23, 2013

Trivandrum Through Green Glasses

In Trivandrum, in the house that is 'home' still for another six months, it always sounds like it's raining. The house is surrounded by trees - coconut trees and banana plants of course, but also teak and jack-fruit and mango and coffee and others I don't know the names of. They loom over the house and protect it from the sun, but not from the rain. The wind riffles through their leaves up above, and I'm always looking out of the windows, fooled by the wind and the semi-darkness, to check if it's raining.

Why is it that these trees don't exist in Bangalore? Why is it that the first thing people do when they want to build a house is cut off all the trees in sight? Is there a law that says that the size of a city must be inversely proportional to the density of trees? Does that mean that these trees will soon disappear from Trivandrum too?

Trivandrum, it seems to me, has managed growth well. Technopark is one of the three largest IT parks in India, but it is situated well outside the main city; visitors can go there directly from the airport without having to touch the city proper. Around Technopark, multi-storeyed apartment buildings are coming up one after the other. Fast food restaurants have popped up like so many mushrooms after rain.

It's a strange sight. Coconut trees, thousands upon thousands of them, lay a green carpet along the shore of a lagoon. And between these coconut trees, a few tall cuboids, mostly white, have sprung up, and they hold their heads up proudly, despite being outnumbered by the trees. Technopark is expanding; I saw construction as I went by yesterday, ugly glass buildings that will suck up electricity. Soon, more people will arrive to occupy those glass office buildings. And then more tall cuboids will spring up among the coconut trees, until finally the coconut trees will be lost amidst all the white buildings. And that will be that.

Ah well - it's selfish of me to want things to remain the same. After all, Bangaloreans have been forced to give up their peaceful city and put up with migrants like me.

But then again - maybe I'll go back to Trivandrum too. Every time I visit, I sit on the terrace staring at the greenery, and I think of the drabness of Bangalore, and I shudder at the thought of going back. If it's so bad for me, a city girl, imagine how it must be for the true-blue village-born Malayali who has to go back not to the well-behaved benignity of Bangalore, but to the torturous sick desert heat of the Gulf.

It's such an irony that Malayalees, despite having such a beautiful home, choose to live outside all their lives, toiling in hot yellow deserts and cold grey cities, only to come back in their old age to Kerala and spend all their money on opulent houses, painted all the colours of the rainbow and then some.


Trivandrum is actually a nice little city, especially when it's not summer. It has cute narrow roads that go up and down like a roller-coaster. It has colonial buildings that look like red ice cream houses with silver icing. It has a pretty boast-worthy culturati. It has the sea, and really - what more do you need?
• • •

Of Consequences and Immortality

From Jose Saramago's Blindness:
... if, before every action, we were to begin by weighing up the consequences, thinking about them in earnest, first the immediate consequences, then the probable, then the possible, then the imaginable ones, we should never move beyond the point where our first thought brought us to a halt. The good and the evil resulting from our words and deeds go on apportioning themselves, one assumes in a reasonably uniform and balanced way, throughout all the days to follow, including those endless days, when we shall not be here to find out, to congratulate ourselves or to ask for pardon, indeed there are those who claim that this is the much-talked-of immortality. 
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Friday, September 20, 2013

Happiness Versus Meaning

It's not very often that you find meaningful passages in books that you picked up as potboilers with which to pass the time. But the very first few paragraphs of Jed Rubenfeld's The Interpretation of Murder struck me as worth remembering. The book itself turned out to be not exactly a potboiler either, but more on that in a later post:

There is no mystery to happiness. 

Unhappy men are all alike. Some wound they suffered long ago, some wish denied, some blow to pride, some kindling spark of love put out by scorn - or worse, indifference - cleaves to them, or they to it, and so they live each day within a shroud of yesterdays. The happy man does not look back. He doesn't look ahead. He lives in the present. 

But there's the rub. The present can never deliver one thing: meaning. The ways of happiness and meaning are not the same. To find happiness, a man need only live in the moment; he need only live for the moment. But if he wants meaning - the meaning of his dreams, his secrets, his life - a man must re-inhabit his past, however dark, and live for the future, however uncertain. Thus nature dangles happiness and meaning before us all, insisting only that we choose between them. 
• • •

Monday, September 16, 2013

Right Now

I'm sitting in a cane chair on the balcony, a tulsi plant on the floor to my left, and a row of drying clothes to my right. The balcony is a boring old thing, if I had any imagination I would fill it with plants and make a tropical rain-forest that would drown out the fact that facing it on the opposite side, barely a few feet away, is the wall of the next building, a horrible splotched wall decorated with old pipes, both rusty-red and plastic-grey, but it's alright, this time next year it'll be a blue blue lake out there, and a nice wind that will make me shiver.

Somewhere below a mother and daughter are making an Onam sadya, the daughter asking the mother for instructions on Avial making, I think they must be living in different apartments and talking to each other across balconies, for why else can I hear them so clearly. I try to listen in, are they mother and daughter or mother-in-law and daughter-in-law? I can't tell, their language is middle Kerala, all musical and affected and polite, illya's and varu's, not the straight talk of my own part of the world.

Above me drone helicopters, that's the price you pay for living behind HAL. But I like them, I've been reading a history of Bangalore, and I feel connected to the city, to the romance of the old companies that helped make it what it is today. I squint up into the sky at the helicopter, and two birds seem to be giving it company, but they see me and they veer off and settle down on the roof of the building opposite me.

I break off a leaf of the tulsi plant and tear it up and hold it to my nose, and that smell, it takes me back about fifteen years, to a broken old well, moss-covered and dirty and maybe filled with ghosts, what does an eleven-year-old know? A tall tulsi plant grew on the side of the well and now I can't see a tulsi plant without thinking of that tulsi plant, I don't even know if it's still alive. They cleaned up that place, it used to be a broken old temple and a broken old well, and snake gods and tall trees and vines that looked like real live snakes, and we used to play there, the three of us, but now it's all cleaned up and you can't step on the grounds without taking your shoes off and now what's the point anyway?

My feet are warm because I've put them right where a bar of sunlight has managed to break through the buildings. It's a good thing we're on the top floor, at least I have a bit of sky, and it's a glorious blue sky, who was it that wrote about clouds like woolly sheep on blue grass, that sort of sky.

On my lap is Blindness, a book both the brother and the father recommended, and I've been resisting it for a year, but what better time to read it than when I'm affected by a pestilential eye infection that seems to have found a nice home in my eyes. First it nested in the white of my eye and turned it red and made me leak tears all day long, it stayed there for two weeks, and then it decided the black part was better, and now I can't see a damn thing for all the fog. But at least it means I don't have to cook an Onam sadya unlike the poor women downstairs.

I've given up on the book, because I'm not reading it, I'm squinting at it, trying to stop the letters from turning into blurred black dots, and squinting is no fun, even in the sunlight, and why would I want to do it, I'm already half-blind anyway. But I like the way Saramago writes, my thoughts go wandering and they pour out like his prose, no breaks or full-stops, just an onward flow like a river towards an ocean, and hence this post because it's easier to write like this when you can't see what you're writing.
• • •

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Princess of Mars

As I mentioned in my last post, A Princess of Mars was the first audio-book I actually finished listening to.

APoM is a typical sci-fi trash novel, written about a century ago. It was considered pulp fiction a century ago, and age doesn't seem to have improved it much. In fact, it's completely silly for a reader of the modern times.

Captain John Carter, a Confederate veteran, is magically transported to Mars, and ends up spending ten years there. Captain John Carter is pretty awesome on Earth, but he becomes super-awesome on Mars because Mars has less gravity than Earth. Because his muscles are used to Earth's gravity, he can perform superhuman feats on Mars - jump several hundred feet at one go, kill Martians with just one blow of his fist, etc.

This ability continues even after ten years on Mars. But I wondered - wouldn't the muscles get adjusted to Martian gravity in ten years?

Such questions are clearly too practical for this book. The author's focus is on keeping the action fast and furious. There is an endless procession of strange creatures for the good Captain to fight. There are also endless missions for him to accomplish - saving a Martian princess, saving the Martian princess's kingdom, and finally saving life on Mars itself!

I learnt after reading the book that Edgar Rice Burroughs also wrote Tarzan of the Apes. Which makes complete sense - think James Bond dressed like Tarzan on Mars, and you've got Captain John Carter.

Disney apparently attempted to start off a series based on these books last year, which didn't exactly turn out to be a great success. Again, I'm not surprised - audiences today probably (hopefully, rather) require a tad more plot and subtlety than these books offer. The only subtle side-plot in this book was a musing that green Martians are such emotion-less creatures because they bring up their young communally - none of them ever get to know their parents. Whereas we humans know what love is because we experience it from our parents first.
• • •

Monday, September 09, 2013

Will You Read To Me?

What does one do when an extremely persistent eye infection forces one to spend days at home eschewing any sort of "strain" to the eye? My usual past-times of reading and wasting endless hours on the internet were clearly out. Even watching TV, something I generally try to avoid, was banned by The Husband, who was very effectively playing policeman over my eye activities.

What DOES one do? It turns out that one sleeps a lot. One sleeps amounts that one didn't think possible, ending up in a disoriented half-moronic state of mind.  And then the doctor says one should keep one's eyes open as much as possible - which is sound advice generally speaking, except that she meant it in the literal sense, of course. 

One listens to music, and gets tired of one's paltry music collection pretty quickly. One taps out long soliloquies to oneself on one's online diary, with one's eyes fixed on some distant point (mustn't strain one's eyes, you see). And yes, one employs the same method to tap out disjointed blog posts. One hopes that the few minutes needed to correct one's typos won't strain the eye too much. 

A couple of days of this, and I was thoroughly bored. Then The Husband came up with a brilliant idea - he suggested that I try audio-books. 

Now, personally, I've never liked the concept of audio-books. Listening to an audio-book isn't the same as reading a book, is it? Where's the pleasure of converting those black squiggles into an image, a scene, a narrative; and where having a voice drone those very words into one's ears? And more to the point - it's cheating! Having a book read to you is so much easier than actually reading it yourself.

But considering the state I was in (still am in, in fact) - something was better than nothing. A quick search on Google Play later, I downloaded the LibriVox app. It's a pretty cool concept - public domain books read out aloud for free by volunteers from all over the world. 

The first book I attempted to listen to was Charles Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop. Now, Dickens is a guy who has always managed to put me to sleep quite effectively. I hoped an audio-book might be slightly better. Unfortunately, it turned out be an even more effective soporific than reading the book. The poor reader read quite a few chapters into my ears while I slept heedless. 

My next attempt was Edgar Rice Burroughs' Princess of Mars. And it turned out to be just the ticket - full of action and never a quiet moment to push me off to Sleepland. Though I finished the book, it wasn't good enough to make me want to continue with the series. My third (and current) audio-book is Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel that supposedly started the American Civil War. 

The app is pretty intuitive and easy to use, except that it sometimes gets stuck between chapters. It even has a sleep mode for people who're listening to the audio-book in bed, and don't want the book to run on all night after they fall asleep. The readers, despite being volunteers, are surprisingly good! The reader of Uncle Tom's Cabin is just incredible - he does different voices for different characters (even the women), and the way he does the accents is just astounding.

So am I a convert to audio-books? Meh. No. I'll admit that they don't really take away the pleasure of converting those words into images and sounds, but the concept still seems too much like cheating to me.
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