Saturday, October 31, 2015

Big Magic

Elizabeth Gilbert says in Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, "The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them."

This belief in the Universe and its connection with creativity is a recurring theme in this book on creativity and inspiration. Indeed, that's what she refers to as Big Magic.

She believes that "creativity is a force of enchantment--not entirely human in its origins." Also, "Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life form. ... And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner." She even provides "proof" for this belief - an idea that supposedly jumped from her to another writer because she didn't give it enough time.

A bit hard to take in? Same here. But who are we to judge what helps her write?

And to do her credit, the rest of the book is a bit more realistic. The book apparently grew out of her famous TED talk on creativity, and it's a compilation of her thoughts and research on the subject. It's divided into six parts, each dealing with one of the six ingredients she thinks essential to creative living - Courage, Enchantment, Permission, Persistence, Trust and Divinity.

Gilbert's idea of creative living goes beyond the usual "artistic pursuits" such as writing or painting. Do something, she says, ANYTHING that takes you out of the mundane and the ordinary. "By completely absorbing our attention for a short and magical spell, [creativity] can relieve us temporarily from the dreadful burden of being who we are."

Despite her belief that ideas have a life of their own, she places great importance on hard work. Creativity is a fickle partner, she says. If you keep waiting for creativity to show up before you do your thing, then you will end up waiting for ever. You need to work steadily, day after day, even when you would rather be doing anything else. In her own words, "I sit at my desk, and I work like a farmer, and that's how it gets done."

In fact, for her, the outcome is less important than the process itself.
What you produce is not necessarily always sacred, I realized, just because you think it's sacred. What is sacred is the time that you spend working on the project, and what that time does to expand your imagination, and what that expanded imagination does to transform your life.
Her language is, as usual, conversational and free-flowing. Each part of the book is divided into short chapters, and she includes plenty of inspirational stories to illustrate her point.

I think different parts will appeal to different people. The parts on Courage and Persistence, for example, appealed to me. The one on Enchantment (in which she talks about the whole Ideas as Disembodied Beings concept) - not so much.

But perhaps different parts will appeal to the same person at different points in the creative process as well. If you're feeling stuck, for example, and the ol' Muse just isn't making an appearance, you could probably go back and read some of the chapters in Persistence. But if you're stuck at the beginning, aware that you want to do something beyond your daily routine, but not sure what, then the chapter on Trust will help you out.

Overall, a short accessible how-to guide to creativity, and a good behind-the-scenes peek into the thoughts of a writer.
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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Sriram Karri's Autobiography of a Mad Nation

Disclaimer: I read a free preview copy of this book.

A good idea, badly executed. That about sums up this book for me.

Sriram Karri clearly has a lot of anger bottled up inside him. He's angry at the system - the politicians, the bureaucrats, the media, the corrupt, the greedy, the silent majority - and he has let all his anger spew out in this book. It reads less like a novel and more like a criticism of the functioning of the Indian democratic system.

But to begin at the beginning. The President of India has received a strange letter from a convicted murderer awaiting execution - a challenging letter, a letter that demands justice and not mercy in the form of a pardon. Intrigued by the letter, the President asks his old friend Vidyasagar, the retired former head of the CBI, to investigate. Did Vikrant actually commit the murder he has been convicted of? Vidyasagar digs into the crime, only to find that things are murkier than they appear. The trail of one crime leads to another, and yet another.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part flows quickly - Vidyasagar's investigations, combined with what appear to be Vikrant's diary entries. I was actually enjoying the book at this point, despite the sometimes amateurish writing and the irritatingly self-righteous diary entries.

Unfortunately, the book starts to fall apart in the second part. Ideology-filled monologues dot the text, especially in the latter half of this section. The author seems to be making the characters speak for him, expressing his anger at all the ills affecting the nation.

The third part does a good job of tying up the whole. The threads of the mystery are satisfactorily untangled, and what appeared to be an insoluble mystery does end up having a logical, clear and satisfactory ending.

Unfortunately, it isn't enough to save the book. What could have been a unique novel ends up being a trite obvious diatribe.
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Friday, July 10, 2015

Yashodhara Lal's There's Something About You

I've been on a non-fiction streak lately. History, travel, what not. But there's only so much non-fiction I can handle at a time. After a point, I need a quick light read to relieve a bit of the seriousness. So when a mail popped into my inbox offering me a preview copy of Yashodhara Lal's There's Something About You, I clicked through to the free three-chapter preview with interest.

Before I continue, I should confess something. I don't generally read such books. And by "such books", I mean the ones that directly or indirectly trace their lineage back to Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone (the book that kicked off a whole industry of Indian "commercial" fiction). I've tried a few of these books and been turned off by the shoddy sentence construction, the deluge of typos, and the way they talk down to the reader.

So when I see books packaged (yes, that IS the best word) in bright colours, with long titles that give away the plot line of the book, my brain generally tends to hit Skip. 

Which is why, when I started to read the preview chapters, I didn't expect Yashodhara Lal's book to be much better. But I was surprised - pleasantly. It was so nice to read an Indian "light read" written by somebody who can put a sentence together properly. I binge-read the three chapters in the preview (and then her blog for good measure) and realized that I would have to read the rest of the book somehow (she really knows how to throw in a cliffhanger). 

The book isn't releasing until July 20th, so I responded to the mail and asked for a preview copy. The book popped into my mailbox (the real life physical one) three-four days later. And I finished it before the day ended. When the mother of a five-month-old says that about a book, you better believe that that's one unputdownable book. (Or maybe I have a bad binge-reading disease. Possible.)

So what's the book all about? Though it's been billed as the Romance of the Year, it's actually much more than that. It's about Trishna Saxena (Trish), an overweight 28-year-old who uses sarcasm as a defence mechanism. She feels the need to protect herself and her family (a father with Alzheimer's and a mother who tries to dominate her life) from any intruders. Her nice comfy life is disrupted when she loses her job. To add to the confusion, there's a seven-year-old who behaves like a teenager, an agony aunt column, a tragic accident, and of course our male protagonist, Sahil. 

Yashodhara Lal writes well - she's funny (in a sarcastic way). There are some interesting non-cardboardy characters, a decent plot that is predictably feel-good, and yet has some surprising elements (does that even make sense?), and a love story that is kept subtle and low-key. 

The best part of the book was that it didn't talk down to me, the reader. It expected me to be intelligent and yet want to have a good time - something other writers in the genre don't seem to have understood yet. 

And - hell - I might as well confess it. I LIKED Trish. I identified with her, I liked her sarcasm, I liked her flaws, I liked how she didn't have everything together in her life (at the beginning of the book anyway).

I do have a few things to crib about, of course. By the end of the book, there are just too many plotlines. Those who read the book will understand what I mean - the final plot element is a bit too dramatic and hard to take in.

The second crib I have is the cover. I mean - would you look at that cover? Is that supposed to be Trish? That looks more like a fashion-conscious teenager than a 28-year-old overweight writer. But I guess this cover will sell better.

Overall - a well-written, light, feel-good read that has ensured that I won't discount all commercial fiction out of hand in the future.
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