bookspluslife

January 6, 2018

Movie: Despicable Me 3 (2017)

Filed under: Hollywood Movies — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 6:22 pm

imageI went to this movie with lowered expectations. After all, Despicable Me, the original, was phenomenally entertaining and when I heard that they were making a sequel, I thought they could not possibly top that. The original story had a tight beginning, middle and a nice ending, where Gru, the evil mastermind, finally decides to give up evil when he falls under the influence of the kids whom he adopts. It also had a crazy villain who was a nutcase and the fine twist in it was revealed when we discover whose son the villain was. All of it nicely tied into a neat package, where no loose ends were there to continue the story right?

The movie makers proved me wrong. Despicable Me 2 was even better. They upped the ante, the minions were literally riotously hilarious. Gru met Lucy, an amazing agent and fell in love. The only fly in the ointment was that the villain seemed to be a little soppy compared to the first. This was overcome with the help of the drug that caused superhuman (but evil) powers in whoever took it. Nice and lovely and I was impressed.

Then came the spinoff movie Minions. This is where everything hit the rock bottom. There was no coherent story, the characters aimlessly wandered, the villains (yes, multiple) were boring and tiring. The whole story seemed pointless.

So my conclusion was that these people have now run out of ideas and I went to see the third instalment with low expectations. Which was as well because, while this was a bit of a pleasant surprise, it is no match for the first two. A new character has to be introduced in Gru’s life (in addition to the mandatory supervillain) and here Gru is reunited with his more successful twin Dru, who is in awe of Gru’s awesome evil genius (from his past life of course) and wants Gru to join him on one last superheist.

 

We also have an equally funky supervillain, a child star has been who is so upset to have lost attention that he decides to take revenge on everyone by, yes, dominating the world.

There are some cute capers where the twins (one with full blond hair and the other… well, you know. But overall, it goes round in the comic path well-trodden by the previous installments of the franchaise.

Cute, but not great.

 

6/10

 

– – Krishna

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December 28, 2017

Book: The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:18 pm

imageThis is the second book in the series King Killer Chronicles, the exhilarating first book, The Name of the Wind, was reviewed earlier here. I don’t want to repeat myself but I am frustrated by the reluctance of authors like Patrick Rothfuss and George RR Martin to finish what they have so gloriously started but I realize I am not alone in this one!

 

This story takes off where the old one ends. The setting is the same. Kvothe tells his own story to the Chronicler, so all of this is really a reminiscence of the past by Kvothe. But apart from the breaks where we come back to the ‘present’ the story flows coherently and effortlessly from Patrick’s skilled narration. Here is the gist of the story.

 

Kote appears very tired and Bast is worried sick. When the Chronicler returns from his long sleep, Bast privately pleads with him to make Kote remember who he really is.

 

The story continues exactly from where it left off in the first book. Kvothe (the ‘real’ Kote)  now is desperate to collect enough talents to continue his studies in the university. He is unable to find a patron and plays a musical joke on the audience in his performance at the Inn.

 

Elodin takes him up as a student and also has his access to the Archives reinstated. Kvothe also discovers that the mad Master Elodin knows Auri.

 

He meets Denna again and realizes that Ambrose took a ring of sentimental value and never gave it  back. so he goes to steal it for her. Ends in a miserable failure and also realizes that he is the target of wizardry and protects himself by initially having someone watch him when he sleeps and keeping his Alar (defence) up when he is awake. He burns bridges with Devi when he suspects her of having provided his blood to someone at Ambrose’s request.

 

Finally realizes that Ambrose is to blame and tries to lure him with the stunningly beautiful Fela whom Simmon, his friend, is beginning to fall in love with.

 

He also thinks his lute is stolen until he realizes that it is returned to him with a great case as a gift by Deanna.

 

He takes revenge on Ambrose by starting a fire in his apartment and destroying the wax / clay puppet used to target himself by Ambrose.

 

Kvothe loses Denna for a while. (What is she? The book implies that she does favours to her patrons, but does not explain what those favours might be). He also demonstrates a device that will stop arrows shot at any particular target.

 

He is arrested for “sorcery” – the earlier incident of Calling the Wind – and that scene is fabulous  to read. Then he is released but it has deep ramifications on his future.

 

He is forced to take a term off from University and then goes to serve a very rich man in Vinitas, the Maer. He foils a plot to poison him by his own medic Claudicon who is also an arcanist. He then successfully helps his benefactor woo the woman the Maer wants. He goes to catch bandits. All beautifully told and really more interesting than the dry narration above. Read the book for the full effect.

 

He then  meets Denna and has a flaming row with her. Then the Maer sends him hunting for highway robbers who are threatening the tax collectors and hence his income. Kvothe learns tracking skills with Marten, one of the team mates. Tempi, the funny Adem warrior, slowly becomes a friend. All this until Kvothe realizes that the Maer has sent him deliberately to what he hoped would be his, Kvothe’s,  death.

 

When they find the bandit camp, in spite of Dedan getting almost captured, Kvothe saves the day in an unbelievable set of amazing feats which are fantastic to read. The leader of the camp seems to have escaped, indeed vanished into thin air so to speak, but before that Kvothe glimpses something familiar about him but could not put his finger on it. A wicked tree later tells him that it was the chief of Chandrian in disguise.

 

Then he meets, on his way back, Felurian, a faerie that lures men like a siren into her clutches and never lets them go. He manages to escape unhurt using all his wiles. Brilliant narration again. He gets a cloak of Shadow from her and returns. He also meets the tree that can tell the future.

 

Tempi, glad to have him back,  teaches him Adem language and also the way of the Lathani, he goes with Tempi to Adem to defend the latter. A lovely description of Adem culture, the significance of hand gestures (which Kvothe always thought of as fidgeting initially) are all very well told.

 

How he gets admitted to the Hammer, his serial humiliations and his triumph in the Test with the spinning leafs tree are all wonderfully told. Patrick seems to be able to create an entirely new culture and city and seamlessly take you through its intricacies, which is fun to read. (And increases your frustration that the third installment is nowhere to be seen, with not even a publishing date announced!)

 

Some parts are contrived, where Adem think that sex has nothing to do with babies. Kvothe’s  final farewell and leaving Ademre is interesting. He then joins an Edema group and finds out that they are not Edema Ruh at all and also rescues two girls and takes them back to their town.

 

He is back with Maer now. There is a thrilling interlude where, to your horror, the invincible Kvothe is beaten up badly by just two ordinary thugs in front of the Chronicler. You don’t realize how much you identify with Kvothe and his powers until you realize that you are in shock!

 

How he decides to leave the Maer is also very interesting. Maer’s  wife’s visceral hatred of the Edema Ruh plays a part.

 

Back at the University, he finds Simmons and Fela are together now and he catches up with Deanna again. His arrangements with the bursar makes him rich for the first time ever.

 

Exhilarating narration. At least as good as the first one . Can’t wait for the next (and the last, as this is supposed to be a trilogy) installment.

 

8/10

–  – Krishna

Movie: Spiderman – Homecoming (2017)

Filed under: Hollywood Movies — Tags: , , , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:53 pm

imageThis is another reboot on Spiderman. This takes a completely different tack. If you have read the comics, you will know that the Spiderman comics always has a different feel to it than Superman, Batman, or almost any other comic.

 

Spiderman comics always has some humour flowing right through it, with the self-deprecating Peter Parker kind of humble and even gauche in his own way unlike the supremely confident Iron Man or Batman or any other superhero really. This movie brings out the humour in loads. It also overdoes it, a little bit.

 

There is a deadly twist in this movie too, like Hollywood does in almost all of the fantasy movies (Be it fairy-tale told differently a la Maleficent, or even the famous Frozen, which is a great movie but so twisted from the original that someone had to tell me that it is basically the story of the Snow Queen!) And I think it is a good development because it makes the story that much more interesting; otherwise, however well done, it will be all gadgetry and special effects and not much more.

 

The story is about the boy Peter Parker (done well by Tom Holland  – I don’t mean to be unkind but so much better than Toby McGuire indeed). And here is the other thing; they skip over the part where Peter Parker (in the original comic book) got his powers by being bitten by a rare (genetically engineered? I don’t remember) spider. He simply is an apprentice of the Iron Man. Was this the case in the comics? With so much improvisation, I can hardly tell anymore.

 

The story takes off from the Captain America : Civil War where Tom Holland plays Spiderman too. Sidelined after the action, Peter Parker decides to go solo solving crimes, against the advice of his mentor Iron Man (reprised by Robert Downey Jr who has a sense of comic timing that keeps him famous in that role). After a few unintentional disasters when he was trying to do ‘the right thing’ he wants to stop. In the meanwhile his close friend Nat discovers his secret.

 

He tries to put it away but when he realizes that Liz, a girl in his school whom he has a great crush on (and refreshingly from a different race in conformance with the times), has a crush on Spiderman, he is conned into wearing the suit again, as Nat blabs that Peter ‘knows Spiderman well’. A lot of scenes are hilarious like the one where he finds that the web making fluid has run out and he has to literally run to catch up with a moving van instead of jauntily swinging from conveniently placed objects as he is wont to do usually.

 

The supervillain in this movie is Vulture, who hates Iron Man for costing him his job and also halting his research. He goes rogue with the superhuman technology that he has managed to smuggle out (Yes, this is a supehero movie; many people routinely invent/ come across/ inherit technology that can ‘wipe out the world’ or at least a small part of it.)

 

After some extremely spectacular stunts where Peter is saved by the timely arrival of Iron Man in some cases and making very mature choices to stand on the side of justice in spite of the fact that it hurts, Peter is finally acknowledged as a super hero inside as well as outside by Tony Stark, the Iron Man.

 

Nice story and nice twists and great visuals and action. (Not the jerking motion of camera in some of the older action movies that leave you confused and with some headache). But with all the hype, if your expectations are raised to the level that mine were, also mildly disappointing.

 

7/10

–  –  Krishna

December 21, 2017

Book: World Without End by Ken Follet

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:15 pm

imageThis story happens many years after the events in the Pillars of the Earth, in the same Kinghtbridge area. You will see quite a bit of parallels – interest in architecture by some, the church hierarchy in the story etc but this is still quite a different tale in the same style and atmosphere.  What follows are the details of the story, as this preamble gives fully my impressions on the book.

Eight year old Gwenda in Knightbridge Priory with Ma and Pa and an elder brother Philemon and a baby.

Gwenda is forced to steal the coins from a merchant, who happens to be the father of Merthin. Also there is Tom Builder’s son, who is now a fairly rich merchant, and we hear about Prior Anthony who is his brother. The daughter of the merchant meets a knight who is waylaid by by queen’s men but manages to kill them and gets Merthin’s help to bury them. Gwenda’s dad steals from the dead men and gets into trouble with the guards when he tries to sell the stolen stuff. They let Gwenda and her dad  go alive after recovering the bodies.

 

Merthin and Claris are in love but Merthin, in a moment of weakness makes love to Griselda.

He is also interested in building, like Tom Builder’s son in the first novel, Pillars of The Earth

Godwyn is an ambitious monk who catches Richard, a monk, fornicating with a girl and uses it to his advantage. He also plots against Prior Anthony, who in his weakness and old age has gone soft, and allows the sexes to mingle in the church instead of banning females from entering the church.

Merthin, in the meanwhile, finds that his labour of love, the door, is destroyed by a vengeful Elfric, Griselda’s father, and learns that Griselda is pregnant.

He tells Claris, his real love, of his infidelity but at that moment, the bridge on the town breaks with tons of people, horses, carts etc on it, falling into the river.

Godwyn continues to plot, and places Thomas in place of privilege. He destabilizes Carlus the blind priest, who will not be controlled by him and makes him fall while carrying a sacred relic. In the meanwhile, Gwenda cannot attract Wulfric away from  Annette even when she tries all her wiles and uses love potion.

In the meanwhile Godwyn plots to humiliate Carlus and exclude him from the election to the prior and he wants pliable Thomas in his place. He then  brilliantly engineers his own election to the Prior.

In the meanwhile Caris and Merthin have sex and then Merthin’s design for the new bridge is pitted against Elfric’s in a town council meeting. He wins but is stopped by his own brother Roland who instigates the Earl to levy tax on the quarry and in the resulting quarrel also kills one of Merthin’s men. A judge in England rules in favour of Merthin. But when the work on the bridge starts, Caris realizes that her dad Edmund is becoming a pauper.

They patch up and Ralph becomes a lord. In order to ensure that Wulfric gets his inheritance, Gwenda agrees to have sex with Ralph but he betrays his promise nevertheless and Wulfric and Gwenda live together when Annette spurns him and goes on to marry another man.

Calris lies with Merthin, becomes pregnant but decided to abort and not marry Merthin. He is devastated but when he turns his attention to Liz, his assistant, Caris is torn.

Gwenda also becomes pregnant and gives birth to a boy. When there is a recession, Caris learns that her father Edmund may become a pauper and devises a way to increase revenue by using dyes and weaving.

Meanwhile, Caris takes the battle with Godwyn. Having won the battle with Earl, he gets cocky and asks everyone to pay toll for grinding the grain and Caris loses the battle when the wily Godwyn ensures that the King’s court does not hear the case as the townspeople are in effect serfs.

Ralph rapes Annette and Wulfric is furious, only stopped from killing Ralph by Gwenda. The case goes to trial and Merthin realizes Ralph could lose his life over this. He persuades Wulfric to tamper evidence to release Ralph for a lot fo money.  He refuses and Ralph runs away when he realizes that he will surely be hanged, becoming an outlaw and a fugitive from justice.

He is captured, and pardoned by king if he joins the army. In the meanwhile, with Edmund falling ill, Caris and Elfric stand for alderman election and Godwyn plots to get Caris killed as a witch to eliminate the competition. As Caris is about to lose, she gets the help of the senior nun and escapes death by promising to join the convent and become a nun. Godwyn is furious but helpless. Merthin is crushed because now he cannot have Caris, ever.

He leaves for Florence and eight years pass.

Caris uncovers theft by prior Godwyn and his sidekick Philomen and has to go find the Bishop who has left for France.

The French are numerically superior, but to Ralph’s surprise (he is in the English army, with the king now) they fight stupidly and keep losing. Ralph, saving the crown prince’s life, finally earns his knighthood and becomes a Lord.

Merthin nearly dies in a plague but loses his wife and comes back to Knightbridge a very wealthy man, and meets Caris. He pleads with her to marry him and ‘look after his daughter’. She seems to tell him that she wants to continue in the monastery, much to his consternation!

He tries to get Wulfric pardoned but Ralph will not listen.

The plague reaches Knightsbridge and people are popping off. Godwyn will not let Merthin build a new cathedral. When the head sister dies, Caris and Elizabeth contest in the election but Godwyn plots the downfall of Caris. When she has about given up the plague strikes the sisters who refused to wear the mask calling it witchcraft and a heathen practice.

When Petronella herself succumbs to the plague, Godwyn panics and gets all monks to run away with him in the middle of the night and with bishop coming in, Caris gets anointed as prioress and also acting prior, much to Elfric’s rage. When an outlaw reveals where Godwyn is, Caris and Merthin go together to confront him, only to find all monks dead except Thomas and retrieve the hidden church treasure stolen by Godwyn. Elfric dies and Merthin is elected alderman in his place. All because of the plague, which tapers and stops finally. Merthin and Caris rekindle their passion and resume carnal relationship in secret.

The town is afraid that it has come back when Lord Edward succumbs to it and Petranella fears losing her children to it too. Ralph decided to kill Tilly so that he could marry Petranella and become the Earl in place of Edward.

Ralph executes a daring raid on the abbey, kills a nun, gets to know the treasury and steals all scrolls. He is in a mask, and also takes coins and jewellery to make it look like a robbery. In addition, he manages to kill Tilly and drop her into a burning room but Merthin recovers the body and they realize she was killed by a sword wound.

Ralph promised Gregory Longfellow, the unscrupulous royal representative, the scrolls. When he delivers them to Gregory, his step to Earldom seems almost done, provided he can convince Philippa whom he adored anyway from a young age, despite her being older than he.

Merthin and Caris guess it was Ralph who was behind the “robbery” and why but are powerless to prove any of it.

Philippa is forced to give Odilla, her daughter, in marriage to Ralph by the king’s orders “conveyed by Gregory, his lawyer” upon pain of being accused of treason if she refused to comply.  She accepts her fate and marries Ralph, thereby finally making him an earl. He is now bored with her and agrees to get Odilla, the daughter married to another earl David, in return for Philippa to go into a monastery. When she reaches there and Caris again walks away from Merthin, choosing religion over him, he walks out on her and Philippa and he fall in love.

When Philippa gets pregnant, she seduces Ralph so that he will believe the child is his and has to move back to him. Caris finally decides to renounce being a nun and takes over a second hospital being built by Merthin. She is now married to Merthin at last but Philomen wants to become the archbishop next!

Gwenda’s son Sam runs away to the next village to work illegally and when Gwenda goes to see him, she is followed and they try to catch Sam. He kills Ralph’s man and flees but is captured (due to his limited intelligence).

When Ralph realizes that Sam is his son from a talk with Gwenda, he pardons him but insists that he join Ralph as a squire. In addition, his other son is thwarted both in his attempt to plant the dye making plant mandrag and his request that he marry Annette’s daughter. Gwenda is fully crushed.

Merthin’s daughter Lolla falls into bad company and keeps running away from home. Meanwhile Caris and Merthin try to thwart Philomen’s new ambition to become Bishop and enlist Henri’s help.

When the plague comes back, the monks run away again. Gwenda is repeatedly made to submit to Ralph who seems to have a thing for her.

The end of Ralph and the final solution for Philomen are loose ends that are tied up to everyone’s satisfaction at the conclusion of the book.

Great story, absorbing reading. 8/10

    – – Krishna

Movie: Wonder Woman (2017)

Filed under: Hollywood Movies — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:04 pm

image.jpgThis one took the world by storm and launched Gal Godot, the Israeli actress into the world of US Sequels. Some of you may know that she won this solo role based on the smaller role she did as Wonder Woman in the earlier Batman vs Superman movie but based on the buzz that this one received, she is now one of the sought after stars, as they say ‘in the Hollywood firmament’.

 

But I have multiple gripes about this film. I confess that, even though I grew up reading comics so long ago, I have not read the Wonder Woman series when it came out as comics and so this movie may be truthfully following the comic books but I still do not like it. What am I complaining about? Mixing jingoism with a fast paced story. I know that some of you will point out that the entire existence of Captain America is jingoistic. That I can take. After all the entire army of Superheroes seem to make America their primary home and protecting other countries is just an incidental benefit when they primarily save Americans from evil forces. But at least they fight the supernatural villains. Here, the whole story is about fighting the Nazi Germans. They just gave a double twist – one of them being who is the real super villain who is orchestrating the whole thing; and the second, making that person a divine deity taking human form to deceive others.

 

In spite of this, this is all about an all American pilot Steve Taylor (played well by Chris Pine, he of the newly rebooted Star Trek series fame) and Diana aka Wonder Woman, who does not realize her own divinity until very late into the movie, played to perfection by Gal Godot. They battle the evil Germans to the bitter end, and also face Ares, the God who turned evil and wreaks destruction upon the whole world through Nazis, silently, until forced at the end to take on the elemental Super Villain form to battle it out one on  one with Wonder Woman.

 

The movie is fast paced enough. Well made with tight sequences with a faux evil man fronting all the time – and it is a genuine surprise when he (relatively) tamely dies in the hands of the Wonder Woman. Minutes later, we realize who the real deal is. This is a nice surprise!

 

Let us briefly think about the story. Diana grows up in an Amazonian island where God Zeus hid them to escape the wrath of  Ares, the fallen God (Shades of Satan, the fallen angel, right?) She learns to fight in spite of her mother’s reluctance because the mother realizes that the fight is coming with Ares and that only the God Killer, the special sword that they have as a gift from Zeus. She becomes superlative in her fight and unwittingly hurts her teacher through anger translate to a powerful blow. That is a hint to us about her supernatural abilities (as if we could not tell from the title of the movie) though she does not understand what it is. The fact of her supernatural origins is kept a secret from her. Of course.

She meets and falls in love with the pilot Steve Taylor when he and the Germans following him crash into the hidden Amazonian world. The Germans have guns and the women have only swords and arrows and predictably a slaughter ensues even though ultimately, by sheer expertise in war, the women win. One of the slain is the teacher, dear to Diana’s heart.

 

Diana leaves with Steve knowing that Ares is behind the evil force of the Nazis (huh? This is where I lost the ‘even cartoon world’ logic that they were trying to portray) and that she had to find and kill him. She of course takes the God Killer with her with her mother’s consent.

 

Hilarious scenes follow of her trying to understand modern American way of life – it is kind of predictable but still cute and endearing. They both predictably fall in love and in the end, she is left alone – no doubt to pursue or be pursued by suitable other romantic interests in the sequels.

 

Ares tests her to the limit and she almost gets killed a number of times, escaping by a hair’s breadth. So it is all interesting and fun but the nagging entanglement of the War and the Good Vs Evil still seems out of place in a superhero movie.

Good entertainment but I would give it a 6/10, perhaps shocking many of you.

–  –  Krishna

November 25, 2017

Book: Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:53 am

imageAfter reading the author’s Poisonwood Bible earlier, which I still consider one of the best books I have read, I could not wait to read this. As far as the story content goes, this could not be more different from that. This story happens in the wilderness of US not a tiny city in Congo. The protagonist is an independent lady Deanna, not the fanatical priest and a family under his thumb. But this book shines too. I still think that the other book is in some way crafted better but this does satisfy you when you have completed this.

 

The story starts with a girl in the woods, Deanna, living alone for years, working for the government and keeping an eye on the animals and the forest in general. She meets Eddie Bondo, a younger man, and seems to feel an instant attraction. We quickly learn that she is the ranger of the forest .

 

Lusa, another girl  is married to a farmer, but feels alienated by his entire family, near whom she lives. She is from Lexington and is constantly ridiculed for her ‘big town ways’, her education and her sympathy with wildlife. (She is an entomologist and an animal activist in her opinion). Her husband, whom she married as a rebellion against her parents, also constantly belittles her and fights her in his ideas. He dies in an accident about five years into their marriage. They expect that she will now leave and go back ‘where she came from’ but to their surprise and a little bit of chagrin, she decides to stay right there, tending to the farm alone.

 

Garrnett is a widower living alone. He is in battle with his next door organic, no-chemicals kind of neighbour Nanette. What he thinks as a heart attack is a snapping turtle attached to his leg. Parts of this relationship are very funny and part absorbing.

 

Lusa is irritated by everyone assuming that she will sell the property and move back to town where ‘she belongs’. She explains her Jewish and Muslim ancestry to a bewildered young man who is a relative.

 

In the meanwhile, Deanna discovers that Eddie is a hunter and he discovers that she is an animal lover and over twenty years his elder. The love of animals and ecology comes through in her  character and every character is true to form. This is what makes her books so readable. For example, Eddie says that hunting is definitely a part of the natural order and that if done within scientific principles, the culling of the animals in facts aids the ecological balance and helps the environment of the forest.

 

There is another  great example of this  where Nanette explains how prey multiply much faster than predators and by indiscriminately killing them both with spray, how you are actually promoting faster infestation of pests than predators! But when she uses that argument to question genetically modified food, the arguments are much weaker. Interesting view, nevertheless.

 

Lusa slowly wins over the people, even rebellious children, to her side. There are interesting viewpoints. Nanette, though subscribing to evolution, is against genetically modified foods, based on the same principle as prey and predator and the unknown effects of it.

 

She has done for the naturalist and animal world what she has done for fanatical beliefs in her earlier excellent tome, The Poisonwood Bible. Barbara proves her ability to immerse her in this world too but it is naturally not as shocking as the other onw. You learn a lot of tidbits about moths and you learn other interesting details almost as a byproduct of that story – for example, you learn  that the male turkey does not look after the young, it’s procreation being the ‘hit and run’ variety.

 

Garnette’s story  is really funny and well told. His fights with Nanette are really fun to read. Nanette cures the dizzy spells that Garnette always got into. He is offended by her (even for wearing a dress that is not age appropriate)

 

Deanna discovers that she is pregnant. Everything links up at the end. Garnette is related to Jewel (Lusa’s relative by marriage) – he is her father in law, is estranged but agrees to receive Jewel’s kids. Those kids will be adopted by Lusa due to the cancer eating at Jewel’s body. Nanette is related to Deanna who wants to come live with her. Interesting links and very well written story; very believable, and lovely to read..

 

The language is poetic and immerses you into the world of every character there is, and Barbara definitely has the knack to make you totally absorbed in a story that is not a thriller, and yet opens up a new world to you and keeps you reading, more and more absorbed in the story as you go along for the ride. You will enjoy the experience.

 

8/10

–  –  Krishna

Book: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:26 am

imageThe author dares in his Notice for the readers to find any moral or plot or motive for the story. The threat is well made, though intended as humour,  since I could not find any of these in the story at all.

 

Cute story though. Huckleberry joins Tom Sawyer in a gang where they want to murder and pillage and want to ransom some people without even knowing what ransom is. Mark Twain is known for his one liner humours and this story is also written in the style of his famous Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry is an orphan being raised by a woman who tries to make him “civilized”.

 

He is beset by his good-for-nothing father who accuses him of putting on airs and asks him to stop going to school forthwith, and takes the only dollar Huck had to go drinking. He gets upset and takes Huck away and locks him up in a cabin. When he tries to harm Huck, he manages to wait until his dad is away, fake his own death and go off to an isolated island where he meets Jim, Ms Watson’s slave who has run away because he hears that Ms Watson plans to sell him away.

 

When Huck finds that the town is looking to lynch Jim because they think that it was he who killed Huck, he alerts Jim and they move on in the raft down the Mississippi and they surprise a gang plotting killing of one of its own members in an abandoned ship. It all reads like a cheap two-penny Western book of old times. Which fills you with surprise because this is one of the best known classics of all times.

 

This is not the ‘adventures’ in terms of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain refers multiple times to Tom in this book, as Huck is one of his best friends.

 

But really interesting visions of life then creep in almost by stealth. Jim dreaming of freedom when he reaches Free States is touching. As is his plans to go back and buy his wife and kids who are slaves in different households. As is Huck’s guilt in helping Jim because Mrs Watson, the widow ‘had paid good money for him’.

 

To get more information, Huck goes ashore but steps into the clan feud between Grangerfords and Shepherdsons. At the height of massacre, he is taken by the house nigger to a place where Jim waits for him and Huck is overjoyed to see that Jim has not “drownded” or lost as he thought.

 

Mark Twain is not deep by any means. All of it – the story, the narration –  has a juvenile feel. There are two vagabonds who get onto the raft chased by unknown people and they pretend to be a duke and (not to be outdone, the other says he is a) king. All simpleton dialogs with wry and shallow humour, not to mention the story. You cannot plead that it was early times and old style because Dickens and Dreiser wrote eloquently well during the same period.

More descriptions of a circus and a duel follow. It all feels disjointed. Then they go and scam a town putting up a play.

 

Then they try to cheat a family out of a dead man’s bequest. The stupid thing is that a traveller whom they meet on the way tells them everything they need to know to make a successful impersonation and nobody, I mean nobody even tries to check them out. See what I mean by childish?

 

Huck simply prats on nonsensically and they all lap it up. He has a change of heart when he realizes how good everyone is and how they are about to be cheated. He buries the gold with the coffin. Then they all get exposed and all escape to the raft. Juvenile again.

 

Then the duo goes behind Huck’s back and sell Jim off to someone. When Jim finds out he has a moment of guilt. He is bad and sinned because he helped a nigger escape who was legitimately the property of poor old Miss Watson, who had done him no harm. He knows he will go to hell for that but he cannot bring himself to do the right thing and write a note to Watson telling her where Jim is. He decides to be evil as that is his nature anyway and help Jim escape from his new slavery.

 

When he reaches the house where the slave was bought, he is mistaken, of all people, for Tom Sawyer. Realizes that Tom is coming back and waylays him and gets him as an accomplice. But Tom’s plans are foolishly elaborate. He gives warning that Jim is to be saved, rousing the entire village and so a number of farmers with guns are waiting in the house.

 

In the melee Tom gets shot in the leg and goes missing too.

 

Finally, everything is sorted out in a fashion satisfactory to all, with shades of PG Wodehouse-like revelations at the very end which makes everything hunky dory.

 

4/10

– – Krishna

November 12, 2017

Book: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:47 am

imageEdith Wharton’s maiden name was Edith Newbold Jones. Unlike the normal stereotype of a starving author, Edith was born into so much wealth that the term ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ was coined after her family, really. She also married a wealthy sportsman Edward Wharton (though that marriage did not last long and they got divorced. She stayed in France, even though she was an American who grew up in New York, until her death in the twentieth century.

 

The story starts with a play attended by Newland Archier. He goes to see a play by Christine Nilsson. He sees a young girl of another family in the opposite balcony. Miss Welland is one possibility of a bride and the story brims with gentle mockery of the presumed male superiority in ‘looking after and guiding a worthy woman whom one takes as a wife’.

 

We learn that the girl is Mary Welland, his betrothed, who belong to the Mingotts family. Then a girl enters and everyone gasps because, they did not think that the family had the temerity to bring ‘poor Ellen Olenska’, a cousin of Mary’s out in the public.

 

I love how Edith describes Catherine because she is different and ‘has built a home in the ‘inaccessible wilderness near Central Park’.  Yes, we are talking about New York in the old days! Inaccessible wilderness? How times have changed!

 

Ellen, the black sheep of the family, has been separated from her husband and is not even trying to get back with him and is rumoured to be living with another man. In those priggish times, this naturally creates a huge scandal. Those who knew her hear of a speculation about a divorce and, as you know in those times,  this is NOT a subject that should be discussed in the family, especially in front of the house butler. Quaint days, those.

 

When Ellen Olenska and the Mingotts are snubbed by the society Newland Archer and his mom canvass to have the bigwigs of society accept to the invitations to the party everyone else seem to have spurned.

 

Slowly Newland finds that his spectacularly gorgeous betrothed May Welland is not as lively as he thought and drawn to Olenska. But his betrothal to May makes it awkward. In the meanwhile Ellen continues to stir up trouble and eyebrows by her unconventional behaviour.

 

When she wants a “formal” divorce from her Count husband, the entire New York society is horrified at her daring. Wanting it is one thing, but openly discussing it? Simply not done!

 

He gets closer and closer to Olenska. And realizes the dullness of May in comparison. This comes out slowly in the story. However – and here is another sign of those times – he has given his word that he will marry May and he cannot go back on his word without losing face in front of the entire society.

 

He marries May and tries to put Ellen out of his mind. But May is so dull. Ellen and Archer discover that they love each other but are bound by social conventions.

 

It causes huge strain with May, who is after all innocent of any crime on her part. He even fantasizes about her being dead so that he can be with Ellen.

 

Brilliantly told, the ending is moving. This book is also an exploration of the changing social mores of the times, where Archer is constrained by much that his children are not constrained by; an amazing amount of unspoken understanding between him and May and him and Ellen; about how, after the passage of many years, he refuses to meet with someone he had not seen in over thirty years because he is afraid that the reality may never catch up with his mental image of what he would see.

 

In all, it is a movingly told story that carries you away even today, after all these years. And stays in your mind quite a while after you have finished reading it.

 

8/ 10

– – Krishna

November 5, 2017

Book: Are you Smart Enough To Work At Google? by William Poundstone

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:50 pm

imageWhat a title! Full marks for the title that wants you to read the book at once. Unfortunately, the book itself does not live up to that hype. It would have been far better if it was the other way around – a great book with an insipid title.

 

Started with a weird interview of a candidate with Google. Then he goes into types of interview questions that are cliche and some which are oddball.

 

If you love puzzles, you would love this book. For instance, one of the questions is “What is the next number in the series 10 9 60 90 70 66?”. Try as I might, I could not guess the answer. Perhaps you can but the answer is very surprising!

 

Another question is : If you were shrunk to the size of a nickel and thrown in a blender and the blender is about to start in 10 minutes, how will you escape? The “right” answer and the science behind it are interesting indeed. As is the discussion on what to take seriously in the question (as a given, without questioning it) and what to infer!

 

The analysis of why the scene of the Incredible Shrinking Man fighting with a spider using a needle has been picturized wrong is nice indeed. (It is related to the above is the only clue I am willing to give, so as not to spoil the book for you).

 

He talks about how interviews are useless predictors of future performance. The idea that not all intelligent people are successful or creative etc. Questions on creativity “Give me all the uses you can put a brick into” are interesting.

 

He talks about a world where paucity of jobs makes the employers choosy due to applications overflowing for each job and even Walmart asks tricky questions to test your thinking prowess.

 

But the book is not about questions that make you think. I thought it would be a puzzle book, cleverly titled to draw in readership but it is actually more an analysis of the hiring practices in most companies, especially Google. Does not consistently retain your interest.

 

Some puzzles are brilliant. The 100 prisoners who wear red or blue hat and stand in a line so that everyone can see the hats in front of them but not theirs or the ones behind them. They are asked to name the colour of their own hat and will be shot dead if they get it wrong. There is a strategy that is foolproof that can help everyone (except the last one). The explanation is simply brilliant! Pieces like this save the book from being another uninteresting discussion on google’s hiring practice.

 

The puzzle about two men talking about a man’s three daughters (product of the ages is 72 and sum of their ages is “equal to the number on that house opposite” without giving you the number. The other says, “I still don’t understand” and the first one clarifies fully by saying “my eldest daughter plays the piano” and it is all clear to the second one!) is excellent as is the reasoning behind the answer.

 

Those are the best parts. There is an overwhelmingly tedious description on how everyone wants to work for the best tech companies and how you can prepare for the job.

 

But most of the book is about the quirky nature of questions in today’s interviews in the tech world and how you address them. Most of them are not logical but very esoteric and the answers are, frankly, not enough to hold your interest if you are not pining for an interview in one of these tech giants or if you are not interested in unrealistic problem solving. The book does not hold your interest for long, if you are a layman.

 

I will give it, at best, a 4 / 10

October 26, 2017

Book: A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 7:13 am

imageI hate overly preachy or overly fawning accounts in the name of non fiction. I mean books like Beyond the Last Blue Mountain or, perhaps surprisingly for you, The Life of Pi.  From the book’s title and the subject matter, I feared that this is perhaps one in the latter category. Thankfully, this is not the case.

 

The full title of this book is :  A Problem From Hell : America and the Age of Genocide. Sounds like a literature Ph D thesis and I would have not touched the book with a ten foot pole if it had not come with high recommendations. As it is, I am glad I did. It is a well written and gripping book and the author’s passion for the oppressed comes out as is her frustration and anger at successive US bungling of each crisis.

 

The book covers a broad canvas. Covers all mass killings, effortlessly moving from the Armenian genocide by Turkey to Pol Pot massacres to Nazi Germany and Iraq’s attempts at the eradication of their Kurd population.

 

An Armenian kills Kamal Pasha, who is living in retirement in Germany for all the atrocities the latter committed against Armenians when he was a Turkish general in the Ottoman army.

Tehrlian, the assassin, in his young days saw his whole family raped, tortured and killed by the Turkish soldiers who were accompanying them in a forced march “in order to protect them”. He himself was left for dead after a hit on his head knocked him unconscious.

 

The massacre is not condemned by Germany, which is an ally of Turkey against the Allies in World War I but the Allies themselves are too busy to win the war to make a big protest.

 

The valiant efforts of Morgenthau, the US ambassador to get US to intervene is of no avail. He asks for a transfer in disgust and is never appointed again as an ambassador by an irate President Wilson.

 

Samantha writes passionately and very well, keeping what is a rather difficult subject well.

 

Another advocate for stopping extermination of a whole ethnicity (the term ‘genocide’ was not used then) was a Polish lawyer called Lemkin. He tried to propose, in UN, that this should be made illegal, and even specifically talked about dangers such as the (future) rise of a ruler like Hitler in Germany. The motion was defeated and the UN panel said that there was no conceivable way anything like the Armenian massacre “can happen again”. Remember that Lemkin was a Polish Jew and that the year was 1939 and the irony is supreme!

 

Lemkin tries to persuade the Jews to leave as soon as Germany invades Poland but no one, not even his family, wants to leave the place where they have ‘everything’. Tragic. He immigrates to the US and his efforts to bring the plight of Jews under Hitler also fall on deaf ears. He coins the word genocide to denote attempts to exterminate a whole people.

 

Zygielbojm was so frustrated with the lack of attention to the Jewish plight and the indecision of the Allied powers that he killed himself to bring their plight to the world’s attention.

 

Lemkin makes himself a pest making people run the other way when they see him but succeeds in getting genocide outlawed by a UN charter. US turns against the vague wording of the act and refuses to ratify it. Lemkin goes nearly nuts and complains against Human Rights Act of UN! He dies a weird man to the last.

 

Proxmire takes up the cudgels for genocide law afterwards.

 

The author complains that during Khmer Rouge atrocities US did not step in and do something. I agree that a nation’s rulers should not be allowed to murder their own population or part thereof with impunity but think about it. US was just walloped in Vietnam and evacuated Combodia and were war weary. To go back in again against Khmer Rouge would not have been easy as they needed Congress approval to do that and the whole country was up against foreign adventurism due to the Vietnam war effect. Rather like the post Iraq fatigue of US in Syria, for example. The debate then (as it is now in the Middle East) is whether the suffering of a citizenry justifies a foreign power to intervene against the government’s will.

 

Excellent coverage is provided of the reasons of the Pol Pot takeover of Cambodia, including the corrupt administration of Prince Sihanouk, the womanizing gourmet who called himself god king or ‘deva raj’ (Interesting use of Sanskrit there, of all things).

 

Nixon administrations to install the totally ineffective regime of Lon Nol as the prime minister, in a coup and the author describes how it exacerbated the problem and how his army was not even furnished and how US gave 80% of the revenues in aid which went straight to the pockets of the ruling politicians. Fascinating. It is ironic how Sihanouk became the front for the Pol Pot regime when they won the civil war. The subsequent brutality was covered much more graphically in the other book we reviewed earlier – Pol Pot: A History of Nightmare by Philip Short which gave the inside view. But this one is a good outsider’s summary.

 

The Cambodian story from the perspective of US and world inaction in the face of mass atrocities by Pol Pot regime is also beautifully told. The struggles of lone Senators to get the Carter administration or the UN to do something substantial without much to show for it is also heart rending.

 

Due to cold war considerations, it is appalling to see US side with the ousted Khmer Rouge government even after the genocide is well known and not only get them a seat in the UN but also supply arms for it to recapture Cambodia from Vietnam? All because Vietnam was aligned with Russia and US was trying to curry favour with China, a Khmer supporter? It is terrible to read!

 

What a powerful indictment on the US policy! First, unreasonable reluctance to even acknowledge Hitler’s mass executions, then support for Cambodian regime (even aid and arms after they were ousted) to unseat Vietnam which had finally “liberated” the place, then overt support and blind denials of Saddam’s employment of chemical weapons against his own population of Kurds. When you read the stubborn refusal of US government to recognize overwhelming evidence from its own senators and journalists for the sake of geopolitics, you are truly horrified.

 

Samantha then turns her razor sharp analysis to the Bosnian problem. Clinton the Presidential Candidate is full of passion and outrage for the Bosnians but Clinton the President turns out to be a totally different one, not taking any action at all while Bosnians are massacred with seeming impunity by the Miloslavic regime. Ironic that an author vilified as a war monger ended up in the advisory council of one of the tamest Presidents of them all, Obama.

 

Rwandan massacres come in next and her explanation of the riot in personal terms of what individual groups did makes, again, for a powerful description of the madness that prevailed. The chilling “instructions” given to Hutus is terribly stark.

 

Samantha covers the Bosnian and Kosovo crises too, in a similar vein.

 

The last portion of the book is a rehash mostly. There are some moving vignettes. This focuses on the remedial measures taken and compares the Human Rights commissions set up in various countries (Cambodia, Rwanda with the International Court of Justice). You can safely skip most of this without any loss of information.

 

In all, a great book, better than I anticipated.  7/10

 

–  –  Krishna

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