Daily Archives: March 2, 2011

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu

I absolutely adored this book it gets a terrific 5 out of 5 gnomes for having a sincere engaging main character and a story that really keeps you thinking. This is one of the most well written and lyrical stories that I’ve read in a long time. It is so full of great quotes and lines, I have over thirty pages bookmarked where I wanted to go back and note what was said.

The overall story is intriguing in both structure and theme. Throughout there are excerpts from How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe so it’s like a book inside a book. The plot is explained like a story. Charles, the main character, lives in Minor Universe 31 where, “physics was only 93 percent installed,…” Some universes have more heroes and better protagonists then others. Minor Universe 31 though is very small.

Charles is a time travel technician, he repairs or helps people when they or the machine go wrong. He can open windows to other universes and see what he’s like there. Just thinking about that would be enough to paralyze me and most people because what if you find out that you’re the worst off out of all the possible yous? Charles doesn’t really live in the present, he uses his time machine and stays in between certain minutes so when he has to go in for repairs it turns out that from the present he’s been gone for ten years.

The secondary characters in this book are full of quirks but also very fun to read about. There’s Ed, TAMMY, Phil and Charles’s Mom. Ed, Charles’s dog he found was retconned out of a western show. TAMMY is the operating system of the time machine who has low self esteem and is extremely funny in her interactions with Charles. Phil, his manager doesn’t know he’s a computer program. His Mom lives in one hour of time because that’s all he could afford for her retirement. (This buying of a certain hour or time limit to live over and over is another interesting concept that is introduced which makes you contemplate what you would choose.

An incident occurs that leads to a time loop (because as any watcher of Star Trek can attest to, meeting yourself in the past or future is not the best idea). He has to figure out how to get out of the loop and why the book How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, a book seemingly written by him that he hasn’t written yet, is important. Because of the loop he gets to look back at important events in his life between him and his father. What follows is an epic journey to find his father that he lost long ago. The father and son relationship is vividly explored and it’s shown how he and his father came to build a time machine and the ramifications it had between them. It’s shown how the past impacts him and what happens to people that tend to live in the past. There is plenty of adventure along the way and a plethora of surprises as Charles goes through the time loop trying to figure everything out before it starts all over again.

Overall this book has quite the story to tell and will leave you thinking about it for a long time past the last page. Last but certainly not least is the major plus that How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe ends happily.

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe; Yu, Charles; Pantheon; $24.00

The Collaborator by Mirza Waheed

The Collaborator makes you listen. Isn’t that a book’s purpose? To make you stand up and listen to what the book has to say. A lot of writers have written about the Kashmir conflict and what it has come down to since India’s Partition period. A lot of it might also go unnoticed since there are so many voices out there, however this is not a book that can be or should be ignored.

I strongly believe and think that one cannot know or claim to understand another’s pain or any kind of emotion for that matter, if one has not been through it or experienced it. It is but just another false understanding mask that we sometimes wear, because there is nothing else we can do. The situation demands that from us, which quite conveniently leads to opinions which should not have been there in the first place. That is what the case with the Kashmir situation is right now. We all have an opinion and maybe we should stop at some point and let the people who are going through what they are speak for themselves.

The Collaborator is but obviously set in Kashmir in the early 1990’s. The war has now reached the isolated village of Nowgam close to the Pakistan Border. Indian soldiers, appear from nowhere to hunt for militants on the run (This is the eye-opener in the entire book. About how we claim to fight for what is ours and yet we do not respect its people and their sentiments. Everyone is branded a militant and shoot-on-sight is but a common affair).

Four teenage boys who used to spend their time playing cricket by the stream, singing Bollywood Songs and joke amongst themselves have now disappeared, one after the other to cross into Pakistan and join the movement against the Indian army. Only one of their friends, the son of the headman of the village, is left behind. The families in the village think it is time to leave, to flee so to say in search of greater safety; however the headman will not leave the village. His son is now working for Captain Kadian, the head of the Indian army, and is forced to collaborate with him to go down in the valley and count corpses, with the fear of recognizing one of his friends amongst them.

At an age at which he should be preparing for adulthood, he is trapped in scenes from a horror film, rooting through corpses for documentation. Every day, he fears he will find his friends among the bodies. Yet his oppression has a human face: Captain Kadian. Like the narrator’s vanished friend Hussain, Kadian favors the singer Mohammed Rafi; he is lonely away from home and overindulges in whisky, hectoring the boy when drunk.

War is real and so are the repercussions. It is as raw as the fresh wound and no one is safe from it once it hits you, up, close and personal. The atmosphere in the book is menacing, all the while, interlacing an elegiac description. His writing is excellent for sure. The Collaborator is heavy, weighty and does not provide lighter moments. At the core of the story is the narrator’s agonizingly protracted dilemma over whether to cross the border to join his friends in the training camps or to stay put with his parents. My heart went out to the book, and let me also make it clear that the book is not sentimental. This book as it rightly touts makes you understand why boys grow up so soon and leave their families and join a war that is often meaningless.

Kashmir is heartbreaking as of today. There is brutal uprooting of life and what used to remain. The book is painted in Manichean black and white tones, the past and the present juxtaposed with great talent. There is no solution for anything in the book. The book is left open to the audience to reflect and ponder upon the misfortune of Kashmiris. Read the book and be moved. Read the book and think.

Collaborator, The; Waheed, Mirza; Penguin India; Rs. 499

Third Best by Arjun Rao

I remember how I used to shudder at the thought of being sent to a “boarding school” when I was young. I would do something bratty and my parents would threaten me with the usual, “We will send you far away from home”. Little did I know at that time, what that would have felt like, had I been sent away. Sadly I was not – there were all false threats anyway which I soon came to realize.

As I grew up and so did my social circle so to say, I envied friends and colleagues alike who had had the boarding school experience. The night escapades and the encounters with teachers at odd-hours or the fear of getting caught and not waking up on time and many such incidents I would sadly only hear of from them, having never experienced them myself.

And then a book arrived on these experiences right in my hand to read and review – Third Best by K.V. Arjun Rao, published by Hachette India. “Third Best” is one of those reads that everyone would connect with – it is but after all about school and of those days gone by. We leave school with a sense of sadness and then remember it with a sense of nostalgia; however school memories are the only ones that are more etched than the others, as we traverse through life and its improbabilities.

Third Best centres around the story of boarders on board – set in the fictional Shore Mount School (based and conceptualized after The Lawrence School where the author studied and The Doon School, where the author now teaches), the small lies sometimes told and the heartaches, the chores and the nicknames and the teachers with their eccentricities and quirks, and not to forget the bullies and the bullying which is a part and parcel of school, I guess.

Though Nirvan is the protagonist of the book, the story revolves around the lives of his friends Faraz, Gautam, Adi and Billy as well. While Gautam is the noisy and obnoxious being, who doesn’t get frazzled by the bullies, Faraz is the most sophisticated of the lot, with his ideals and morals strongly set.

Third Best makes you want to relive the school days. It touches upon the expectations of parents’ vis-à-vis what the children want to do (and no, this is not a run-down theme, no matter how many times repeated). It is about shaping one’s thoughts and mind so to say amidst all the pressure and expectations.

The book is real and it speaks with you at ease. It is like a friend who you can discuss memories with and which will remain for a long time to come. After reading the book, there was this sudden surge of emotions in me that made me want to contact my school friends, no matter where they were and find out more about their lives. Third Best will make you want to go back to school for sure. Read it for its capacity to transport you to another world that you were once a part of.

Third Best; Rao, Arjun; Hachette India; Rs. 295

Sunset Park by Paul Auster

Reading a Paul Auster novel is something like listening to a well-orchestrated, multi-layered musical composition where certain melodies and motifs recur with substantial elaboration and variation. He is one of our very best writers and his newest, Sunset Park, like many of his books, reflects back to us a great deal about how we live today. It is “up-to-the-moment” current, the protagonist, Miles Heller, being employed by a South Florida realty company (for part of the novel) as a “trash-out” worker who cleans out repossessed homes that are usually left in awful shape by their former inhabitants. Miles has a somewhat fetishistic compulsion to photograph the forgotten possessions, the abandoned things that have been left behind, and his large collection of digital photos of these objects comprise one of the many lists of contemporary artifacts that Auster constructs throughout the book. It includes pictures of “books, shoes, and oil paintings, pianos and toasters, dolls, tea sets and dirty socks, televisions and board games, party dresses and tennis racquets, sofas, silk lingerie, caulking guns, thumbtacks, plastic action figures, tubes of lipstick, rifles, discolored mattresses, knives and forks, poker chips, a stamp collection, and a dead canary lying at the bottom of its cage.”

Sunset Park is a different type of story, and in some ways it felt more like an intense character study. Its central character is Miles Heller, age 28, an intelligent, but directionless, Brown University dropout, who has been estranged from his family for a number of years. Miles has been harboring guilt over his part in an accident which took the life of his step-brother, Bobby, and which has torn his family apart. Miles father owns a struggling book publishing company in New York, his step-mother is an English professor, and his mother, an actress in the city. In Florida, Miles has been getting by odd jobs in Florida cleaning up foreclosed homes during the housing crisis, while trying to keep his relationship with Pilar, a quiet under-aged teenager.

Soon after tempers flare with the family of his girlfriend, Miles hears from his old friend, Bing Nathan in New York. Miles boards a bus and heads back to Brooklyn. Bing is a man who detests technology and runs a shop called “The Hospital of Broken Things”, where forgotten things of the past, like broken manual typewriters, old radios etc. get repaired. When Bing invites Miles to become a squatter in an empty apartment in the Sunset park section of Brooklyn, he joins him along with two women: Alice Bergstrom, who works part-time while working on her dissertation, and Ellen Brice, a unsuccessful real-estate agent, obsessed with the human body, who wants to be an artist.

Art and Literature bind Auster’s characters into a subset of Americana adrift and in search of moorings. As each character — mother, father, son, underage lover, coconspirator, childhood paramour — moves through dilemmas and confrontations — questions of self worth, gender, sexuality, ambition, procreation, death, global politics, and so on — to arrive at moments of clarity, compassion, self awareness and self liberation, armed for the good fight in the face of whatever the future might deliver next.

Auster loosely integrates these individual narratives into a fluid mythic context: Hollywood, in the form of William Wyler’s sentimental 1946 “The Best Years of Our Lives” which follows three World War II veterans return home to discover that they and their families (not to mention their nation 60 years later) have been irreparably changed. (Jung’s myth of the returning hero gone awry.) Auster’s contemporary characters engage the film and live out post-war angst, and post-cold war decline, into a state of lingering ennui at the end of empire today.

There’s a deeper mythology at work in Sunset Park, the exhausted spiritual state of existential reality as Samuel Beckett explored it, before the rest of us were even “born into it”. Auster’s lead character’s estranged mother, for example, is a successful aging film actress returned to the city to appear in the role of her career as Winnie in a new production of Beckett’s stark and challenging “Happy Days.” Sunset Park’s mythic context sifts through the last half century from the failed returning hero, into Beckett’s post-apocalyptic landscape of endless contemplation and anxiety, armed with nothing but logic, cunning, and language. Another contextual level is the everyday mythology of baseball heroes, discussed endlessly between generations, as well as food and popular celebrity which provide connective tissue to hold contemporary culture at least conversationally in place.

Like, “The Hospital for Broken Things”, the characters in Sunset Part are a collection of “broken souls” struggling to find a place in this world, haunted in some way by their damaged past. At times the story seemed conveniently, contrived, and the narrative without direction, yet the characters and their issues seemed very genuine. I thought the contemporary post-recession time frame was perfect as well. In the end, some things were left unresolved, leaving me with unanswered questions, and curious as to whether this was unintentional or whether Auster has a sequel in the works.

Sunset Park is a coming-of-age story. It shows young men and women struggling to cope with and grow up from the wounds of early life, to take a hint from one of the novel’s early passages. For though Miles is its main protagonist, the story revolves from one of the squat’s inhabitants to another and, skipping a difficult-to-bridge gap, to the generation above. But Auster’s latest novel also is about recession America. Waste and reclamation are everywhere present, from Miles’s job at the beginning of the story, to Bing’s store for repairing broken typewriters and record-players, to the house in Sunset Park itself. The constant need for money, the need to deal with bare essentials, are of course favourite Auster tricks to highlight, by contrast, his characters’ dilemmas.

But this novel is also the closest Auster has come to making a statement about America in the present, rather than in the abstract sense. Sunset Park is an American novel as well as the more typical metaphysical rumination. And this makes it something new to the Auster collection. Even if old themes such as homelessness (Moon Palace, City of Glass, The Music of Chance) remain present in Sunset Park, its cautious optimism, its preparedness to see light as well as dark, its greater realism make it something different. This is both a classic Auster novel and a new, intriguing departure.

Sunset Park; Auster, Paul; Henry Holt and Co; $25.00