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© Rakhesh Sasidharan

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Reading Updates

Altered Carbon

Loved it! Not exactly like the TV show, but similar, and good in its own way. The book was able to convey more internal dialogue and Takeshi musings by way of the medium it is. I read this from cover to cover, but cheated towards the end by listening to the audio book (coz I don’t get much time to read and it’s easier to listen to a book while commuting). As I mentioned earlier the audio book quality is poor, but since it was only a few chapters here and there I didn’t mind.

Apart from the musings and such I think I also enjoyed the book because the sci-fi stuff wasn’t presented in an “oh wow this is awesome” kind of way. Richard Morgan (the author) just brings up things as if they naturally are so. Everything has an air of “this is how things are / have always been” so the book didn’t feel too sci-fi to me. Plus the fact that it tended towards noir / mystery also helped. I definitely love noir / mystery books.

To quote a paragraph that I loved a lot from the book:

Suppose you know someone, a long time ago. You share things, drink deeply of each other. Then you drift apart, life takes you in different directions, the bonds are not strong enough. Or maybe you get torn apart by external circumstance. Years later, you meet that person again, in the same sleeve, and you go through it all over again. What’s the attraction? Is this the same person? They probably have the same name, the same approximate physical appearance, but does that make them the same? And if not, does that make the things that have changed unimportant or peripheral? People change, but how much? As a child I’d believed there was an essential person, a sort of core personality around which the surface factors could evolve and change without damaging the integrity of who you were. Later, I started to see that this was an error of perception caused by the metaphors we were used to framing ourselves in. What we thought of as personality was no more than the passing shape of one of the waves in front of me. Or, slowing it down to more human speed, the shape of a sand dune. Form in response to stimulus. Wind, gravity, upbringing. Gene blueprinting. All subject to erosion and change. The only way to beat that was to go on stack forever.

Just as a primitive sextant functions on the illusion that the sun and stars rotate around the planet we are standing on, our senses give us the illusion of stability in the universe, and we accept it, because without that acceptance, nothing can be done. But the fact that a sextant will let you navigate accurately across an ocean does not mean that the sun and stars do rotate around us. For all that we have done, as a civilization, as individuals, the universe is not stable, and nor is any single thing within it. Stars consume themselves, the universe itself rushes apart, and we ourselves are composed of matter in constant flux. Colonies of cells in temporary alliance, replicating and decaying and housed within, an incandescent cloud of electrical impulse and precariously stacked carbon code memory. This is reality, this is self knowledge, and the perception of it will, of course, make you dizzy. […] All and anything you achieve as Envoys must be based on the understanding that there is nothing but flux. Anything you wish to even perceive as an Envoy, let alone create or achieve, must be carved out of that flux.

Broken Angels

The sequel. I didn’t love it as much as Altered Carbon and in fact I left it about 1/3rd (chapter 14 to be precise). I tried listening to the audio book in hopes that it will engross me more, but it didn’t (in spite of being of better quality). I just couldn’t connect with the story or the characters. While Altered Carbon was more personal, Broken Angels was about war and politics and all that abstract sort of stuff which I have no interest in. And I dunno why, I kept getting irritated by how often kept saying “Envoys are this” and “Envoys are that” – too much self praise.

Reading this book made me doubt (again) whether I like sci-fi or not. When reading Altered Carbon I had gotten over that doubt coz I enjoyed it a lot, but Broken Angels for all its military sci-fi and Martians and all that bored me.

Woken Furies

I had thought of skipping this one – the third book in the trilogy – but am going to give it a chance in case it’s different. Mustn’t judge a trilogy by an unpleasant second book. :) Apparently it’s got a younger Takeshi hunting down an older (present day) Takeshi – can’t say no to that sort of a story!

A good thing about these books is that each one is independent. No relation to the events of the previous books.

Full Dark No Stars

Since I loved “1922” the movie, I decided I had to read/ listen to the book. I tried listening to the audio book early this year but didn’t like the narration. So I returned the audio book and when I saw the physical book recently I purchased it. Read “1922” – loved it! – and also “Big Driver”. Good stuff! Got two more short stories to go.

Fahrenheit 451 (book)

Listened to “Fahrenheit 451” narrated by Tom Robbins this weekend. It’s a short book of about 5 something hours. I left reading when there was 1 hour to go.

I decided to listen to this book as a movie adaptation is out and I wanted to read/ listen to the book first before watching the movie. It’s a good book, but yeah it didn’t hook me on too much and so I left eventually. I think the fact that I listened to it rather than actually read was what helped me get this far. Tom Robbins was a good narrator.

I didn’t leave this book because it was poorly written or anything. It was good. I liked the language and how things were presented etc., but I didn’t really connect to the story. Going through the Wikipedia page I see that the book was written at a time when book burning was a possibility and I guess since that whole concept sounds so alien to me I don’t really get it. Not that book burning can’t or won’t happen in this day and age, just that it feels a bit far fetched and not overly dystopian (I guess one could always have an ebook version of whatever is being burned!). The book also seemed to be a commentary about the rise of television and how it keeps people happy as it’s “dumb” or mind numbing, while books provoke thought and discussion and this in turn leads to dissatisfaction and unhappiness – but this too kind of feels far fetched in this day and age when there are good TV shows and games and tablets etc. encourage creativity among its users.

Considering all this I didn’t feel like wasting more time on the book. I don’t have an hour of free time today, and I could leave the book for my morning commute tomm – but why bother. Decided to leave it where it is.

ps. Saw the movie, and it’s terrible!

Audiobooks

I love Audible and audiobooks but I notice that off late I am less enthusiastic about it. The last good audiobook I enjoyed was “City of Thieves” and that itself was found after skipping a lot of books in my library. Similarly since then I have skipped many books. Am not sure if I skipped most of these because I didn’t like the story or because I wasn’t much a fan of the narration.

Thing is the narration in most of these books I skipped is great but just not to my taste. For instance I listened to “The Hobbit” (which I’ve already read) but gave up soon coz the narrator Rob Inglis was amazing but I just didn’t want this much “input” from him. He did all the voices perfectly, it kind of took distracted me (for lack of a better word). I would have loved it if he were just reading the book and less focused on the various voices – that way he would leave something for my mind to imagine, but not my mind was a mere passenger in his bus ride (not sure if that analogy made sense). I think that’s an especial issue I have with audiobooks in general. With a book I know I have to focus and give in to the book – since I am reading my eyes and my mind is concentrated on the act, and I visualize things and have the world and characters built up in my head. But when listening only one of my senses is engaged while my eyes are free to wander around and get distracted and think of other things, and also there is less character build up in my head. Added to that if the narrator does a more than perfect job of emoting and doing different voices, there’s pretty much nothing left for me to do except just listen and I am not fully focussed or into the story. I am much better of watching a TV adaptation of it as they go one step further and show me things too.

This is the same issue I had with Stephen King’s “The Mist” recently read by the amazing Will Patton. He was too perfect, inflicting his voice with various emotions such as fear and sadness etc. I felt it took something away from my pleasure of reading.

Then there’s some audiobooks where the editing or quality of the recording isn’t great. For instance “Altered Carbon” read by Todd McLaren which seems to be a good book (am reading the physical version) but the quality was so horrible it distracted me too much.

Maybe it’s my mood of late or maybe I am just moving on – I don’t know, but I am less excited about audiobooks. I hope it’s just a case of me not coming across stuff I like, because I do love audiobooks and I have listened to many great books on it and discovered a few authors I wasn’t aware of. So I don’t really want to give up audiobooks, I just want to be able to use it properly.

I think one reason many people prefer audiobooks is for this reason that I don’t like it. :) Audiobooks lets you consume a book while doing other things side by side. I wouldn’t read a physical book in my morning commute for instance coz of all the noise – I would want peace and quite. Yet I can do an audiobook coz it’s in my ear. Similarly there are people who listen to audiobooks while doing household chores or washing dishes etc. – something which I too tried initially but left it coz I don’t want to read a book like it’s some background music or radio. I would like to get lost in reading a book, if I can (but one can’t coz of the lack of time and also coz as I get older I find my eyes are unable to concentrate for too long on reading).

Anyhow, that’s enough audiobook rant for today. Am listening to Tim Robbins narrate “Fahrenheit 451” now. I started it yesterday and he’s a great narrator but I started feeling sleepy and left it. Got to see how it goes today. He doesn’t do too much voices (not yet at least).

I listened to “Brave New World” two weeks ago and left it quarter way. Great narration, but irritating voices. And I didn’t get too hooked on the book either. Yeah it’s dystopian and all that, but didn’t catch my fancy. Surprising considering it’s a popular book, and also coz I usually like dystopian novels. That said two of the three previous dystopian novels I read/ listened to, I mixed it with audiobook and reading. “1984” and “A Handmaid’s Tale” – I alternated between reading and listening; while “Animal Farm” was purely listening (but the story had a faster pace so maybe it didn’t matter much that I didn’t read). So maybe that’s why I enjoyed those books more, and if I were to read “Brave New World” I might enjoy it. (Or maybe not. I was hooked on to “1984” and “A Handmaid’s Tale” from the start when listening, and I started reading them so I could go through it faster – so I guess I simply wasn’t a fan of “Brave New World”).

Speaking of reading I finished “Alias Grace” recently. Had loved the TV show so I bought the book when in London last month. Amazing book. I simply loved it. I bought the audiobook too and tried reading it side by side but I was having so much fun just reading the book that I returned the audiobook. Now I am reading “Altered Carbon”.

Station Eleven – Boring!

When in the UK recently I bought a bunch of books to rekindle my reading habit. One of these was Station Eleven. I am not sure where I came across this book – I have a memory of it being on one of the TWiT shows – but I can’t find any hits when searching for this book and any of the shows of that network, so it must be a mistaken memory. Anyhow, all the blurbs on the book cover made it sound amazing, and it’s won some sci-fi award, and it’s supposed to be one of these dystopian future sort of novels from a Canadian authoress (and I think of Margaret Atwood whose books I like), and it was on half price in the book store … so I purchased it. Bad decision!

To be fair I have read about half the book. Am on page 146 of 333 and finally giving up. I think if I stick with a book till nearly midway and it still doesn’t interest me then there’s no point spending more time further. There are other books to read or stuff to do, I must call quits here. Sucks that I spent money on this book though coz I can’t just return it like I would do an audiobook, and I don’t want to keep it in my library either, so I’ll have to donate it I guess. Bad decision. Very bad decision buying this book!

The book just meanders on and on. There’s some flu, the end of the world, civilization has come to and end, everything’s reverted to an older age of small towns and no technology and a bunch of survivors. No there’s no zombies or some crazy dystopian future – it’s just people wandering around. There’s some group of traveling artists, and a lot of flashbacks to some character who died initially … it’s just so boring and pointless. In fact, I don’t even know why I am wasting time writing about the book. :) I just need to vent it out somewhere I guess and get it out of my system.

To be fair the book is not like some of the newer books that read more like they are written for a movie or TV series. A lot of books I read recently on the Kindle are written that way and it’s irritating – I’d much rather watch it on screen then. No, this one is well written and I could have fallen in love with it had there been some point or purpose or direction or pace to the whole narrative. As of now it’s just wasting my time.

Currently listening to: City of Thieves

Every now and then Audible has some sale and I try a new author I haven’t heard of. I am not very good at exploring different authors or genres coz I don’t like leaving my comfort zone. But with Audible I can at least give something a shot, and then return the book if I don’t like it. Usually I try a new book based on the narrator or just the book cover. I read some of the review to try and get an understanding, but it’s difficult to judge a book by reviews as different people have different tastes (and I have found I don’t like most sci-fi stories that a lot of people rave about).

Anyways, City of Thieves by David Benioff is one such book I tried recently and I am loving it. I bought it coz of the cover and also coz it is narrated by Ron Perleman. It’s been a good listen so far and while I still have a long ways to go I thought I should mention it here. Ron Perleman narrates it good too with the different voices and all that.

While Googling on some of the places and authors in the book (most of which turns out to be fictional) I came across the following wonderful quote from this blog post:

Talent must be a fanatical mistress. She’s beautiful; when you’re with her, people watch you, they notice. But she bangs on your door at odd hours, and she disappears for long stretches, and she has no patience for the rest of your existence: your wife, your children, your friends. She is the most thrilling evening of your week, but some day she will leave you for good. One night, after she’s been gone for years, you will see her on the arm of a younger man, and she will pretend not to recognize you.

David Benioff has two other books but they don’t seem to be in Audible. Will have to read them the old fashioned way. :o)

Update: Finished the book. Loved it!! A must read/ listen.

Reykjavik Murder Mysteries

After a few Audible listens that I had to leave midway because they held no interest, I finally came across the Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson series of audiobooks by Arnaldur Indridason. Good find! And so glad I decided to check it out.

So far I listened to “Jar City” and “Silence of the Grave” (which I just finished today). Two great listens, each one better than the other! They aren’t as depressing as the Wallander mysteries. They are slow and serious, with a lot of self-rumination and all that, but it’s great! Just the sort of books I love. And great narration by George Guidall as usual.

This is the second set of Icelandic detective series that I am reading/ listening to. Previously I had read the books by Viktor Arnar Ingolfsson and loved these too – “Daybreak”, “House of Evidence”, and “Sun on Fire”.

Side by side I am also currently reading “Stories of your life and others” by Ted Chiang. One of the short stories in this book is what got made into the movie “Arrival”. I loved that so decided to check out the book. Tried the audiobook first but that didn’t hook me much. So switched to Kindle and that’s been good so far.

Random audiobooks post

(I found this post in my drafts. Think I started typing it some weeks back on my phone and then forgot about it as I got side-tracked. Didn’t want to delete so here it goes).

I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks recently which seem to be generally well received but for some reason I don’t like them. In fact I have had to return so many of these. Makes me feel odd that I have different tastes to the majority. That doesn’t seem right.

For instance the “Bobiverse” trilogy by Dennis E Taylor. I finished the first book but it was a bit of a drag. And I listened to one chapter of the second book and couldn’t take it.

Or the “Three Body Problem” trilogy by Liu Cixin. I struggled through till about midway and then couldn’t take it anymore. But the book has such amazing reviews and is widely well received.

Then there was “Ready Player One” (left quarter way) and more recently the “Fear the Sky” trilogy (left midway of first book).

Somehow I don’t feel the excitement that everyone else seems to feel with these books. I don’t connect with them for some reason. It’s not that I don’t like sci-fi, it’s just that I didn’t feel so much for these books or like their plots or pace. (Oh and don’t forget “Gateway” and “Calculating God” – though the latter was due to the narrator. “Gateway” was good till about 2/3rd when I lost interest).

I think the right narrator matters a lot when it comes to audiobooks. Kind of obvious I guess, which is why Audible even lets you return books you don’t like. Recently I have been listening to a lot of James Bond audiobooks. I started off with “Casino Royale” which was read by Dan Stevens, and was amazing! Then I moved on to the rest – mostly the ones read by Simon Vance (who again is amazing!) and also “Moonraker” read by Bill Nighy (a great listen!). Then I listened to “Diamonds are Foreover” by Damian Lewis and that was “mehhhh”. I don’t know if that’s because I didn’t like the narration or coz the plot was boring. But the next two in the series, again read by Simon Vance were quite good, and just recently I completed “Goldfinger” read by Hugh Bonneville and that was superb both in terms of plot and narration.

Similarly I love the Wil Wheaton + John Scalzi combination. Great stories & perfect narration. Or Will Patton’s narration of Stephen King’s “Mr. Mercedes” trilogy – blew me away! I thought I’d love anything read by Will Patton as he was just great. But I listened to “Deliverance” and while I still loved the narration the story wasn’t enough to keep me hooked on. I’ll have to see if I can find some other Stephen King + Will Patton combination.

Another favorite narrator is Simon Prebble. I think except one book (“Mrs. Queen Takes the Train” – which I found boring but again, unsurprisingly, has great reviews on Audible) I have finished anything he has read.

Other narrators that I like (but I have sometimes had to stop listening to midway coz the stories didn’t hook me enough) are Ray Porter (especially his Raymond Chandler audiobooks) and also Luke Daniels.

Update: Oops, how could I forget George Guidall. His reading of the Walt Longmire series is something I can never forget. Sadly though, since he was so amazing in that and now his voice is forever associated in my head with Walt Longmire and the characters of those books whenever I hear him in any other setting I imagine Walt Longmire. Which is funny coz now I am listening to him narrate “Jar City”, which is an Icelandic murder mystery, and it’s so hard to get over the feeling of Walt Longmire and his cast somehow being in Iceland and having Icelandic names. :)

Endless Night

Just finished listening to Agatha Christie’s “Endless Night”. It was an amazing listen. Very unlike in tone and story to Dame Christie’s usual detective stories (but with a plot twist she has used in the past but which nevertheless came as a surprise to me here too). This was a dark story and I enjoyed it!

Came across the following from William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” via this book and I liked it a lot:

Man was made for joy and woe;
And when this we rightly know,
Through the world we safely go.

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
Under every grief and pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.

A good quote from “Murder is Easy”

Just finished listening to Agatha Christie’s “Murder is Easy” and came across this quote towards the end. Loved it.

Bridget: Liking is more important than loving. It lasts. I want what is between us to last, Luke. I don’t want us just to love each other and marry and get tired of each other and then want to marry some one else.

Luke: Oh! my dear Love, I know. You want reality. So do I. What’s between us will last for ever because it’s founded on reality.

The Man in the High Castle (book)

Wow, the book is so different from the TV show! Damn. Can’t even compare the two. And because I saw the TV show first (and that’s more fast paced) I kept waiting for the book too to pick up pace. And because of that I don’t think I read the book the way I should. It’s not sci-fi, it’s not a thriller, it’s somewhat political (what if Japan and Germany won), and a lot (a lot lot lot!) philosophical (which was amazing really but I didn’t read it with that mind frame as I was waiting for things to pick up pace). 

Lots of good stuff about life and fate and objects etc. Some real good stuff really. But because I came from the TV show background I found it slow. And I also didn’t relate much to any character – I don’t think that’s due to the show though, I think even otherwise I’d have found the characters very distant and unrelateable to. 

I didn’t enjoy this one as much as “1984”. That was amazing. Some real, deep, blow your brains out stuff! “The Man in the High Castle” was more meandering, well written but not really blow your brains out sort of stuff (at least for me). I’ll remember it for it’s philosophical bits on the I Ching and how objects get value and how it doesn’t matter what the outcome of the war was, etc. But that’s about it – it didn’t hit me on a personal level like say “1984” (or recently “Slaughter House 5”). 

Full disclosure: 🙂 I cheated “1984” a bit as I both read it and listened to the amazing audiobook version by Simon Prebble. That would have made a difference I am sure. I am proud of “The Man in the High Castle” in that I actually read it. Took a while as I don’t do much reading, but I stuck with it and now I can say I actually read a book (as in fully read, no audiobook side by side) after a long time. 

As an aside: I haven’t seen Season 2 of “The Man in the High Castle” (I got bored midway of Season 1 to be honest, especially with Julianna) but the score (music) is amazing. Check it out if you are into that sort of stuff. 

Binge watching updates…

After a long time I spent the past two days (today & yesterday) doing nothing but binge watch. Family gone over to India for a few days, I am all to myself. Didn’t do any NSX or Citrix or study – simply plonked my feet up on the coach, hogged food, and watched TV. 

Legion

First up was Legion, which I had high expectations from coz it’s by Noah Hawley (of Fargo TV series fame). It was good but I wasn’t too impressed mainly coz I had high hopes I guess. Think I expected something like Fargo, while this was different. It’s visually stunning – the way the scenes are taken, the music, the performances – but wasn’t entirely my cup of tea. I know it’s a “me” thing so please don’t take this as a review/ comment on the show itself. I can’t even imagine what sort of a creative mind someone must have to imagine and execute the stuff on that show. It’s simply mind blowing!

I didn’t realize the lead character Dan Stevens was the same whose voice I knew from audiobooks. I had listened to him in the Agatha Christie audiobook “And Then There Were None”, loved his voice in that and searched for more audiobooks, found he’s also done Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (downloaded, not listened to yet) and the first James Bond book “Casino Royale” in the celebrity recordings (loved that performance!). Only when Dan Stevens began talking with the British accent did I feel that hmm this sounds familiar and realize that I had heard his voice in Audible. 

Anyways. Nice show. Very well taken. Wasn’t entirely my cup of tea. (Like for instance, Stranger Things or The OA – which are similar of a similar mood and I loved and associated with a lot more). 

11.22.63

Honestly, I thought this must be some horror show considering it’s Stephen King. Didn’t realize it was about time traveling and preventing the JFK assaination. It was wonderful! I loved this show. And James Franco was awesome. 

Interesting aside on James Franco – I am nowadays listening to his performance of “Slaughter House 5” by Kurt Vonnegut. He’s great in that. It’s a great book and James Franco has done an amazing job of it. Interesting how that book also has time traveling and talk of how everything just is and we are all in amber and questions of cause & effect & why are just human limitations etc. And then I see 11.22.63 which touches on similar stuff, especially with the pash pushing back etc. 

Also, the 60s set and simpler culture was a pleasure to watch. At the same time sad to see some of the stuff like treatment of women and blacks. Every age has its pluses and minus. :-/

Anyhoo. 11.22.63. Nice show. And loved James Franco!

Maigret’s Dead Man

Came across this by mistake. Checked it out coz it’s got Rowan Atkinson in it. Enjoyed it. Didn’t realize it’s actually the second episode of a reboot show. Got to watch the other episodes now. 

This show too is set in an older time. Was fun to see that. A very well taken movie/ episode over all. 

Maigret: Night at the Crossroads

Managed to watch this later on. This is the first episode in the second season. The previous one I had seen was the second episode in the first season. I haven’t managed to get hold of the first episode of the first season; and I believe there’s one more episode in this second season. 

Anyways. It was a good watch. I thoroughly enjoyed it. It also reminded me a lot of “Foyle’s War” – which is a show I had similarly enjoyed. Both shows have similar pacing and music. Slow procedural mysteries with a main detective and his subordinates. 

Maigret sets a trap

Hurray, managed to watch this one too! I actually saw this and “Night at the Crossroads” after “Split” but thought I’d put them together with the first Maigret episode I watched. 

Am surprised “Maigret sets a trap” was the first episode of the reboot. It’s very different from the rest. Maigret is under pressure, his superiors want him off the case coz they believe he is not delivering, Maigret is moody himself due to this and clutching at straws, even his subordinates are a bit unsure if Maigret can pull this one off. The case itself is a very odd one. No clues, no connections, and we the viewers are left in suspense till the end as to whether Maigret caught the wrong man. It’s all kind of flimsy after all. But no – Maigret did catch the right man, and it’s all explained very well actually. A different but very nice episode. Fitting, in a way, for me to have ended my binge watching with this one. This is the kind of episode I’d have put across as a season finale. 

Looking forward to the next episode!

Split

Ok so this one wasn’t how I expected it to be. I was expecting some psychological thriller or more focus on the personalities themselves. Totally didn’t expect The Beast to actually appear in the end! It’s sort of like how I never expected aliens in Shyamalan’s “Signs” and boom! they make an appearance. Great performances by James McAvoy and a well taken movie over all. 

Oh. And the “Unbreakable” reference in the end? Totally didn’t expect that. Ooooh. “Unbreakable” is one of my favorite Shyamalan movies (THE favorite movie I’d say). 

I have to stop thinking of Shyamalan as a director with a twist in the end. It’s all coz of “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable” and “Signs”. Got to keep in mind that one can expect monster and aliens all that stuff. He is more into the horror thrill genre now. 

Miss Sloane

I started watching this movie thinking it would be action thriller like the Bourne movies or something. ;-) After I realized it was about lobbying and senate hearings and bill passing etc I had a good mind to stop watching … but for the character of Miss Sloane! Boy she was something. What a character. An odd, cold, personality … it was something! A great movie. More than that, a great character. And a good insight into the kind of stuff that happens as part of lobbying (most of which made no sense to me and was of no interest). 

That’s all for now!

Update:

The Dressmaker

Saw this the next day but thought I’d add it with the rest anyways. God, what a bore of a movie. The synopsis mentioned this being a revenge story or something, so I imagined something alone the lines of “The Count of Monte Cristo”. There’s some revenge alright – towards the end – but it’s a drag until then with some nice moments interpresed here and there. The movie’s nearly 2 hours long. Think I could have done something way useful with that time! Bleh. 

Hugo Weaving’s character was quite good by the way. Very different to his other roles. The story is good; the movie is good too, am sure, for others – just wasn’t my cup of tea. This is a revenge story with a lot of drama. I want a revenge story with a lot more action and speed. 

Currently Reading: Varanasi

A good book raises you to heights. You resonate with the characters and immerse yourself in their lives, places, and thoughts. After a long time I am reading one such book – Varanasi, by the Malayalam writer M.T. Vasudevan Nair. Coincidentally this is also a long time since I am reading a physical book and I keep half expecting being able to highlight text or long press a word to get its meaning. I am a wee bit excited too; the sensation of holding a physical book and reading from it thrills me for some reason.

This must be the fourth book by M.T. Vasudevan Nair that I have read. The first two were in college, as part of my humanities class, wherein we were supposed to read an author of our choice and present the work in class. If I remember correctly I read Asuravithu (Demon Seed) and Naalukettu and I loved the way M.T. wrote. I think I associated his writing to the way one paints. It’s very visual and I got the feeling of someone drawing his characters with broad strokes and then building them up with detailed strokes. (Before I forget, being a Malayalam author all these works are originally in Malayalam and what I read were the English translations).

The third book I read was Randamoozham (Second Turn). This was a mind-blowing read. It tells the story of Mahabharatha from the point of view of Bhima, the second Pandava. The title was meant to reflect that this is a second look at the Mahbharata and also that this look is from the second son. Bhima is unique in that he is the second son. So he doesn’t get the importance of the first born nor does he get pampered like the third and later borns. Moreover Bhima is usually associated with someone who is all muscle and no emotions, so it’s interesting how M.T. infuses this character with layers of feelings and emotions and retells the whole tale through his eyes.

While on holiday last week, I bought Varanasi and Kaalam. Currently reading Varanasi and it’s been a great experience so far. I love the characters and what they are doing. There isn’t much direction to the story really; it is just about the main character and his experiences, the people he encounters, the women in his life. But I loved the setting – Kashi, Varanasi – so there’s lot of philosophical undercurrents too. The narrative too is very different. M.T. keeps jumping between the past and present, and uses first person, second person, and third person – often even mixing them up! That’s quite daring and in a lesser author’s hands it might have failed and confused the reader, but not with M.T.

About half way done now. Bought the book yesterday so you can see I’ve been avidly reading it. I am reading two other books side-by-side, which I’ll talk about later.

Batman: The Man Who Laughs

Read “Batman: The Man Who Laughs” over the past few days. This is a comic intended to be a sequel to “Batman: Year One”, introducing the Joker, and was a good read. It wasn’t as awesome as Alan Moore’s “The Killing Joke” but is worth a read nevertheless.

The Joker artwork is a close second to “The Killing Joke”. It isn’t as smooth or stunning as the latter, but is good anyways. There’s more story in this comic too and I felt Gordon’s character was more fleshed out.

“The Killing Joke” included another comic called ” Made of Wood”. This was a pleasant surprise. It’s by the same writer (Ed Brubacker) but by a different artist and both the story and artwork were miles ahead. The story in this one is a detective mystery and Batman is accompanied by (surprise!) Green Lantern. I loved the artwork – the details, the colours – and also the plot. I liked the mystery investigation stuff. It was great and a must read for any Batman fan. In fact, the story and artwork reminded me of the Batman comics I used to read as a kid. The way they used to be simple and straightforward and less dark and broody (although I like dark and broody now). Good one!

The Long Halloween

Just finished reading “The Long Halloween”, another excellent Batman comic. This one’s by Jeph Loeb with artwork by Tim Sale.

It seems that every other Batman comic apart from “The Dark Knight Returns” is excellent! The artwork and story of this is miles ahead of the latter and yet every one seems to hold “The Dark Knight Returns” as some sort of gold standard. To me, “The Long Halloween” is way better. Yes it’s not as dark as “The Dark Knight Returns”, and there’s less inner monologue and doubts from Batman. There’s also no build up to a major even like a (unnecessary, in my opinion) Superman Batman clash to spice things up, but I still prefer “The Long Halloween”. The artwork too is much pleasing and fits the story. “The Dark Knight Returns” had a hugely muscular Superman and Batman and everything was presented very grotesque and exaggerated.

Hmm, I am conscious how every other comic review of mine mentions and contrasts with “The Dark Knight Returns”! Must stop doing that.

“The Long Halloween” continues from “Batman: Year One”, which is a good comic penned by Frank Miller (same author as “The Dark Knight Returns”, in fact “Batman: Year One was written after “The Dark Knight Returns”). “The Long Halloween” tells the story of a series of murders targeting members of the Carmine “The Roman” Falcone family. The murders happen on holidays, starting from one Halloween and ending on another. Batman, Gordon, and Dent try to uncover the killer. Side by side Dent tries to get Falcone behind bars legally, and that sub plot ultimately leads to the creation of Two Face.

Many Batman villains are present in this one, including the Joker. I didn’t find the artwork and colouring of the Joker as stunning as that in “The Killing Joke” though. For me the latter is the gold standard for Joker artwork. The Joker has the most presence, while villains like Scarecrow and Mad Hatter have a blink and miss presence. These latter villains are presented as working for Falcone in investigating the holiday murders and so their presence is incidental. The Catwoman continues her role from “Batman: Year One” and in this one her alter ego and Batman’s alter ego seem to be dating. That is a jump from “Batman: Year One”.

Apart from the story I loved the artwork, colouring, and text of this comic. Everything gelled together well and it was a pleasure reading it. As I mentioned, the story isn’t dark nor does it have any layers to it (at least none I could discern). So this puts it in the easy reading category. A cool thing about the “The Long Halloween” is also its gangster focus. You could say this is a Batman story set in a Godfather environment. Gotham City is in the control of the mafia and Batman, Gordon, and Dent are working to bring them down. The artwork depicting the mafia is super cool! Fits the mood perfectly and I wish the authors would create a Godfather series in comics. That would be awesome!

Overall, a great comic, and now I must check out its sequel.

Asura: Tale of the Vanquished

Been trading Asura: Tale of the Vanquished these last few days. About 3/4th done now.

The book began well and it is still a good read, but I have been bored for a while. “Asura” is an interesting book. It tells the story of Ravana (the villain if the Hindu epic “Ramayana”) and I am generally a fan of stories told from the perspective of the villain. Two reasons for this: 1) History is always rewritten by the victor so heroes and villains as we know them are simply versions of history passed on to us as written by the victors – whoever won became the hero; and 2) I like to look at things from a different perspective and also understand the psyche of a “villain”, and what better way than read a story told from the villain’s point of view.

Malayalam author M.T. Vasudevan’s “Ramdamoozham” (“Second Turn” in English) is a look at the Mahabharata from the point of view of Bhima. That is an odd but interesting choice in that the author didn’t use the voice of the villain of the story, but uses that of Bhima – the second brother of the Pandavas – and so it is from the point of view of someone in the victors came, and yet due to the psyche M.T imbues in Bhima is of an outsider, an odd one out of this camp. Which makes it all the more interesting, and “Second Turn” is indeed an amazing book. The book is fascinating not only for the way the events are retold but also for the character of Bhima. One imagines Bhima to be a lumbering fatty force – all physical, no emotions – but in M.T.’s reimagining Bhima has a turbulent force raging inside. He is a whirlpool of emotions and conflicts and his story, even independent of the backdrop of the Mahabharata is engaging. (Which reminds me of what Christopher Nolan had to say about his Batman trilogy. He said that he imagined the character and stories as a regular story, not some superhero movie, and that’s why they have more story and backdrop to them than regular superhero movies. I agree).

Back to “Asura”, I knew from the Amazon blurb that this was from Ravana’s point of view and that’s why I bought the book. It began well too. The first few chapters were very well written and I was hugely excited about the book. The author (Anand Neelakantan) turned the whole Deva-Asura mythology around and presented the Devas historically as an invading race that conquered the original inhabitants of India & Lanka (the Asuras), drove them out, suppressed them, and bought with them various creepy social practices like the caste system, religious practices, rise of Brahmins & their Gods, and so on. This was a good twist and is probably true too. I am not well versed in Indian history but a lot of the things he presents as faults of Devas are things I too have wondered as a kid (I am a mythology fan and as a kid have devoured religious stories). The Devas aren’t all straight forward and righteous as one would expect, but no one questions it because usually a divine explanation and backstory is given justifying why in the particular case the Devas behaved unfairly. This sounded sneaky, and I was pleased to see “Asura” pull on various such examples to show Asuras as simple minded tribal folk whom the Devas defeated through unfair means and trickery. I loved those bits and I was excited for it. The book also pulls the curtain behind many stories and removes the symbolism to present a regular version of events as they could have been. Very nice!

Moving on, I loved the way the author handled Ravana too. Initially it felt like one of these underworld movies. Ravana is the poor man from the streets, wanting to rise up and become the next Don. He is taken in by an ageing Don (the Asura king Mahabali) and trained. Soon he leaves the ageing Don because he is young and ambitious and possibly more ruthless (think Emraan Hashmi in contrast to Ajay Devg in “Once Upon a Time in Mumbai”) and his plan is to start by capturing Lanka, ruled by his half brother Kubera, and proceed from there.

I think I liked the book up to this part. After that I lost touch with the character of Ravana. A lot of his decisions and actions didn’t resonate with me and I couldn’t see the reasoning behind them. There’s a character called Bhadra – not sure real or imaginary – through whose voice nearly half the book is said. He seems to be a “Forrest Gump” sort of person – present at all crucial events – and usually more than just being present is an active participant in them. For reasons unknown Ravana doesn’t trust him and this mistrust leads to all sorts of problems for both Ravana and Bhadra during the takeover of Lanka. In fact, trust seems to be an issue with this version of Ravana. He doesn’t trust helpful loyal servants like Bhadra, in spite of the latter proving his trust many times, is constantly unsure of his wiser advisers like Prahastha, yet at the same time blindly listens to his brothers and sister – which eventually leads to him being cheated by Vibhishana (and nearly dethroned by Shoorpanakha’s lover) thus losing his life and war. That bit seemed odd. Why was Ravana like this? Was he merely being human – which I think was the author’s intention – or was it just setting things up to match the mythology and perhaps keep the story on track to his defeat?

Back to Bhadra, I couldn’t empathise much with him either. He seemed interesting initially, but when you have a character that is constantly misused by others (Ravana and royalty) and he doesn’t seem to get the point, you lose interest in him. At least I did. Added to that he seemed to have a habit of hating Ravana but constantly falling at his feet and proclaiming himself to be a loyal servant. Didn’t make sense.

The biggest mess of all was the twist that Sita is in fact Ravana’s daughter. That was neat and smart, I liked that. Due to circumstances Sita had to be abandoned as a kid to be found by Janaka, and as she was married to a Deva chap and Devas as we know are jerks (from the story, and also because as readers we can relate to the idea from Hindu customs and rituals towards women) she has to he saved. Makes sense. To add urgency to the situation, her husband gives up everything and goes into exile, so as a loving father Ravana has to bring her over to Lanka. However, the way he does this is what does not make sense. Rather than approach her and talk about this, he kidnaps her! And then never mentions this to her ever – thus incurring her anger – and keeps wondering why she hates him and what has he done to deserve this! That didn’t make sense to me. Moreover, as Bhadra comments once, this is a personal matter of the King. Why incur war and suffering for his people over this!?

Up to the point where I have read (3/4 the book) Ravana is yet to tell Sita about him. In a fit of emotion he announces to the whole world of this, but she is yet to know and neither has anyone told her! Unbelievable. Just that one action could have changed things, but it can’t be.

Owing to reasons like these I lost touch with Ravana. As Ravana eloquently states somewhere, he is only a Man, not a God, and has made mistakes and lived like a Man – which I agree with – and I am guessing that was the author’s intention too in presenting him like that. But I couldn’t get a feel for the character, couldn’t resonate with him, and so lost connection. In the case of “Second Turn” I remember being sucked into Bhima’s mind and thoughts, there was no similar feeling here. Which is sad, because the character started off extremely well.

Many other parts of the book are good. Like I said, the whole idea of presenting Devas and their customs without any symbolism or justification but simply as what they are plainly – showing us how it is not straightforward “holy” as one might believe – was good. The war between Rama and Ravana was presented not just as a war between these two, but as a war for the soul and future of India. If Asuras had won India would have been different! No caste system, no silly Brahminical rituals, no way of practicing religion and praying to Gods as one does now… Everything would be vastly different! I liked that. I associated with that, it felt real and likely, and it put the war in a whole new light for me. I rooted for the Asuras and saw the war as something like an Independence war. Excellent presentation by the author!

I still have a quarter of the book to go through. Hopefully I will wrap it up in a day or two. Apparently the author has one more book in the pipeline – a retelling of the Mahabharatha from Duryodhna, Karna, etc point of view – to be released in two parts. I will probably buy it, but won’t expect much. The author has interesting things to say, just that the character development falls short for me.

Update (the next day): The book never seems to end! Nearly 95% into it now and Ravana has long died, but now the author has gone on a tangent about caste system! I agree with what he is trying to say, and I like the way he is exposing the Deva way of things including how they cheat to win (killing Ravana, Maghanada, Kumbakarna, and so on) but going on long after Ravana has died isn’t what I expected from the book. Which in a way is my qualm with the book, I think. It isn’t just about Ravana – while I expected a book that’s personal about Ravana this one doesn’t get to that level and seems to aim for more than just Ravana. And that’s starting to bore more and more …