Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review of Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeThe Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them"
There are two possible reactions to Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time : people either love it, or people hate the fact that other people love it. Mark Haddon's debut novel has been compared by many to Catcher in the Rye, and both books are similar in at least this respect. Additionally, both Catcher in the Rye and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time do not dwell on emotions. But I believe the comparison ends there, for the latter has a genuine reason for being emotionally indifferent. The story is narrated in first person by Christopher, who has an unusual thought process. There is clearly a psychological condition he suffers from, and apparently the psychological condition was named in the cover of the initial versions of the book, but the later versions do not specify it. The crux is that Christopher lacks emotional intelligence ("I find people confusing"), but makes up for it with his photographic memory ("I see everything") and his mathematical and analytical abilities. Christopher hates most people  (“All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I'm not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are”), but he loves dogs (“I like dogs. You always know what a dog is thinking. It has four moods. Happy, sad, cross and concentrating. Also, dogs are faithful and they do not tell lies because they cannot talk”). He hates novels, but loves detective fiction of the Sherlock Holmes kind. He hates metaphors ("metaphors are lies"), but is willing to suffer similes and even use a few of them. Christopher equates his own mind to a computer. And like a computer, he behaves unpredictably when he finds himself facing the unfamiliar or the disorderly.

When he finds that his neighbor's dog is dead and that the accusation of the murder falls on him, Christopher takes it upon himself to do some "detecting" and find the murderer. In what follows, we learn about the emotional turbulence of people around him, and we develop a special attachment to Christopher. The narrative technique is unusual, and things are not described as how a normal person sees them. For instance, instead of describing people's faces, Christopher describes the kind of shoes and socks they are wearing (for he does not look them in the eye). At times, he just doodles out what he wishes to describe with a "it looked like this". There are numerous digressions with puzzles, mathematical calculations, maps, and listicles. Some readers would find the meandering narrative to be novel and attractive, whereas others would dismiss it as a distracting gimmick.

The general accusations against Mark Haddon are two-fold : that the plot does not have much apart from the gimmicky writing and that he portrays a mental condition inaccurately. I did not feel either of these to be a major turn-off. The narrative technique held me till the end, and I am not going to take a fictional depiction as a model to judge people with special abilities. Personally, I was more interested in the character arc of Christopher's flawed parents. Probably Haddon's larger point is that the people considered to be normal by societal standards are not in complete emotional control too. Of course, I felt it strange that except for the parents and an intriguing teacher we never get to meet in present tense, all other characters were glossed over, some of them becoming just caricatures. However in my personal opinion the book is engaging and short enough to read quickly, and one can ignore such minor flaws. That puts me among the first group of people who love The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And I love this simplified explanation of love from the book :
"loving someone is helping them when they get into trouble, and looking after them, and telling them the truth"
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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel : The fates of human societies

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human SocietiesGuns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1532, 168 Spanish men faced nearly 80000 men of the Inca empire at Peru. What was supposed to be a parlay between the Incas and the visiting Spanish men was actually a subterfuge by Spanish Conquistador Francisso Pizzaro, and in the ensuing battle, around 5 Spanish men lost their lives. They won the battle though, having killed approximately 7000 Inca army men. How was this possible? Jared Diamond's answer is "Guns, Germs and Steel". In his Pulitzer winning "Guns, Germs and Steel : The fates of humans societies", Jared Diamond attempts to answer a question by a New Guinean politician Yali on why there is a fundamental wealth inequality in the World. At first glance, the inequality seems to arise from an intellectual and cultural difference - after all, most major modern inventions were centred at Europe, the cradle of Industrial revolution. Jared Diamond wants to explore deeper though and arrive at the "ultimate causes" rather than the "proximate causes". To do this, he attempts to re-look at human societies since the Ice Age around 13000 years ago (approx. 11000 B.C) to get to the bottom of Yali's question. In fact, he actually starts 7 million years ago ever since human beings are understood to have walked the earth in Africa (though the history until 11000 BC is compressed into a single chapter of nearly 20 pages).

To summarize the history of the whole of humanity, that too in just a little more than 400 pages, is no mean feat. It becomes harder considering the amount of subjects Jared Diamond attempts to deal with - archaeology, epidemiology, biology, geography, linguistics, botany, and much more. The author largely pulls it off though. He does this because he identifies broad patterns throughout human history. The broad pattern is simple - humans were initially hunters and gatherers, but some regions were blessed with edible, nutritious wild plants and domesticable animals. Some plants are easier to cultivate than others, some animals are easier to domesticate than others (or as Diamond puts is, The Anna Karenina principle). These regions favoured food production, leading to a sedentary society with large population density and a centralized decision-body, which in turn led to people with specialized skills and occupation. As a side-effect, the societies also developed immunity to various diseases by being in close contact with animals. These were hence the societies that had the time and labour to invent things. Also, geographic factors such as connectivity, climate, topology, the orientation of the landmass, and presence of similar societies around hastened the whole progression. He concludes that Eurasia was blessed in this regard, and hence European countries came out on top. The inequality, Jarod Diamond repeatedly stresses throughout the book, has nothing to do with the inherent superiority or inferiority of one race over another.

The range of subjects Diamond deals with is insane. As a lay reader with almost zero knowledge on most of the subjects being dealt with, I found this book to be highly informative and educative. That is not to say that the book was not entertaining - Guns, Germs and Steel is written in an accessible and engaging style, encouraging lay audience to read it. I was mildly dissapointed about a few things that are not personally convincing to me, despite the fact that Jared Diamond touches upon these concerns towards the end of the book (and in an afterword written 6 years after the book's publication). The most happening place in the World in Jared Diamond's epic work is the Fertile Crescent, which is, I understand, roughly in the middle east surrounded by countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria. This is still the most happening place today, but for all the wrong reasons. Diamond seems to attribute this to the the geographical features being reversed, probably due to excessive deforestation; which seems to me to be a very simplistic explanation. A similar personal disappointment was with the fact that not much of the book deals with India, which finds only passing mention throughout the book. The epilogue and the afterword attributes India's current state to "caste system" and too much "fragmentation" between various regions within the country (prior to independence) and leaves it at that. In general, Diamond seems to concentrate on historical events that fit his pattern and quickly gloss over those which might not fit in easily. Also I felt that the humorous tone Diamond puts on at times did not work out. This was particularly true for me while Diamond describes why certain animals were not domesticated, making the chapter morose.

I looked at a few other reviews of the book, and the negative ones point out that the book endorses "Geographical determinism" and does not give importance to individual brilliance or cultural characteristics that may have determined many critical moments in history. I do not find this to be an issue with the book though. In fact, science already looks at humanity impersonally as a biological accident. I don't find it far fetched to think that geography has as much influence on us as, say, genetics (Jared Diamond thinks it has much much more influence than genetics). The caveat with such a thinking is that it supports determinism, and removes moral responsibility. When Jared Diamond implies that if Indian Americans from Mesoamerica and Europeans from Europe had geographically exchanged places in some sort of mass Freaky Friday scenario, the Indian Americans would have invented the motor car. And further more, they would have gone on to brutally kill millions of Europeans. He basically absolves Europeans of their ingeniousness as well as inhumanity. This is a tricky slope, and one needs to be careful of what the conclusions are. The impunity with which Europeans exterminated societies throughout the World is worthy of our disgust, and nothing should make us forget that.

Despite the minor disappointments, I am very grateful I picked this book and persisted till the end. I now know a lot more about human societies than I did. For example, I know now that the people in New Zeland and Hawai actually originated in China, probably Taiwan. I also know that the same people developed into a race that conquered Madagascar, which is all extremely fascinating. Most importantly, my interest to learn more history has been kindled. Do give this book a try, and you are unlikely to regret it.

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Saturday, April 8, 2017

Review of V.S.Naipaul's A Bend in the River

A Bend in the RiverA Bend in the River by V.S. Naipaul
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

V.S.Naipaul's A Bend in the River begins with Salim, a muslim in Africa with Indian ancestry, moving from the eastern coast of Africa to an unnamed town situated at the bend of an unidentified river in Central Africa. There has been a revolution we learn; Europeans have taken control of large parts of Africa from the Arabs, and Africans from the "bush" -- natives who feel they have had enough -- unleash violent reactions on Europians and all other kinds of foreigners. Considering that I know very little about African history, and lesser about most of the demographics in question, I had to read through many interpretations of the book to confirm my understanding of my book. I agree with some of the interpretations, and disagree with a few others, but like the book itself, all of them are worthy of considerable thought.

I know very little about African history because I gain most of my knowledge from the backdrops of fictional works ("Non-fiction can distort; facts can be realigned. But fiction never lies."), and I have not read any books set in Africa. I did try once, and picked up a novel by a famed author. For a long time, the book described the narrator getting high on some African drink, and the language was so confusing that I gave up without finding out if the author was too clever for me or if I was too clever to read this author. There are no such problems with A Bend in the River - the language is simple enough, but V.S.Naipaul is much cleverer than me. The prose flows like a river as we follow a part of Salim's life. He settles down on the said unnamed town and witnesses drastic changes to the anonymous country that affects his life. The country is Congo, say many readers who know about such things. It doesn't matter though, for V.S.Naipaul is driving at the larger picture. Looking at it one way, he seems to say that individuals do not have control over their lives when put in such volatile backdrops. Like Shakespeare remarked, "As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods. They kill us for their sport". Looking at it from another angle, things become more problematic; for he seems to suggest that Africa was better off under colonial rule. In other words, some people, such as Africans, are incapable of ruling themselves.

As Salim sets down to live life in his own modest ways, he meets a handful of personalities all of whom are struggling like him for their own identity and place in the World. Revolutions come and go, and slowly, an authoritarian dictator referred to as "Big Man" strengthens his hold on his country. The foreigners, the natives, the elites, the uneducated are all pawns in the Big Man's plans, to be elevated and discarded at whim. The Big Man uses patriotism as a glue to try and extend his control. We get a glimpse into the Big Man through an array of characters, prominent among whom is an European historian who is more of an academic. In my opinion, Indar has the best character graph. A couple of monologues from Indar are still relevant to migrants across the World - people stuck between the past, the present and the future; people stuck between here, there and nowhere.

While Naipaul's writing has won him a nobel prize and appreciation from across western press, there are some glitches if you look hard in a certain way. Salim is a problematic narrator. There is a curious passage where he unleashes violence on a woman and and she shrugs it off. Also there seems to be a definite lean towards western civilization, and scorn towards Arabs. An offhand remarks suggests that some slaves like to be slaves, and are better off as slaves. The problem with the book is not these biases alone, for each of us have our own biases. It is rather that Salim seems to think he is much better off than the people of the bush, when there is not much evidence to back this up. We do not see much of Salim's modus operandi. He buys things, he sells it to others. In contrast, certain characters like Nazerudeen have discernible business acumen. Salim seems to think that though fate has its own vagaries, he deserves more than the many unnamed and unrepresented people of the bush. To this, I do not agree. I was surprised that V.S.Naipaul's own views from many of his interviews coincide with Salim's, making the book more autobiographical. Hence, Salim is an endorsement of the author's views, and his actions can not be overlooked as the quips of a fictional character.

On the whole, A Bend in the River is a good starting point for me to explore more on African history, which seems to have a lot to think about. As a novel, it does not have a conventional plot, but V.S.Naipaul is in absolute control of his prose. And the book is short enough. I would definitely suggest A Bend in the River. Chances are that you would love it more than I did.

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My 2022 in books

We are already into the new year, but I did not want to give up on what has now become my little routine - a summary of all the books I rea...