Dipping into the Pensieve: Year Two

siriusIt’s been a strange year, one with lots of ups and downs and much moving around. There have been a number of preoccuptions and considerations and general ‘where is my life going?’ angst. I suppose that’s the lot of most twenty somethings with a liberal education and a certain amount of socioeconomic privilege. I’ve moved cities three times and met an assortment of people. Through it all I’ve had great friends to fall back on, extensive family support and, of course, my books, music and movies.

Where the Dog Star Rages began with no set agenda. I’ve always loved writing, and harboured (still harbour) fond dreams of becoming a published author, one of those hallowed figures like J K Rowling or Tolkien who inspire millions around the world. The problem was, I never really sat and pushed myself to write. I’d begin ambitiously, sure that I had the next best thing pouring out of my fingertips, but then I’d abandon it when I lost enthusiasm, which usually happened quickly. I needed discipline, and someone suggested that a blog would provide that, since I’d have more of a sense of writing for an audience, no matter how small.

So one November day, when I really should have been editing someone else’s work, I opened a WordPress account and made my first post on the James Potter complex. I thought, at first, that I would stick to writing book and movie reviews, maybe pieces on characters from my favourite series now and again, but over the last year, that list has expanded considerably and I no longer think the descriptor ‘A place where I deposit my ramblings on fantasy, literature and the world of the written world’ is all that accurate.

Let’s see: in the past year I’ve written a lot about characters from Harry Potter, but seem to have focussed largely on a) the women b) mentor figures and c) Sirius Black. There have been a couple of book reviews, but those are, again, few and far between. I think I’ve become a lot more ‘personal’ on the blog, slipping tidbits about my own feelings and what I’m doing at any given moment into my posts (those have also largely influence what I write about, such as the Ginny post, or the one on Sirius’s unparalleled ability to love), and yes, pop culture in the form of celebrity write ups and TV has made an entry.

The year has seen other kinds of growth as well. It was a huge deal to me when Mihir Wanchoo, one of the editors of the fantasy review site, Fantasy Book Critic, reached out to me on Twitter and asked me to write reviews of the Harry Potter series. I was so used to writing about these books assuming that everyone had read them, would know what I was talking about, that writing short pieces as teasers more than anything else was quite challenging. Nonetheless, that was a great experience, and it gave me yet another opportunity to explore my thoughts (is it too sentimental to feelings?) on a series that obviously forms such a huge part of my reading life.

And now there’s a new challenge in form of Momentum Books Blog, for which I’ve recently been hired to write a weekly column. It’s my first regular writing job, and it mostly involves me talking about fantasy (thus far). I couldn’t have asked for a better taste of the arts journalist/reviewer life.

I didn’t intend to make this an Oscar acceptance speech, but I do have to thank a very supportive fantasy/blogging community, all those readers who have written comments and encouraged me to keep writing with their thoughtful feedback. Among them, I’d especially like to thank Jeff Coleman, Jeyna Grace, Bellatrix Minor and Brigid Quinn. Here’s to many more years of blog-friendship!

Like I said, this year has been a strange one. It’s had its crazily wonderful moments, but it’s also had periods of intense confusion, self doubt and not a little (wait for it) heartache. I began it with a post on Sirius Black and what he means to me, and I like to think that he still informs a lot of what I write about and also, maybe a little bit of how I’ve tried to tackle things this year. Taking some risks, making some leaps and, who knows, maybe even finding a Remus Lupin at the end of it. 

High Class Satire or, Why I Love Blair Waldorf

IDiademas-blair-waldorf-5 love the trashy TV series Gossip Girl. To be specific, I love Blair Waldorf, one of the five main characters on the show. Blair has been, for a few years, one of my favourite people to watch on screen, to emulate in real life, to quote in any situation. I’m tempted to copy every other website on the Internet and put down my reasons for this in concise points (accompanied by witty gifs), but I think that would be an embarrassment to the teachers who put so much effort into teaching me how to write well structured, flowing essays.

Now, it’s easy enough to figure out why any ambitious, self-important girl would automatically have a fondness for Blair. She’s in abundant possession of both those qualities, and along with that, she’s smart, well networked, and downright ruthless when it comes to getting what she wants. ‘If you really want something,’ she tells Serena, ‘you don’t stop for anyone or anything until you get it.’ She certainly seems to employ this philosophy, and doesn’t always play by the rules to ensure that she’s successful in her endeavours. And despite her bitchy asides and scheming takedowns, Blair has her heart in the right place.

For someone who adores the conventional markers of success as I do, Blair seems the pinnacle of perfection. She has a near-perfect GPA, impressive internships and recommendations and, maybe best of all, an intensely passionate and never boring relationship. The last is something that takes up a lot of space in most discussions of Blair—how can you discuss her without bringing up Chuck, after all—but I’ll save it for another post.

Separated from her context like this, Blair seems a commendable achiever, and not someone you’d assume would provide much in terms of emotional variety. Lay out her traits, and she comes across as someone who’s always living life on the more intense plane, plunging from one dramatic escapade to the other (in her love life) or charting out strategies to get to the next goal. You wouldn’t think this is a girl who, more than any other in her social circle, would entertain you and keep you engaged. Surely she has no time to appreciate the lighter side of life.

High fashion and high drama and lots of pretty people. This is what Gossip Girl is made of.

High fashion and high drama and lots of pretty people. This is what Gossip Girl is made of.

The Gossip Girl TV series is based, loosely, on the books of the same name by Cecily von Ziegesar. I’ve only had the privilege (or can confess to the shame) of reading one of those, and the tone of the books can’t be more different from that of the TV show. Where the books are lighthearted, irreverent and, at times, openly satirical about their over-priviliged characters, the TV show makes their hijinks life and death issues, their dating lives endlessly complicated and emotionally draining, and more than one character is faced with the prospect of utter and complete social elimination.

This is in keeping with the TV genre the series seeks to conform to: that of teen drama. Like the earlier show from the same producers, The OC, Gossip Girl is meant to portray a world that most of its viewers will never be a part of. It’s hard to get people invested in this world—how is it possible to feel sad for someone like Serena van der Woodsen, the perfect ‘it’ girl who seems to have everything? The only way you can do that is to make her life hellish, her family seem a toxic waste dump, and give her a sackload of issues that she can only deal with by running away to the countryside and changing her name. To keep up a satirical take on the Upper East Side for six seasons, for an audience that it not known for its interest in that kind of comedy, would have been difficult. So the makers opted to change the books’ tone and make it darker, more serious and much, much more deadly.

But suspension of disbelief fades after a while. It’s hard, no matter how many drug overdoses you portray, or daddy issues you dump in, to feel any sort of sustained

Sorry honey, it's just hard to feel sad for you when you look like THAT.

Sorry honey, it’s just hard to feel sad for you when you look like THAT.

sympathy for characters who quite obviously have much more than you. You can’t help but realize, after a while, that all their problems are self-created, and they must be the stupidest people on earth to find themselves in these terrible situations again and again. Why would I feel bad for Serena, who seems to get into Brown, Yale, Columbia despite doing nothing in high school? Why would I care about Nate’s broken heart when he’s shown me, time and again, that he can and will pick himself up just in time to fall for the next scheming, beautiful new face on the UES?

Seriously, this was me every time a new female character entered the show:

natefacepalm

‘Nate! No, Nate don’t look at her! No, don’t kiss her! Oh honey, don’t, don’t go and fall in—‘

Damn it,pretty boy. If only you weren’t, as Raina said, as smart as you look.

So all these characters get pretty unbearable, even Dan Humphrey. But the ones who constantly rescue the show from taking itself too seriously, who remind you time and again of what the books were originally intended to convey, are Blair and her posse.

Seriously, straight out of 'Mean Girls'.

Seriously, straight out of ‘Mean Girls’.

I dont know if it’s just Leighton Meester’s superb delivery and comic timing, but Blair, despite having as ‘intense’ and dramatic a storyline as any of her peers, never becomes an emotional drag in the same way. She alone of the main characters doesn’t appear to always take herself seriously all the time. Meester never makes her lack conviction in herself, but at the same time, her character is one that could as easily belong in a comedy as in a self-styled drama. Blair’s scenes on the steps of the Met, with the ‘mean girls’, her plans to wrangle an internship with Indra Nooyi and become a ‘powerful woman’, her ‘bridesmaid contest’ serve not only to make her appear a woman serious about her position in the world, but also underlines the utter ridiculousness of that world and its traditions and hierarchies. Around her, the other characters look silly and diminished too, while she just comes across as smarter for having realised and played along with the utter stupidity of her surroundings.

One of my friends once said that she liked people who ‘were so smart they can be openly silly because they are just that secure about themselves’. I think Blair, at least as played by Meester, is like that. Her overdone eyelash flutters, doe eyed looks and quicksilver facial expressions belong in a Mean Girls movie, or a romcom parody. And then she reminds you of her intelligence and intensity by declaring undying love for Chuck Bass—emotions which you can take all the more seriously because she’s not always operating on that register. Her ability to swing between levity and drama make her palatable, give you room to laugh at her and her world (thus reducing the threat an envy-potential of her world) as well as keep you hooked and rooting for her eventual happiness.

I don’t know if Meester intends to get into comedy a la Mindy Kaling,but she certainly has a talent for it. And given her life story and ultimate crossover marriage, I’m sure any book she decides to write will be a more than interesting read.

That's right, bitches.

That’s right, bitches.

Master Manipulators: Albus Dumbledore

I ambitiously began a series I called ‘Master Manipulators’, profiling characters who fit this category in their respective worlds, tweaking circumstances and their peers to fit, more often than not, some hidden agenda. The object of this was to give readers a chance to objectively view their strengths and weaknesses and then, perhaps, judge for themselves as to who would win a throw-down between them. A specialised Suvudu cage match, as it were, where the cage would be the known world, or as much of it as they might be able to influence.

I profiled the most obvious candidate first, Petyr Baelish from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books. Today, I’ll present the vital stats of Master Manipulator #2: Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore.

manipulative dumbles

Strengths

Age and experience: Besides Nicholas Flamel, Dumbledore is easily the oldest person, with the most extensive career, that we meet in the series. The full range of his achievements is hinted at in the first book, and by the time we reach the seventh, they’ve only been substantiated. Dumbledore was around 115-116 when he died, and has dabbled with all kinds of magic (both light and dark, one would imagine), so he brings considerably experience, whether of people or technique, to bear on any situation.

Extensive political reach: Dumbledore is a mover and shaker despite being Headmaster of a school. He sits on councils, he has a hand in the government through his influence on Cornelius Fudge (supposedly he was sending Dumbledore constant owls at one point, soliciting his advice) and was even offered the top position himself. Yes, he gets painted as a liar and a madman at one point in the series, but the fact that the government bothers to do this at all shows how terrified they are of him and his influence.

Kindly old man persona: The other manipulators (Baelish and his fellows) have one major drawback, and that’s that no one really trusts them implicitly, the way people in the Potterverse trust Dumbledore. As long as he is around, they feel, things will turn out all right. ‘Dumbledore trusts him, and I trust Dumbledore’ is the reasoning much of the Order has for trusting Snape; his arrival at the Ministry makes everything magically all right that night in Order of the Phoenix; Harry’s response to Hermione’s worry in Half Blood Prince is ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll be with Dumbledore.’ He provides a steady, anchoring presence in Hogwarts, at least for the ‘right’ students, inspiring them to follow him. Because of this, most people don’t even realize when they’re being manipulated, except, of course, for poor old Snape.

Weaknesses

Emotional attachment: I’m rather sceptical about this professed weakness. Dumbledore tearfully confesses to Harry in Order that he ‘cared’ too much for him to place the burden of the prophecy on his young shoulders. He distances himself from his protege in order to better protect him from Voldemort. He refuses to explain things to Harry, a decision that results in Sirius’s death and major emotional turmoil for our hero. Dumbledore’s plan almost goes awry before the Horcruxes are even introduced, let alone destroyed; Harry could have died countless times during that ill-advised rescue mission.

Severus-Snape-Albus-Dumbledore-severus-snape-4853008-1279-541

Pride: In my post on Snape, I mentioned that the success of Dumbledore’s grand plan hinged on three things:

a)      Snape would linger long enough to tell Harry the truth of the last Horcrux (which honestly was rather presumptuous, considering it was a goddamn war and Snape, as a ‘traitor’ to the Order, would have been high on everyone’s hit-list. This begs the question of how competent Dumbledore thought his own Order members were. Did he not think any of them capable of vengeance?).

b)     That Harry would trust him enough to believe him (again, rather stupid because, let’s face it, Harry has not exactly been shown to be the type to listen first when he has a grudge. The only reason Sirius survived that night in the Shack was because Lupin turned up and calmed everyone down) and

c)      That Snape was probably the only person who would not get too emotionally overhauled by the revelation and withhold it in a mad desire to protect Harry.

Dumbledore made these assumptions because he is used to being correct, he believes he knows people better than they know themselves. ‘I am a great deal…cleverer than you,’ he tells Harry rather snappily,when pressed for the reason why he trusts Snape. Dumbledore never believes he has to explain himself except in cases of utmost distress (notably in that office scene in Order and during his King’s Cross walk with Harry in Deathly Hallows), but this sort of overweening pride could easily have caught up with him and tripped him spectacularly in a more realistic, less kid-friendly universe. I think this is a serious blind spot that Dumbledore really needs to watch out for. His pride, in some instances, makes him as bad as Voldemort.

Need for ‘moral’ backing: Dumbledore’s teenage insecurities made him such a mess that he refused to step in while Grindelwald ravaged Europe. He waited years to make his move, too terrified to hear that he might have killed his own sister. I find this a really crippling weakness; Dumbledore gave his enemy leeway to destroy both him and the lives of countless others. In this instance, Dumbledore betrayed stupidity: even if he did tell him that Dumbledore was the one who cast the final, fatal spell on Ariana, what reason did Grindelwald have to tell him the truth? If Grindelwald were any kind of villain worth his salt, wouldn’t he lie if he knew it would throw Dumbledore off his game?

Dumbledore’s need to be morally in the right puts him at a severe disadvantage when battling masters like Littlefinger. I understand that  good deal of this is because he is in a young adult/children’s series, and needs to stand in moral opposition to Voldemort, but since he’s proven he is not afraid to get his hands dirty in other ways—such as by ruthlessly manipulating Snape or lying all his life to Harry—this one scruple makes him seem ridiculous rather than admirable.

Conclusion: If it came down to sheer firepower, Dumbledore has it all. Magic is a great asset. But if you threw Dumbledore and Littlefinger on opposite sides of a chessboard stacked with real people, placed some ‘sympathetic’ figures on Dumbledore’s side and then asked them to play, I think poor old Albus would have a tough time seeing the bigger picture for the tears in his eyes. 

How to be a Millenial, Ryan Howard style

‘I was the youngest VP in company history.’

‘More recently, he worked in a bowling alley.’

I watch a lot of TV. To be precise, I watch a lot of American TV, as do many people of my socio economic background and ‘Westernised’ upbringing in this part of the world. American TV is our go-to, our comfort food, something we keep up to date with as religiously as we update our Facebook statuses and do Buzzfeed quizzes. In some cases, more religiously. American TV isn’t even considered ‘foreign’ for us any more, in the same way American pop music and cinema has become ours more than its more ‘desi’ counterparts, at least in my case.

So it’s not surprising that I find, as I tend to find in literature, characters and situations from these TV shows that correspond almost uncomfortably well with my life. Recently, I’ve been ploughing through the US version of ‘The Office’. It took me at least half of the first season, but now I’m hooked and find myself turning almost unconsciously to Michael Scott and his band of not-so-merry men and women when I have a half hour to kill.

There’s one character I love watching more than the rest, not because I find him particularly entertaining (if there is one singularly always-entertaining character it’s definitely Kelly Kapoor) but because he is so freakishly close to home. In fact, if me or many people I know were to be slotted into a type and then ridiculed using a character, that character would be, sadly enough, Ryan Howard. ryan 2

Ryan Howard seems to me the classic ‘millenial’, the wunderkid who soared high on expectations, his own and that of others, and then came crashing spectacularly to earth when it turned out he had no idea how to function in the real world. He went to a fancy business school and then got hired on a ‘temp’ basis at the Scranton branch of Dunder Mifflin, a job he quite obviously thinks beneath him. ‘I could have gone anywhere,’ he says once, with a rather awestruck look. He could have been placed as a temp ‘anywhere’ in Scranton, and he ended up here, in this office.

Let’s consider Ryan’s professional track record: from ‘temp’, to no longer a temp (but never a true salesmen, having never made a sale), to obnoxious corporate hotshot who pushes for digitalisation in the name of progress (everyone gets a Blackberry when Ryan gets on the job), to fallen star. In Season 5 we find out he’s working in a bowling alley and has bleached his hair blonde. Apparently the sun in Fort Lauderdale is very strong.

What I find most disturbingly close to home about Ryan is his sense of total entitlement. There’s no doubt he’s smart, and at the beginning at least, he has dreams of starting his own business. His number one fan, Michael, disses those dreams straight off by telling him ‘That’s a terrible idea’. Ryan goes from quiet and ambitious to messed up power-hungry and back to temp in the course of five seasons. Ryan takes no one seriously unless they have a job at the corporate headquarters in New York or are validated by a fancy business degree. Ryan ignores the efforts of his boss to befriend him and then takes an obvious pleasure in pushing that boss, and everyone else, down when he gets to a superior position. Ryan then tumbles down and is exposed for the overreacher he is, the fire guy second time temp who can’t even make one measly sale and now lives, once again, with his mother.

I'm doing you a favour, yo.

I’m doing you a favour, yo.

I know The Office is a comedy and we’re supposed to laugh at all this. The thing about comedy is, if the same stories were captured in drama or a slightly more ambiguous genre, like the one Girls occupies, we’d feel more than a little sad, or disturbed. Ryan’s inability to stick with anything is similar to the dilemmas and self-created problems that trouble the characters of Girls. The latter is considered a pretty searing portrait of today’s twenty somethings, adrift in the world and armed only with seemingly unnecessary and unusable degrees and loads of self worth. Does Ryan have lots of self worth? Oh yeah. enough that he can tell Kelly ‘I need to break up with you so I can go on this trip to Thailand. It’s just something I have to do.’ In his own eyes, his personal net worth is huge, and this filters through in all he says and does.

Do I think Ryan is a bad person? No way. I think he’s super realistic. I can sympathise with his desire to have it all now, to not have to wait around for ‘good things’ to happen, and work his way to the top. I can also totally get on board with his need to be on the phone all the time. I think he’s a college kid who didn’t entirely grow up, or not yet at least. I think he’s an entitled twenty something, and a character that I find eerily and perhaps disturbingly sympathetic. After all, it’s taken more than a few of us a long time to forget that we’re not in college anymore.

More’s the pity.

Keep on Keeping On

Epic fantasy heroes share many traits. Many of them are orphans, cast aside at some point or the other by their fellows/society, entrusted with a burden that few believe they really have the strength to bear, lose mentor figures at crucial moments of their quests and, finally, despite all odds manage to pull through and show everyone, both bad guys and good, that they were the right ones for the task after all. A glance a pop culture shows many heroes with these traits: Harry, Rand, Arthur, Egwene, even Disney’s Aladdin and Mulan.

Must set reminder to discuss the latter two at some point.

Usually, these heroic struggles lend themselves very well to onscreen adaptations. With the killer combination of angst, adventure, morals and good looks, what’s not to love in these movies? Harry thus gets a new, far less pasty look with a searingly blue eyed Daniel Radcliffe, racially ambiguous Katniss becomes America’s sweetheart Jenn Law, and Legolas, such a minor character in the Tolkien trilogy, gets to steal hearts in five different visits to Middle Earth. You could say that in some cases, Legolas’s for instance, the movies do a lot to bolster a character and make him more ‘palatable’ in some ways. In other, arguably more important ways, cinema is less kind.

What I think most important about a fantasy hero’s journey is his or her ability to just keep going. This is quite possibly the least glamorous trait any hero has, but it is, in my opinion, the most important, and what really sets them apart from their fellows. Often, this ability to carry on is most severely tested in circumstances unappealing, or downright boring, to a spectator.  The example that jumps to mind is that of Frodo from Lord of the Rings. Compared to Aragorn’s mad rush through the kingdoms of Rohan and Gondor, Frodo’s journey to Mount Doom is plodding, slow and dull. I know many people, myself included, groaned every time the camera cut away from Aragorn and company to the Ringbearer(s). That walk through barren, grey lands, and the import of his ability to just carry on through it didn’t translate well. Let’s face it: the only time we were ever even the slightest bit interested in Frodo was when Shelob nearly got him and Sam proved his ‘bodyguard’ skills. frodo and sam

Yet, when I read the book, I found the ‘war scenes’ most dull. It’s a curious paradox isn’t it; action sequences in literature rarely inspire as much excitement as their renditions on screen, while long, insightful bits like Frodo and Sam coming upon a stream of water in the middle of the Plains of Gorgoroth are axed summarily from screenplays for being ‘extraneous’. But really, could anyone else in that book have done what Frodo and Sam did? No, I think. The supreme quality of the hobbits is tenaciousness, stubborness, an unwillingness to let go of the world, or reality, or habit, or what have you. Frodo and Sam are dogged figures, and in the Middle Earth’s hour of need, doggedness and sheer persistence, not genius and flashing swords, are the saviors.

harry deathlyThe same thing applies to Harry. Harry’s greatest moral crisis in the entire series is not, as might be expected in Order of the Phoenix, whether or not to commit murder. Surprisingly, he seems fairly cool with that (and doesn’t even end up really ‘killing’ Voldemort himself). No, Harry’s biggest dilemma comes when he finds out that his idol and trusted mentor hid things from him his entire life. The notion that faultless Dumbledore might not in fact have been as white as his beard sears Harry for a time, almost paralyzes him in the woods. Perhaps this prepares him for the knowledge that Snape later delivers to him, that he was always intended as a sacrifice. Despite this betrayal, Harry carries on.

I had a bit of a problem with this. To me, Harry seemed a very passive hero. Surely, I thought, he could have fought it, he could have acted a little human and seemed less accepting of Dumbledore’s final plan. He sort of numbly walks out to meet his death, not even reflecting on the idea that his headmaster had planned his end with such cold clarity.

And then a friend pointed out to me that that, really, is what makes Harry Harry and a hero in this context. Harry never really does things because he wants to. He never does things because he knows they will work out. He operates on sheer instinct, in conflict situations and with people, and he fights Voldemort more out of an innate sense of justice than anything else. Unlike Hermione, Harry does not rationalize his decisions. Unlike Ron, he does not strategize and think ahead. He just closes his eyes and does what he thinks needs to be done, and if that involves sacrificing himself as intended by a man he considered his closest guide, then so be it.

That’s persistence again, for you. Hard to translate on screen, especially when you have the explosions and cooler stuff going on in Hogwarts.

Finally, Rand. The Wheel of Time books have not yet been brought to the screen, but given the burgeoning of fantasy, sci fi and superhero franchises, they probably will be soon enough. Unlike these guys, Rand is an almost all-powerful hero. He is smart, good looking, very well connected, has the world backing him as he goes into battle, and can handle immense amounts of the Power, a trump card in his universe. But none of these are required, or of any help, in his ultimate face off with the Dark One. What pulls him through here is, sure enough, a conviction that he is right, that his struggle is necessary, that he must pull through. Egwene, too, wins over her competitors for the same reason. both have an iron will, complete faith in themselves, and so they succeed where others falter under weights they deem unendurable.

How would you put this on screen though? Usually a hero’s angst phase is captured in a series of workout sessions, some photogenic brooding, dramatic soundtrack and indications of time passing (like a montage of the seasons, calendar sheets falling to the floor, sand dripping through an hourglass, etc). How can you take something as downright boring as the idea of ‘doing your duty because nothing else occurs to you’ and make it sexy?

It’s hard to sell. And it’s even harder to put into practice. Maybe that’s why there’s an entire book devoted to just that basic tenet, and people worship the man who supposedly declaimed it. And maybe that’s why we salute and make fantasy heroes out of those who not only abide by that tenet, but do awesome things like save the world through their adherence to that one rule. Being a hero is hard, and at times, deadly boring. After those doldrum struggles, perhaps an encounter with a deadly foe served to ‘break the monotony nicely’. Trust Sirius Black to have the perfect phrase at hand.

One More Thing

Is there anything better than discovering a new favorite author?

Before you go all Buzzfeed on me and start listing things, let me say that that was a rhetorical question.

For me, one of the greatest joys is finding a good book. As I’ve grown older, this has become increasingly hard to do. This may be because my reading has, to a great extent, narrowed. I don’t have as much time to devour books, and so the ones that I do read are chosen with great care and only (usually, if it’s a new writer or someone I’ve never tried before), after I scroll through a few reviews from trusted websites. At least, this is the process I follow when I pick up a new fantasy series because, let’s face it, there’s a lot of trash out there that finds itself into unsuspecting hands, especially in this genre.

When it comes to the more vaguely dubbed ‘lit fic’ however, my selection process is not nearly so clinical. If I’ve heard of the book from a trustworthy source (usually a friend who’s read it), or read and been intrigued by a newspaper/magazine review, I might be inspired to peruse it. Or I might have seen and been thoroughly impressed by the author in at a literary festival and then decided to not be pseudo intellectual—no more pretending to like him/her, let’s see if they read as good as they sound.

BJNovak_AFThe case of B.J. Novak and One More Thing was slightly more complicated. Or simpler, depending on your perspective. I love Mindy Kaling, and I raced through her Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other concerns faster than I had any other book for what felt like a long time. It was hilarious, and at times I felt as though I were listening to an older sister or friend talk about things that I hope, in a few years, I might be qualified to speak about myself. Going by the law of transitivity or whatever it is, I assumed that I might like her fellow The Office writer’s work as well, and so I picked up Novak’s book.

The cashier at the counter took one look at the white-covered, innocuous looking text and told me that I was going to ‘love it’. Turns out, he was totally right. And the law of whatever-it-is was, for once, proven totally right.

One More Thing is brilliant. It is a collection of short stories, poems, little notes, that are very obviously the work of a very, very smart guy who has (it seems to me) always wanted to be a ‘real writer’. Everything about Novak’s career—a double major in English and Spanish Literature from Harvard, a stand-up comedian, a writer on the hit NBC series The Office, producer, actor and now, author of two books—signals an extremely creative person with perhaps more than his fair share of talent. His book is just like that career path, zigzagging from scene to scene, jumping through a whirlwind of emotion and snapping with energy, but never, ever anything less than hilarious and, at moments, beautifully poignant.

One More Thing strikes me as a very ‘literature student type’ book. It makes digs at the whole process of studying English, the over-reading and analyzing that becomes second nature to its students, and very considerately provides ‘discussion questions’ at the close of some of the pieces. At the end of the book, for example, he asks:

Did you think the book was funny? Why or why not?

Do you think discussion questions can be unfairly leading sometimes? Why?

Do you think “why not” is ultimately a better question than “why”?

Why or why not?

Very thought provoking, as you can see.

Some of Novak’s stories, the more obviously sci-fi or ‘uncanny’ ones reminded me a great deal of one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman. Like Gaiman, he infuses these short glimpses into strange worlds with more reality than many ‘fantasy saga’ writers do in their twelve-book-long epics. Like Gaiman, his writing is simple, concise, no room for bloated words or sentiments. He pins his ideas onto the page with a minimum of fuss, a skill I suppose he honed during his time writing for The Office. For instance, with a few sentences, he manages to paint this character perfectly:

For the adoration due a great poet, he made a point of writing his articles longhand on legal pads in fashionable cafes, always looking like a brilliant, beautiful mess, a priceless piece of set decoration for any independently owned coffee shop: the poet completely lost in his work, pausing only to explain—often, and at length, depending on the questioner—what it was he was working on.

Totally recognizable type, I’d say.

Not all of Novak’s stories are as openly ridiculing as this one might seem to be. Like I said, OMT contains a range of emotion and encounters, and the tones of the pieces vary, but the overall effect is … comforting. I felt like I was spending the night talking to an old friend, one I knew and admired, laughing at the stories he had to tell me even when some of them made me want to cry. I knew from the first page that this was good writing, I knew this was a writer I could trust, and I know, now that the covers have been closed, that this is a writer I will go back to. 330x360xNovak_photo-e1359764894573-330x360.jpg.pagespeed.ic.3gYi-IDGZF

I hope Novak writes more, lots more. I have a feeling he will, and that he’ll continue to work his way into my heart with every paragraph he pens. He is the wunderkind after all.

One more thing—go read this book right now. I promise you, it’s totally worth your time. If you’re not convinced, maybe the hilarious book trailer will help:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2FxhTn9cEhI 

Considering the King of Kings: Watchmen’s Ozymandias

Warning: Spoilers for Watchmen and Before Watchmen: Ozymandias ahead.


Before_Watchmen_Ozymandias_Vol_1_1_Variant_AThere’s no graphic novel/comic book character who has impressed me or made me think as much as Ozymandias (Adrian Veidt) from Alan Moore’s classic, Watchmen. As a power hungry, megalomaniac figure, his type is familiar in the superhero universe. Nor is his ‘damning the world for its own good’ an entirely new concept—what makes the difference in his case is that, unlike many of his fellow antiheroes/straight-out villains, Ozymandias’s scheme, so far as we can see, is successful.

I read Watchmen close to two years ago. The experience was, to say the least, unsettling. Moore’s novel has been called many things: a ‘tour de force’, a ‘masterpiece’, ‘gritty and realistic’ and a ‘watershed’ for superhero comics. It portrays a close-to-realistic universe, New York during the height of the Cold War, where scientists watch a ‘doomsday clock’s’ minute hand move closer and closer to total destruction. The United States government has hired the services of two ‘vigilantes’: a sociopath who calls himself the Comedian (a sort of deranged Captain America type) and Dr. Manhattan, an omnipotent being whose quantum powers have been bestowed upon him by a (wait for it) scientific experiment gone wrong. In a world of rising suspicion and fear of nuclear holocaust, one retired vigilante takes it upon himself to ‘save’ humanity by creating a faux war and, regrettably, losing a few million lives in the process of saving the whole.

That man is Ozymandias.

I suppose it’s not very surprising that I ‘fell for’ this character the moment his scheme became clear. Not only is he power hungry and super intelligent, but he also confesses to having found the inspiration for his scheme in classic science fiction. I also love those corny scenes where the villain explains his ultimate agenda, though they usually end in the hero besting said villain and ensuring that agenda never gets fulfilled (and I do have a well-known soft spot for charming megalomaniacs, like Blair Waldorf and Magneto). In Ozymandias’s case, the ‘heroes’ (always a questionable term where Moore is concerned) realize there is nothing they can do to foil his plan. What’s the point of telling an already panicked world that a well-known businessman, the ‘smartest man in the world’, is terrorizing them in order to achieve peace? AdrianVeidt

Yeah, no one would buy it.

At the close of Watchmen, the remaining superheroes are divided. Nite Owl and Scarlet Spectre II have taken off to try and eke a normal life together, gathering their scattered and damaged selves in a mutually supportive relationship. Rorschach is dead, Dr. Manhattan has taken off to outer space, unable to care any longer for the ‘microcosm’ that humanity constitutes; and Ozymandias is staring, teary eyed at his own success, watching as channel after channel broadcasts the devastation his crazy scheme has wreaked in New York City. 

In a world as grimy as the one Watchmen portrays, Ozymandias is a scarcely believable idealist. This is a world where the ‘heroes’ have lost faith, where they’ve, one by one, been hunted into darkened, rat-infested corners and, where they’re not killed out of hand, withered away in cynicism. Ozymandias, arguably, has a much more privileged  background than any of his fellows, being from a well-to-do family and then, after years of self-inflicted hardship, rising to  become one of the richest men in the world. He seems a reimagining of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark, both billionaires who invest their time and energy in making the ‘world a better place’ in their own way. Unlike them, Ozymandias is not content to fight local crime in hand-to-hand combat. The ‘smartest man in the world’, his vision is much more universal.

Ozymandias combines the skill set of Bruce Wayne (and the assets) with the benevolent dictatorship espoused by a figure like The Avengers’ Loki. Like Wayne, he is a loner, a recluse who hides aspects of himself and his final plan from everyone. Fittingly enough, according to the non-Moore written prequel Before Watchmen: Ozymandias he takes up crime-fighting in order to avenge the loss of his lover, Miranda. After Miranda, his relations with women (and people in general) seem few and far between, surface at best.

Like Loki, Veidt is ‘burdened with glorious purpose’. His role model and personal hero is
Alexander the Great, the near-legendary warrior king who conquered most of the then known world at the age of 33. As the alleged ‘smartest man in the world’, he believes he has a duty to helping humanity, to guide it towards a better future, one not wracked by petty conflict and ensuing misery. Like Loki, he believes that taking the freedom of choice and knowledge from his ‘herd’ is a good thing, and only helps humanity. Unlike Loki, he is doing this not to obtain open and obvious power. The world does kneel to Adrian Veidt, but it does not know it. Tom-Hiddleston-Loki-Costume-Chest-Shoulder

Interestingly, I think Tom Hiddleston might have done a great job as Ozymandias. He gets that tortured genius thing so well. Then again, I think Tom Hiddleston could do great in most roles.

The superhero universe is filled with characters who are driven, ruthless, charismatic and romantic. Ozymandias has all these qualities. But Ozymandias towers above his fellows, in my opinion, because he owns his power and potential in a way that many don’t. He has an almost inhuman sense of duty, one that flogs him on to devastating acts. He is both so in love with humanity and thoroughly disgusted by it. He is the worst kind of sociopath—one who believes that everything he does is for the ‘greater good’. Albus Dumbledore couldn’t match up to this guy, Elder Wand or no.

tumblr_mg3d7kyvlL1qfxwtoo6_1280Is Ozymandias a hero or a villain? He is both. Moore intertwines his story with that of the tortured castaway from the Black Freighter, a man who damns himself and all those he loves out of his own despair. Watchmen’s narrative ends before we can find out the long-term effects of Ozymandias’s scheme, so we don’t know whether he did wreak more evil than good, but perhaps the story is an indicator, from Moore, of where things will go. Ozymandias is the smartest man in the world, but his very name indicates eventual ruin. After all, it’s the name given to the statue of king, fallen in a desert and scoured by the sand.

Master Manipulators: Petyr Baelish

One thing we love doing in the fantasy community is pitting random characters against each other in grand showdowns. I suppose this has a lot to do with the form of the genre, where really, each series/book ends in a dramatic encounter between the ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’, or, to give them their genre-specific names, prophesied hero and dark evil overlord. In our time out of the books however, we like to toss characters from different series against each other, to figure out who would win if, say, there was a cross-world war and Harry Potter found himself facing Darth Vader.star-wars-vader-force-choke

 

vs.harry with wand

No contest. Clearly Vader would win. Harry could Expelliarmus his Jedi sword, but Vader does have that nifty little strangulation technique.

In my upcoming posts, I’m profiling characters of a certain type in preparation to pitting them against each other—four master manipulators who pull strings and make puppets dance in their respective worlds. You can thank a rather intense and nerdy discussion on Facebook. What makes this comparison difficult is that all their worlds are so different, and their particular skills and positions are largely shaped by the world they inhabit. Therefore, removing them from their contexts and trying to view them objectively is  trifle problematic, but I’m going to ignore such purist concerns in favor of the potential entertainment these comparisons will afford.

Without further ado…

petyrPetyr Baelish

Strengths:

Utter and complete lack of permanent alliances. Littlefinger is loyal only to himself. He shifts and shuffles his allies according to his convenience, does each major house enough ‘favours’ to make them believe that he is firmly part of their team.

Money matters: Littlefinger has his hands on the economic pulse of Westeros, or whatever passes for it. He finds money where there is none to be found, makes his own from his brothels. Money is might, in any universe, and his gold is what allows Littlefinger to buy knives, protection and loyalty from those who have no other reason to work for him.

Lack of discernible agenda: This is, perhaps, Littlefinger’s greatest strength. He always keeps his opponents guessing. Does he support the Lannisters? Yes, for a while. Why? We don’t know. Does he think the Tyrells should have the power? He certainly seems to let them think he does. He plays people so well because he knows what everyone else wants, which is usually power or vengeance, but no one has the same grasp on him because his long-term plan is so hazy. Does he want to marry Sansa and rule through her? That’s a possibility. Does he just want to do whatever upsets Varys’s plans? Also a possibility. Five books in, we have no idea.

Weaknesses:

Lack of physical strength: Granted, we haven’t actually seen Littlefinger in a fight, but from what we know, he’s a small man who, more often than not, hires people to do his killing. He has never been a soldier, was quite thoroughly routed by Brandon Stark when he did try to pick a fight (fine, he was ‘little more than a boy’ but I’m pretty sure that if he had any latent martial skill, it would have manifested by then), and he does not seem the kind of man who has time to invest in physical training. No, Baelish is much too sophisticated for the old school chivalric/martial code of lords like Ned and Robert. It’s precisely why he looks down on them.

Lack of allies: If push came to shove, who would back Baelish up? No one. Even Sansa is, obviously, playing her own game with him. This is the flip-side of being a totally rogue agent. He has no family connections, no romantic connections (except Lysa, who is now dead) and the one bond he does seem to have, with Sansa, will, I predict, be the one that ends up destroying him.

Conclusion: Littlefinger is formidable. He couples immense intellectual capacity with financial know-how, and plays a game that very few seem to be able to see, let alone guess the object of.  I wouldn’t even call his bond with Sansa a weakness, since we don’t know how far he’s playing her and what his eventual aim with her is. I somehow doubt he’s going to be easily seduced and left for dead. No, Littlefinger’s going to have a bigger plan than just getting into bed with her.

sansa-and-petyr-sansa-stark-34188034-950-525

 

And if he doesn’t, I’ll be rather disappointed.

Next time, I’ll assess the second contestant in this face-off. Who’s it going to be? Now, that’s a surprise.

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop the Taylor Love

This post has been a long time coming. A couple of months ago I put up a status that shared my newfound delight at listening to Taylor Swift. ‘I’m binge listening to Taylor Swift,’ it ran, ‘and discovering she has some profound things to say about life.’  Surprisingly, quite a few people ‘liked’ it, and it incited a great deal of debate on the topic Avril Lavigne versus Swifty. Of course, I supported Swifty in that debate.

I started listening to Taylor Swift (henceforth, I will call her Taylor because that seems to imply we are good friends, a feeling she totally encourages with her down to earth and VERY insightful lyrics) just about a year ago, coming, as ever, late to the music party.  I’m not sure how it started, what brought me to open up lists on 8tracks that were tagged ‘Taylor Swift’, or how long it took for me to realize I was listening to her not out of a hipster-like sense of irony, but because I genuinely liked what she was saying. Or, even if I didn’t like it, I understood it, in a way I haven’t understood any other singer.

taylor striped

A friend of mine once told me half-jokingly that every girl has a Taylor Swift song. He asked me what mine was. At that time, I hadn’t listened to much of her music. If he were to ask me now, I still wouldn’t have an answer, unless it is ‘All of them’.

What I find incredible about Taylor’s music is how very accessible and relatable it is. Sure, many songwriters have penned lyrics that seem to describe exactly what you, the listener, are going through at any point of time, and there are many I could name, but no one sounds as close to me as Taylor does. Listening to Taylor is like reading pages of an old journal; she is unapologetic, she is ‘emotional’ in the manner that many snooty people deride, she, in short, sounds like she’s talking on the phone to one of her best friends. When you’re listening to her, you feel let in, part of a circle, a safe space where your most vulnerable side can be shared, because that’s exactly the privilege she is extending to you.

kim insta

Lookee! Thanks to instagram we now know what Kim Kardashian is…eating? Buying? Wearing? I have no clue what those things are.

‘Nearness’ is something that popular culture seems more and more invested in emphasizing. What else explains the surge of reality TV, the stardom of Youtube vloggers—people like you and me, broadcasting to the world from their homes and smartphones, the fame of the common tweeter, many of whose followers number in the hundreds?  Despite this revolution however, stars and celebrities seem in some ways, further than ever. It’s easier to get famous, maybe, but the fame of these idols is of a different kind from that of the Youtube cover artist or reviewer-tweeter. Perhaps it’s the vestiges of the almost supernatural aura that once surrounded big record labels and studios, that impossible-to-define something that made someone recognized by one of these powerhouses ‘better’ than his/her peers. Whatever it is, despite their instagrams and tweets, celebs are still in a clime of their own, perhaps even more so for all the show of their accessibility. 

Taylor though, seems to have something genuine in her music. Cynics will sneer (I know a couple of my friends who definitely will) and say that her music too, like that of her fellow pop stars, is crafted to appear so, tailor-made (pun so intended) to convince me that she understands me and thus gull me into buying her songs and overpriced concert tickets. I might believe them, if it weren’t for the fact that Taylor often gets lambasted for the very reasons I find her music appealing. Her ‘emotional’ songs are roasted as being too whiny, too ‘angsty’ and ‘teenybopper’. She’s raked over the coals for writing songs about the men she’s dated, for giving voice to the sort of insecurities that many young women have in romantic relationships. I think the tag of ‘emotional’ is an extremely sexist one— are men ever derided for being ‘emotional’ in their music? I can think of many men who would certainly deserve that ‘charge’, Sam Smith and even legends like Eric Clapton come to mind.

I could ramble on about her half-philosophically, but here Im going to quickly list five Taylor songs and illustrate, through them, five points that make her music so appealing to me:

‘Story of us’: Taylor seems to say that it’s okay to be a little heartbroken when things don’t work out the way you expected. She gives voice to the nagging pettiness and worries that eat away at a person at the close of a relationship and I, for one, find the words ‘This is looking like a contest/Of who can act like they care less’ much closer to reality than beautiful words about wanting to find ‘someone’ like one’s ex. 

Sorry, Adele.

Sorry, Adele.

‘Red’: You can laugh at the strange comparisons in this song (‘Forgetting him was like trying to know somebody you’ve never met’?) but there’s something so heartfelt about every single one that I found myself strangely moved and agreeing with her on the choice of words. Taylor manages to do that, more often than you might think. She takes the weirdest of words and jams them together and has them make sense and sound right in a manner that few other people do.

‘All too well’: This is, to me, the most realistic break-up song ever. It talks about navigating the morass of emotion evoked when confronted by an ex, the what-ifs that tangle with memories both pleasant and unpleasant. That one line, ‘You call me up again just to break me like a promise/So casually cruel in the name of being honest’—I thought it was sheer poetry, even before Taylor commented that it was one of those she is proud of. The song winds through a series of emotions, confused and elated and wistful and angry all at the same time, and it astounds me again and again that she is able to pack all that into four minutes of music.

taylor1

‘We are never, ever, ever getting back together’: This song illustrates the fun side of Taylor. Have you SEEN the video? It never fails to cheer me up. It is so ludicrously over the top that you can’t help but laugh along with her. The song seems to say, as many Taylor songs do, that shit happens but you know what? We’re just going to cut our losses and move the hell on.

And dance while we do it.

Also, confession. The lyric that makes me crack up is ‘While you hide away and find your peace of mind/With some indie record that’s MUCH cooler than mine’. Too close for comfort.

 

‘Begin Again’: This is wistful Taylor, a Taylor who pops up in ‘Cold as You’, ‘White Horse’, ‘You’re not Sorry’—all slightly sad songs that nonetheless end on a note of hope. I love how her music, despite describeing unhappy scenarios, never descends to pure caterwauling or pleading to be taken back. It’s always a sort of wistful ‘I’m sad this didn’t work out’ vibe that plays through them, and they never descend to self-hate or self-doubt.

 

I think that, in effect, is what I love about Taylor. She dramatizes the emotional whirl storm that is a part of growing up and trusting people, but she never lets the bad encounters color her, or your, perception of life. She ‘can’t stop, won’t stop moving’, and will keep shaking herself off and going on. And she does it with such a delicious sense of self-parody, like in ’22’.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s pretty damn inspirational.

Shake off the doubts yo, shake them off.

                                                               Shake off the doubts yo, shake them off.

An Empire State of Mind

It’s easy to find blogposts and listicles about how important it is to travel in your 20’s. The writers of these posts say inspiring things about how travel builds perspective, travel doesn’t have to be the provence of the rich, travel brings you face to face with people and situations you would never expect. I’ve seen so many of these, some of them with agendas more clearly discernible than others (for instance, there’s one about how girls should travel in their 20’s rather than get married. I have a problem with posts like these simply because they seem to judge those who do choose to get married in their 20’s, which I find a little discomfiting. People should be able to get married whenever the hell they want, and that includes in their 20’s), but rants aside, they all make this one point: travel broadens horizons, and really, you should do it.

I would describe myself as an indifferent traveler. I don’t really enjoy meeting new people all the time, neither do I need to throw myself into particularly ‘exciting’ and ‘new’ experiences in order to find my life enriching and fulfilling (I think I do well enough building and dispensing drama on my own—just ask any of my close friends). Certainly I enjoy seeing famous and touristy places, but my ambition does not include that oft cited by so many people: ‘I want to see the world’.

Having said all this, there are a few places I would like to visit, a short list of countries that includes, for various reasons, Peru, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Morocco, Canada and one particular city: New York.

top-of-the-rock-photo-ispI visited New York for a day in 2009. It was a there and back again trip, consisting of a hurried Chipotle lunch with cousins, a quick trip through the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art), three hours standing in line waiting for tickets to a Broadway show at Times Square, hurried gobbling of cheesecake, strolling through a little bit of Central Park—I remember rocks—and then rushing to Majestic Theatre, where I lost my heart to a singing Phantom and his Gothic tunes. We then took a night train back to the domestic haven of New Jersey, and New York and its treats were left behind.

This quick visit was enough to give me what I thought of as a ‘sense’ of the city, and the only word I could use to describe it was ‘life’. The moment I stepped out of Penn Station’s underground caverns and onto the street, I felt an almost electric thrill shoot through me. Here, I thought, is where I want to be. Ever since then I’ve dreamt of walking down fifth, sixth or seventh avenue, clutching a rapidly cooling coffee as I make my way to my skyscraper-housed office. This vision may or may not have been unduly influenced by The Devil Wears Prada movie. Given how much importance that movie and various other NY-based books/TV shows (cough Gossip Girl cough) have in my imagination, I wouldn’t be surprised.

28annehathawaygoldpurseoutfit

Totes going to be me some day.

I finally had the opportunity to stay in the Big Apple. I crashed at a close friend’s place on 125th and Broadway (like a true New Yorker, I have learned to locate places based on street and avenue number/name), very close to Columbia University. I took the Subway on my own—woohoo!—and travelled about Manhattan. I met a range of interesting people, old friends and new as the cliche goes, and undertook the grand mission known as ‘finding oneself’. I walked past humongous skyscrapers multiple times, looking up at the windows and wondering when I would sit inside and look out upon the commuters and tourists scurrying below. I stood outside the NewsCorp office for a full five minutes and plotted takeover, even messaged a partner in crime about how we would one day rule the publishing and television world from there. 

I have very small dreams, you see.

New York was everything I dreamed it would be. Granted, I spent only ten days there and didn’t actually have to brave rush hour crowds, eke out a living and pay a humongous rent, so my picture of the city is rather rose-tinted. But it felt, more than anything, like a bigger, more international version of Delhi, perhaps shinier and the teensiest bit safer, in some ways. In other ways, more dangerous.

Perhaps this, its Delhi-like feel, made me even more desperate to be seen as ‘part’ of the city, a true ‘local’. It’s impossible, at a glance, to tell who is from New York. It houses people from every race, every country probably, ever sort of social, economic and religious background. Given the smorgasbord of humanity, it’s easy enough to blend in, be perceived as someone completely at home here. I figured out the easiest way to pass off as a local, i.e, not a clueless tourist (which, whatever I say, I was) was to plaster a confident, vaguely arrogant expression on my face and just stride off in the direction I thought I was supposed to take. Luckily for me, my face assumes this expression almost by default, and even when I took the wrong exit from a subway, quick glances at the street corners enabled me to reroute myself properly.

Why was I so desperate to blend in? Perhaps I just wanted to extend the illusion of being part of the city, convince myself that yes, I am here and I will be here. If people validate this notion, all the better.

Did traveling to New York give me the much vaunted ‘perspective’? Yes. It taught me how very much I want to be seen as successful, creative, a force to be reckoned with—all images one associates, thanks to pop culture, with NYC. More than that, it showed me that I want to be all those things there. I want the skyscraper-housed office, the overpriced coffee, the snootiness of an Upper East or West side address. Impossible to get? Well, like Jay-Z said, ‘If I can make it here/I can make it anywhere’.

Challenge accepted. 

blair

Bring. It. On.