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 

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The Hobbit 2: The Elves of Mirkwood

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There be Spoilers, Most Calamitous Spoilers, Ahead.

Last night, I went with a couple of friends to watch the latest installment of the Hobbit trilogy. Two of these friends were die-hard fans, one of the movies and resultant fanfiction (her ‘Muse’ is the Elf she fondly dubs ‘Legsie’) and the other, like me, would most likely classify herself as a ‘purist’, one who frequently turned to me and asked ‘Does that happen in the book? I don’t remember!’. The fourth member of our happy gang was a ‘fan but not a super fan’, one who had watched the previous Hobbit and Lord of the Rings movies and liked them.

Funnily enough, given the all the tweaks and quirks in the film, it was the ‘purists’ who walked away happier. Maybe we weren’t expecting as much as the others? Maybe we were just able to see the movie as ‘entertainment’ and naught else? Or maybe we saw glimpses of more Middle-Earth history than we expected? The last, I think, to be substantiated soon.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is, primarily, a fun movie. It’s filled with silly jokes, improbable action sequences, Middle Earth/New Zealand beauty and some truly stunning visual effects. It’s also got its fair share of inane dialogue (as any franchise movie, especially in the superhero or fantasy genre, has these days), repetitive chase sequences and one fairly trippy scene with the (spoiler) Eye of Sauron. The last caused both me and said ‘purist’ friend to sputter ‘What was THAT?’

Seriously, what was that?

Besides the fairly heretical and foolhardy decision (I think it’s appropriate, given that Tolkien himself apparently said his name means ‘foolhardy’) to split the children’s book into three big-budget, two and a two third hour long films, Peter Jackson has—gasp—introduced romance into this boys’ club of a novel. And that was a big divider in our little group. Funnily enough, it was, again, the purists who loved it and melted into sentimental puddles of goop.

In this post I’m going to talk about what, for me, formed the meat of the movie: the Elves, and detail what I thought about their roles. I’m leaving my absolute favourite addition to the Jackson-Tolkien-verse for a separate post, because the stuff I have to say about him is actually sort of semi-serious. Yes, Thranduil will get a space all to himself. I think he deserves it.

Tauriel

From the moment it was announced that Evangeline Lilly would be playing a female Elf named Tauriel (‘maiden of the forest’), fans were riled. Of course the introduction of a female character meant romance, and who is there for her to romance besides dear darling Legolas, heart throb of Middle Earth? My own worry was that, like many before her, that would be all Tauriel would represent—a love interest.

Thankfully, my fears were pretty unfounded. Not only was Tauriel more kick-ass than Legolas in battle, but she fell for, of all beings, a Dwarf.

Now that is sure to spark many an angry note among the purists. Is it possible? How can a Dwarf ‘love’ an Elf? How can said Elf even contemplate reciprocating? But there’s already a basis for this in Tolkien’s world: remember how smitten Gimli was by Galadriel? Kili’s response to Tauriel seems exactly like Gimli’s; he sees her as full of ‘light’, ‘walking among the stars’. And how does Tauriel see him? Evidently as someone worthy of her act of busting the King’s trust and favour and running off into the wild to find.

It was my fanfic-loving friend who called the Tauriel-Kili romance angle ‘unnecessary’, oddly enough. On the other hand, I found it very compelling. It had its corny moments, yes, but which franchise movie doesn’t? And besides, it was so utterly unconventional in Middle Earth pairings. Of course Tauriel is expected to fall in love with the dashing Prince Legolas, but instead she chooses a Dwarf. A Dwarf! Those most unglamorous of Middle Earth denizens, hated by Elves, distrusted and distrusting of most and a race that wasn’t even part of the Divine Plan in the first place (ref: The Silmarillion). I thought it was a brave stroke, and one that didn’t fall entirely amiss. Not only does is foreshadow the races uniting at the (spoiler) close, but it was a breath of fresh air in movie-romance/Middle Earth romance terms as well.

A Dwarf, for Eru’s sake.

Legolas

It must have been odd for Orlando Bloom to reprise his role as Legolas ten years after the LOTR movies, and play him at least 60 years younger. Legolas, in The Hobbit 2, is mostly a killing machine, something of a video game character. He rips off Orc heads, he does more skateboarding stunts, he seems to face somewhat of a moral  dilemma (or pretends he does so he can follow Tauriel around). He is obviously struggling with some Daddy issues, but he just didn’t…convince me. Tauriel and Thranduil are much stronger characters. Evidently Jackson is trying to posit them as two ends of a spectrum that Legolas has to choose between: will he follow his heart and tread the unconventional, brazen path of the much younger Tauriel, or listen to his far more ruthless and seemingly cold-hearted, ‘ill tempered’ father?

Frankly, I didn’t care.

 The Woodland Elves

It’s obvious that Jackson has taken material from The Silmarillion and for that alone, the Mirkwood Elves were a success in my eyes. There’s references to ‘lowly Silvan Elf’ (which is what Tauriel is), reminding us that these seemingly perfect beings have their own hierarchies and class system, and that history has turned on these distinctions for them. Even outsiders know that the ‘Woodland Elves’ are different from their brethren outside of Mirkwood. ‘They are less wise and more dangerous’.

I would dispute that, though. I don’t think Thranduil is ‘less wise’ than his fellow Elf rulers, but more on that later.

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Stories that Want to be Told

Everything you can imagine is real. – Pablo Picasso

 I have been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘growing up’, about the books that have shaped me into the person I’ve become, the person I continue to evolve into. A few months ago, I read Neil Gaiman’s much awaited The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a book which was feted with much ado and reviewed graciously all around. It failed, somehow, to move me. Perhaps this was because, as I wrote earlier, I had extremely high expectations of one of my favourite writers, expectations that even Gaiman could not fulfil.

 Or perhaps it was because I had already read a book that had portrayed the transition from child to adult in a manner that very, very few could possibly hope to achieve.

John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things is for me what The Shadow of the Wind was to Daniel in Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s magnificent novel (of the same name). It is the secret book that found me in the midst of a hundred fellows, a thousand fellows. It was drawn from the shelf with a vague curiosity, a sort of purposeless browsing that I no longer have the time or the inclination to indulge. It found me, I think, in some strange, personal way, and it affected me profoundly, continues to affect me, upon every reading.

 The story begins, as all good stories ‘should’, ‘Once upon a time’. A young boy named David loses his mother to a wasting illness, in spite of his best efforts via counting routines and habits to keep her in good health. His father remarries and David must welcome both Rose and her new baby, Georgie, into the family. To make matters worse, England teeters on the brink of World War II, and David’s father is forced to move the family to Rose’s old family home on the outskirts of London, far from all the boy has known. Unable to cope with his grief and overwhelming resentment of Rose and Georgie, David turns to the thing he and his mother both loved: fairy tales. The books containing these stories have begun to whisper to David, and in his dreams he sees a strange, capering figure, with a face like a half-moon and a crooked hat who says with a cryptic, twisted smile ‘All hail the new king.’

 The story takes the track well-worn by generations of child-explorers: like Alice, David disappears into a strange wonderland, a pastiche of the fairytales he has grown up hearing and reading, lured thither by his dead mother’s voice. This world is no happily-ever-after vale, though, the shadows of war, disease and nightmare lying heavy upon it. David knows he cannot stay here, but the only way to get back is to make his way to the Old King, who rules weakly from his castle in the east. The King possesses a mysterious book, The Book of Lost Things, which may be able to get David home. David must, of course, pass through a set of trials to get there and meets friends and enemies of varying abilities and dangers on his way, including a helpful Woodsman, communist dwarves, a murderous huntress, a beautiful, wandering knight in search of a Dark Tower and the sinister and all-powerful Crooked Man.

 In my short lifetime of reading, I have yet to come across a book that tells the story of discarding childhood in as beautiful, simple or affecting a manner. Connolly pieces together the golden threads of childhood fairytale favourites with the half-remembered and still-dreaded nightmares of things under the bed, waiting in the shadows, half-glimpsed in the faces of strangers. The sheen he gives to old tales is startling, whether it be his rewriting of Beauty and the Beast, Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel, each more macabre and Carter-esque than the sanitized versions most of us postcolonial brats are exposed to. In addition to this, when he enters this new world, David brings with him his own nightmares and the filth of his own world, its wars and troubles—he must face them down in this story, or not go back at all.

 I think, I think that Connolly and Gaiman are trying to tell the same story in their own ways. How do you deal with grief, loneliness and confusion as a child, how do you make that journey into adulthood and still retain a veneer of innocence and the ability to wonder? If your tale is just a plot woven by the Crooked Man for his own ends, if reality can be shredded away by the vicious talons of varmints, where is the stability, the meaning, the happily-ever-afters and heroics we dreamed of in stories of yore?

 Gaiman’s prose, while elegant as ever, did not move me, didn’t convince me in the same manner Connolly’s did. Perhaps that was because I came to Connolly with an open mind, and read him at a time when I myself was ‘growing up’. I could identify with David more than with the unnamed narrator in Ocean, I could see echoes of the stories I knew and loved in his own adventures. Gaiman attempts to create a new mythology for his world; Connolly rests his hero’s adventures on the backs of tried and tested figures and plots, and somehow makes them seem new.

 Perhaps that, really, is where the magic lies. As I grow older, I find myself turning more and more to the kind of stories my mother tried to wean me off of. ‘You can’t always read these fantasy and fairy tale things,’ she told me on my fifth re-read of The Lord of the Rings. ‘You have to read other books some day.’

 And yet, despite my best efforts, I find myself coming back to these, to the stories where a plucky hero passes through great and otherworldly trials to find himself rest and reward at the close. These stories remind that though ‘life is filled with great grief’ there is also ‘great happiness’. That though there are Beasts and Crooked Men in their underground tunnels, waiting to foster the evil that dwells inside you, with the right attitude you can battle them away, find allies in unlikely places and reserves of courage where you never thought to look before.

 I think Connolly manages to do what few writers apart from Lewis Carroll have done: take a child’s darkest dreams and craft with them a road to adulthood. David changes in the course of the story, as do his readers. And yet …

 ‘I came back,’ said David, and the Woodsman smiled.

 ‘Most people do, in the end.’

 Truer and more encouraging words were never spoken.

Revenge Wears Prada

Do you remember the time when Andrea Sachs told her draconian boss (yes, the one played by Meryl Streep) to ‘Fuck off’ in the middle of a Parisian fashion show?

Yeah, I was sure you did. If nothing, you can recall Anne Hathaway throwing a cellphone into a fountain after a one-night-stand-gone-bad with the Mentalist guy.

Apparently Andy’s abrupt departure didn’t sit too well with Miranda, and ten years later, she’s about to serve her former junior assistant some cold revenge.

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‘Revenge Wears Prada’ is the saga of said comeback. Andy and her new BFF Emily (the same girl with the plush British accent in the movie) run a luxury wedding magazine called The Plunge, are married to rich and handsome men and live in style on the Upper East Side. Andy’s husband is Max Harrison, the CEO of a media company, and he’s everything she (or her female readers) have ever dreamed of. Everything looks perfect, except, of course, it doesn’t last.

Enter Miranda Priestly, now Editorial Director of Elias Clarke (and not just Runway). She makes Andy and Emily an offer for The Plunge and all hell breaks loose, with Emily and Max raring to go for it and Andy resisting with all the strength she can muster. Will Miranda win out, as she usually does, or will Andy manage to be the one who gets away for a second time running? You’ll have to RAFO.

I really enjoyed this book. I read the prequel a few months ago (refer to my post, Strapping on that Prada), and found it, while not the most elegantly written of texts, refreshing, entertaining and surprisingly thought-provoking. While the ‘revenge’ here seems a little too long-boiled (meaning, it takes forever for Miranda to enter the scene, and even when she does, she’s annoyingly brief), and hardly the most earth-shattering, the world that Weisberger recreates is arresting enough to compensate for the glacial pace of the storyline. Plus, we get to meet old favourites like Lily, Alex and the ever-flamboyant Nigel and see where the decade has taken them. There’s even a short encounter with, dare I say it, the oh so sexy Christian Collinsworth.

Andy’s journey in Revenge is obviously very different from her experience in the first book. Here she’s an established editor, one who has definitely arrived on the New York fashion scene, handling her own team of (and I snorted here in understanding) entitled young twenty-somethings. Despite her success however, she remains a relateable, girl-next-door type of character, one who cannot dress well enough to impress Emily, who is not ‘posh’ or ‘appropriate’ enough for her snooty mother-in-law, who prefers to snooze under the covers rather than head out to the gym. A jarring difference from the first book is the shifting of perspective–where Devil stuck in first-person, Revenge is told from a third person limited perspective, namely Andy’s.

To put it simply, Revenge does not accomplish much as a story, but what it does do is take your mind off things for a little while by presenting you the world of the rich and famous, replete with fairytale weddings, jilting actresses and closet-fuls of designer clothes (and designers). So if you want a fun and fabulous read, please do go ahead and get your hands on it. Let’s all pretend to be more glitzy than we really are. At least for a couple of days.

 The Ocean at the End of the Lane

There is something inherently disappointing about a hugely-anticipated book that you can, despite deliberate pacing and long work hours, finish in two days. The tragedy of this is only exacerbated when the book in question is by Neil Gaiman.

Yes, that’s right. You can finish The Ocean at the End of the Lane in two days. One, actually, if you’re not trying very hard to stop. Surely that makes something crumple a little and die inside.

Gaiman’s latest offering has been described by the author as his ‘best book’ so far. There have been rave reviews about it in a number of newspapers, there was a huge build-up with the three-chapter release, and the book comes studded with great endorsements from Erin Morgenstein and Joanne Harris, both writers celebrated for their ‘weird’, magical realist fiction. The cover too, in both editions, is gorgeous.

See? Pretty cover.

See? Pretty cover.

So what went wrong?

I hate to confess that I was not hugely overwhelmed by this novel. In fact, given the build-up and my anticipation/excitement, I was decidedly underwhelmed. I have read better Gaiman, and while I agree that the book certainly has its strong points, it doesn’t touch, in my opinion, the success with which The Graveyard Book or American Gods or even Smoke and Mirrors told their stories. Instead of leaving me with any of the satisfaction or awe that those books did, Ocean leaves me feeling confused, lost and a teensy bit annoyed.

What is it about? Well, that’s not precisely clear (intentionally so, one would assume, knowing Gaiman’s style). A little boy is witness to the dark forces unleashed by the death of a lodger. He becomes the target of those forces, and finds solace and safety with the Hempstocks, three mysterious women (of three different generations) who live on an idyllic farm at the (you guessed it) end of the lane. Of course, no fantasy novel worth its paper is going to end there, and there are complications and tribulations galore, in those quickly-turned 243 pages.

What I got from the first three chapters (posted pre-release) was a sense of darkness and foreboding, of forces bigger than human comprehension brooding upon and entering our fragile world. In short, it was a Lovecraftian ethos that permeated those pages, but unlike Lovecraft’s world, what I felt on reading Ocean was not mute, uncomprehending horror, but more a general what’s-the-big-deal sort of ‘eh’.

I am not saying Lovecraft is a better writer than Gaiman, of course. My heart will always belong to the latter. I just have a bad feeling that I’m either missing something massive in this novel, the finding of which would make the whole thing click together into awesomeness; or Gaiman hasn’t lived up to the hype in this particular book.

And that is something I just cannot bring myself to believe. Contemplate it, yes, but not believe.

The problem, perhaps, is that Gaiman is, in this book, walking too thin a tightrope. He seems to be telling the classic growing-up story, of a child discovering that the world is far more fragile than he had ever imagined, encased as he has been in the covers of adventure stories. The unnamed narrator learns that ‘Death happens to all things’, and that adults are never as self-controlled and perfect as he once imagined them to be. You cannot rely on your loving parents all the time, nor can you expect yourself (despite all the plucky school stories you might read) to be a hero when the time comes. Sometimes it’s all just too vast for you to comprehend, let alone handle.

There are some beautiful lines in the book, throwaway moments almost when Gaiman seems to be writing a letter to a younger self than a novel for adults. It is those moments that most resounded with me, such as when the child narrator wonders why grown-ups’ books are so boring, why they don’t read about adventures and fairies and magic. When he reflects on the self-centredness of his child-self, and how that is a trait peculiar to children, the belief that there is nothing more important than him/her in this world. That conviction of self-worth is one that is missing in the grown narrator (and, supposedly, his readers). Gaiman attempts, through this short novel, to remind us of a time when though we were helpless and alone and dependent, we did not rely on the straight and most obvious paths to take us home. Instead, like he points out, we wandered from dell to fairy circle and back.

But overall, I’m left feeling rather incomplete. I don’t understand what the ‘fleas’ in the book were, why (spoiler) such a creature’s name is significant at all, what on earth the varmint are and why they are so terrifying, and honestly, I’m still lost about the ocean. Maybe a second read will do wonders for my understanding and opinion. After all, I did appreciate American Gods much more on the second read. But, I must admit, I did enjoy it on the first. I did not leave me feeling just a little bit cheated.

Was it the hype? The fact that it’s a Gaiman? The fact that I’m jealous of his wife and the book is dedicated to her? (Okay, I’d like to believe I’m not so petty as all that.) I’m not sure. But what I do know is that Ocean is not what I would call, on the first go, Gaiman’s ‘best’ work. It is good, as all his books are, but far from his best.

 

Reading Rothfuss

How do I celebrate thee? Let me count the ways.

Storytelling forms the backbone of Patrick Rothfuss’ acclaimed Kingkiller Chronicle. The bulk of the narrative is, quite literally, a tale narrated by its protagonist to a scribe (or, to use his given name, Chronicler). Within this narrative are embedded a multitude of stories, told by professional storytellers, by laymen and women, sung in verses by travelling bards and troupers. The leading character and narrator, Kvothe, is himself a hero out of story, whose reputation is steadily bulked up through his life by the tales others have told of his feats. It is not often that you find a hero who responds to these stories by creating one of his own.

The premise of the series (there are two so far: The Name of the Wind and its sequel The Wise Man’s Fear) is pretty much that of any other epic fantasy. The world is going mad, even the farthest corners of it (largely populated by sheep and goodhearted, thick headed farmers) are being intruded upon by demons and men with less-than-noble intentions. Something big is going on in the busy world outside, but in this village, the usual gang continues to meet at the Waystone Inn, drink their ale and tell stories, served by the quiet innkeeper with the ‘true flame’ red hair. The innkeeper is the legendary Kvothe, Kingkiller, University-trained ‘Arcane’, dragonslayer, now hidden away in a humble guise. Why? That, my readers, is what we are supposed to find out.

And that’s just where the uniqueness of Rothfuss’ rendering begins.

I think that, with the surge in fantasy publishing and movie-making, writing good, original books/movies/plays in this genre is getting increasingly difficult. Everyone seems to follow a pattern (read: prophesied hero found in poor, often neglected orphan boy who overcomes obstacles and defeats evil dark lord), recreating, however loosely, the Hero’s Journey recognized by Joseph Campbell. This is largely because mainstream Western fantasy relies heavily on myth for its structure (and aspires to the same universal level, as laid down by Tolkien), so there’s not much room for basic plot reconstruction. Books like Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are very rare. Your success at storytelling is largely based on how well you can create your world and whether you engage your readers’ attention well enough for them to forgive and forget that they have heard this story a hundred times before.

ImageRothfuss, though he begins with a familiar premise, destroys all notions of ‘copycat’ shortly into the first book (The Name of the Wind). In this review, I will proceed to lay out five major plot points/character constructions that make him different from other fantasy authors I have read, five reasons why you should, if you are a jaded fantasy fan, pick him up. If you are not a particularly jaded/experienced reader, you should pick him up anyway.

#1: Kvothe is not your run of the mill hero

Okay, this is a huge point, and one that almost completely made the books for me. Kvothe is not, wait for it, a prophesied hero. He has not been hailed with cryptic words, not been designated a saviour, not been forced onto a path that will lead, eventually, to the slaying of an evil foe. He doesn’t seem born to fulfil any particular ‘purpose’, though he has talents and skills that certainly appear beyond the ordinary. The quest that he sets himself seems driven purely by personal desire, with absolutely no relevance to the people around him. In fact, most of those around him don’t even know of this self-appointed mission.

And can I just say how relieving it is to meet a fantasy protagonist who is aware of his strengths and plays to them? While I love the trope of the innocent, unsure hero who is humble and ignorant of his own potential, I do love the worldly-wise, sharp Kvothe as well. It’s so hard to pull off a brazen, intelligent character who doesn’t piss off his readers, but somehow, Rothfuss manages. His tone communicates clearly the distinction between the more hardened, experienced voice of Kote the innkeeper, and the younger tone of Kvothe the student and wanderer.

In all, Kvothe is a breath of fresh air, different from the other fantasy heroes one tends to come across. It’s hard not to love him.

#2: Denna

If Rothfuss does well with Kvothe, he outdoes himself with Denna. As the love interest and main female character (there are a number of female characters, none stereotypes), I feared for a moment that she might suffer the fate assigned to most of her breed- be reduced to nothing more than a romantic outlet for the hero’s passion or assigned the damsel in distress role. Denna, much like Egwene, defeated my gloomy expectations. She is literally as described by one of the characters, a ‘shower of sparks from a whetsone’, a spate of blazing light that throws into shadow everything around her. She is feisty, intelligent and so damn independent that you want to cry in relief that yes! Here is a fantasy heroine you can love, you can admire a la Katniss Everdeen. Here is a woman who enters the story as a love interest but is SO MUCH MORE. I love Denna, and I think that I would continue to read this series even if Kvothe sucked, only because I love her so damn much.

#3 The Stories

And there are a fair few of them. Rothfuss weaves beautiful tales, building a mythology for his world. Like in most fantasy novels, characters describe the wonders of a bygone era, one that possessed arts and ‘magics’ that the current one has lost. Besides these token tales of a mysterious past (which will no doubt prove important in the final book), there are a number of shorter, less grandiose stories in the books: folk tales, fairy tales, told by common men and women to pass the time around a fire. I’m going to go all lit-student here and comment on how Rothfuss uses the device of the storyteller not only to frame his narrative, but also to reflect on heroism in general. What is Kvothe but the stories people tell of him? What happens when those stories are done, where does he rest in between? The Kingkiller Chronicle is that rare thing: a story performing itself, showing us what a hero does after he has walked off into the sunset. It’s a bold narrative choice, but one that Rothfuss is executing wonderfully.

#The University

Anyone who ever wanted more of pure Hogwarts goodness, the rivalries between its students, it Houses, its classes without the more dramatic story of Harry Potter; anyone who loved New Spring precisely because it showed us a Tower (however briefly) before the advent of the Dragon Days; anyone who loves the Citadel sections of A Dance with Dragons will warm to the large swathes of text that deal with Kvothe’s tenure at the University. Here you have long, detailed visits to the academic centre of ‘The Four Corners of Civilization’, a look at all the different classes Kvothe takes, the students he meets, the professors, even the exams (here they’re called ‘Admissions’). You have a hero trying to make it on a less than ideal student budget and working while he studies. No plush ticket to five star meals and four poster beds for him. Kvothe lives in a dorm for a while before making his way to better off-campus housing.

I think Rothfuss has time and little urgency in the University chapters precisely because (as referred to above) Kvothe’s ‘quest’ is not one that involves the rest of the world. His friends are not prepping him for an inevitable showdown, nor does all of civilization appear to be moving towards a confrontation. Because of this, life goes on at its usual pace, and we, as readers, are allowed to see the world as it exists well before chaos and confusion (and the drums of war) seeps in.

#5 The Fae

The Fae in Rothfuss’ world greatly resemble the ancient, dangerous Fair Folk of old Irish tales, the People recreated in books like Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. They are, quite literally, fey, not human in aspect, expression, voice or (most chillingly) laughter. Their paths do not often cross the human world’s, and their customs and societies seem as varied, if not more so, than that of their more mundane neighbours. Rothfuss, though he does not engage in a detailed exploration of this realm (not yet, at least) offers enough tantalizing glimpses to make the reader yearn for more. His writing in these parts acquires an almost poetic bent (you’ll see what I mean), communicating thereby the almost transcendent beauty and ungraspability of these beings. They are not here to help or hinder, particularly. What they do is to remind us of how very large and varied Rothfuss’ world is; how, even two books in, we are not entirely done with exploring it.

Though I have recorded quibbles with his writing, I have to admit that he has the ability to weave an original, arresting story. Get yourself a copy of his book and trust me, you won’t be disappointed. I myself can’t wait for the next.

That’s Not All I Am

‘My voice sounds all tinny and fake. Like I don’t come from anywhere.’

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Riz Ahmed and Kate Hudson in TRF

And with those words, The Reluctant Fundamentalist stole my heart. Stole my heart so thoroughly that I didn’t mind seeing it twice in the space of two days.

I will be honest. I haven’t read the book and hence, cannot compare it to its cinematic adaptation. What I can do is give you my take on the movie and you can decide whether or not it is worth the same investment I made (twice).

The Reluctant Fundamentalist (based on the novel of the same name by Mohsin Hamid) is a Mira Nair film. That means it has lots of beautiful, sweeping shots of cities around the world and a pensive young man looking plaintively (and quite stunningly) for his roots. As you might have guessed by now, I am comparing TRF to The Namesake for both are, at their core, different versions of the same story. One, of course, is more politically charged than the other but when you look at their cores, they’re both about young men adrift in an adopted world that has suddenly and inexplicably turned alien and/or hostile, and it takes soul-searching (and father-finding) to set things on a new path. In TRF, Changez has it harder than Gogol ever did–not only is his name a strange sound on the lips of Americans, he happens to be of the wrong ethnicity at a completely wrong time.

Born into a culturally rich but economically parched family in Lahore, Pakistan (which, in the movie, looks suspiciously like Delhi. I wondered aloud about this and the innate similarities between India and Pakistan until my colleague assured me that they had indeed shot bits of the movie here in Delhi. Romanticism bust) Changez (portrayed by my new celebrity crush Riz Ahmed) makes the move to ‘where the money is’, the United States of America. Right after a magna-cum-laude graduation from Princeton, he joins the prestigious firm Underwood Samson and rises quickly in the ranks under the mentorship of his boss, Jim Cross (played by a deep drawling Kiefer Sutherland). He meets and falls in love with a ‘boho’ photgrapher-artist, Erica (a brunette Kate Hudson). During an assignment to Manila, he sees the news report on the WTC attack and knows that his life has been inexplicably, fundamentally changed. Nowhere, no one, he realizes, is ‘safe’ for him any longer.

Changez narrates his American dream to a foreign correspondent in Pakistan, Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schrieber). Bobby has come to him in the hope of information on the kidnapping of an American citizen. The question we are posed at the beginning of the film is whether or not Changez has anything to do with the kidnapping. The question at the end is a little bit bigger, and seems a lot more complex.

That’s all I’m going to tell you of the ‘plot’. What I can do now is tell you why you should see it.

TRF takes a complex, human story and weaves it seamlessly against the larger fabric of the War on Terror, the rise of fundamentalism as a political force/tool in South Asia and questions of identity. It uses one man’s story to encapsulate the confusion, loss and anger of a huge swathe of people affected by the events of 11 September 2001, and the manner in which the event has shaped lives in its aftermath. In the movie, Changez constantly asserts his individuality in the face of an official America that doesn’t seem to care: ‘Yes I am a Muslim. Yes, I am a Pakistani. But that’s not all I am.’ Despite his repeated claims, he gets taunts of ‘Osama’ and ‘Saddam’ and is taken into police custody at least twice, simply because he belongs to a certain community.

In a striking scene, a Turkish publisher talks to a wondering Changez about the janissary boys of the Ottoman empire, young Christian boys who were kidnapped from their homes in the opposing kingdoms and raised as soldiers for the ‘mighty Muslim army’. Once trained, the boys were sent back to their original homes to destroy and kill. The publisher, Nazmi Kemal, pauses significantly at this juncture and asks Changez ‘How old were you when you went to America?’ Upon hearing the answer he smiles sardonically and says, ‘Ah. Too old to be a janissary.’ The implication and parallel however, are very clear, fitting in and forming an echo to Changez’s early pronouncement on his own inability to recognize his voice, which sounds, to him, as though it’s speaker doesn’t ‘come from anywhere’.

The music of the movie is wonderful, and the acting great. It doesn’t hurt that Riz Ahmed is extremely easy on the eye, and can carry a scene with confidence (and his beautiful face). Literature afficionados might recognize Pakistani novelist Ali Sethi in a blink-and-you-miss-it role as a college student in Lahore. I thought it was him at first glance, and my hunch was  confirmed by the credits. It was fun to see him outside a Jaipuri tent, without his trademark scarf.

There have been movies, there have been novels and songs and plays about 9/11, but there is something special about TRF. If you want a movie that makes you think, that provides you good visuals coupled with good acting (although I didn’t really care for Dwayne Wright, who seemed to me the stereotype of the African American with his witty one-liners), go watch this. It’s about America, it’s about Pakistan, it’s about modern day janissaries, but that’s not all it’s about.

Americanah

A few months ago, the literary world suffered a great loss when Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author and wielder of words passed away. Achebe is remembered chiefly for having blazed a trail where few had dated to venture before him—he took on the task of representing ‘African history’ to an English-speaking (and hence, international) audience, putting forth a viewpoint that most of the world had never considered before. Africa, he attempted to say, was not the ‘dark continent’, the ‘heart of darkness’ in which Europe saw its primal, barbaric reflection. It was a continent made up of diverse peoples and cultures, with a rich history that its inheritors could and should be proud of.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie–an amazing literary talent

Achebe has left behind him, along with a rich legacy of work (of which I’m ashamed to say I have read only Things Fall Apart), successors who have taken up the mantle, bringing Africa’s voice to the rest of the world. Of those, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is among the most well-known and celebrated, thanks to her ability and choice of writing in the English language, as well as the hefty prizes she has scooped up early on in her career. Those prizes are very well deserved, and with her latest novel, Americanah, she proves once again that she is a formidable talent, a voice to be reckoned with on the literary stage.

 Americanah tells two stories: that of Ifemelu, the ‘Americanah’ the title refers to, and her one-time lover, Obinze. The novel starts with Ifemelu having decided to leave her cushy Princeton fellowship, close her extremely popular and hard hitting ‘race blog’ and return to her roots in Lagos, Nigeria. To prepare for her journey home, she goes to a new hair-braiding salon. As the hairdresser works on her braids, we are taken on an elliptical journey, tracing both her and Obinze’s lives from their childhood in Nigeria to where they are now. As the braid is woven, so their histories come together and fade apart, Ifemelu having cut off contact rather abruptly after a traumatic incident in Philadelphia.

The second half of the novel talks of Ifemelu’s arrival in Lagos, the disappointments and surprises she faces, and the manner in which she encounters Obinze, now a married and highly successful business head, one of the ‘big men’ of Nigerian society. The novel ends with their charting of a new relationship, hazy on the details of what exactly is to happen to the two one-time lovers. Is there hope for renewal and forward movement? Only time and the readers’ imaginations will tell.

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Read it!

The book, in my humble opinion, is brilliant. Adichie writes with a simplicity that cuts right to the bone, describing, first, Ifemelu’s prickly negotiations of a subject in America that she confesses she never had to think about growing up. Ifemelu discovers the curious dance of avoidance that hedges the subject of race in upper middle class American society and academia, her blog a response to the denial that she sees writ large over the majority of the (white) American population. Adichie refuses to be hackneyed in her presentation of ‘race’ and class questions, using the metaphor of hair to deliver her message. Black women, Ifemelu notes, seem to hate their hair, using products such as relaxers in order to tame its natural kinkiness. In order to score her first job in the U.S., Ifemelu heeds a friend’s well-meaning advice and uses a relaxer, subsequently deciding to never opt for such a step again. As she begins to claim her hair and see it as a mark of her own beauty and individuality, her acceptance of herself grows and she finally manages to throw off the vestiges of depression that life in America had foisted upon her.

Through Obinze, Adichie tells the story of thousands of illegal Nigerian immigrants, struggling to survive on the fringes of Western society (in Obinze’s case, London), plying hopeless, dead-end jobs in the long wait for security numbers and citizenship. She brings in the convenience marriage, having Obinze nearly marry an EU citizen in order to obtain his legal papers (that would allow him to work in the UK), but the operation is sadly shut down and he  is summarily deported to Nigeria. Adichie evokes beautifully the anxiety, fear and yet, almost bizarrely, the rays of hope that keep these workers alive and working in a society that seems little to want them. Iloba, Obinze’s friend in London, is an excellent example of a man who clings on to optimism in this world.

The characters that populate the novel, American, British, African, are amazingly real and well-drawn. The Lagos of Ifemelu’s childhood and the Lagos she returns to are both distinct, allowing even readers who have never been there (such as yours truly), to imagine vividly the vastly different sights and sounds that assault her as she re-enters a world she had left behind (and which many people wonder at her for returning to). Despite their many periods of darkness, and the trials they face, Adichie allows her readers to hope for the best for these characters. Perhaps they too, like the city, will find ‘small redemptions’, moving forward (like, Obinze would insist, the good Third-Worlders they are) from a ‘legacy of defeat’ to a future of slanting sunshine.

In short, go read it. You will definitely get more than your money’s worth.