Thursday, January 22, 2009

In edgewise

I have started a blog of stolen words: Jeff Howe's Bibliomancy Blog.

This is too please and annoy Aishwarya, and to satisfy the requirement that I have a blog. Remind me to read the fine print next time.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Noughts & Crosses

(Crossposted here)

I was caught up in a hurricane, with all the noise and madness whirling around me until my head was about to explode.
“Stop it! Just stop it!”
“STOP IT! YOU’RE ALL BEHAVING LIKE ANIMALS!” I shouted so hard my throat immediately began to hurt. “WORSE THAN ANIMALS – LIKE BLANKERS!”
The sounds of the crowd slowly died away. “Just look at you,” I continued. “Stop it.” I glanced down at Callum. He was staring at me, the strangest expression on his face.
Callum, don’t look at me like that. I didn’t mean you. I’d never mean you. It was just for the others, to get them to stop, to get them to help. I’d never mean you…

I’ve just finished reading Malorie Blackman’s marvellous Noughts and Crosses (and the novella An Eye for An Eye included in this edition) and I was blown away. This is by far the most complex treatment of race in a YA novel that I’ve ever come across. It is in many ways a fictionalized history of the Civil Rights movement (in Britain? I’m more familiar with the American movement so I associated it with that but Blackman is British), but with the colours reversed – the “Crosses” (capitalised throughout), the race in power, are black; the “noughts” (no capitals here) are white. Plus it’s dealing with present day issues of race and power as well – like language and education and economics.

“D’you know what they call a nought with all the money in the world?” I asked.
Rob and Gordy shook their heads.
“A blanker,” I told them.

Blackman says she chose the title because Noughts and Crosses is “ of those games that nobody ever plays after childhood, because nobody ever wins”. I love this, and it makes a lot of sense in the context of the book. Blackman’s characters so often seem stuck – the racial divides that they’re trying to overcome are so deeply embedded that they’re checkmated at every step.

Lots of Big Issues are tackled – the involvement of the male members of the McGregor family in a violent liberation organisation* makes the family home the site of a number of arguments about what makes a terrorist, violent rebellion, means versus ends, freedom fighters versus terrorists (familiar, but far more interesting than in the CBSE modern Indian history textbooks), while somewhere in the background is a Martin Luther King/Gandhian figure who wishes to bring about change through peaceful means. Interracial relationships. Abortion (my thoughts on the book’s treatment of it would take up another post, so maybe later.)

Ultimately though, Blackman’s biggest achievement is in her portrayal of the numerous seemingly minor things that go into racial constructions. Possibly my favourite moment in the book is when Persephone (whose name is of course significant) notices the conspicuous plaster on Shania’s head and realizes that even bandages are designed based on the assumption of “Cross” skin. Beauty constructs are built up around Cross superiority. So is religion. History books celebrate Cross contributions to history. In one chapter a list of great Cross scientists and pioneers is given, and Blackman’s note at the end of the book tells us that these were real people, African-American innovators whose names have been written out of history. And it all comes back to that huge overturning of assumptions right at the beginning of it all because the Crosses are black and the noughts are white. I’d once quoted Ursula LeGuin on the political importance she attached to not making most of her Earthsea characters white, and I see something very similar here.

Also, there’s a lovely little bit at the end where Callum daydreams about a society where the whites instead of the Crosses were in charge. “…no more discrimination, no more prejudice, a fair police force, an equal justice system, equality of education, equality of life, a level playing field…”

I’m amazed that this book hasn’t caught on more in India. It was published in 2001 and it’s pretty big in the UK, and books that achieve that level of popularity abroad generally get here eventually. But I’ve only seen this in one Indian bookshop (where I bought it) and no one seems to have heard of it. If you do get a hold of it, avoid reading it in public – I completely humiliated myself by sniffling all over it while on a plane seated between two staid men in suits. Had I been at home I would have bawled.

*I’m not sure what to think of the gendering here. Later in the book we do have a pretty kickass female freedom fighter, but a) she’s also hot b) she dies.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Letters to a Young Asshole

A few years ago I started to read Ranier Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet but I quickly set it aside because I found it boring and trite. I attribute this reaction to the well-documented fact that I have no soul. Given the childish delight I take in word-replacement memes, I thought it would be funny to write a book called Letters to a Young Asshole:

No one can advise or help you - no one. There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to be an asshole; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to be an asshole. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I be an asshole? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple "I must," then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.

Goodness knows plenty of people seem to do this already.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What I've been reading

The Back cover:

The Best-Laid Plans

Jenna McCue wants a baby and she wants Spencer Smith to be the father...or rather the donor. Jenna assures the renowned adventurer and avowed bachelor she needs nothing from him - just his sperm. Spencer agrees, but on one condition: he "donates" the old-fashioned way.

When Jenna doesn't conceive as planned, she and Spencer must try -
and try- again. And by the time Jenna is expecting, she's fallen hopelessly in love. But telling Spencer she's pregnant will mean never seeing him again. That's part of the deal. Or is it?

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is by far the best movie of the series so far.
CAPSLOCK! Harry is present for most of OotP the book, and the movie does a great job of portraying his anger and loneliness.There are shots of him on his own throughout the movie (starting with the playground scene right at the beginning), and his edgy, nervous snapping at everyone (including dumbledore) makes his emotional state very clear.

You can't pack the longest book of the series so far into a two hour movie without cutting out large chunks of the story. The movie dealt with these cuts well, taking out a few minor characters and scenes. Making Cho Chang the betrayer of the D.A instead of Marietta was a good idea, as was Neville's discovery of the Room of Requirement.Some of the cuts were puzzling, though. Those of us who really, really want to know what will happen in book seven have been watching the movies for clues - since Rowling approves of these scripts, facts events relevant to the plot cannot be removed, and certain minor details that we might have missed in the book may be more visible in the movie. Yet things that seemed like they could have mattered (Sirius' Christmas present to Harry, the veil of death, the pensieve, Harry's time in Grimmauld place) are either glossed over or left out altogether. Kreacher the house elf is included, but his role in Sirius' death and his connection with the Malfoys are bafflingly left out. And what the next two films with do with Snape I cannot imagine - none of the speculation about whose side he's on has even entered the movies so far and the next director will have to establish him as a former death eater/spy before he can introduce any of the new information about him that book six contains.

Individual performances are really strong - Staunton's Umbridge is creepier by far than the book version and Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood is just right. Emma Thompson is wonderful in the scene where Umbridge fires her, and Rupert Grint is just getting better with every movie in the series. Helena Bonham Carter's Bellatrix is even madder than book-Bellatrix, but it works.Oldman's Sirius is just about right too, and Tena as Tonks got very little screen time, but I enjoyed the little we saw of her.

I expected more of Ginny Weasley though,by this point in the books she actually has a character. Here she has barely any lines and spends large chunks of the movie looking wistfully at Harry, though she is shown to be a powerful witch. Emma Watson has never convinced me, despite the Grawp scene. And what was with Kingsley Shacklebolt's clothes? The books tell us he's black, yes, but whoever designed the costumes seems to have equated this with "not English".

The symbols used in the movie were mostly brilliant, bringing out the essence of a lot of its ideas despite the necessary cuts. The huge poster of Fudge in the Ministry of Magic, the paper bird burnt by Umbridge that marks the beginning of her time at Hogwarts and the minor avalanche of educational decrees that heralds her end there.

And yet the movie falters at the end. The love-and-friendship message has been made clear throughout, is it really necessary to tell Voldemort that he will never know love and is worthy of pity is just silly and cringeworthy.

All is forgiven, however, because of the change in Sirius Black's last words. It was cruel and clever and quite the stroke ofgenius. Applause occurs.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

At the risk of repeating myself

This has appeared elsewhere in a very slightly different form. But for some reason it feels at home here too, with the FF and all. My dad would have made a great Marvel character.

I had a strange, on-again, off-again relationship with my dad, due to the circumstances of my upbringing. He had just turned 17 when I was born, and my mom 19, and they were neither financially nor emotionally prepared for it (let's just say it was not a planned pregnancy nor marriage). So when I was somewhere around six weeks old, I was more or less packed off to live with his parents, and he joined the Army, that being the sort of thing one could do without a high school diploma back then. Or now, really.

Well, that marriage only lasted a few years (surprise!), and he went on to remarry a few more times, have a few more kids (when my wife and I went to the geneticist before our son was conceived, we ran out of paper trying to fit my immediate family in), and eventually settle down with the right woman...about nine years ago. In the intervening decades, I lived under the same roof as him once, when he had moved back to Missouri from California and needed a couple of months to build up a security deposit for an apartment.

Before that had happened, I had forgotten and rediscovered that the people I was living with were not my birth parents, but even during the years in which I wasn't sure exactly who he was, I was always glad to see him. I wasn't sure why, but I was. Partly it was due to the fact that he always had stories to tell, some of which were true, which were like candy to this particular child. Motorcycling cross-country and the like. It seemed that he lived an ever so slightly risky life, but not a truly dangerous one, and he enjoyed telling me about (some of) the aspects of it.

I found pot in his and his third wife's kitchen cabinet once. She told me it was oregano.

In retrospect, it was I suppose much like being a sailor's child must have been in times past, when one's father made appearances as the tides and itineraries allowed, and the time spent was full of foreign ports and exotic locales, with very little occasion for the everyday things "normal" relationships are built on to creep in before they were gone again.

It stayed like that until relatively recently, when he settled down and I settled down and we got some chances to talk in a more unhurried fashion. By that point I had my own tales to share, not so full of adventure perhaps, but tales nonetheless, and he could respect that. As I came to respect him. He overcame the loss of two infant children, and his faith, and his sobriety, and emerged from it sober, faithful (in his own way) and still a father, as best as he could manage, to the children he had left strewn in his path.

There are worse things that can be said about a man.

I also respected how he arranged the last months of his life. Knowing that some in the family would have been freaked out by his choice to not do chemo after his diagnosis, he appeared to waffle on the subject just long enough to make the question well and truly moot. I suspected this (we think enough alike for me to recognize strategic dithering) and didn't push the issue, even as I scouted around for research projects he might be eligible for. So he got six months and change where he felt he was in control of his life, instead of, as he saw it, the chance--not a sure thing--at a bit more time in which that wouldn't really be the case. I would have supported him if he wanted to extend his life, but I also know that there was little more important to the man than a sense that he was in control of his life. Maybe the years where that wasn't necessarily the case cemented that in him.

He wanted to die at home, in his own bed, with people he knew and loved near him. He got his wish Saturday morning. Only in the last 36 hours did he become unresponsive, although the drifting away had started a week prior. Given how colon cancer works, it could have been a lot worse. I saw him last Sunday and said what I needed to say, much of which could be summed up in "I have no complaints." And it was true. In a way the best decision he ever made on my behalf was 45 years ago, when he gave me to his parents to raise. Had he and my mom tried to raise me, I can only imagine how I would feel about him now, because I can't imagine how bad it would have been. But all the signs were there, and I guess he knew his own limits. For which I thanked him.

I think one of the reasons I waited so long to have my own child was because of how I came to be. But, curiously enough, I also find that I'm perhaps more conscious of how lucky I am to have the moments with my son that I do, because I know my father didn't get them with me. He never had another boy, not one that lived. So sometimes I feel as if I'm playing with mine on his behalf too.

He didn't want a funeral. Tomorrow his wife, up from Tennessee, will be at his sister's house, with his parents (the ones who raised me), his other sister, and me, to receive condolences. In a few weeks I'll go down to Tennessee and watch while his ashes are scattered from a plane (he was a pilot, which shouldn't be a shock). I'll promise his wife (I can't call her my stepmom, really, but she's a lovely woman) that we'll come back, that she can see my son grow up, and it will all be true.

And I'll miss someone who wasn't really around that much.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Fantastic Four

As one of those literary types who also enjoys and admires comic books, I was pleased and excited when the first Fantastic Four movie came out, and went to see it on its opening weekend. Sadly, Fantastic Four was by far the most disappointing superhero movie I've ever seen. Many critics cited plenty of legitimate problems with the movie, such as the generally weak acting and the plot that goes nowhere (the characters spend half the movie just hanging around the Baxter Building for crying out loud!) but I think the real failure of Fantastic Four was the way it utterly betrayed its source material.

I do not demand that film adaptations of books or comics be 100% faithful to their sources; I understand that movies are a different medium with a broader audience and that it's reasonable to expect changes. But in this case the filmmakers cut the heart and soul right out of the Royal Family of the Marvel universe.

Here's the key to the Fantastic Four: they are not really superheroes. At least they are not superheroes in the ordinary sense. They don't solve crimes. They don't patrol rooftops at night, foiling bank robberies and muggings. Sure, if Galactus tries to eat the planet they'll fight him off, but that sort of thing isn't where their real interests lie. The Fantastic Four are a family. And, what's more, they are adventurers and explorers! Led by the endlessly inquisitive Reed Richards, they are constantly seeking new knowledge and new experiences, for the good of science and humanity. No one understood this better than John Byrne, who worked on the title, writing and illustrating, for six years (issues 232-293). It was during this period, for instance, that the Fantastic Four made their unforgettable journey into the Negative Zone. One story involves them encountering an enormous spacecraft, many tens of thousands of years old, in which thousands of beings sleep in cryogenic preservation, guarded by a handful of custodians. These few search endlessly for a new world for their people, passing the responsibility on to their children for generation after generation, floating alone in space. How the Fantastic Four respond to this situation, and the way the story develops towards its terrible climactic revelation and sublime denouement, resembles nothing quite so closely as the classic stories from the Golden Age of science fiction.

In contrast, the protagonists of the Fantastic Four movie seem like aimless idiots. Reed Richards, whose boundless enthusiasm for scientific enquiry should be infectious and endearing, becomes onscreen nothing more than a feckless nerd with an implausibly attractive girlfriend. The characters dawdle around, dismally incurious about their amazing experience and newfound capabilities, before trundling on dutifully to the inevitable fight with Dr. Doom. Here we leave the Golden Age of science fiction behind, for the modern blockbuster sci-fi formula, where characters travel to strange and amazing worlds but, once there, can't think of anything better to do than run around shooting at one another.

What made the original Fantastic Four special is that they were more than just another gang of square-jawed dipshits in tights, punching each other through brick walls. The first film forgot this - or never knew it in the first place. Although there is a chance that Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer is better, I seriously doubt it. This is one superhero movie I think I'll be sitting out.