Friday, July 19, 2013

A Moment of Self Appreciation

My architectural installation for the proposed Kolkata Museum of Modern Arts. The concept- OUT OF THE BOX IDEAS.

The beautiful structure, symbolic of ideas, emerges 'out of the box' and is restrained by the strings (as new ideas are always opposed).

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Summer Reading List 1- 2013

(This article contains spoilers)

Summer is time to read. You finally get a bit of time and- this one is for students- you don't have to feel guilty about ignoring assignments and homework for reading. Plus you also don't get to use assignments and homework as an excuse to get out of reading.

This time, I tried to stick to a certain kind of books (which subsequently meant I read the same authors over and over again). Mostly, they had to do with coming-of-age and 'figuring things out'. I mostly stuck to YA fiction (a very underrated genre, I tell you) and here are the books I ended up reading.

1. All John Green Novels
John Green is an American author of young adult fiction who unfortunately hasn't achieved much fame in the subcontinent. One of the reasons for this is that his novels are leisurely-paced and very insightful, things that are not yet all that enjoyed in a market which mostly favor chick-lit and action-packed dramas. Had he been a Sidney Sheldon or a Paul Coelho or even a Chetan Bhagat, he probably would have achieved a lot more in terms of fame. Another reason is that his characters are mostly teenagers on the brink of adulthood, and the situations presented in his books might make adult readers undermine them as 'children's books'.

I actually got to know about John Green after reading Perks of Being a Wallflower. I was looking for something similar and I came across a book called Looking for Alaska. Unfortunately, John Green still hasn't had one huge advantage that Perks of Being a Wallflower author had- none of his books have been made into movies. I decided to check Looking for Alaska out and ended up falling in love. After that, I kept searching for John Green novels and ended up reading most of them

*The first book I read was Looking for Alaska.  Miles Halter, motivated by a search for 'the great beyond', leaves home and goes to Culver Creek Boarding School, where he meets Chip 'The Clonel' Martin and the beautiful, enigmatic but disturbingly unpredictable Alaska Young, with whom he falls in love almost instantly. Most of the novel focuses on life in Culver Creek, with a strict principal, frequent practical jokes and a distinct divide between the haves and the have-nots. But then a sudden, inexplicable tragedy changes everybody's life forever, and it's through this tragedy that Miles finally learns the most important life lessons.

I fell in love with this book for all it's believable characters and the unusual boarding school setting. Also, even though the plot doesn't have much events to drive the story forward, there is a remarkable insight about life (and afterlife), including some religious viewpoints that are seamlessly woven into the story. This book is not as much about turning the pages while biting your nails. It is better enjoyed if one is willing to learn and appreciate the understated beauty of the novel, something readers are slowly losing the patience to do.

*The second book was An Abundance of Katherines. Colin Singleton is an anagram-loving child prodigy who has a very special love life- he's dated nineteen girls, all of them named Katherine. Not Kate, Katie, Kat or God forbid, Catherine, but K-A-T-H-E-R-I-N-E. Those nine letters, spelled int hat very order. Colin's biggest frustration in life is he hasn't succeeded in evolving from 'prodigy' to 'genius', and it is this frustration that makes him insecure and subsequently makes the nineteenth Katherine dump him. Heartbroken and aimless in life, Colin embarks on a road trip with his best friend Hassan to recover. A coincidence reaches the small town of Gutshot, Tennessee. A veteran of breakups, it is in this nowhere place that Colin starts the project that will alleviate him to the status of 'genius'- to develop a mathematical formula that will predict to length, strength and who's-more-likely-to-dump-whom of any relationship.

This is a little different from other John Green novels in the sense that the protagonist is not as understated or passive as all the other protagonists. In fact, he's sulky, messed-up and really has no idea what he wants to do in life. I admit such characters can be a little annoying at times because they're stuck up and not very likeable. But I liked seeing things from his viewpoint because if he wasn't imperfect to begin with he'd never have gone through the beautiful, believable, often comical journey towards realizing what he truly needs in life. The best part is the theorem. It actually works within the context of the book and there is an index explaining the math that went into formulating it. However, the theorem stops working at just the right time to make us believe in hope. A quirky novel with more innovation than most of it's contemporaries.

*The third book was Paper Towns. It starts with nine-year-olds Quentin Jacobsen and his childhood crush, Margo Roth Spiegelman, discovering a dead man in the woods. A few pages down the line it is revealed that the man committed suicide, the motivations behind which remain unknown. Margo is fascinated by the death as opposed to Quentin, who would much rather forget the incident and move on like any other normal child of his age. Cut to several years later. Margo and Quentin are now in their senior year of high school, both looking at good enough futures. However, they have grown apart, with Margo becoming the enigmatic, and mysterious It-Girl and Quentin fading to the background. One night, Margo comes over to Quentin's and asks for a ride so she can play revengeful pranks on those who have wronged her. Quentin finds the request strange at first but then agrees, only to embark on what is arguably the most memorable night of his life. But the following day, Margo disappears, leaving behind clues to her location that only Quentin can decode.

Paper Towns deals with several themes that can be very hard to put in words. The first one is the 'joy of leaving'. Quentin says that it's tempting to hold on to present circumstances. For example, when we're in school, we're sad about the prospect of leaving it to go to college. But leaving is just a natural progression of events and so, once you have left it's the easiest thing in the world. And the strangest thing is that going backwards becomes the hardest thing to do.

The second theme is 'belief in the future'. Margo Roth Spiegelman, is happy leaving her home to embark on something which assures her no future but a constant present that will never change. And it's something that makes her happy, so who cares about college, jobs and relationships? But when Quentin is presented with an opportunity to live this present with her, he realizes that he 'believes in the future', which is strange because the future is something which technically does not exist. There are lots of young people in this world who talk about 'living in the moment' and 'carpe diem', but these are the young people that eventually transform to become old people, as if at every stage of their life they've only been working up to the inevitable future. The author doesn't comment on which way of life is right- living in the present or working towards he future- but says that these are two ways so conflicting that a believer of one can never truly be with a believer of the other.

A note about the title of the book- At first it seems 'paper towns' is a reference to something Margo says in the very beginning about the world being a superficial place with paper people and paper houses and paper towns. However, it is later revealed that 'paper towns' refer to an abandoned subdivision, that is, a piece of land that was seperated for development but the projects were abandoned later on. This is one of the best book titles I have come across in a long time, simple because it's got everything to do with the story. Also, of all the John Green book, this is the one I just couldn't put down because even though it's an insightful coming-of-age story, it remains a mystery from the beginning to the very end.

* The last book was The Fault In Our Stars. By the time I got to this one, I already knew about John Green. After reading the blurb on the Internet, I initially dismissed it as a sappy, melodramatic teen book which borrows heavily from My Sister's Keeper. I was wrong. This book is at par with the rest of them, if not better. It tells the story of sixteen-year-old cancer patient Hazel who meets one-legged osteosarcoma survivor Augustus Waters through a common friend while attending a session of her support group for cancer survivors. Hazel and Augustus are worlds apart- he's a survivor and she's never been anything but terminal since her diagnosis, he believes that your life is worthwhile only if you have people remember you after you die while she believes in 'doing no harm' even if that ends up meaning you can do no good. After the initial dating period of innocent flirting and phone-calls, Hazel recommends her favourite book, An Imperial Infliction by Peter Van Houten, to Augustus. To their frustration, An Imperial Infliction ends vaguely with an unfinished sentence, with the ultimate fate of all its characters unmentioned. Augustus (having battled cancer himself) asks the Genie Foundation (probably based on the real-life Make A Wish Foundation) for a trip to Amsterdam so that he and Hazel can ask the reclusive author of An Imperial Infliction about the ending of the book and maybe find out what happens to the characters. The inclusion of the book and the leads' efforts to determine the ending are what give this novel a John Green touch, because any other novelist would probably have gone on and on about the suffering of cancer patients while treating them like diseased individuals who are somehow inadequate. That is a very condescending view of patients, as we forget there's a reason they still live on after diagnosis- it's because a part of them wants to survive like any other person on the planet. I can't tell you more about the novel without adding spoilers, so I'll tell you this- every direction you possibly thought the book was heading just disappears when the characters go to Amsterdam and you will be in for some very sensitive twists. Read this book just to get a glimpse of the shallow perception of people towards patient, the inanity of glorified cancer battles, the truth behind all the suffering and the glorification of the dead. John Green is one of the rare writers who can weave such serious themes seamlessly into a novel without losing the young adult appeal.

There are some additional things in John Green novels that need to be mentioned. Every novel has an afterword written by the author himself, telling his reader how he conceived the idea of the novel and these afterwords are not to be missed as they are just about as much fun to read as the story itself. All the protagonists have some quirky interest or obsession that make them unique- Miles Halter collects and remembers the last words of famous people, Colin Singleton is an obsessive-compulsive anagrammer and Quentin Jacobsen is a closet detective which comes out only after Margo presents him with a mystery. The supporting characters get their share of the spotlight and they are well-rounded characters who don't fit into any stereotype. The best example is Hassan from An Abundance of Katherines, an overweight, Judge Judy obsessed Muslim who has his own ways of living life. Also, it seems John Green remembers his school crushes very well- how they looked, what they made him feel and so on. All the boys in the novels fall in love with mysterious girls who are very popular simply because they have the ability to become what people want them to. This is what makes these girls mysterious and frustrating, but also makes them addictive and hard to let go off, even when it's clear there's no chance of having a relationship with them. Isn't this what all immature crushes are about? However, these novels require a little getting used to as they can tend to be a bit slow and are an acquired taste.

2. Will Grayson, Will Grayson.
This is a John Green novel too, but he co-wrote it with David Levithan. Two boys, both named Will Grayson, live worlds apart. The first one is a regular (maybe too regular) boy whose only rules in life are 1) Shut Up and 2) Do Nothing. His homosexual, big-boned best friend, the ironically named Tiny is his complete opposite, always thrusting himself into the spotlight and taking Will along for the ride.

The second Will Grayson is a gay introvert with nothing good in his life except an online relationship with someone named Issac. When this relationship comes to a shocking, devastating end, Will is left with nothing to hold on to.

Just when the two Wills are giving up hope, a chance meeting with, well, each other, changes their lives forever. And it all ends with a grand musical based on the real and amazing life of Tiny Cooper...

This book took me a relatively longer time to read. However, by the end of it I was satisfied. This is one of those books where the supporting character, Tiny Cooper, is actually the one driving the story forward. Although I wouldn't classify this as a must-read, it is a good read and is worthy of your time.

3. Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist
This book, co-written by David Levithan (who also co-wrote Will Grayson, Will Grayson) and Rachel Cohn, is one of the few books that is very good, but the movie is way better. Nick is a down-and-out queercore band bass player who has just been dumped be his manipulative girlfriend Tris. Norah is a good-girl high-school valedictorian with no fun in her life who's confused about her unpredictable, devout Jew boyfriend Tal and jealous yet loving towards her best friend Caroline. It just so happens that Tris and Norah go to the same school and hold grudges against one another. They all come together on the night of a concert where Norah asks Nick to kiss her for five seconds, just to make Tris jealous. Thus begins a night of searching for true love, for the pub where underground band 'Where's Fluffy?" is performing and for a missing and drunk Caroline. And the whole story is linked by one strip of chewing gum!

Even though this is a quirky book in which both authors, David Levithan and Rachel Cohn, have distinctive voices that may or may not be your cup of tea. However, I suggest you ditch the book and head straight for the movie because the even though it has some differences from the novel, all the major plot points remain intact and it's actually easier to understand as a movie. Plus the movie has a great soundtrack.


4. Shadow of the Wind

Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, is magnum-opus with all the right ingredients for a memorable melodrama- authoritative fathers, a backdrop of turmoil and war, an omnipresent (and arguably psychotic) villain, starcrossed lovers and doomed love. Daniel Smepere is take to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, a library with old, forgotten titles that is taken care of by few enthusiasts. There he finds the book Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. Daniel soon realizes that not only the book, but also Julian Carax's other titles, are extremely rare to find, not to mention the fact that Julian Carax himself is a mysterious figure of sorts, with very little known about him. After a man with a burnt face threatens him to surrender his copy of Shadow of the Wind to him, Daniel sets out to discover the truth about Julian Carax, only to realize that there are uncanny similarities between Julian Carax and himself. This book could have been one of those boring volumes that aspire to be the latest Les miserables and fail miserably (no pun intended). In fact, there are several parts of the book where I started to think that maybe the author got his inspiration from some 80s Hindi movie like Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak. But the authors superb control over his often rigid language is what gets the book through, even making it a page-turner. I suggest you give this book a try, but can't promise it will please the cynic in you. There were some parts of the book that didn't agree with me. For example, Clara Barcelo, an older woman who's also Daniel's first love, is shown to slowly deteriorate into a bitter old woman and it seems this plotline was adopted just because she never fell in love with Daniel. It is a literary punishment of sorts given to Clara for something that can hardly be called a crime. I guess this is just a fantasy that all men (and women) harbour- to see the person who rejected them burn in hell- but it does not constitute fair or even good writing. Another aspect that may not go down well with many readers is that in this love story, people decide they're soul mates within days of meeting each other and yes, I wish things really were that simple, but they're not. The best thing about the book is the supporting characters- Daniel's docile and aging father, Clara Barcelo's caring governess Bernarda, Fermin who happens to be an intelligence officer turned convict turned beggar turned bookseller turned Daniel's sidekick, the gay Don Federico who enters a marriage of convenience and so on. Read this book for a taste of Barcelona under Franco's dictatorship.

5. Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Think X-Men: First Class meets Harry Potter. Jacob Portman goes to Wales hoping to solve the 'murder' of his grandfather, who believed in supernatural creatures. There he discovers the existence of an alternate universe in which children with strange powers live under the care of the loving Miss Peregrine. There are monsters to slay, old lovers to be reunited, choices to be made- all the right ingredients for a good children's book. I think I'm a bit old for this book, so if you're sixteen or above you might want to rethink the decision to read this, because you may unfairly write it off as children's fantasy fair. There are plans for a movie adaptation, with Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands, Alice in Wonderland, Dark Shadows) set to direct. The most special thing about this book is the collection of eccentric pictures that the author uses as a guide to the story. Here are few: