Book Review: ORIGIN – Dan Brown

The Line:

Robert Langdon, Harvard professor of symbology and religious iconology, arrives at the ultramodern Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao to attend a major announcement—the unveiling of a discovery that “will change the face of science forever.” The evening’s host is Edmond Kirsch, a forty-year-old billionaire and futurist whose dazzling high-tech inventions and audacious predictions have made him a renowned global figure. (from Goodreads)

But this is a Dan Brown novel and you know how it’s gonna play out.

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What I thought:

How effortlessly is Dan Brown able to take the same characters and narration, put them in a different location, slap a new controversy/premise, furnish some Wikipedia-esque details about famous people and their art, and voila – call it a new installment! If that sounded like praise, it definitely isn’t.

Because I, for one, really wish Robert Langdon retires and settles down (let’s get him hitched with Elizabeth Sinskey), just so we wouldn’t have to read another book where he has to play the I-know-stuff-and-I-see-what-you-don’t symbologist with a *cough* good heart *cough*. I mean, can we just collectively accept that we’re five books down already, and yet if asked to write a character analysis, most people wouldn’t go beyond Mickey Mouse and Claustrophobia.

But let’s give credit where it’s due, Brown actually choses a pretty compelling topic for Origin i.e the origin of life itself; which piqued my interest as a skeptic. While I did not walk away with much to muse on, I’m hoping this book will at least help a few to question their own religious orientation. There are always people who would ask what is the point of life if there is no god? Why am I here? Where am I going? But is a supreme being really essential to explain life? To explain us? And what if someone were to tell you that life needed no designer after all? Would that be enough to crumble the foundations upon which most of the world’s religions lay? Or would it be business as usual? That people are ultimately gonna believe whatever gives them a sense of comfort?

All those questions the book does pose and if that seems like a worthy exercise, by all means go ahead and read the book! I’m sure you’ll come out a little wiser.

Where it falters is pretty much everything else, the formula is still intact. There is a murder, there’s people on the run, there’s a secret organization, and Robert Langdon is unwittingly dragged into the mess plus he has codes to solve while marveling at art and architecture! If you see, those were the exact same things that made Angels & Demons such a fantastic read and left a lasting impression on me as a teenager when I read it. But now, you just keep flipping the pages wearily, rolling your eyes at regular intervals.

The brighter points, then? The philosophical discussion, for sure. But also, the art! Here we’ve moved past the Renaissance period onto the modern art eraThough I will have to agree with Langdon and say that I’m much more at home with Michelangelo and Da Vinci and Botticelli. Origin is set in Spain, and we start off at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao with its esoteric displays of modern art. Then we meet Antonio Gaudí(an architect famous for his spectacular modernist art) in Barcelona where things get much more intriguing. Sagrada Família, in particular, stands out for its sheer ambition and is soon to be the largest church in Europe. Brown does know how to set these great action pieces in epic locations, that’s his USP after all.

I’m not gonna touch upon the finer points of the plot, because that was a source of my constant chagrin. It’s 2017 when this book came out and most the plot devices and twists that the author employs have been done to death with. Even that final twist, which I saw coming from miles ahead, and was somehow hoping is just a red-herring. But no, Brown succumbs to the clichés because he apparently cannot do any better. There’s a sect of Brown-heads who will argue that one mustn’t judge his books for the prose or the plot, rather we should point our attention at the topic that is discussed. I get that, I do, and I enjoyed Inferno for the ethical dilemma it posed around a real issue. Origin lacked direction, and by the end I wasn’t sure if the book really achieved what it set out to do.

Where do we come from? Where are we going? These are the existential questions that frequently pop up in the book. I think it’s time Dan Brown asked those questions about himself.

Keywords:

Robert-Langdon, Spain, Artificial-Intelligence, Primordial-soup, Darwin, creationism, modern art, Barcelona, Winston Churchill, family-drama, science-vs-religion

Book Review: Call Me By Your Name – André Aciman

The Line:

Call Me by Your Name is the story of a sudden and powerful romance that blossoms between an adolescent boy and a summer guest at his parents’ cliff-side mansion on the Italian Riviera. (from GoodReads)

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What I thought:

If there are books that make you literally grope for words (and breath), because you don’t think that anything you’re ever gonna say could truly encompass what they made you feel, this is definitely one of those!

Call Me By Your Name is a prime example of what could be achieved when the author lays his soul bare on paper. And if this is purely fiction, Andre Aciman is truly one of the most brilliant writers around. A first person account of a 17 year old might sound a little trite to the unawares, but Elio’s relentless dialog with his desires, his dreams, his destiny is nothing short of a revelation, both in terms of the matter at hand and the craft. What a great character study too, when you reach into such depths of his personality that authors usually aren’t capable to letting you delve. And there is acumen, oodles of it. The characters all display a heightened sense of perception, a delight! But predominantly it’s Elio and his mind that I fell in love with, if that is even possible!

Before my mind goes off in tangents, a word on the prose too. In a lot of ways, what makes this book special is the language. It’s beautiful, poignant, heart-wrenching – without being overtly dramatic. Most of the sentences that hit you hard are the simple ones. A sea of emotions conveyed at the economy of a few words. So I lingered on each page a little longer, contemplated Elio’s own thoughts as if it were mine own. I wasn’t eager to finish reading his story, yet I couldn’t put the book down.

The final chapter was bittersweet. The movie ended where it did for cinematic purposes, but the book goes a little further and there’s an open ending, joy!

Now excuse me while I go find someone to call them by my name. Later!

Keywords:

Italy, old-world, queer, protagonists who read books, love, sensuality, longing, coming-of-age

Book Review: Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

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I have always asserted that books could never drive me to tears. But that is until now; because Uncle Tom’s Cabin came close, very close. And if it could have such an effect on me, after all these years when slavery is pretty much done and dusted with and everybody acknowledges it for the abominable act that it was, I cannot even begin to ascertain the way it would have moved the population that was directly or indirectly a part of it, back when it was originally published.

Much of that can be credited to the author’s devastating portrayal of the black families: what they were in the eyes of the slave-keepers and traders, what they had to endure, and ultimately, what they had to lose. It almost feels ridiculous to say this in retrospect, but the book’s raison d’etre is to show that the slaves were just people, after all.  We, in the current world, have the privilege of history. We know how ultimately slavery was abolished under Lincoln in 1865, but at the time that book was published, things were still under steam. A group of people would vehemently hold on to their belief (based on their holy book) that the slaves were better off under their masters, that they needn’t be free. And I suppose this book served as a bird’s eye view to finally see the issue of slavery as a humane problem. That every man was equal under the eyes of God, to quote the Bible.

Christianity, indeed, is one of the bigger themes of the book. And one that Harriet uses to drive her point home multiple times. It begs the question of whether it would have been impossible to make people see the good side without bringing God and salvation into the picture, but as was evident, it did serve her purpose. Take Tom for instance, our lead character, who is a man of integrity, compassion, courage and just what you’d call a “really good fellow”. It is frequently implied that Tom is the person that he is because of his faith and his joyous submission to God. So much so that his unwavering faith helps him even in death. He knew that he was going to a better place. And he makes it clear to the people around him, and by extension, the readers.

The other political and civil messages are delivered through various characters such as George Harris for instance (an industrious man who flees to Canada with his wife and child to attain freedom from his abusive master). Even otherwise, Harriet populates her book with characters who fall under every corner of the moral compass. It’s through these characters that we see the plight of the slaves and also of the keepers. One of my favorite sections of the book are the debates between Augustine St. Claire and Miss Ophelia. Two people who are on the same page about slavery, but for totally different reasons.

It’s all these ideas and contemplative remarks bouncing off the pages that make this book such a thrilling read. There’s hardly ever a dull moment, because even when nothing of import is going on, the narrative still keeps you mulling. And while this is not a book that one praises for its prose, I will say that it was pretty functional. The fact that she even went as far as to get the voices distinct is no small achievement.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an important book; not just for what it stands for, but also for what it was able to achieve. In Abe Lincoln’s own words, Harriet was “the little woman who made the great war”.

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga – Book Review

 

As the blurb puts it, you meet “BALRAM HALWAI: THE ‘WHITE TIGER’: SERVANT, PHILOSOPHER,ENTREPRENEUER, MURDERER…”

Who wouldn’t want to read that?

And so they did, and then it even went on to win the Man Booker Prize 2008. But go through the reviews and you’ll notice something peculiar. While all the foreign readers have praised it to no ends, quite a lot of Indians have found the book to be obnoxious in its depiction of the “dark” India, even gratuitous in its supposed pandering to the western crowd. Yes, because it seems that no one wants to read a glossy sugary book about India. What sells are the gritty and ugly details – destitution and corruption and chaos. 

And Aravind Adiga quite promptly rises to the occasion to deliver just that. The White Tiger tells the story of a man Munna a.k.a Balram Halwai born into a family that doesn’t mind “eating their men live” as he pus it. And all he wanted was to break free from a life of bondage. As a self-declared entrepreneur, he looks far and wide for a chance to be something bigger and not live a life working in a tea-shop like his brother does, or pulling a rickshaw like his late father did. A lot of twists and turns and he ends up as a driver-cum-housekeeper for a wealthy family in the city. For a while, he’s happy in his job – he adores his boss, makes good money and he gets to wear a uniform! What happens next is difficult to summarize, as the motivation behind the decisions he make get extremely complicated but let’s just say that by the end of the book he slits his master’s throat and runs away with a boatload of money.

Don’t worry, that’s not a spoiler!

This is a book that pretty much begins by saying, “I murdered a man, now let me tell you why” and is not affected by that revelation at all.

If there’s something that I found absolutely spectacular in the book, it’s Balram’s first-person voice. There’s this wonderful brevity to it which you don’t find often, couple that with his bluntness in stating the hard realities and you’ve got a narrator who is extremely hard to put down. I did finish this book in just two sittings, which is a testament to the wonderful plot and fast-paced narration.

Then there’s also the question of moral ambiguity that the author gets so frighteningly right. While we all know that no one is really totally good or bad, the more intriguing realization is finding out that we are all capable of doing insane and inhuman things at times, either deliberately or inadvertently. While our protagonist Balram probably takes it to the extremes, I did find myself identifying with some of the decisions he makes. As I said, the author gets it frighteningly right.

But coming back to our initial discussion about the country itself, I have found out recently that Indians are an amusing bunch. Tell them there’s something wrong with the country, they’ll point to a worse nation and say that we are better in comparison. Yes, because that’s the golden argument, isn’t it? We have become desensitized to a lot of real issues that this book talks of. Poverty and corruption are an accepted part of our environment now. So when a book comes along putting all of that in the fore-front, we’re like ‘Wait a minute! This is not the India I know’.  As for me, I felt that in a very very long time I have come across an author who gets it.

I accept, a lot this book feels Bollywood-ish (and I wonder why no one’s made a movie of it yet!), especially the end portions about Balram’s stint in Bangalore which ring too convenient to be true. But the book had to go there to make its point, so I excused the author for that. What I couldn’t excuse him for though is the non-authentic voice. Balram says “seven hundred thousand” when every Indian says “seven lakh”. There are a couple more things like this which take away form the authenticity a bit but thankfully not too much.

My suggestion is, read it!


 

In other news, I’m glad to be writing after a long hiatus. The disaster that shook Chennai sent me into a writer’s block. It’s only now that the words seem to be flowing.