26-Sep-2011

What I talk about when I talk about running by Haruki Murakami


Rating - Read

I became a devoted fan of Murakami after reading Norweigian Wood (as did many others, going by the fact that it was Murakami's best selling novel). Till then, I enjoyed his writing, but not quite enough to actually admire it. Now, I was interested in knowing the person behind the writings.

And what a person he is. I had somehow envisioned Murakami as an old and wise Japanese guy, with withered hands, wise eyes, long white hair tied into a pony, and a thin, frail, mien. A man who slowly and sincerely wrote in a notebook, sitting in a house located in a picturesque place in Japan, while wearing a slightly flashy traditional dress (Even as I write this, I realise I sound like one of those people who think that everyone in India does the rope trick and has a pet snake).

Anyway, assuming he was more likely to be the type who carried the latest notepad and wore normal everyday clothes (considering the Japanese are considered to be 10 years ahead of the rest of the world), what I did not expect was to learn that he was passionate about running.

Murakami makes it quite clear, that he is first of all a writer. He runs in the time he has, over and above his writing and is not a professional runner at all. But for an amateur runner, he does very well. Having started running in his 30s, he has taken part in several marathons and started participating in triathlons sometime from his 40s. Every year, he does a marathon in the winter and a triathlon in the summer. The book covers his training while preparing for the 2005 New York City Marathon. Murakami talks not just about this race, but also about the preparations and the various races he has participated in, the feeling of doing long-distance running where you are competing mostly against yourself, the sincerity and discipline that is needed to keep going and the feelings that come during a race. In between, he also digresses into life in general, and his writings.

All of it is interesting reading despite being about experiences which an average bloke is unlikely to have in a lifetime. Murakami goes about quietly cataloguing the hours he puts in, the people he runs with, the places he lives and works in. I especially liked reading his descriptions of his body, as a machine independent of the author’s mind.

Presumably runners would be able to identify with it a lot more than I can. Infact, the book was bought for D, who participated in a half marathon for the first time last year. Yet, non-runners like me have been brought closer to the strange world of plodding on and on.


City of Bones by Michael Connelly

Link

Rating - Read

Michael Connelly was one of the authors I had been recommended during my search for a good thriller/mystery novel.

As books go, this is a good read. Detective Harry Bosch is called to investigate the bones of a small boy, found scattered in Hollywood Hills. The bones are twenty years old, if not older. Bosch takes up the investigation, despite the general reluctance of the top team. After all, this would be a case unlikely to be solved after so long, and would not justify the time and money spent. Bosch persists and goes through with the case.

Detectives are in fashion just now. I watched the popluar TV series, Dexter, with both eyes glued to the screen (Though, the protagonist is less detective and more serial killer). I keep occasionally surfing through the CSI series. I have come to expect that most detectives in novels would be the brooding types. So to stand out from the clutter, the writing has to be good, the story interesting and the protagonists likable.

Connelly does a good job of the first two. The chapters flow smoothly from one to the other. The pages turn rapidly as you hungrily wait for the next stages to evolve – always a good sign in a novel of this genre.

Where Connelly could have done better, was with Harry Bosch. Imagine an office where you work solid hours, say from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and can be considered hardworking and dedicated. Now, imagine if you had a colleague who clocked in at 7 a.m. and clocked off at 11 p.m. and sent messages on the blackberry on the time in between. Suddenly you look like someone who spends all her time having a personal life whereas you colleague seems to be single handedly pushing the economy through.

Bosch is a bit like that. One can’t complain about him working so hard. But it is annoying to notice the manner in which he tells his partner about things, only after they have happened.

Still, I would pick up another Connelly. He is pretty good at the detective business, the minor annoyance in his protagonist notwithstanding. So if you are looking to experiment with detective stories, try this author.


The Vintage Caper by Peter Mayle

Rating – Read if you have the time

It was one of those early mornings in the airport. You are up bright and early to catch a flight. Your mind is unfortunately still on snooze mode. So you ignore the free Economic Times and Business Standard filched from the newspaper stands and go in search of ‘light’ reading to avoid actually having to scan the news till you are mentally ready for it. Thus I ended up in the bookshop and coughed up the money for this book.

The cover had a judicious sprinkling of phrases like ‘breeze of a read’, ‘feel-good book’ and also stuff about ‘leaves you thirsty for a glass of Bordeaux’ and ‘savour over a vintage rose’.

Light page turner about wine-theft. Exactly what one would call light reading. In the event, I sincerely read my newspapers on the flight and did not get around to reading this book till much later.

It is a simple enough story. Rich and brash Hollywood lawyer has his wines stolen. His insurance company, facing a claim of 3 million dollars, hires a private eye to investigate. Private Eye, promptly hotfoots it to France and spends the rest of the book drinking lots of good wine, eating lots of good food and checking out places, accompanied by his sophisticated French colleague. The book rolled nicely from one meal to the next and from one wine to the next. The culprit is caught in a manner that was absurdly reminiscent of my Famous Five days (albeit with some adult-world touches like a reigniting romance and a face-saving diplomatic solution). Not to mention the description of French food and places is always worth a read.

Perfect when you want to drift into a post-lunch siesta on a holiday.

20-Sep-2011

Social Network


Last weekend, my time on social networking sites skyrocketed. Clearing my mailbox, I came across atleast two invites for Google Plus.

At this stage I must point out that I am not an active Facebook/similar stuff user. I just do not have the urge (yet) to update the world about spotting a crow outside my house or buying a yacht. So I was among the last to sign up for Orkut and Facebook (FB) and I am yet to get myself a Twitter account.

When I saw Google Plus though I got a bit excited. All the talk about ‘limited invitations’ and ‘beta testing’ made me feel like a tech pioneer and seemed like a chance to improve my mental image of myself. Exactly the effect that the marketing guys at Google were aiming for.

So I promptly used up some of my 150 invitations quota to invite various friends and family to Google Plus. Actually, I think gmail did it for me by default. I did have a pleasant time though, classifying people as ‘friends’, ‘family’, ‘people who should see your snaps’, ‘people who can give you a ride on their yacht’… you get the drift.

The instinctive organiser in me just loved this. When done, I turned to FB only to find that FB had finally woken up to privacy issues and had adopted Google Plus’s approach to user classification. Normal people would have straightaway given up after having just spent some time on a classification exercise. However, the organizer types would know that this was close to approaching Nirvana.

Compartmentalising people again!! Bring it on, I say.

So another couple of hours went by. Except in the case of FB, I actually have over 200 friends. (Short digression – I am quite sure I don’t talk to 200 people even over a period of one month. How did I end up with 200 ‘friends’, leaving aside the fact that I must have invited around 30 when I was on a particularly competitive streak to up my ‘friends list’. Actually how do people end up with 700 or 800 friends).

By the time I was finished, I had lost track of whether someone in my friends list had also ended up in my restricted list. Anyway, for good or bad, atleast I had definitely restricted viewing rights of a few people. Despite my inactive usage of FB, I still seemed to have a trail of comments and pictures that I was not happy to share with one and all.

The one good thing about the classification was that I could see comments/status updates and so on for atleast 50 people instead of the usual 5 people I normally saw. Despite categorizing my traffic, I was actually getting more not less. Yippee! If I had to classify myself in a FB user category, then I would unhesitatingly put myself down as a ‘lurker’.

I love looking at people’s photos. It is fascinating to see how the erstwhile fat acquaintance has suddenly blossomed into a svelte diva or even better when the opposite has happened. It is fun to see pics taken at ‘Bollywood theme parties’. It is nice to see pics of cute babies without the obligation of actually cooing over them. Infact, sometimes I must say I don’t like the growing privacy talks. How else does one entertain oneself on FB if all I could see was the snaps of my good friends which I can anyway get via mail or a photosharing link? (Which of course is ironic considering I did not want a few people to see my snaps online. But as they say in FB 'It is complicated')

I also like the variety of videos or articles I get exposed to. No one in my immediate friends circle would have updated a link of a fat kid dancing to Salman Khan’s numbers. But a long-ago colleague did and I could secretly chuckle at it though I would have acted all uppity if someone had asked me about the link.

I like the fact that people whom you would not have interacted with much, have interesting things to say and you make a mental note to talk to them sometime in the real world. I like to see what my young cousins from a different generation talk about (even if I am probably just seeing an edited, sanitized version)

And the really good part is that you can ignore stuff which you don’t like.

Unless you do a slight goof up in your classification. Like I did when I put an acquaintance into three different lists. Resulting in roughly 50 updates on her Farmville story. (Another digression – I have never tested out Farmville but how does one get hooked onto bringing up a fake cow in an online world. Isn’t that what people in sci-fi stories do when they are travelling to a distant galaxy and have no hope of seeing an actual farm or getting an actual pet ever?)

The takeaway from my weekend has been that Google Plus’s idea of ‘circles’ is great but I am not sure if that is good enough to move away from FB. Especially now that FB has ‘lists’. Looks like despite being invited to test the beta version, I am still going to migrate only when enough other friends have.

14-Sep-2011

Your neighbourhood Thorpedo

I swam one round of freestyle.

Then one more round of breaststroke.

2 parents, 1 husband, 1 sister and 1 bro-in-law, all watched suitably impressed. They could not have been more impressed had I been swimming across the English Channel, and not merely the 5-feet deep pool in the family resort we were visiting.

Learning how to swim was indeed a pat-on-the-back achievement for me.

Going back in time, this is how it all came about.

*Begin flashback*

Age 1 – So petrified of water that I used to exhaust everyone trying to escape to corners of the tiny bathroom filled with a frustrated mom and maid.

Age 3 – I had made my peace with the fact that I was expected to bathe everyday. For the routine head-baths, the mom (and only the mom) would be permitted to keep her hand over my eyebrows for a couple of seconds while I scrunched my eyes close for 30 seconds.

This clearly indicated to the parents, that their progeny was unlikely to become a national swimming champion anytime soon. Besides, even today, unless you live in a fancy apartment complex, or belong to a sports club, it is not easy having access to a good pool. So swimming was not seen as a must-have skill.

Age 22 – Moved into fancy apartment complex (albeit in the back of the beyond) and waded into a pool for practically the first time ever.

My flatmate and I had decided to learn swimming and had signed up for classes.

Three classes later, said flatmate was floating from one side of the pool to other. I had not even managed to get myself to float horizontally, clutching to the wall.

The project was clearly doomed to failure. Besides, the early morning weekend timing was just not conducive to two 22 year olds

Mid-twenties – Move to Chennai. Resolve all over again to learn to swim. Sign up in Anna Univ.

Turn up in the pool. 1 me and 3 instructors, none of whom felt the need to get into the pool. Instead all of them shouted out instructions from the side of the pool, the last one being ‘Madam, you can shop for more ‘covered’ swimming dress’. Apparently the normal bathing suit that did not meet frumpy standards set by aunties was not modest enough.

I left

Mid-twenties – Get membership to fancy club, being less-small fish in small office pond et al. Meet the world’s best swimming instructor.

I managed to attend 10 of the 15 classes but in these 10 classes, I learnt not only to float but also come as far as doing the freestyle stroke, albeit without the correct breathing technique.

Enthused by these results, I immediately began to practice fervently. Always by the side of the pool, ready to clutch a wall when I ran out of breath.

Now, I officially declared to all and sundry that I could swim.

Early – thirties – Move to Bombay and fine a decent pool. Aim to learn breathing.

Five classes later, I realized that the pool was more crowded than the Dadar railway station.

Ditch

Early thirties – Try snorkeling at Dahab.

Under the mistaken impression that with a snorkeling mask, I would be able to swim everywhere. After all, breathing was my only problem, right?

Er..wrong. After nearly an hour of standing of swimming around the small jetty, I eventually gave up. D, who was watching out for me from the jetty, probably saw more fish.

Age 33 – Move into an apartment complex with a pool. Find a teacher who seems halfway decent and is willing to schedule classes at my convenience.

So I began to go. 2 – 3 times a week and not for daily classes. In order not to get petrified of the progress I was making. It is funny how scared you can get when you are actually making progress. Because that means you are one step closer to swimming by yourself to the deep end and that is a very scary thought.

For the best part of two months, I kept at it. Till I could finally finally actually do freestyle and breaststroke.

*End flashback*

Now that I know the basic strokes, I have realized a few things
- Learning how to swim requires persistence (though understandably most people don’t take ten years like me)
- Knowing how to swim and being able to swim like a pro who rescues drowning people are two very different things. It turns out that a lot of people are more former than later.
- Like everything else, getting better at swimming requires a LOT of practice.
- Some people are naturally gifted in the water but for most others it requires a constant overcoming of fear.

I am hoping that someday I can move from the safety of my pool to an open sea, and try snorkeling again. It is going to be a big challenge handling my fear of so much water.

But, yeah, it felt good in that resort, showing off to the family.

13-Sep-2011

Here we go again

On the way to work, I was listening to one of those mindless RJ chatters on radio. The RJ was introducing a work by Shishir Kunder, a Bollywood director/producer. Then added with venom coursing through the sentence ‘of course Shishir’s only claim to fame is being Farah Khan’s husband’. You could almost feel the smirk on the RJ’s face.

A smirk which would have disappeared fast had I been able to grab her through the radio waves and give her a tight slap.

I just don’t get it. What is wrong if the wife is more famous/successful than the husband? Somehow, it is acceptable for the man to be the more successful partner. It is assumed that the wife will be content with consolation-prize statements like ‘behind every successful man is a woman’. Turn the tables, and everyone, including women, is laughing at the man.

Does that mean that men will inherently have to marry someone dumber than they are so that they are not outshined?

Does that mean that women will have to marry someone smarter, with better education and more career prospects, so that they don’t outshine their partner?

And despite all this careful planning, if the woman ends up more successful than her partner, then is their marriage doomed to failure?

If a female RJ in a city like Mumbai, who caters to a huge urban population, can come up with these statements, then it shows a dim possibility of us moving to a more equitable society.

On the other hand, it is always possible that RJ may just have been desperately trying to get a few laughs in her not-so-funny chatter by throwing in some stale jokes.

11-Sep-2011

Lost and found

When I was in class 9, the following things happened simultaneously –

The government phone company decided to introduce metering. No longer could you pick up the phone and speak in the happy comfort of knowing you were being billed for just one call till you put the phone down. After every three minutes, one would be charged for a new telephone call. So a one hour call was no longer one call, but was charged as 20 calls.

I became a total teen and discovered chatting on the phone

Clearly these were not happy things to happen together. My mom saw the massive phone bill, had a mini-coronary and put a clampdown on phone conversations. Which meant that I would have to wait till the folks went to bed before going yakkity-yak (not too difficult considering everyone snoozed off by 9 or 9.30 at the latest)

My partner in crime was NG. NG was in school with me and she lived close by. We used to come home together quite often, hang out after school and sometimes in the weekends. But mostly we indulged in the meaningless chatter that one can do non-stop during one’s teens. I can no longer remember much of what we talked about. The one thing I have remembered over the years is that NG lived with her sisters and to me, her supply of them seemed quite endless. There was one, who was in her early thirties and kept an eye on the brood while NG’s parents worked overseas. There was one who was working and seemed all grown up, though she was only 26 or so. Another, who by virtue of being in college, seemed to be the coolest person I knew. A couple of sisters were working in other cities or doing their masters. Like I said, she had an endless supply.

Then I changed schools, moved into a hostel and promptly lost touch. I was used to moving and usually accepted that a new school meant new friends and old friends would turn into pleasant memories. Besides, we did not even have email then, forget Facebook and had to depend on a rickety common hostel phone, not one’s very own cellphone. It was very easy to lose touch with someone.

So almost eighteen years went by. Every once in a while I would think of NG. I remember visiting her massive apartment complex one day a few years after we had lost touch. I could not remember which flat she lived in, and just asked the watchman if he knew the house with the multiple sisters. Not surprisingly, he said no and thought I was some kind of weirdo.

Then lo behold, from nowhere NG got in touch with me a few days ago on Facebook. Turned out she had been in tech wilderness and had signed up for an account just recently. NG was no longer the pony-tailed girl with sparkling eyes and the awkward big teeth that I remembered. She had morphed into a prof in the U.S, was married and had a kid and looked totally confident , attractive and grown-up. This is not too surprising considering both of us are in our thirties now.

It was fun to get back in touch. We spent more than an hour online, catching up on each other’s lives, the conversation never pausing just like in the old days.

I don’t think we are going to go back to being the talk-on-the-phone pals we were. That phase in long gone and time and distance means there is little chance of beginning to build a daily presence in each other’s lives. Yet, I have been feeling quite happy all this week just to know where NG is and that she is no longer lost to me.

Social networking tools, take a bow.

P.S. when chatting with NG, she mentioned that she had spoken to me once when we were finishing college. Strangely I have no recollection of that despite the fact I remember absolutely meaningless things like one of her older sisters was a fan of George Michael and had some wonderful posters of his (this was before the world knew he was gay. This was before I knew what gay meant).

09-Sep-2011

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

Rating - Don't read


I am not sure if there is a word to describe the male-equivalent of chick-lit (boy-lit?) but if there is one, then Hornby would fit into the category perfectly. This is not to say that I am demeaning Hornby (especially for those who would consider calling something as chick-lit as demeaning). Hornby has a lot of stuff that is clearly not boy-lit but he does stand out at his ability to provide the male version of relationship issues (read High Fidelity).

Another thing that Hornby is extremely skilled at is providing description of wasters. My first brush with this skill was with the wonderfully funny About a Boy.

Juliet, Naked is a combination of sorts of both these books. It tells us the story of a middle-aged, educated couple Annie and Duncan. Both have spent 15 years in a backwater called Gooleness where they had initially arrived as bright, young people passing by. Duncan is obsessed with the work of Tucker Crowe, a rockstar who had a limited artistic career but managed to gather a small group of loyal fans on the way.

The story is mostly told from Annie’s perspective. Fast approaching the end of her child-bearing years, she begins to question her relationship with Duncan, his obsession with Tucker Crowe and her own dead-end life in Gooleness. She ends up communicating with the reclusive Crowe, who provides her with some life perspectives from the backwaters in which he has accumulating ex-wives and kids and wasting away his time.

The book is unfortunately a bit of overkill. Each character cannot utter a sentence without having a full-blow analysis of the thought process behind it. Besides, there is a slight sense of been there-done that. You feel like telling Annie that it is ok to go through some sort of mid-life crisis, but for heaven’s sake stop brooding and move on or shut it.

Which of course is not a good attitude to have as you flip through 200 pages. Yet, I could not complain really. I was on holiday in a floating cottage. I had raided the library of the resort and was reading a free copy of Hornby. So what if the book was not upto expectations. Anyway you did not want to use more than half a brain in these situations.

In the final analysis, I would say – if you want to read Hornby, try the other books I have mentioned here. And Hornby is a good writer of non-fiction too if you like reading, music or football.

Funnily enough, my brush with Hornby has always involved some sort of holiday. I began to skim through High Fidelty on a road trip to Goa. I came across The Complete Polysyllabic Reading Spree on another trip to Goa and bought it from a second hand book seller who was happy to chat and give me a long account of his travels (and for being a good listener, I got the book at a deep discount). And now Juliet, Naked from the libraries of Poovar Island Resort. Is it that people who like to travel also read a lot of Hornby?

05-Sep-2011

Strip Jack by Ian Rankin


Rating - Read (if not this novel, then something from this series)


My current aim is to find mystery novelist who is engaging. P.D. James was a favourite but her recent work just does not compare with her old stuff. I never took a liking to Ruth Rendell. I like Elizabeth George’s writing, but don’t like the usual pointlessness of the endings. So I have been trying and discarding various authors. After this book, it looks like Ian Rankin may just get further custom from me.

The story has the usual mystery/thriller settings. A popular and much-loved MP, Gregor Jack, is caught in a high-end Edinburgh brothel on the night the police decide to raid the place. Jack’s woes multiply when his wife disappears a little after. Inspector Rebus starts peeling Jack’s life and the circumstances surrounding the raid and the disappearance of Mrs Jack.

Strip Jack is advertised as an Inspector Rebus novel (I guess fans of Ian Rankin know this character as a part of a series). It was my first ride with Rebus and he comes out pretty Ok. Somewhat similar to P.D.James’s Adam Dalgliesh – tied to police work, taking it slow and easy when it comes to relationships, astute and broods a lot. Since Dalgliesh is one of my favourite detective characters, I took a shine to Rebus also quite quickly.

The story is set in Edinburgh, familiar landscape for the author. It is interesting to wander with the author within the city as also into the Scottish countryside. It is also strange to see London appear in the periphery somewhere, instead of taking centrestage.

The writing, like the main character, is sort of P.D.James but not entirely so. It holds your interest. Rebus’s wisecracks, wit and puns could have been annoying, but thankfully they stop before they are overdone. The interaction between the detective team is especially interesting, given the friendliness woven with the one-upmanship that would happen in real life.

When I was younger, the ending of a thriller always used to be a big thing. Now, I am past the stage where I look for a big ‘oh my gosh, I did not see that coming’. When the ending comes, it is nice to know it all ties up logically on why things went the way they did. By that count, Rankin handles the ending quite decently in this novel.

For anyone looking to explore a detective series, this seems like a promising author to check out. (Unless of course I am the last person to read Rankin – which is entirely possible).


P.S. I have been told to try out Michael Connelly and Lee Child. Other suggestions most welcome.


Our kind of Traitor by John Le Carre

Rating - Read if you have the time (and get John Le Carre)


I don’t get John Le Carre. I have really really wanted to. I have tried The Tailor of Panama and discarded it. I began Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and discarded that as well. Both over a span of 8 – 9 years. Friends, whose tastes I respect, tell me Le Carre is the cat’s whiskers when it comes to spy thrillers.

So I had another book due to be read now (I am, if not anything, optimistic that a good author will usually capture me at some point. I just need to keep dipping into a book every once in a while to see if I feel differently. See my last post on Jhumpa Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth)

Our kind of Traitor was yet another attempt to read Le Carre. It went off well in the sense that I finished the book. But I groaned my way through it, steadfastly reading even if it took me 2 – 3 weeks, with other books thrown in between.

The story is simple. A young and pretty English couple comes across a Russian family when they are holidaying. Before they know it, they have been pulled into a potential defection and a spy network. They have to decide if and how they will cooperate with the British authorities and help the Russians.

Le Carre is a famous name in the world of spy thrillers and if you are a Le Carre fan, then this book would possibly appeal to you. I found the story stretching on just a bit too much and incidents taking way too long to hold my interest. What I did enjoy was the long and loving description of watching a tennis match at Roland Garros, with Roger Federer playing. The author is clearly in love with Federer and anyone who has seen Federer in action will wholeheartedly agree with the descriptions.

Maybe I need to check out Le Carre again in 4 – 5 years.