Thursday, February 26, 2009

An Equal Music

I have never gone as low and as fast in my opinion of a book as with 'An Equal Music'. After the first 25 pages, I felt that I'd stumbled on to something incredible (no doubt helped by the very simple writing, which was a refreshing change from Salman Rushdie's tediousness); but after a 100 pages it became clear that it was incredible, just the wrong type - incredibly bad.

The story is about a violinist who is reunited with his lost love after 10 years. She has re-married and has a child, yet sees nothing wrong in getting involved with him again, with remarkably little wooing from him. They have fun for a while and then she leaves him again. I know I make it sound crass, but that really is the story. There's a lot of musical stuff involved, as both of them are musicians, but that is incidental to the story.

For a book that presumes to talk about emotions and sensibilities, it is remarkably devoid of sentiment and feeling. That's the first problem. The other problem with this book, an ostentatiously realistic novel, is that it is not grounded in reality. There is no semblance of consistency, logic, even common sense to either the story, the narrative, or the characters. The narrative progresses at such a slow pace that even a snail would get tired following it. There's no thread of consistency or even a shred of believability about the protagonists' actions. Its as if they don't think at all; and all their actions and words are based on whims! The lead character is so contradictory that one gets the feeling that 4 or 5 diametrically opposite personalities have been squeezed into one. All this is very bad. What pushes it to infuriatingly bad, is that the two protagonists living in a very real world with very real problems, are so far removed from reality. It is hard to feel anything but contempt and strong loathing for them. As if that weren't bad enough, these inconsistent characters show an appalling lack of moral strength as well.

And the last straw? The writing becomes more and more pretentious as the story progresses. As if, at the beginning the writer wasn't sure about his abilities and as the book became longer he realized that he has suddenly become a good writer. To paraphrase a very apt quote - 'Its not the quantity of pages written, but the quality on the pages, that makes a good writer'.

The praise for this book was led by the Daily Telegraph - "The finest novel about music ever written in English". I will counter that verdict with mine - "A most infuriating book with the worst conceived and realized characters that I've ever come across in any book".

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Fury

The overwhelming feeling after reading this book is of an immense waste - of the reader's time, of the writer's undoubted talent and of the multitude of pages on which its printed, which could have been put to much better use. Right from the start, it seems like a pointless book. This feeling remains & intensifies throughout the book and at the end, is confirmed beyond doubt.

The story is about a man in the grip of fury (the reason for which we aren't given until almost the end, and that reason, to me at least, is not convincing enough). Anyway, he has become a threat to those he loves and so just takes off to another continent (without so much as a goodbye to his wife and son), where he tries to undo his old self, hoping that whatever is wrong with him will be destroyed along with his old identity. The book chronicles his efforts to defeat his furies with the help of the people he encounters.

So, not a wholly stupid plot. What makes it bad is the unbelievably bad writing. Sometimes its hard to believe this is the same guy who wrote 'The Moor's Last Sigh'. There is no continuing thread through the story. It frequently runs off on tangents and doesn't bother to rejoin the main theme. Rushdie's books usually need a lot of patience and I've become quite patient reading his books, waiting for the point to appear out of the fog of fancy words and tedious abstractions; but with this book it was a hopeless exercise because there is no point to it.

Even more unforgivable than the bad writing is the fact that the story seems forced, somehow. As if the writer's publishers told him to come up with something quickly and he started writing about the first thing that came to his mind without bothering about plots, themes, coherence and all the other things that make a decent book, trusting his reputation to ensure it would be accepted, even acclaimed. And sadly, it worked. Reading the reviews, you'd think this was a masterpiece. When in actual fact, it could be the worst book Rushdie has ever written ('Shame' was depressing, but at least it was well-written). This is just an ego-trip of sorts, most evident by the resemblance of the protagonist to the author himself, and the tiring fact that rather than battling his furies, he seems to be spending too much time encountering stunningly beautiful women with all of whom he has his way.

In the end I'm left salvaging what little good I can from this disaster of a book. The only thing I come up with is this line - 'Do not contemplate what lies beyond failure while you are still trying to succeed!'

Not so much a bad book, as an unnecessary one!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Ice Age (6/10)

This movie tries hard but never quite makes it to 'great'!

First, the story is a bit too predictable. Three unlikely companions - Manfred the woolly mammoth, Diego the saber-tooth tiger and Sid the sloth take it upon themselves to unite a lost baby with his 'herd'. The rescue-and-restore operation sees them go from bickering, can't-get-along reluctant companions to loyal, willing-to-die-for-each-other friends.

The highlight of this film is, undoubtedly, the wonderful squirrel, Scrat. The highly inventive, usually disastrous, unceasingly persistent and endlessly fruitless travails of the squirrel transform this movie from a decent movie to a pretty good one. The dialogue is extremely funny in parts, especially Manfred's one-liners delivered in the classic deadpan Ray Romano voice.

My biggest problem with the film was that I found the voices of the main characters very unconvincing. Having watched Ray Romano in 'Everybody Loves Raymond', its very difficult to reconcile Manfred the woolly mammoth with his voice. Also, Diego the saber-tooth tiger's voice is a bit too cultured to quite match the character. Only Sid the sloth's voice is convincing enough.

A good movie overall, elevated a few notches by the delightful squirrel.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Michael Clayton (7/10)

"I'm not the guy you kill, I'm the guy you buy!"

A film characterized by taut, controlled direction. A film that hints at many things without delving deep in any of them. A film featuring quite amazing cameos by very good actors (witness three Oscar nominations in acting categories).

I wasn't expecting to like this movie. After all, the storyline doesn't exactly get the pulse racing. A legal thriller with hotshot attorneys and big corporations is not groundbreaking stuff. But it exceeded my (admittedly low) expections.

It starts off with a quite haunting monologue by Tom Wilkinson, which in itself is worth half the admission price. The story revolves around this bigshot fixer with a huge corporation, whose most important case is jeopardized by the histrionics of their leading attorney. Michael Clayton tries to clean up this mess, while trying to sort out major issues in his personal life.

The beauty of this movie is the very simple storyline backed-up by economical dialogue, brilliant direction (an Oscar nomination for the first-time director) and very, very good acting by everyone involved. It is an unpretentious, refreshingly original look at a world that has been dissected to death by hollywood. Finally, George Clooney is quite simply exceptional as Michael Clayton. His best performance in a very long time, if not his best ever.

Definitely worth watching!

Shame

What do you say about a writer who's brilliant at his work, but uses it to highlight and exaggerate the negative aspects of life? I say its a shame. Its a shame that someone with Salman Rushdie's considerable writing skills can't employ them in constructive writing. Instead, he chooses to write about the problems in the societies he used to inhabit. This most depressing aspect of his writing is most evident in this book, titled quite aptly, Shame.

The book is an encyclopedia of everything that could be wrong in life. It seems to challenge all concepts of decency and goodness in men (& women). By the end of the book, you lose all hope in mankind. Rushdie seems to delight in pointing out everything that is wrong with the world. There is a fine line between realism and championing negativity, and Rushdie crosses it far too often in this book.

I am a firm believer in the concept that art's main purpose is not to reflect reality, not to show humankind and society the way it is, but rather the way it should be. An idealization of life. To portray the best that we can be. This is the reason I love Michelangelo's sculptures & paintings. They show man as he should be - strong, proud and flawless. But I digress.

What I'm trying to say is that Rushdie's endless tirade betrays the purpose of art. Instead of showing what could be, Rushdie tells us what was, and how disguting it was. Instead of talking about what should be, he talks about everything that should never be. Its not just a reminder of the evils perpetrated by some people, but a magnification of these until you feel that its all that mankind is capable of. What purpose does it serve, I wonder? Besides reminding the smug literary-elite that eastern society is messed-up.

A most disappointing & depressing book!

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Coming of a legend (and fading of another?)

Australian Open Final 2009
Rafael Nadal vs Roger Federer - 7-5 3-6 7-6 (7-3) 3-6 6-2


It could be billed as a bout between extremes - young vs old, style vs substance, brains vs brawn. As it turned out, it was a great advertisement for substance; as brawn prevailed over brains(not implying that Nadal's game doesn't have its own subtlety). Nadal's winning his first grand slam on hard court, on the heels of his first-ever grass court grand slam win at Wimbledon last year, added to his implausibly brilliant record on clay has the feeling of a defining moment in tennis history. This is the point from where he can go from being the best player of his time, to becoming the best player of all time. I know, its too soon. But he is just 22. He has a lot of time to improve his already awesome game. And playing against (not to mention beating regularly) a legend like Federer can only help his cause. This was a good match. Not quite an epic, but surely one to be remembered as the one that sent Nadal on the way to legendhood. Fittingly, he had to beat an existing legend to do that.

1st set - It started off all wrong. Nadal, the one who had just come off a 5-setter was the one who started more emphatically and Federer, the one with the longer rest, looked unsure, hesitant and dare I say it, scared? No surprise then that Nadal won the first set.

2nd set - Federer gained in assurance, reflected in an increasing number of winners and aces. Not to mention fewer unforced errors. Second easily to Federer.

3rd set - Nadal comes roaring back after losing the 2nd set cheaply. An increase in the number of unforced errors belies his fatigue, although there are no visible signs of exhaustion. This is where he starts an awesome run of winners. He doesn't just win points, he CONJURES them out of hopeless situations. 4/4 in 3rd set, and down 0-40, Nadal holds to make it 5-4. Is this the defining moment of the match? (He goes on to save 13 of 19 break points!) Nadal wins the set in tiebreak.

4th set - Federer starts strongly. 2-0. Its as if he has decided to play only the even sets well; not a good idea! Nadal comes back 2-2. Federer makes it 3-2. A certain inevitability when Federer takes the 4th set. After all, this is a grand-slam final between the world's best 2 players. It has to be a 5 setter.

5th set - An anticlimax. So many unforced errors from Federer. He seemed in a hurry for the match to end. This is one aspect of his game I'd like to see a change in. When it comes to the crunch, he just seems to lack the defiance and fight that Nadal epitomises. I hope this is just my mistaken assumption and that the next time we see these two go at it, we'll see a much closer match all the way to the final point.

For now, I hope this is not the end of Federer. I would like to see him set a new grand slam record before he fades away. Meanwhile, Rafa enjoys all the accolades. Hopefully we'll witness his indefatigable spirit and almost superhuman will to win in many more grand slam finals.