Andy Weir’s The Martian

I have been on a little bit of a space kick lately – having enjoyed Gravity and loved Interstellar. So when I read that a new movie called The Martian was in the making, which was based on a book, I didn’t think twice before ordering it online. I should have, because in that brief moment of excitement (propelled by the knowledge that Matt Damon would be playing the titular role), I forgot that I don’t do science. Just like I don’t do non-fiction.

Science-wise, the novel starts out pretty easy. Mark Watney is stranded on Mars. The rest of his crew, the Ares 3, left in a rush in the wake of a dust storm, and thought Watney was dead. Watney wakes up, injured, but very much alive, and realizes that he’s the only man on Mars, presumed dead, and no rescue until the next mission is set to arrive, several years later. He only has a limited supply of food, no communication with Earth, and no one even knows he’s alive. But Watney is resourceful; he’s a botanist and isn’t ready to give up. This makes for the premise of The Martian. But, of course, things get more and more complicated as the book progresses – some interesting complications, and some (for me) complicated complications.

Watney is a lovable protagonist. He has a do-or-die, never-give-up attitude that is admirable and worthy of a central character. He has an amazing sense of humor that aids his ability to stay alive, and keeps his readers chuckling. But I had a hard time believing that Watney does not get hit even once by a debilitating depression. Being alone in a hostile environment on earth would do that to you, let alone being on Mars, under the conditions that he’s found himself. In many ways, The Martian is a great example of the human spirit, of how humans are capable of banding together in dire times; but, for me, it is this extreme of positivity that makes the book weak and flawed.

I’ll admit it – I skimmed through the last several pages of the book. It just got very jargon-y for me and I didn’t not want to finish it. So I did what a bad reader does – I skipped. A lot. I liked the end, and for a first book, Weir does amazingly well. It’s just not a book for those who are not scientifically inclined.

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John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars

Early in 2011, I made the best decision as a newly single person – I began volunteering at Bo’s Place – Houston’s only free-of-charge grief support center. My three years at Bo’s Place have been filled with meeting some truly awesome kids, making new friends, and finding a new found appreciation for life. Bo’s Place has a teeny-tiny library of donated books, where I found The Fault in Our Stars, a book about cancer and death.

For the longest time, I had no idea that The Fault in Our Stars was a YA fiction book. I kept seeing it on the best books list and thought it was a regular, adult book. My interest in it waned when I found this out, and also when the movie came out. It was also mostly unavailable in the public libraries, so I didn’t seek it out too much. When I saw that Bo’s Place had a few copies in their library, I picked it up for my weekend reading.

As I review the book, I must remember that this is a book for a younger audience, and I must go easy on it. It has the typical hallmarks of lovable YA fiction – Hazel, a cute, but cancer-ridden heroine who is witty, sharp, and full of self-doubt; Augustus, a handsome, funny, recovering cancer patient with a lofty name who falls in love with her; a mysterious, quirky hero-figure they both think the world of; kind, devoted parents; circumstances that result in the two main characters becoming star-crossed lovers. Heck, the plot would work even for adults, but yet it may best be suited for younger minds that can find catharsis in the story.

While Green is an inventive and good writer, I had a hard time believing that his central characters were teenagers. Who talks in real life like they are reciting lines from a textbook? I have met enough teenagers to know that it is hard to find one teenager with a strong vocabulary – let alone three of them (Augustus’s friend Isaac included). Nothing kills realism faster than teenagers waxing eloquent on  the flightiness of life.  I also thought the quirkiness aspect was pushed a little too much. Almost as if, if the central characters weren’t eccentric, they wouldn’t be enough teenage-y or acceptable. Also, apparently, Random Capitalizations are the new “random quotes.”

The book may have been essentially written to be a tearjerker – but I hope that it may also provide solace to those who have lost someone they loved to cancer. If nothing else, the best thing to take away from this book is to remember that those suffering from cancer are in no way different from anyone else. They have the same dreams, the same fears, and they can throw the same temper tantrums. As a story about cancer, the book works. The love story part is there to make you weep.

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The Casual Vacancy by J K Rowling

I like a good challenge. So when everyone around me was expressly telling me to stop stressing and to take a break from my worries, I ordered J K Rowling’s mindfuck of a book, The Casual Vacancy. (I can be very cruel – especially to myself.) Right from the start, Rowling’s first book since she wrapped up the Harry Potter series in 2007, The Casual Vacancy keeps you on the edge of dread. With every turn of the page, you hope for something good, something relieving to happen, but, it does not come. Instead, you are drawn deeper and deeper into an insane world. Like staring at a train-wreck, you cannot move away from these characters, despicable as they are. And Rowling has a motley crew of some of the most hateful people you can ever think of. While in many novels, you look for realism with a hint of a fault in the goody-two-shoes central characters, Rowling’s characters are chock-full of deplorable qualities. You can easily play the game of “Who do I hate the most?” and lose to yourself.

The novel opens with Barry Fairbrother’s death. Barry, probably the nicest guy in the town of Pagford, held the coveted Parish Council seat and his death leaves a “casual vacancy” that one too many of the townsfolk have an eye on. So, like I said, Barry’s the nicest guy. He dies in chapter one. You are then left with the muck of the town. One after the other, Rowling pulls from her bag, the people that inhabit the town of Pagford. Old, young, good-looking, ugly, timid, violent, hopeful, or hopeless – they are all flawed. Many are unlikable and pitiable. But truly, they are also real. Rowling is clearly done with writing fantastical stories here. She seems to be on a mission to reflect some of the worst traits we muggles can have. And she succeeds at it. For a change, it was nice to not fall in love with a character, but wish the worst for him or her. It was nice to deplore someone and feel good about not having these vicious qualities or thoughts in my own mind. Rowling is in great form here too. While her characters are flawed, her writing is flawless. There are many storylines and personalities and she weaves in and out of them with ease. Every character is explored in a profound manner and Rowling is fair in her distribution of awfulness.

The Casual Vacancy is an uneasy read and will weigh on your mind. And if you cannot be bothered with that, you may not want to read the book. But if you can chew and savor the taste of depravity in fiction and leave it there, you will thoroughly enjoy it.

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The Miracle Worker by William Gibson

The story of Helen Keller is nothing if not remarkable. All of us know about her, but we may not know all the details of how Helen Keller came to become so well known. William Gibson’s play The Miracle Worker is a wonderful gateway into knowing a little more about how Helen was before she learned sign language, and more importantly, it is the story of her teacher Anne Sullivan, who gave her the gift of language.

Keller and Bell

Helen was a feral child, being made deaf and blind due to an early illness, before her parents decided to hire Anne Sullivan to tame her. Because Helen couldn’t hear or see, she had been coddled by her parents, who pitied her. This made Anne’s job all the more difficult because Helen, despite her handicaps, had learned to take advantage of others around her. Gibson, who has based his play on Keller’s autobiography, deftly shows the family’s crisis and Anne’s hardheaded attempts to make a breakthrough in Helen’s world. More of a play to see rather than read, it is still quite engaging and allows you to imagine the setting and characters in your own head, and on your own time. There is quite a lot to take in, and the incidents in the play leave you a little exhausted. As a teacher, Anne Sullivan’s patience and innovation were particularly impressive to me. The story is so unbelievable, that sometimes you have to remind yourself that this is not fiction!

Anne Sullivan and Helen had a long relationship till the former’s death. Helen Keller’s life should be an inspiration to all of us. Not only did she overcome her deafness and blindness, but she went on to write and become politically active. She was friends with Alexander Graham Bell and Mark Twain!

Here’s a video of Keller with her later companion and interpreter Polly Thomson:



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The Interestings and a failed attempt at reading non-fiction


(c) Sampada Chavan, 2007

My reading streak has been going very well this year and I haven’t allowed school work to distract me from my pleasure reading. In my excitement, I thought I could do something experimental – I thought I could read (and finish) a non-fiction book. Boy, was I wrong! Although, however stunted my reading experience was of Lucy’s Legacy, I did learn quite a bit. My interest in Lucy was piqued when in 2007 Houston’s Museum of Natural Sciences hosted an exhibit of Lucy’s skeletal remains. She, a 3.2 million old hominid, had come all the way from Ethiopia and had created quite a buzz. I had no idea how profound an effect seeing her would have on me, but when they showed a clip of Lucy’s life and death before ushering us into the small viewing room, and when I stood, in awe, in front of the glass case, I was driven to tears. Lucy had come a long way – metaphorically and literally. But reading the book didn’t quite have that effect on me. I suppose I am just not that scientifically inclined. Sure, paleoanthropology sounds exciting, but there’s only so much jargon I can take from one book. This is not a review of the book per se, because I didn’t finish it. But it was nice revisiting Lucy, even for a short while.

After the failed attempt at non-fiction, I was happy to pick up Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings. Right from the start, I felt like I had read a book like this before. And then I realized it faintly reminded me of Donna Tartt’s Secret History. The Interestings is also about an unlikely group of friends that meet at a summer camp for creative teenagers. Ash, her brother Goodman, Jonah, Cathy, and Ethan are already friends when they include Jules, a plain girl with nothing as special about her as the rest of them, but who compensates with the help of her wry sense of humor. Jules and Ash strike up a close friendship that lasts all their lives, but the group of friends goes through upheavals and challenges that tear some apart and bring others closer.

The story, while mostly chronological, often becomes non-linear, much like our memories of time spent with friends. Wolitzer’s writing is very engaging and all but one character is really well developed and intriguing. Jonah’s story arc just doesn’t feel as appealing and almost seems forced into the story. Jules is, by all means, the protagonist, although Wolitzer gives almost equal importance to Ash and Ethan. But Jules is a flawed protagonist. Although she is a wonderful friend and normal enough for the common reader to identify with, she also battles with envy, which makes her a little less likable. On the other hand, the long-lasting friendship shared by the friends is enviable in and of itself. Ethan, especially, shows himself to a kind and reliable person – all of us would like a friend like Ethan in our lives!

Although I found the title of the book a little bit of a creative cop-out, it’s quite fortunate that the book is interesting.

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Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin

If you bear a child that you simply cannot relate to, would you ever admit it? If said child is unlovable, do you confess to anyone about it? In this generation of Facebook and Instant Gratification, all relationships are always crisply perfect. Everything is shiny, happy, people! In reality, though, even a mother-child relationship does not come with a guarantee of ease. And if you wait for several years, debating whether or not you need to procreate and when you finally open yourself up to the idea of having a child and loving it, and creating a family — what if that child, and the experience of motherhood, turns out to be nothing like you’d imagined?

That’s what happens to Eva Khatchadourian. A successful businesswoman in her own right, and married to a man she absolutely loves, Eva and her husband Franklin have nothing missing in their lives. But a freak fear that after Franklin, Eva would have nothing left, drives her to decide to have a child. But Kevin, whom she earnestly gives her own last name, turns out nothing like she hopes. From the start and for good reason, Eva loathes her son and Kevin only reciprocates those feelings. Starting with his choice to not suckle at her breast, begins Eva’s sixteen year long struggle to love and/or accept her own flesh and blood. Eva’s decision to get into the mind of her son begins in the aftermath of his well-planned execution of some of his schoolmates and one English teacher.

The novel is written in the epistolary form, where Eva writes to her estranged husband, Franklin reminiscing, first, about their days as child-free husband and wife, and later with the arrival of Kevin, their strained and difficult family life. Through her letters, Eva attempts to understand, perhaps, what went wrong. Did she make mistakes in her nurture of Kevin, or was being a murderer his nature?

Lionel Shriver creates, with her brilliant writing, characters that are at once unbelievable, and yet very relatable in their drawbacks. What is irksome, though, is that Shriver’s prose is overly ornate and oftentimes cumbersome. I found the first 100 pages or so really gnarly and was ready to give up on the book (I am impatient!). But, I am glad I persisted. Because it paid off. Once in the middle of the book, I wasn’t ready to put it down. Then, I wondered, if Shriver’s elaborate prose wasn’t more of a reflection of  Eva, who is rather full of herself? Maybe, it was. And when I chose to read the book as written by Eva, it started to make sense. As a narrator, Eva is unreliable, and yet, we cannot help but believe her when she describes Kevin’s one horrendous act after another. She is our only perspective on the issue and we sympathize with her, even if a little reluctantly.

While the book does a meticulous job of describing how a mother of a murderous son might feel, there are several instances that leave you feeling exasperated. Why is Franklin such a gullible man? How can he trust his son over his wife at every instance of trouble? How can Eva let that be between her husband and her, and how is she not tired of this dysfunctional family? Why is she writing to her husband, in detail, everything that has happened? Shriver does answer many of these questions, but the reader needs to be patient.

In Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, the title character accidentally overhears her mother say “I love Sula, I just don’t like her.” Sula only reacts to that with a sting in her eyes, but she leads a broken life afterwards. Kevin, unlike Sula, doesn’t just hurt his loved ones, he kills innocent people and makes life a living hell for his mother. But like Sula, Kevin’s brokenness seems to stem from his broken relationship with his mother. And the flaw within that relationship, one that has been considered the purest and most wondrous of all relationships, is the flaw that makes this book worth reading.

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Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life 

The past month or so was spent in starting and giving up on some books and doing some quick readings like a book of short stories by Indian writers (neither great nor bad) and a Marathi book. After cleansing my palate, so to speak, I picked up the voluminous Kate Atkinson novel Life After Life.

As the verses unfold and your soul suffers the long day,
and the twelve o’clock gloom spins the room,
you struggle on your way.
Well, don’t you sigh, don’t you cry,
lick the dust from your eye.

– “Life is a Long Song” Jethro Tull

Atkinson begins with one of my most favorite  Nietzsche quotes about a demon who sneaks up to you and tells you that this life is the one you’ll have over and over again, a countless number of times. If so, would you rejoice? Or would you be hopelessly defeated? Ursula Todd, Atkinson’s lovable protagonist, is thusly blessed (or cursed). Ursula is born on 11 February 1910 and dies at various times of her life, ranging from being a still-born to suicide. Every time she dies, she is born again, and again. Unfortunately, she is born at a time when she has to go through one great duress after another – the flu pandemic of 1918, the two World Wars, the London Blitz, to name a few. But the little Ursula, who outlives some of these threats to her life, lives on and becomes a woman who doesn’t ever have a particularly easy life, and yet manages to be a heroic central character.

The first few chapters of the book, when the reader is just getting used to Ursula’s life and death cycle, are quite harrowing. We want her to live. We want her to experience life. And then when she does, Atkinson always keeps Ursula at the edge of a calamity, dangling death near her at every opportunity. There are times when Ursula’s death comes as a relief. By now, we know she’s going to come back.

The first quarter of the book, however, is as much about Ursula’s mother, Sylvie – a wonderful character on her own and worthy of her own book. As Ursula grows up, Sylvie is moved to the margins, often becoming more despondent and petulant. In fact, other than the drastic change in Sylvie’s character, most of Atkinson’s other characters are extremely well etched and likeable (even in their weirdness – like Maurice). The Todd family is exceptionally sweet, making you wish you could go over to Fox Corner one evening and have tea and cake with them. It is this creation of a lovely family that makes Ursula’s repetitive life an enjoyable read.

Atkinson is a very gifted writer. The novel is ambitious in its scope and, other than a particularly long section about the war towards the end, the novel is very entertaining. The author had me crying and laughing in a matter of pages. The Tarantino-esqe fantasy element, fortunately, is not a major episode in the book. Fantastically unbelievable, and unbelievably good – I’d recommend this book in a heartbeat.

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