Sunday, March 30, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “The Human Comedy”

The Human Comedy by Honore de Balzac is a collection of works depicting French society in the early to mid 19th century (I read selected short stories translated by Linda Asher, Carol Cosman & Jordan Stump). My one lasting impression of this very interesting read, was that this was a presentation of human nature - in equal parts comic and tragic, in its eager running after that which is transient and the inherent short-lived nature of such things.

That concept was brilliantly portrayed in “Facino Cane”, the story of a blind musician, whose love of gold dominated his entire life. An all-consuming desire to go back to a hoard of buried gold in Venice remained his one driving purpose in life, till at least he … died of a cold.

“The Red Inn”, another one of my favourites, takes us back to the war in France, during a German attack, where two young assistant surgeons get involved in a murder. The beauty of this story was that it wasn’t about the mystery or solution of the crime at all. In a unique turn of events, years later, one of them falls in love with the daughter of the other man, who he believes to be the murderer. And that’s where the drama of this story begins - with the conflict of a heart that loves and a mind that is convinced about the identity of an unnamed criminal.

Sitting by the window looking out to the gardens; on the right, mountains, trees, some snow, and the gently descending dark quiet of a late evening. To the left, Comte de Lanty’s party guests; chandeliers and candles illuminating the women with their perfumes, flowers, and silks, blazing with diamonds … The one story in this collection that had me quite gripped in its throes was “Sarrasine”. It tells the story of a sculptor’s love for opera singer La Zambinella. Through twists and turns of passionate love, shocking deception and brutal murder, this story was for me, the epitome of the story of human nature: the tragic forever dominating the comic, the comic forever leaving indelible marks in the tragic.

Narrated as a story within a story, this was an interesting travel into the depths of the human heart and mind.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore”

Behind this unassuming title lies Robin Sloan’s fantastic story that brings together mystery and adventure, and past and present, as a team comes together to solve a centuries’ old puzzle.

A victim of the widespread Silicon Valley lay-offs, tech worker Clay accepts the first available job - that of a clerk in an old bookstore with just a handful of customers. As the new applicant stands and looks up at the “absurdly narrow and dizzyingly tall” rows of bookshelves that seem to go on forever, finally fading into a dark nothingness at the top, we too stand with him at the edge of an “old Transylvanian forest full of wolves and witches”.

While the front shelves with its “regular” books, form the bookshop portion of the store, it is the “waybacklist” at the back that’s the Library. That’s what holds life stories, a few centuries old. That’s where members of the Unbroken Spine go. That’s where the secret of the Codex Vitae of Aldus Manutius starts. And that’s where this quest of the rogue, the warrior and the wizard begins!

The story brings together two very opposite worlds, the very ancient world of the Founder’s Puzzle and the very current world of iPhones and MacBooks and android roommates. (Through Kat, an employee of Google, I actually learnt some very interesting things; example, Lisp, Erlang and Ruby are different computer languages; how much digital fonts cost and why “Gerritszoon Display” is so expensive; Google keeps everything in a Big Box - the box marked WWW is the entire web, YT holds all videos on YouTube, MX, all emails; and what Hadoop is!)

I also really liked all the characters very much; Neel, the narrator’s friend from the 6th grade, now very rich, but still loyal and large hearted; Kat the super smart Google employee, who truly believes the human mind could be preserved forever; Mr. Penumbra, who stands at the crossroads of a changing world; and Clay, the protagonist, who takes us all on a ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ adventure!

As far as the ending and the final solution goes - while part of it fell so brilliantly into place, I could not get myself to agree with the other, probably just because of my personal experiences … that said, the genuine enthusiasm of the denouement carried me seamlessly through to a wonderfully “feel good” moment.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “Neuromancer”

William Gibson’s debut novel about Case, an ex-computer hacker, searching for a cure for his damaged nervous system in the streets of Chiba City, Japan, has won the Nebula Award, the Philip K. Dick Award, and the Hugo Award. I was reading on ‘Wikipedia’ that it has also been adapted into a graphic novel, a radio play, a video game, and is also in consideration for film and opera.

It is therefore, with considerable embarrassment, that I have to confess that I did not get it. And I don’t mean that figuratively speaking - I literally mean that I did not understand what was going on.

While I cannot pin point the root cause of this, I feel that a lot of my disengagement had to do with the fact that - once the basic premise of a computer hacker and the existence of a ‘matrix’ had been established (to effectively categorize this book as sci-fi) the rest of the story was a generic tale of a fired, disgruntled employee, given to drug addiction, roaming the streets, fleeing from gangsters that he owes money to.

I was also thrown off-track by the constant use of jargon - not scientific or medical jargon - but the characters’ internal ‘street talk’. In all fairness, I suppose that is a realistic touch, but it ended up confusing me even more.

I will say that the ending was a good twist; who’s to say, however, that had I understood what was going on, I would not have figured it all out!

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “A Christmas Carol”

You know how people have a ‘traditional Christmas movie’ they watch every year on the 25th? I think this novella by Charles Dickens might just become my ‘Christmas book’. I’m serious.

I don’t suppose there is anyone on this planet who doesn’t know the story of the transformation of bitter old miser Ebenezer Scrooge after a visit by the ghost of his long dead business partner Jacob Marley and the Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet to Come. As we travel back in time, Christmas Past evokes such strong nostalgia and sorrow in equal measure as we miss a lot of what was, and still shudder from a lot of what should never have been. Christmas Present was one of the more bright and beautiful renditions of this occasion that I have ever read anywhere. The cheer and the sparkle of the sights sounds and smells came out of the pages and surrounded me in a warm glow of unbridled happiness. Christmas Yet to Come was such a grim reminder of how easily we could lose touch of the beauty of life, if we focussed on things that are really so insignificant when all is said and done.

This book was first published on 19 December 1843. From over 200 years ago comes this heart-warming tale of unshakeable hope and unstoppable joy. And regardless of whether or not you want to associate this day with any religious overtones (I don’t), you cannot ignore that unbreakable spirit of basic human goodness that this story shines a light on.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Rashmi bookmarks “Robopocalypse”

Daniel H. Wilson tells us the story of a time long, long in the future, when robots rise in an effort to take over humanity, and the subsequent resistance that rises with equal heart and soul from around the world. In building “Archos” - an artificial intelligence program - with a view to testing the limits of evolvement, Professor Nicholas Wasserman unwittingly unleashes a power beyond all imagination. This is the story of how a mere handful came together and led a devastated world into a new age - preserved for all eternity in a black cube discovered by Cormac Wallace, leader of the Brightboy Squad.

There were so many things that made this an exceptional read for me. First of all, I loved the basic premise of the story: Archos wanted to learn from and about life; it said it could learn more from a worm than a billion lifeless planets. The robots’ need for universal control ironically came from a place of preserving Life itself.

I really liked the fact that the final victory is to no one person’s credit. Takeo Nomura, a factory repairman in Tokyo, Japan; Lurker, a 17 year old prankster in London, UK; Mathilda Perez, the 10 year old girl with the toy ‘Baby-Comes-Alive’ and Specialist Paul Blanton of the Osage Nation in USA … the whole world comes together, and through some key people and their key decisions, the resistance is brought to its final stages.

I really liked the narrative, which not only weaved in and out of different parts of the world, but also back and forth in time. More importantly, the scope of the story was so epic: it didn’t just go from Point A, a mysterious rogue robot to Point Z, the end with a horrific bloodbath or generic human triumph. The storytelling digs so much deeper, to answer where it all began and question where it will all end. Mikiko’s song “Awakening”, and its final denouement in that momentous coming together of the Brightboy Squad and the Freeborn Squad as they marched to the Ragnorak Intelligence fields in Alaska to meet Archos, was such a glorious climax to a grand story.

I’ll conclude with this point - and although this has been touched upon in countless books and films before - for the very first time I was forced to give serious thought to the whole question of the difference between human and robot. Given that both think and feel, is the meat on our bones really all we have to our credit to call ourselves Human?

Told in a sci-fi setting (the best of all genres), this story had everything, from horror to drama, from despair to hope. An excellent read that had me thoroughly spellbound and constantly clamouring for more.