Saturday, November 12, 2016

Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin

SO I have no intention of ever reading the Game of Thrones books; not out of a sense of I'm-too-good-for-it, but rather, Who-has-the-time? But I was curious about Martin's style, so I have been meaning to get this book for a while now. Fevre Dream is a vampire story, which is much more up my alley than chain-mail-clad sword-brandishing fantasy, anyway. Written in 1982, this book is what one might call steampunk science fiction.

Summary: It is the story of a steamboat captain named Abner Marsh who is commissioned to construct a new boat by Joshua York, a strange beautiful gentleman and businessman who wishes to be his partner. The magnificent new steamboat is called the Fevre Dream and it is Abner Marsh's dream to make it the fastest running vessel on the Mississippi. Part of Abner Marsh's contract with York is to stay out of his away, no questions asked about York's nocturnal habits or the strange company he keeps. Abner Marsh is more than eager to accept York's conditions for the chance to captain his dream boat. That is, until he begins to discover a strange pattern to York's secrets. A rumour floats upstream... vampire.

Meanwhile, in a small settlement along the Mississippi lies a haunted house. A house inhabited by such monsters that no slave is ready to work there, no guest returns alive. The property is run by Damien Julian, who calls himself the bloodmaster of his clan. As the neighbouring town turns against the demonic presence in their house, the ancient Damien Julian sends out his clan to find accommodation elsewhere. And a couple of them just happen to board the Fevre Dream.

"The very one, Abner. An astounding man. I had the good fortune to meet him once. Our steamboat put me in mind of a poem he once wrote.” York began to recite.

She walks in Beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.

"What shall we name her?" York asked, his eyes still fixed on the boat, and a slight smile on his face. Does the poem suggest anything? I had in mind something like Dark Lady, or—"

"I had somethin’ in mind myself," Marsh said. "We’re Fevre River Packets, after all, and this boat is all I ever dreamed come true." He lifted his hickory stick and pointed at the wheelhouse. "We'll put it right there, big blue and silver letters, real fancy. Fevre Dream." He smiled.

For a moment, something strange and haunted moved in Joshua York’s gray eyes. Then it was gone as swiftly as it had come. "Fevre Dream," he said. "Don’t you think that choice a bit... oh, ominous? It suggests sickness to me, fever and death and twisted visions. Dreams that... dreams that should not be dreamed, Abner."

My thoughts: To me, a well written speculative fiction contributes to the existing lore, offers an alternate. (To me, for instance, the 'vampires don't come out in the sun as they sparkle and stand out' bit of the Twilight series is the least of its faults because of its sheer innovation. Did anyone ever even consider that the sun did not in fact harm vampires directly but made them more conspicuous?) In this aspect of lore-feeding, Fevre Dream by George R.R. Martin fares rather excellently. The vampires of Fevre Dream are not supernatural, but rather a distinct race - humanoid yet different. A race afflicted by a thirst which might just find itself a cure in science.

The popular vampire myth is steeped in Christian ritual. The vampire is a reanimated corpse that rests in its coffin, leaves it at dusk, can be repelled with the cross, may not enter a church, gets burnt by holy water. Take all that away and what is left may not be a vampire at all. Hindu mythology speaks of batlike demon creatures but they bear only a vague resemblance to our walking dead. Like all recent vampire mythology, Martin's story is a fight of good versus evil. It is also very Christian, but in a different way. Martin tells the story of Joshua York as a messiah come to free the vampires of their curse, the Pale King come to lead them to a newer tomorrow.

On a more meta-level, Martin's story is a fight between the popular contemporary myth and the old darker one. I have heard of Martin writing morally ambiguous characters. Here, however, there is a clear black and white, which serves its (unintended?) purpose. On the one hand, you have Joshua York, beautiful and alluring, leading a civilized life and on the other, Damien Julian, blood master, a frightening creature wrought with pure evil and destruction. The vampire myth has adapted itself to the needs and likes of every generation and Martin's story tests our allegiance. It does not leave you with a satisfying ending, but rather, drags you along till you make a choice - which is more enduring? The tragic prince-turned-Beast or the terrible monster? I chose the latter. Abner March, loyal to the end, remained alongside the beautiful and tragic Joshua York; the perfect friendship.

Fevre Dream is engaging; a surprise, for its size is tremendous. Martin's lengthy descriptions of characters and their physical appearances bored me. Literary references abound, with Shelley and Byron being particular favourites of Joshua York. But the atmosphere of steamboat racing, breaking the chains of slavery, bubbling invention is a fantastic capture. The writing loses its way sometimes, gives in to gimmickry, but on the whole, it pulls you in. I have been chewing on this review for a long time, and one thing is clear, the book has left an imprint on my thoughts, if not always a positive one. 

Accidentally slitting my hand on a knife yesterday may have played a major part in pushing my opinion in favour of Martin's book; the uncaring spillage of blood in modern vampire stories, its supposed beauty, now brings a particularly bitter taste, and having a young man or woman lust sacrificially after the metaphorical knife seems plainly objectionable. Dracula makes more sense than Prince Lestat, and Fevre Dream lets you pit one against the other.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Why I Like Being a Vegetarian

Image courtesy of KEKO64 at

Yesterday I was lamenting the fact that whenever I say I am a vegetarian, I always somehow end up offending someone. The responses I get range from, 'You are missing out on so much," and "Plants have feelings too," (do they?) to "I hope you get a husband who eats non-veg, then you'll have no choice but to eat it..." (seriously.) I have made my views on the ethics of meat eating plenty clear before - it's a personal choice, we all have a limit to what we consider moral. Where we draw a line... Some people put their foot down at eating dog meat, some are vegetarian, and others go vegan.

My reason is animal rights, I make no excuses, I love animals and cannot bear the thought of eating them. I cannot look the other way when it comes to the cruelties of poultry farming and such. I see myself on an eventual path to veganism, though I am not quite ready yet. I have been a lifelong vegetarian, excepting a short trip to non-vegetarianism in my teenage years; so I do see both sides of the coin and make no claim to any moral high ground. There is no right or wrong, just what each of us is comfortable with. 

That said, I do have no intention of going back to eating meat and I do enjoy the perks of being a vegetarian. There are many other reasons I continue with this lifestyle choice, aside from a less guilty conscience - which seems to be the focus and point of attack in any conversation about my dietary choices. Here are a few reasons I like being a vegetarian - some I hope more people can relate to, others might just give you an idea of how the world is on this side of the table, help answer that "but why would you give this up???" -

1. I feel less full after meals. My appetite is on the larger side. Instead of many small meals, which I suppose is the healthier option, I prefer to eat my fill when I do. Luckily for me, veggies don't settle down in the pit of your stomach quite as much as meat. Consequence - I don't get that bursting-at-the-seams feeling after a heavy meal and I seem to digest food quicker. It's also been harder to gain weight, a giant plus because I don't do what I should be doing to lose it.

2. I spend less on food. This is awesome! Vegetarian food, here in India, is considerably cheaper in restaurants than meat or fish. I don't know if this is true for anywhere else in the world where meat is the norm. But so long as I'm here, I save more than a little on fancy lunches and dinners. Less variety for us vegetarians is also not an issue in India. 

3. Healthier diet. Now I don't know if veggies are healthier - I have read and heard many contradictory views on this. But there have been two big changes in my diet since my comeback to vegetarian food. A. When I was a kid, I underwent a gall-bladder-removal thing, the permanent effect of which was, simply put, that I can't eat foods too fatty, because I have nowhere to store all the extra (an explanation I received at the age of 8, don't ask for details.) Being a vegetarian, I am able to avoid the aforementioned overly fatty, heavy foods with very little effort. B. I eat way more fibrous food than I used to. Way more! 

4. Default thumbs-up from all the aunties and grandmas - Okay, this is a joke. I neither condone the judgments nor am I a vegetarian for religious reasons.

5. It looks prettier. Vegetarian food looks prettier and more vibrant and colourful than a giant slab of meat. It's just a fact. Look at those tomatoes!

6. I feel in control. This is the biggest reason! I befriended someone last year, not from India, who went vegetarian upon making a pact with themselves to give up something that meant a lot to them and learn to live without it. I thought it was the most wonderful thing, because it made me realise just how much this influenced my own dietary choice. I would be lying if I said I don't reminisce the taste of a chicken wing every once in a while - just the taste, without the animal-cruelty-connotations associated with it. I do. But I don't give in to the occasional craving. I don't want to!

I had a moment a few months ago when I accidentally bit into a chicken burger, because the fools hadn't marked it with the little red square. I knew it was chicken, even as my friend wondered, precisely because I hadn't had it in about five years. My mouth flooded with the taste of chicken, strangely comforting in a way, yet all I wanted was to spit it out. And rinse and rinse till the flavour was gone. The craving doesn't guide me anymore. I have reached a point where I am not a slave to my senses. Or to my peers. It's a little weird to me how many things your friends can get away with forcing you to do. At the risk of sounding corny, when it comes to this, I like that my principle / belief wins. Of course, I desperately await a time when I feel just as "in control" in matters of pizza...

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Dead Zone by Stephen King

'My daughter,' Bannerman agreed softly. 'I think she passed within forty feet of that ... that animal. You know what that makes me feel like?'
'I can guess,' Johnny said.
'No, I don't think you can. It makes me feel like I almost stepped into an empty elevator shaft. Like I passed up the mushrooms at dinner and someone else died of toadstool poisoning. And it makes me feel dirty. It makes me feel filthy. I guess maybe it also explains why I finally called you. I'd do anything right now to nail this guy. Anything at all.'

A little while ago, I was telling someone how Stephen King writes more than *just horror.* You know, one of my usual rants. In the foreground of that conversation, I am all the more happy I chose to read The Dead Zone. Published in 1979, it is one of his older books and has that experimental style. I don't know how I missed it for so long.

The Dead Zone is about a man named Johnny Smith, who once gets in a life-altering car accident. Johnny is a man who is shown to have possessed a strong sense of intuition since his childhood. But is after he wakes up from a nearly five-year-long coma, that his intuition has blown into a full-fledged clairvoyance. Johnny has sustained unusual brain injuries that may be the cause of his psychic ability. He can sense the past, the future and worm out people's secrets. But there are some things that he can never reach - and these he says lie in a damaged part of his brain which he calls 'the dead zone.' With the help of his ageing father, Herb and his doctor, Sam Weizak, the book follows Johnny as he attempts to lead a normal life in spite of his new extra-normality. Life, however, has other plans for him.

Meet Greg Stillson. An aggressive obnoxious salesman-turned-businessman who nurtures an ambition to one day run for President. Avoiding straight answers, making ludicrous promises, loud gestures - these are some of Stillson's specialties. His rallies are led by gangs of bikers for an audience of mindless fanatics. His is a nearly farcical exterior that helps hide the beast underneath. Greg Stillson is a dangerous man masquerading as a joker. The true extent of his breed of terror is revealed to Johnny Smith when he shakes hands with Stillson, and gets a dreadful vision. The Dead Zone is very much about the politics of its time - yet it couldn't be any more relevant in today's world. In fact, look what Stephen King tweeted earlier this year, "Populist demagogues like He Who Must Not Be Named aren't a new thing; see THE DEAD ZONE, published 37 years ago."

King does not let you take the driver's seat in this story. You cannot guess what will happen, I don't think you are supposed to. The Dead Zone is as unpredictable and meandering as real life. It is at once a murder mystery, a horror story, a family saga, a political thriller, a psychological drama and a blossoming love story. It is all of these and none of these. Its characters are its lifeline, not its plot. At its core, it is simply the story of a man dealing with what life throws his way and trying to make the best out of it. A good man who has been dealt a bad hand. It is a story of redemption and forgiveness, it is a story that makes you love its simplicity, until it goes and shocks the hell out of you. 

"The same chipped angels year after year, and the same tinsel star on top; the tough surviving platoon of what had once been an entire battalion of glass balls. And when you looked at the ornaments you remembered that there had once been a mother in the place to direct the tree-trimming operation, always ready and willing to piss you off by saying 'a little higher' or 'a little lower' or 'I think you've got too much tinsel on that left side, dear.' 

You looked at the ornaments and remembered that just the two of you had been around to put them up this year, just the two of you because your mother went crazy and then she died, but the fragile Christmas tree ornaments were still here, still hanging around to decorate another tree taken from the small back woodlot. 

Sure, that's right, God's a real prince. God's a real sport. He's such a sport that he fixed up a funny comic-opera world where a bunch of glass Christmas tree globes could outlive you. Neat world, and a really first-class God in charge of it."

I mentioned an experimental style before... The book has a strange narrative flow. An unreliable narrator we don't know we have until the story begins to sound like an unfinished puzzle. We have letters and newspaper clippings and a chunk of story shoved into a mind-blowing epilogue. Surprises, surprises, so many of them. His writing breaks all the norms and so well, it makes you wonder why there are any rules at all. Recently I saw an interview with Stephen King where he said something to the effect that he doesn't want people to read his books for their language, or their message or whatever. What he wants is to just reach out and grab his reader. He did, here. He always has.

(Let this be part of R.I.P XI which pulled me back to horror after a far-too-long hiatus.)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

On individual interpretations, abridgment and reading White Fang by Jack London

Brace yourself, this will be one of the long ones... 

Set in the coldest North Canada, White Fang is the story of a wild little wolf cub, White Fang, borne of a wolf and a female wolf-dog. The story of a wild animal who grows up near and in the company of man. The effect this has on him, and what it says about life, death, nature and nurture is what the book is all about. It is the companion book of The Call of the Wild, apparently its mirror.

For the last two months, for one reason or the other, I have been immersed in fantasy and children's books. White Fang was a welcome change. The writing left me spellbound. Here are two excerpts:

"It is not the way of the Wild to like movement. Life is an offence to it, for Life is movement; and the Wild aims always to destroy movement. It freezes the water to prevent it running to the sea; it drives the sap out of the trees till they are frozen to their mighty hearts; and most ferociously and terribly of all does the Wild harry and crush into submission man - man who is the most restless of life, ever in revolt against the dictum that all movement must in the end come to the cessation of movement."

"Life flowed past him, deep and wide and varied, continually impinging upon his senses, demanding of him instant adjustments and correspondences, and compelling him, almost always, to suppress his natural impulses."

On individual interpretations and my takeaway - the evolution of the dog:

I finished this book towards the end of last month. Since then, I have discussed it, if fleetingly, with more than a couple of people. The interactions have left me somewhat amused. One friend finds it eerie, to another it's the classic classic (I have yet to understand exactly what being a classic classic entails) while my favourite is perhaps the idea that it belongs to the same class of quiet reflective books as Walden (which, by the way, I haven't read.) I agree with each takeaway, while being carefully aware that that is not how I saw the book, at all: because I, for one, am most affected by the most literal of interpretations this book could have. This, I admit, is not the deepest essence of White Fang, but this is what the post shall deal with foremost - the evolution of the domestic dog. 

I am a cat person to the core. One of my favourite things about cats is that they are not so much domesticated as willing to share space with not entirely unlikable creatures (that would be us) so long as we serve their every need. A dog, in very stark contrast, lives to please. It is as if there is something inside a dog that exists only for the human caress. And, London says there is. London repeatedly talks about this feeling hidden deep within the wolf, White Fang, this call of the civilisation (let's put it like that) and its slow awakening with increasing contact with people. There is a very obvious analogy there with the savage man, of course, but the book significantly overtly captured my amateur (mostly experiential) interest in animal behaviour. 

Recently, a friend told me that the evolution of dogs was genetic. Very simply put, this meant that there was a certain genetic marker that made wolves afraid of humans, and a kind of wolf evolved in whom this hormone (I suppose) was absent - a forefather of our dog. Hours of swift-fingered Googling (the easiest research there is) led me to interesting tidbits - my friend was right, dogs were not tamed by us, really, but somehow "invented themselves" by becoming steadily tamer around and dependent on humans, in a surprisingly parasitic fashion. 

The rapid and random breeding of dogs makes it hard to trace their precise origin, but it is generally agreed that they were domesticated at least 15000 years ago. The process, I'm sure, was not nearly as simple and affecting as was described in White Fang, yet I wonder what that first wolf-dog felt... (such is the power of historical fiction.)

"There was something calling to him out there in the open. His mother heard it, too. The stream, the lair, and the quiet woods were calling to him, and he wanted her to come. But she heard also that other and louder call, the call of the fire and of man - the call which it has been given alone of all animals to the wolf to answer."

Dogs and men have a special relationship, no doubt. And this book just gets it, from an utterly un-romanticized dog's perspective. The cruelty suffered by White Fang and the building of trust that forms the basis of any dog-human relationship is beautifully expressed. I read on Wikipedia that London suffered criticism for his "fake nature" writing and for overly anthropomorphic animals. I find this accusation ludicrous! The opposite is true. I loved how, throughout the book, London reaffirms that White Fang, the wolf, had no conscious clue of his nature or intentions, that it was plain instinct that guided his every move.

“Had the cub thought in man-fashion, he might have epitomized life as a voracious appetite, and the world as a place wherein ranged a multitude of appetites, pursuing and being pursued, hunting and being hunted, eating and being eaten, all in blindness and confusion, with violence and disorder, a chaos of gluttony and slaughter, ruled over by chance, merciless, planless, endless.”

That pesky allegory:

Yes, White Fang is about life and experience, or often lack thereof. It is so many things, layer beneath layer of story. A fable about a lone pup in search of warmth and love. It is about coming of age. About the pull of the unknown and the loss of innocence that comes of it. White Fang is about reconciling with the wild in us, the savage that lurks in the belly of every civilization. The book humbles you in the face of nature, like The Lord of the Flies, and makes you question your firmest beliefs. It is also, quite unlike The Lord of the Flies, immensely reassuring. A book of quiet reflection, it will give you plenty to mull over.

It is also supremely idiotic in how the white man makes a naturally superior god to the wolf than the tribal. I don't remember there being any memorable women among the humans in the book, but in the interest of not bristling at every turn, I do think that the mother wolf is one of the coolest female characters ever. 

Lost in abridgment; an afterthought:

Grade 5 of the school I teach at has an abridged chapter from this book in their English syllabus... The Grey Cub. It was this more than anything else that got me interested in Jack London - an author whom I have once, long ago, abandoned two pages in... (in a kiddy version of The Call of the Wild). I blame abridgment. Reading White Fang now, I kept wondering why we bother with abridged texts. Is it not a form of censorship?... taking it upon ourselves to decide what is and isn't appropriate for a certain age to read and experience. There is a lot, I realised as I read White Fang, that is lost in in this translation. 

The chapter from the Grade 5 book is mildly interesting, at best. It is simple and straightforward, where Jack London has poured multiple layers of meaning into every line, to peel back and marvel at. Look here - what is a mere "fall down a steep slope" in the textbook is originally this vivid gem of a line. Which child, tell me, won't chuckle at this?

"Now the grey cub had lived all his days on a level floor. He had never experienced the hurt of a fall. He did not know what a wall was. So he stepped boldly out upon the air."

And even if a book is deemed, rightly, as more appropriate for a certain age, then why distort it to suit another? Surely we have plenty of beautiful, profound children's literature to fill up all the textbooks in the world. Why bother with texts that need to be watered down when we have many available that cater to the very needs of the children? During my post-grad, I took up a course in teaching reading where we briefly dealt with how to edit texts for age-appropriateness: replace complex clauses with simple, use grade-level vocabulary and such. At the time, it never occurred to me simply ask; but why the hell just not stick to children's books instead! Thinking of the ones I have enjoyed over the years, I am not convinced they have any less to offer.

Too long to read? White Fang by Jack London - a must read, if ever there was one. 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air is an incredible, honest book. Written in the face of cancer by a man who happened to have spent the better part of his life trying to gain an understanding of death, the book has the urgency of a story that needs to be told. There is no scope for pretences, there are no airs and, perhaps, Kalanithi held only a vague awareness of a reader in mind, and little concern for the impression the book would have on a prospective reader. Its authenticity is its driving force, which is a rare quality for memoirs.

“Most lives are lived with passivity toward death -- it's something that happens to you and those around you. But Jeff and I had trained for years to actively engage with death, to grapple with it, like Jacob with the angel, and, in so doing, to confront the meaning of a life. We had assumed an onerous yoke, that of mortal responsibility. Our patients' lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins. Even if you are perfect, the world isn't. The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet still struggle to win for your patients. You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving.” 

I sometimes feel like my childhood was a montage of medicine names and hospital tales. I grew up around doctors and hospitals and what was most interesting to me about this book was how so many of Paul's experiences with and views on medicine paralleled my father's. The book felt very personal. When Breath Becomes Air offers an insider's view on medicine, as a profession, as a calling, as something that exists on the slippery slope of morality. It gives a glimpse of the doctor's view that we often fail to consider. 

Medicine, the hard reality of a doctor's life, requires you to suspend the values you have internalised - of what is right and wrong, what is permissible and what is just, and most significantly, what is possible. Kalanithi writes, delicately, about music blasting in the operation room, about dissecting cadavers in med school and about each time that a doctor has to tell a family that he is sorry he could not help. 

When Breath Becomes Air is not about cancer. It is written by a man dying of lung cancer, yes. It is most definitely about death, or about life, which is rather the same. But it is not about struggling against the disease. It is not the glorification of a short life, it is not about making the most of your time left, it is no 'Tuesdays with Morrie' (as my sister put it) and while there is nothing wrong with being any of these, I appreciated that the book was written not because the man had cancer but because he wanted to be a writer. His diagnosis only sealed the chosen fate.

“Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn't know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn't really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”

This book has a lot going for it. The biggest reason it appealed to me is for how it has planted this narrative in my head - this internal argument that forced Kalanithi to write the book. Have you read Because I could not stop for Death by Emily Dickinson? It is about the constant presence of death in the carriage of life. There is a persistent awareness of mortality in us, that Kalanithi suggests is what being human entails, be it in the form of loss or disease. What then, taking into account the inevitability of death, constitutes a meaningful life? A brilliant young man, in his final hour, muses on how to live.

When Breath Becomes Air lies on a fascinating intersection of Literature (with an L) and science. Kalanithi writes at length about studying literature with the aim to untangle the complexities of the mind and later, almost dissatisfied with the limits of literature, majoring in neuroscience to analyse the brain and its role in making life meaningful. He flutters between the two, building a life around the practice of science in the best of times, seeking comfort in Samuel Beckett in the worst. He writes about where the two meet, philosophy and science, their intersection. This book is about what literature and science offer and what they lack, explained by a man who intimately knows and loves both.

The book is also about family. About the fate of relationships and ties in life and death. Even as I write this, I wonder how a slip of a book was so many things... and this particular aspect of it, I don't want to spoil with my words. I leave this for you to explore and experience. Terry Pratchett wrote, 'no one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away.' Paul Kalanithi has left us with a stormy ocean. Do read the book.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

Keri Smith was my favourite illustrator, back when I used to know enough illustrators to have a favourite. Her blog, The Wish Jar, is one of the most interesting things on the internet. Tall claim, but trust me. Keri Smith has written a number of activity books for adults. Wreck This Journal, published way back in 2007, is an attempt to get the journal-er to embrace chaos and messiness. Each page has an innovative instruction to effectively wreck the journal - spill coffee! drag it across the floor! colour outside the lines! use makeshift brushes! - exercises to unleash the inner child. 

So far, my singular aim has been to not let any page set the tone for the rest of the journal. Many of the Youtube videos of completed Wreck This Journals have pages and pages completed in a style peculiar to that journal-writer. And while the result is often beautiful, it's not chaotic enough. I want to surprise and myself every time. And so some pages of my journal end up quite lackluster while others are more vivid than ever.

Here are four favourites pages, each very different from each other. The first is inspired from Buddhist mandalas, though I am not sure I possess the skill required for the intricate detailing they demand. The second, apart from a base wash of green, is made entirely using toothpicks dipped in flowy and thick poster colour. The third design is borrowed from my favourite pair of chappals - the prompt was to cover the page in circles - and required a great deal of patience too. The fourth required me to connect the black circles from memory - I originally meant to draw sun flowers but these happened. 

I have been keeping a tortoisey pace - slow and steady - about twelve pages in three months. Nevertheless, the activities are incredibly relaxing, more so after a difficult day at work. Keri Smith is not wrong, there is something specially liberating about colouring outside the lines, about spilling things, tearing up paper, cracking spines and dog-earing pages. I am quite finicky about the way one handles books. But over the past month I have found myself appreciating a good coffee stain, a pageful of notes in the margin, that sort of thing. And with fifty prompts continually whirling around in my head, I feel I have started noticing things better, all around me - patterns, colours, ideas. 

The journal is a very personal thing, and this is hardly a review. But I am sharing it here because in the past a certain amount of accountability has done me a lot of good. I also made an Instagram page (whatever they are called) to share my progress with the Wreck This Journal. It turns out the Insta-world is filled with other Wreckers and it's a treasure to interact. I do hope you check out the page and buy yourself a Wreck This Journal as well. Meanwhile, any recommendations on books about creativity or exercises to keep the creative self alive will be greatly appreciated. 

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett

About the series: Raising Steam by Terry Pratchett is the fortieth book in the Discworld series (yes, four-zero-eth) and the third installment in a mini-series that describes a period of industrial revolution on the Discworld. 

For those of you who don't know, Discworld is a long series of books set on a strange planet swimming through space, comprising a giant turtle carrying on its back four elephants who balance on their heads a magical disc. Discworld inhabited by characters at once like and wholly different from those who people our Earth. It is a humorous retelling of life with a few basic rules changed. The Discworld series has over fifty books, with miniseries dedicated to certain characters.

The Industrial Revolution series of the Discworld stars a scoundrel and thief named Moist von Lipwig who ends up at the centre of many new developments in technology. In the first book, Going Postal, Discworld gets a Post Office. The second book Making Money is all about the first mint and introduction of money to the Disc. Raising Steam, the third and unfortunately, the last in the series is about the invention of.... the steam engine. 

My thoughts: A long time ago, I had listened to a short clip of an interview by Terry Pratchett where he talks about his fascination with the Victorian delight in technology. Here is a link to the video. ''Once upon a time, people wrote poems about technology and communications... I wanted to get the feel of the world where the technology was so new and light and wonderful, that people really cared about it," says Pratchett. 

Raising Steam is all about the spirit of invention, the curiosity and unending effort that drive innovation, its maddening, sometimes silly allure. It is also about the rejection faced by those at the head of change. The modernity embraced by the story and its characters, however, is not restricted to invention, and in a charming way, Raising Steam is also a modern claim on equality between the sexes, between castes and between species. If all this were not enough, it is a heady mixture of wise and sidesplittingly funny. 

When the first engine is built by a young self-made engineer Dick Simnel, it is initially eyed with suspicion. Soon however, it finds its happy audience in Ankh Morpork, a city of entrepreneurs. The engineer wins over investors and lawyers. And it is then that the Patrician of Ankh Morpork assigns the job of ensuring the railway brings profits beyond measure to his city to none other than Moist von Lipwig, reformed crook, fairly decent guy and now Head of the Post Office and Royal Bank.

It is the age of reform in every sense. Non-human species like trolls, goblins and vampires are increasingly letting go of their old binding traditions to become members of Ankh Morporkian society. But not everyone is quite so flexible. Trouble is brewing in the court of the Low King of dwarves. The Low King is modern for his position. But certain dwarf clans stand stubbornly in the way of change, ready to hunt down any of their own who yearn for it. The new railway becomes the perfect target for these anti-progress forces and it is up to Moist von Lipwig to guard the railway against the attack of the dwarves. Meanwhile, the Low King has a special secret to guard...

Select quotes: ''Sometimes, Mister Lipwig, the young you that you lost many years ago comes back and taps you on the shoulder and says, 'This is the moment when civilization does not matter, when rules no longer hold sway. You have given the world all you can give and now it's the time just for you, the chance to go for broke in the last hurrah. Hurrah!"
"The train is the future; bringing people close together. Think about it. People run to see the train go past. Why? Because it's heading to the future or coming from the past. Personally, I very much want the future and I want to see to it that dwarves are part of that future, if it's not too late."
"Moist knew about the zeitgeist, he tasted it in the wind, and sometimes it allowed him to play with it. He understood it, and now it hinted at speed, escape, something wonderfully new, the very bones of the land awakening, and suddenly it seemed to cry out for motion, new horizons, faraway places, anywhere that is not here! No doubt about it, the railway was going to turn coal into gold."

Afterthought: This is a strange, in fact bizarre... ridiculous, comparison to draw but the topic of Raising Steam kept making me think back to nearly twelve years ago, when I had read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, which was similar only in its supreme thrust on the industrial revolution through the construction of the railway. And I once again found myself realising how over-the-top, self-indulgent, threadbare the book had been (even apart from the whole matter of its philosophy), doubling with laughter at how I went through a phase where that felt like good writing. Today, I find, simplicity is the best and hardest to achieve.