Friday, April 14, 2017

Why you must read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

The very title of this book will have a polarizing effect; people passionate about the "cause" so to speak will read it with annoying vehemence, the happy meat-gobblers among us will quite possibly smirk/scoff/shake their heads and walk away. This is a problem. Because, this is a book for both the aforementioned extremes, and all the middles. Eating Animals should be required reading for every adult.

I simply wanted to know - for myself and my family - what meat is. Where does it come from? How is it produced? What are the economic, social and environmental effects? Are there animals that it is straightforwardly right to eat? Are there situations in which not eating animals is wrong?

WHY IS THIS BOOK NOT WHAT YOU THINK?: The book features interviews of animal rights workers, farmers, owners of slaughterhouses and chicken farms, workers in these places, and government animal rights officers. Vegans, vegetarians, and meat-lovers, and undecided half-and-halfs. It's not simply a recitation of statistics and facts. It presents the whole picture from the points of view of all the arguing sides.

It must be truly difficult to write an unbiased book on a topic which you have strong opinions on. Foer achieved that in Eating Animals to an impressive extent. Most articles or documentries on non-vegetarianism and vegetarianism have been created explicitly to convert people to one side, or to defend another. The objective of Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer is to start an open, non-defensive, unoffensive discourse on our diet.

Food in our society has far greater significance than as the means to survival - food is built into tradition and custom, food is family and emotion, and so, food is important. Aren't your childhood memories generously sprinkled with grandma's recipes and home-cooked meals? Its societal significance is part of the reason we are so reluctant to consider whether what we eat is actually what we should be eating. But chew on this, less than a hundred years ago, the "necessary evil" tag was also given to slavery. 

Foer tells us in no uncertain terms that it is immaterial whether we like animals, whether we eat meat, whether we are vegetarian for health or for moral reasons, whether our religion goes against the practice of meat-eating. There is something wrong in the existing system of animal farming, something that is more important than beliefs and choices. And factory farmers and animal slaughterhouses profit on our willing ignorance, our neglectful silence on the topic of cruelty in the animal husbandry.

So, as a first step in a long process, in his book, Foer has started a conversation about eating animals. He hopes that the information he has brought to light in this book will help us unite, vegetarians and meat-eaters, in changing the worst parts of the animal farming process. Eating animals may be correct, or it may be wrong, but animal farms are undoubtedly wrong. Foe shows us that we cannot ignore what is on our plates any longer, just to protect each other's egos and feelings, just in the name of tradition.

WHY IS FOER DIFFERENT FROM THE AVERAGE PRO-VEGAN-PREACHER?: For the longest time, Foer did not like animals. He found them to be a nuisance. It was when he got a pet dog that he first bonded with a vapid non-human beast. Even so, he often found the creature inexplicable and absurd. It was when he discovered that he was going to be a father that Foer first considered the possibility of being a vegetarian, as he began to wonder which tradition he would pass on to his child, as he considered the responsibility of parenthood and whether he knew enough of his own culture to educate another being in it. 

"Nothing inspires as much shame as being a parent. Children confront us with our paradoxes and hypocrisies, and we are exposed. You need to find an answer for every why - Why do we do this? Why don't we do this? - and often there isn't a good one. So you say, simply, because. Or you tell a story you know isn't true. And whether or not your face reddens, you blush. The shame of parenthood - which is a good shame - is that we want our children to be more whole than we are, to have satisfactory answers. My son not only inspired me to reconsider what kind of eating animal I would be, but shamed me into reconsideration."

HOW IS THE SYSTEM CRUEL? WHAT IS 'CRUEL'? Now, 'cruelty' might be a subjective term. So here are facts; straight-up, indiscriminately chosen by opening the book to random pages. Will you read or will you turn away?

1. Chickens are widely genetically manipulated to produce more flesh faster. The average weight of these birds increased by 65% from 1935 to 1995, while their time-to-market dropped by 60% - to understand better, imagine human children growing to be 300 pounds in ten years by eating only Granola bars. KFC chickens are almost always killed in 39 days. They're babies, that's how quickly they have grown. 

2. In cattle slaughter, the cows are first stunned with a "knocker" which hits  them right between the eyes. If knocked out too effectively, animals bleed out slower because the heart stops pumping when they die. So factories ensure that the animals remain conscious after the first hit and bleed out quickly while still alive. Such meat tastes better. The side effect is that cows often wake up during the process of slowly killing them.

3. Four out of five times a female pig will spend sixteen weeks of her pregnancy confined in a crate, where she won't be able to move. Her bone density will drop. She will be covered in multiple sores. Normally, a mother pig gives birth to only one piglet, however in factory farming, they are 'intensively bred' to produce as many as nine babies at a time. 15% of these mothers go insane. Piglets in these confinements are born with deformities. The need for the crates? Cost-effective management.

4. Did you know? Roughly 35 classified species of sea horses worldwide are threatened with extinction because they are "unintentionally" killed in seafood production? And sea horses are only one of the over hundred sea animal species which are the "by catch" in the modern tuna industry.

5. According to a report published in Consumer Reports, 83 percent of all chicken meat is infected with either campylobacter or salmonella at the time of purchase. The conditions of factory farmed animals, the filth of the factory farm, affects what ends up on our plates more than we know. An estimated 76 million cases of food-borne illnesses occur in America each year.

Cruelty is not that the animals are killed. They die natural deaths too. Cruelty is how they are killed, the extended suffering before the actual death, the sadistic treatment of animals so commonly witnessed in any factory farm (people who kill on a daily basis need to demonize their victims - many accounts in this book from workers themselves attest to the sadistic torture of animals by factory workers - urinating on chicken, beating pigs senseless, raping the cattle.) It's a lawless industry.

Cruelty is not knowing where and how our food has been. Cruelty is turning a blind eye to all of this, all of this which is done only to make that burger five dollars cheaper. 

LET'S BE HONEST, YOU'D RATHER SKIP THROUGH ALL THE GORE. All of this may be wholly unpalatable. But do it. Read the book. Because by turning a blind eye, we're not protecting out right to make our own dietary choice. We are ignoring the possibility of creating a world where we could have our cake and eat it too - a world where farming animals won't be as cruel because the consumers demanded animal protection over reduced prices. Where factory farms will be open to public viewing, monitored by cameras, because they won't dare have a hundred dead birds to hide. Read the book. Skip the bad parts if you want, read and accept and discuss and recommend the essence of it.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

On Children's Books, February Reads and Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt*

*Not in that order.

Tuck Everlasting: I had always thought that a film whose crowning glory is its beautiful narration must have been a really good book. Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt has been on my to-read list for a long time, ever since happy afternoons spent watching the feel-good movie. (I will never get over how pretty Alexis Bledel looks in the movie.) Tuck Everlasting is a strange tale about immortality and its consequences.

The Foster House is a towering structure that lies at the edge of a forest, and the beginnings of a small village. The only important family in the village, the Fosters own the forest. It's a mysterious wood that people would rather stay away from, anyway. The Fosters are a very proper family, and Winifred Foster is a lonely child. A ten-year-old who is not even allowed to play in peace in her own front yard, Winnie decides one day to run away from home. 

In the forest, Winnie meets a handsome young boy. He's sitting beside a spring drinking water, when she comes across him. Thirsty herself, Winnie tries to drink from the spring. But he forbids her. His mother arrives after him, and before she knows it, Winnie finds herself kidnapped by the strangest family - who call themselves the Tucks.

The Tucks tell Winnie a story - about a spring that gives eternal life to the drinker and a curse that entraps those who drink from it. The Tucks claim to be over a hundred years old. And now that Winifred knows their secret, they refuse to let her go. And as strange as this story is, here's the oddest part of the affair - it is with the Tucks that Winnie feels the most comforted, and she has no wish to return home. But the Tucks don't know that they are being followed and Winnie has no clue what life has in store for her if she's found.

Like the movie, it is a feel-good story, quite easy to devour in a single sitting. It is a neatly wrapped story, with a tidy bow atop. Thing resolve marvellously at  the end, so much so that you almost wonder, was there any conflict at all?

On Children's Book Choices - Children these days have a much more vibrant choice of books to read than I did. Now I don't know if this is city-, country- or simply individual-specific; but I have a feeling there did not use to be quite as many books about rat-burgers or underpants back in the day. When I recommend books to children, I try to find a balance between the whimsy and the "life lesson" for lack of a better word. Recommendations that have worked wonders so far include Lemony Snicket, Diana Wynne Jones, Neil Gaiman, J. K. Rowling (need I even say?) And as a teacher, trying to justify my choices, I think that what ties these together that each of these books, though child-like and playful and fun, introduce a new string of thought to the reader's mind - have a deeper theme, a message, an idea, a perspective.

And Tuck Everlasting does that beautifully. The other day, I was discussing with a few of my classes whether it makes sense to them that books like Harry Potter are banned in certain schools either because they promote witchcraft (which, not being Christians ourselves, we can be coolly objective about) or because they have themes a bit too adult for a young age. The responses were varied - one child said there was no need to expose children to things beyond their understanding as misunderstanding are worse than naivete. Another was convinced that anything that will be discovered eventually, may be discovered from a safe source right now.

The conversation - stemming from our read of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone - took a turn to the topic of death, and consequently, immortality. When did my dear children first become aware of the concept of death? I made it a point not to come out and say this in so many words, of course, because there are still some faces in the class with that touch of rare innocence that can be so easily lost. And yet, it was a discussion worth the effort, for it brought out precious perspectives... is there a right age to find out about death? Would you tell your kid sister about it? Can you imagine what Dumbledore meant when he said... "To a well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure."?

The kids discussed the pros and cons of immortality and that is when I found myself talking about Tuck Everlasting. I think books are the perfect window to the unknown, or to that which cannot be well grappled with. They do not rush you into anything, like a movie, which can surprise you and cannot be unseen. You can set your own pace with a book and choose your takeaway. Tuck Everlasting would be a beautiful book to recommend a child who has just discovered mortality. I want to try and procure the book for our school library. Here's an excerpt:

"Dying’s part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can’t pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that’s the blessing. But it’s passing us by, us Tucks. Living’s heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it’s useless, too. It don’t make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I’d do it in a minute. You can’t have living without dying. So you can’t call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.”

One adorable response to the question of the desirability of immortality - maybe if you're a vampire, it will be cool, because then you won't be so depressed that everyone you used to know is now dead. Because you will be evil. (Well, if only it were that simple, said Spike, Angel, Stefan, Bill and what's-his-shiny-face.)

February Reads: I did not read the planned four books, but have still somehow had an eventful two months of the new year. Apart from Americanah, which I reviewed, I have read Tuck Everlasting, Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett, A Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket and came across and fell in love with The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams. Currently immersed in two books - Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury. Many reviews coming up, soon I hope. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This post will go into great detail about some of the characters in the book, their motives and such, but not any plot developments. I wouldn't call any of my observations spoilers as such; but the post would probably be more interesting to someone who has read the book.

"If you don’t understand, ask questions. If you’re uncomfortable about asking questions, say you are uncomfortable about asking questions and then ask anyway. It’s easy to tell when a question is coming from a good place. Then listen some more. Sometimes people just want to feel heard. Here’s to possibilities of friendship and connection and understanding."
- an extract from the blog "Raceteenth Or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black", featured in this book.

It is impossible to start this post without linking to the Danger of A Single Story TED Talk by Adichie which, even after watching it a zillion times over, doesn't fail to amaze/inspire me. This TED talk is the reason I wanted to read Americanah and part of the reason I was convinced I would love it.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was born in Nigeria, the fifth of six children. In the talk, she describes having spent her childhood in a typical middle class Nigerian family. She grew up on a university campus where her parents worked and was an early voracious reader. She studied medicine at the University of Nigeria and moved to the U.S. at the age of nineteen. After spending four years in the States alone, she went back to Nigeria, and has since split her time between both the places. I tell you all this because Americanah, at a first glance, seems like a semi-autobiographical story.

Ifemelu has lived in America for thirteen years and is making plans now to return to her home country. But she has been away too long and a lot has changed. As a young girl, Ifemelu had not been attracted to the idea of America. Her fascination with it developed as a teenager in a Lagos school, through her friend and lover, Obinze - a professor's son who thrived on American books, movies and music. When Ifemelu had moved to the US to study, Obinze planned to join her. But he never made it.

And, throttled by cultural shock, Ifemelu lost touch with her earlier self, and her true love. Now, Ifemelu is a successful blogger, dating a Black American professor. She writes about race and identity politics in America from the perspective of a non-American Black. A Princeton graduate, she has no apparent reason to leave the States. Yet, after more than a decade's disconnect from home, Ifemelu's heart still plays with the possibility of a reunion with Obinze, and a future in Nigeria. If, only if...

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie weaves a seamless saga, a book that is not limited by one topic or intended audience. No emotion is diluted, there is no forced subtlety. It is a story steeped in culture and were I asked to grind its theme down to one thing, I would say it is about human interaction. 

Over and over, it deals with our constant, often unconscious, attempts to redefine our identity to suit the cultural context we are cocooned in. Ifemelu is an eminently unlikable character, because she is un-rooted. She tries on identities like clothes and casts them aside with apparent ease, without noticing and for the longest while, letting us notice, the toll it takes on her. With a white boyfriend, she plays the role of the exotic black woman. With her black American professor friends, she attempts to be an intellectual. Even her carefully constructed online persona is just that - constructed. For Ifemelu, it was only with Obinze that she never bothered to be anything, and just was. And in the midst of every great upheaval of her life, she finds herself craving that comfort of being true to herself.

The story is peppered with an amazing array of characters. One of my favourite people in Ifemelu's American life was her cousin, Dike, the product of her Aunty's affair with a rich officer back in Nigeria. Ifemelu is often shown to be puzzled by, even a little derisive of, the change her aunt undergoes after moving to America, where she adopts what Ifemelu and Obinze term an exaggerated sense of gratitude.

"“Dike, put it back,” Aunty Uju said, with the nasal, sliding accent she put on when she spoke to white Americans, in the presence of white Americans, in the hearing of white Americans. Pooh-reet-back. And with the accent emerged a new persona, apologetic and self-abasing. Sometimes, while having a conversation, it would occur to Ifemelu that Aunty Uju had deliberately left behind something of herself, something essential, in a distant and forgotten place."

But the exact effect that immigration has on Dike, a baby at the time of his arrival, is lost on Ifemelu. She is a child of Africa, raised without the concept of race. Dike, on the other hand, has race and colour woven into his identity. In spite of being an easygoing and altogether popular boy in his school, Dike does face bits of unfair aggression. But he trains himself to laugh it off - a camp teacher who assumes he wouldn't need sunscreen, for instance. What I love about the character of Dike is the interesting juxtaposition of his relation with Ifemelu versus her interaction with the rest of her American mates.

For all the superior conviction with which Ifemelu blogs her mini theses on racial identity, interactions with Dike leave her puzzled and helpless. Her failing lies perhaps in considering him more Nigerian than American, like herself. Throughout the book, her African Americans friends call out her ability to write about race successfully as a luxury that she can afford because she was not born on the receiving end of racial prejudice. If she were a black American and wrote what she wrote, she would naturally, they say, be called dramatic and shunned. Ifemelu often bristles at such pronouncements, but her repeated inability to understand Dike's point of view, his inner struggle, shows that such judgments are truer than she would care to accept.

Race is a complex issue and there does not exist a singular definition of oppression or racial identity. Through endless examples, Ifemelu stresses on this. There is no united league of the oppressed, but it is somehow worse to be black. Popular media tries to serve us a single story of racism; and popular opinion tries to convince itself that that story no longer exists - that 'proper' racism is mostly gone.

“In America, racism exists but racists are all gone. Racists belong to the past. Racists are the thin-lipped mean white people in the movies about the civil rights era. 

Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist. Somebody has to be able to say that racists are not monsters.”

Obinze's character and his story add an honest charm to the book. His perspective is most interesting in contrast to hers because he is as grounded in his identity as she is not. His suffering, his struggle comes not from inside as hers, but from his inability to fit in with those around him, to be what he is expected to be in changing surrounding, to construct himself a fitting persona. His straightforward simplicity reminded me absurdly, randomly, of Konstantin Levin from Anna Karenina - though why they should seem similar I haven't given a thought. Obinze's was the character that really propelled me to keep on reading the book, whom I was invested in... I wanted to know what would happen with him. Even his experience with class prejudice somehow hit closer home that many of Ifemelu's experiences.

There were times when the story lines felt a little maudlin, somewhat prone to cliches. And it perhaps could have been a shorter book, but finding faults in the book has proved to be a needles-in-a-haystack task for me. I loved it. I cannot imagine anyone not loving it.
You know, I'm technically brown-skinned, but I'd find it funny to call myself a person of colour. I've never lived outside India, that may be why (which is not to say we don't have any racism within)... even so, I understand, at least in part, the absence of the idea of race in the mind of a person of colour. I kind of liked how unapologetic-ally African the names of the characters were, and that they came with no directions on how they were to be pronounced. I learnt a great many new things about African culture. There is something that I forgot to mention in the rest of the review that deserves to be here, so I will add it to this paragraph of miscellaneous unsorted final thoughts - the language, the language, the language! Adichie's lines are precise, cutting and just divine. My sister, who raced through the book in the span of a day probably, said the book was impactful (not verbatim), that she did love it, but it did not not make any groundbreaking observation. This is true. But it did have dollops of wisdom delivered in a way that made me think - I have always known this, I just didn't know that I knew it. And one of the great pleasures of reading, to me, is to find instinctive convictions and passing observations of mine put rather gloriously into words.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip Dick

Warning - Minor spoilers: but none for the plot. I am very glad to have heard of this book only through Jess Mariano on Gilmore Girls, though this should have given me a clue of its cult status. But I don't suppose watching Blade Runner would have pushed me to read the book, so I am quite happy I hadn't.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick reminds me of a Terry Pratchett quote... "What would humans be without love? Rare."

The story begins far into the future when most of the life on our planet has been wiped out by a plague of dust. Man has colonized Mars and nearly everyone has left the planet Earth to live on the colonies. Many people in the world have been contaminated by the dust, altered to become something not quite human, not quite right. These are called 'specials'. Still on Earth with the specials are certain people like our protagonist whose jobs have kept them back.

Technology has advanced to such an extent now that it is impossible to tell the difference between man and machine by simple physical appearance. The only thing that androids lack and humans have is the power of empathy. The colonies are run with the help of android-slaves, who have a habit of disappearing and running off. The Earth police are equipped with a technology that can determine humanity and android-ness based on reactions to certain psychological stimuli. Very simply put, this device measures how many seconds it takes one to wince when someone gorily describes murder or animal slaughter.

Rick Deckard is an Earthling and a bounty-hunter, whose job it is to catch and terminate any androids which have illegally alighted on the planet by escaping from the colonies on Mars. When a new type of android arrives which may fool the police technology, Rick begins to wonder what empathy really is. The androids he meets in his hunt test the limits and possibilities of his sense of empathy, and he wonders how well a judge it can be of humanity. Could a robot feel empathy? Could a human love a robot? Must a human possess empathy?

Through the book, introducing us to newer concepts and characters of this world along the way, the author asks and explores these questions. A world where electric animals are bred as pets, because most live species are extinct. A 'special' who cannot tell a live animal from a fake. A man who decides to help out a band of escaped androids. A robot who believes it is human. A machine to control and assign moods. Whatever does it mean to be human?

This is an excellent read. What Dick lacks in poetry of language, he makes up for in linguistic inventiveness. One of the non-living monsters of Dick's world is "kibble" which is the word for odds and ends accumulated over time, any useless 'stuff.' He says our lives are full of it and it wreaks degradation in our lives. When no one is around, he says, kibble reproduces itself. It's material chaos. This is just one example of the words that he has derived for this world. An elaborate "diktionary" of his terms is available online - a must read to get a taste of his writing.

The major theme is life and survival, and it also focuses of religion, popular culture and marginalization. Unlike most dystopian fiction, this does not have a 'hero against  the system' plot. Even so, I am a little tired of bleak futures, and would like recommendations of science fiction books with brighter todays and tomorrows. Or something that is set in the future but has a different immediate conflict, like Asimov's initial Robots mysteries. I'd like something of that sort to be the next book I read for the Science Fiction Experience 2017

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Peeling the Onion by Günter Grass

(I had to finish this in November, for German Literature Month, but it spilled into December.)

The first book I finished this weekend was a beautiful autobiography of German Nobel-Prize-winning author Günter Grass. The title, Peeling the Onion, is a running metaphor for peeling back the layers of memory, gradually, carefully, taking care not to cut too deep too soon and unleash withheld tears. It is popularly considered a confessional account of Grass's entry into the Waffen-SS, the Nazi military wing. It follows him through his days as an ex-Nazi prisoner of war and the later years as a sculptor and an artist, and how these life experiences influenced his writing and peace-time politics. 

To start with, let me just say I have read nothing by Grass and not a lot about him. And yet, I knew this - he was the voice of post-war Germany, their self-appointed moral compass, and the man who said, "it is a citizen's first duty to not keep quiet." And yet it took Grass so many years to break his silence. This book caused quite a stir when it was published, precisely because of the irony of its revelation; the fact that Germany's so-called conscience-figure had been a willing believer in the Third Reich. This was why I was looking forward to reading the book. I wanted to read the 'confession of guilt', make sense of it, the scandal it caused; it could be a non-fictional version of Miller's The Crucible, and with this expectation, I was setting myself up for disappointment.

I went in expecting a very different book. Peeling the Onion is not Grass's daring confession about his part in the Waffen-SS. Guilt is a major theme in the book, and war played a major role in his life - but not in the way you'd expect or want it to be. The controversy, in hindsight, makes as little sense as accusing To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee of racist talk or trying to ban Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury.

The controversy takes a cursory glance at the book and misses the subtext. Grass was not a hypocrite, for the man demanding and expecting honesty from fellow men did not carry himself on a high horse. This book shows, in fact, that he was rather a man who had spent the better part of his life struggling with remorse for not having done just that - for not having had the courage to speak up. For not asking, "Why?" The narrator of a book is ideally a sympathetic character. This, Grass is not. Yet, it is perfectly possible to look past that for the book has a lot to offer. 

"When shortly after my eleventh birthday synagogues in Danzig and elsewhere were set aflame and Jewish merchants' shop windows shattered, I took no part, yet I was very much a curious spectator. I simply stood by and observed, and was, at most, surprised.

No matter how zealously I rummage through the foliage of my memory, I can find nothing in my favour. My childhood years seem to have been completely untroubled by doubt. No, I was a pushover, always game for everything that the times, which called themselves - exhilaratedly and exhilaratingly - modern, had to offer."

Grass is unerringly honest. And this honesty is disconcerting to read, as in the chapter 'His name was WEDONTDOTHAT'. Grass tells us about a spirited blue-eyed blonde boy, a fellow soldier in the Luftwaffe, who would pointedly refuse to hold any weapon because it was un-German. "We don't do that," he would say, no matter how and how often he was punished for it, and "Wedontdothat" became his name; Grass talks about how relieved they were when, one day, he disappeared from te camp and with him, the pricking doubt he put in the rest of their minds finally vanished. Grass didn't care where he had gone, though they all knew. It was difficult to take Grass's brusque honesty in a stride at such times. I had to take periodic breaks from the book as it was too emotionally charged to read at one go. 

Of course, the infamous Waffen-SS is only a minor feature in the 500-page book. One-fourth of it, perhaps. A large quarter of the book is about hunger, and how Grass spent most of his life satisfying one hunger after the other, hunger of the stomach during war-time, of the flesh as a youth and of the mind. How hunger frequently dictated the course his life would take. Grass details his experience as a prisoner of war at the age of eighteen. Injured, in mind and body, yet never having shot a bullet himself. Tells us how it was to meet Jews for the first time since the war, how it was to learn about the horrors of the concentration camp and how the ex-soldiers would refuse to believe that it existed. He talks about listening to late night arguments on politics and coming to terms with his ignorance and indifference. He details later learning what happened to his family "when the Russians came." How the war changed his mother, who never told him what really went on when Danzig, the hometown, was raided. How it broke his sister's spirit. It is a cinema-reel of atrocities and the clear sun-lit reality of it all makes it so difficult to tell black from white. The supposed controversy of Grass's revelation has long ceased to matter at this point.

Günter Grass was a sculptor. This, I did not know at all. He had been an art enthusiast as a child and artist was one of the things he wanted to grow up to be. A waning half of the book is about his career as a sculptor, the women in his life during this time. Amidst all the women (and his children) in his life, this book details only one of his marriages, to Anna Schwarz, the dancer. His second wife Ute makes guest appearances in his travels.

The various characters of his numerous books start taking shape now, inspiration flowing in from his war memories, and we finally begin to learn a little something about Günter Grass, the writer. He used to stand when he wrote! What a weirdly inconsequential thing to discover, yet it has stuck, maybe because it is so random - it was a habit he picked up as a sculptor, he wrote at his stand-up desk. He was left-handed, and talks as though he is constantly aware of his left-handedness; and of course he is, so am I. (Aren't right-handers constantly aware of their right-handedness? Must be, because so many show surprise when I casually raise my left hand to do something.) He also dwells on his transformation from a total non-smoker who'd use cigarettes as a favourite barter in his prison days to the young artist who smoked for careful pretense until it became an incorrigible habit. 

Often he drifts into the third person talking not of himself but a boy and I cannot help but wonder, is he making it impersonal for our sake or his own? But, of course, he has already told me that. I should know by now... nothing escapes him, least of all his own failings. The very first sentence of the book reads - "Today, as in years past, the temptation to camouflage oneself in the third person remains great."  

It cannot be easy to fashion a tangible narrative out of wisps of memory. Moreover, to convert ones past into something of interest to another. The writing does not possess an inch of self-importance or flattery, nor does he ever put on an air of fake modesty. Quite possibly because it took me so long to read it, but also because of how far and deep it extended, I neared the end of the book with the conclusive impression that I had experienced a lifetime - a long, long trek, and I was the mental equivalent of out-of-breath.

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...