Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Girls of Riyadh - Rajaa Alsanea

Tale of Four friends of Saudi upper class families, doing their graduation at University and Medical school between Riyadh and US. Each story is the same , one girl after other falling in love with the first male coming on their way, only to be a victim of rejection at the end. The location shifts from Riyadh, to Jeddah to Paris , London , Chicago or San Francisco going through the same set of events.

In every girl there is a rebel inside. One who is against the injustice of the society against women, but forced to live within the structure of the social and religious set up. Once they are out of this limits, most of them are open and free, only to be returning to the same just before landing at the Riyadh airport. Watching Hollywood thrillers, listening to western music , filling their bedrooms with the posters of their idols. Fast cars, designer dress, the rendezvous at Cafes not known to the contemporary Saudi women are a part of the regular affair to these people. 

The men, especially young men are generally weak. While they wanted the adventurous life as in case of the any other men around the world., however, when it comes to taking decisions on their own,  they succumb to the decision of the family.

It does have some novel way of story telling. Each chapter is written as an internet posting on a yahoo group, released every week to the subscribers. Every chapter begins with a commentary on the readers response and the reply by the unnamed narrator.

Banned in Saudi Arabia immediately after the publication in Arabic, this book had an immediate international acclaim. Apart from the curiosity raised because of the controversy it created, this book has no literary value. The translator Marylin Booth caused another controversy charging the publisher and the author, interfering with her translation.

A teenage fiction, of love and despair. The fact that it has come out of the closed society of Saudi Arabia is the only differentiating fact about this book. Otherwise, this is a 'Chetan Bhagat' type of story from a different land. Plain and superficial , very ordinary.

The Girls of Riyadh ( 2005)

Rajaa Alsanea ( translated from Arabic by Marylin Booth and Rajaa Alsanea)

Penguin Books

304 Pages

Rs 295

More Read : Complete-Review , Guadian

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Black Swan - Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Most of the events in our history are happened with we being aware of it. Take the earthquake which devastated Haiti, the tsunami that washed the shores of many countries, the evolution of computers and digital world ( against the prediction of CEO of IBM, stating there sould be demand for 5 computers in the world), the fall of stock market in 1987 or the latest year ago, the dotcom bubble bust.. you can name numerous examples from history. Nassim Nicholas Taleb's new book, continuation from his popular 'fooled by randomness' looks at the follies behind the forecasts and predictions and the use of mathematical and scientific methods in arriving these predictions.

He says the analyst using various data and statistical models are no better in predicting that the taxi driver on the street, who does it out of his intuition. While one can rely on the common practice of tools, the other does not have one to fall back on. The end result is more or less the same. As we look back in the history, none of the events which caused permanent changes in the human life was ever predicted. We use the data from these events to forecast the future, only to be fooled by yet another event. He call these as 'black swan'.

The methods of statistical analysis are also questioned. He classifies them into mediocristan and extremistan. Looking at the samples of average wealth of the cross section of people, can tilt the measurement in absurdly higher numbers if Bill Gates was one of the sample chosen.

Taleb, looking at the unpredictable, highly probable events which can cause maximum impact ( like the Sep11 attack) with the current methods. He is highly critical of the Gaussian tools and the bell curve , which is deployed heavily by the current set of analysts.

Human as a species, uses methods of various nature to help us with justifying the predictions. We use narratives as one tool to explain one that is not understood by us, we look for confirmations from peers, look at silent evidences all to add value to the predictions. But the truth remain that, as a species we cant predict.

This book is about these unpredictable, random events in every day life which have lasting impact on our life. Our inability to understand and plan for the events, and how it is important to be prepared for the 'black-swan'. Funny, well written most of the part, this book can be an eye opener to look at the events with a different angle.


The Black Swan ( 2007 )

Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Penguin Books

366 Pages

Rs 395


Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Disaffection - James Kelman

Patrick Doyle is bored in life. Frustrated with his work as a teacher in the local school, he wanted to leave it all and go for a trip to the south. An alcoholic, to the level of self destruction, he does not have much of life outside the school and the pub. Staying alone, with rare visits to his parents ( forced to watch the telly with nothing to talk to them) and his elder brother ( married with two kids whom he adore) to a an occasional coffee , he has no social circle. Already twenty nine, un-married, with no girl friend , he is an outsider to the society. However, he relishes a silent on way infatuation to his colleague Allison, who is married and supposedly leading an unhappy family life.

Patrick feels himself as a victim of the hypocrisy of the society. He goes through the routine of predictable life. The working class pubs, take-home dinners, lonely weekends. The only solace is the two pipes he finds in front of the pub, which he brings home and plays to drown his sorrow and frustration. Finding himself entrapped in this society, he goes through the thoughts of suicide and of going for a long journey down south ( in the pretext of meeting his old friend). The imminent transfer of his job to a suburban school adds to the feeling of rejection and victimisation within him.

Very depressing novel, the clever use of language and the often funny Scottish dialect is one reprieve from the negative mood through out ( highest count of F words per page). This book was short listed for the Booker price ( he won Booker in 2004 for a later novel). Very powerful, detached narrative, rarely straying from the theme, portraying the inner turmoil of a troubled youth.


A Disaffection (1989)

James Kelman


337 Pages

Read More : Glasgow Guardian , Interview with James Kelman at Barcelona Review

Friday, January 08, 2010

The Gift of Rain - Tan Twan Eng

Philip Hutton, 72, leading a solitary life in Penang, had a visitor from Japan. Michiko, an old lady arrived in search of the story ( is that really so) of her lover Endo, died during the last days of Japanese occupation of Malaysia. Philip, a son of Chinese mother and a British Aristocrat during the hay days of British Rule of the island, was a student of Aikido ( a Japanese Martial Art) with Endo-San. Michiko, wanted to know every thing about Endo, also expressed her desire to visit his final resting place. The story of his association with Endo-san is the story of Philip, the story of Penang during the turbulent years.

Philip's mother died early in his life. His early life ( the story begins when he is 16) is of isolation, of ridicule by friends, Not accepted by the whites as well as the Chinese students. He is rebel in the family of Huttons ( 2 elder brothers, one sister and his father). The crisis of identity makes him a loner within the family. The family business is doing well and his father and his siblings are on a vacation to England, which he refuses to undertake. These six months changed his life forever. Endo, who has rented the nearby  island from his father, accepted Philip as his disciple teaching him Aikido. The relationship with his sensei, has also given him a new way of life. He started appreciating all those he missed in life. New friends, a new realisation about his own family , both on his fathers side as well as his mothers. An invitation from his maternal grandfather, gets him close to his mothers community and their ways. His father and siblings were pleasantly surprised to see the changes in his. He is not only matured physically and mentally, but was also more warm and inclusive in the family.

Endo-san is not here in Penang , for teaching him. He is an emissary of the emperor of Japan. As the second in command of the Japanese Embassy, he is bound by the rule and need of his superiors. Using the knowledge of Philip, he explores and report the places within Penang for their intelligence. The good days are over,as Japan does make advances into Malaysia. His elder brother joins the British Navy and leaves for Singapore, while his close friend Kon, joins the local resistance organisation. During the grand party organised by his father, on the successful completion of the training of William, Endo-san reveals the intention of Japanese to attack Malaysia, to the shock of Philip.

The occupation begin, as the Britishers abandon the island to the safer havens of Singapore. The Huttons refuses to leave, deciding to stay along with the local population in their fortune. Soon, the massacre and torture of the natives began, with more and more of local Chinese are running away to the jungles or the villages. The streets are abandoned, and the Japanese Soldiers are on the rampage. Philip is tormented by the love for his family, the unwritten rule of obeying to your sensei and his sense of patriotism. Unable to choose the path and with none to guide him, he decides to collaborate with the Japanese, on a condition of protection for his family and their business.

He was soon criticised as a traitor and a collaborator. People started keeping away from him, which sooner changed to anger and threats. His close people including those of his family members were turned against him. How, alienated and disturbed by the atrocities of the Japanese, to which he was a participant or a witness, he wanted to make amends. Using his influence within the ruling systems, he started warning those rebel and fighting forces about the imminent strike by the Japanese, and giving list of targeted names in advance, thus facilitating their escape or reduction of damage. Though this was known to a limited set of people, he was eventually identified and was caught for treason. He managed to escape the death, through the sacrifice of his father and the intervention of Endo. But the tarnish on his name was to remain for ever as a collaborator. US had dropped atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the remaining Japanese soldiers in Penang, had surrendered to the returned British Soldiers.

Philip has to live through all these. Loss of his entire family, both the fathers side and his mothers, death of his sensei, his friend and his father. Only to prove the fears and words of the 'soothsayer' who predicted destruction of the family through him. Which, of course was known to the family as well as his Sensei.

"You should not blame yourself. You have the ability to bring all of life's disparate elements into a cohesive whole. Guilt is an invention of the Westerners and their religion".
"Guilt is a human attribute"
"We Chinese are more pragmatic. It was your aunt's and your sister's fate. Nothing more".

This book is of internal conflicts. For Philip, every thing was of dual existence and of wrong choices. He was a Chinese boy at the British circles and a  British among the locals.  His reconciliation with the realities, initiated by Endo-San and by his Grand Father was the initial changes at the young age of 16. Soon, the war put another question. The interest of nation and the interest of family. The choice of going against the Sensei or the anger of his people. Despite the warning of his people of his alleged working for Japanese invasion, (I'm quite certain that my 'Japanese friend' isn't 'one of them'. All those things you've heard are merely rumours) he had to remain close to his Sensei, to continue the association from their earlier life , which is the only reason for him arriving all the way from Japan to the small Island of Penang,  and to be with him.

The novel is in two part. The first, is prior to the world war and the occupation of Malaysia. This is where he is trying to understand himself and his people. His meeting with the grand father and the numerous stories that was told to him about China, his ancestors and his parents. This is where he is also been in contact with Endo-san, accepting as his disciple and learning the art of Aikido. Second half is the war and the destruction of Penang, his people ( where every one of his family members are killed), his attempt to redeem himself by saving many lives. Very slowly paced first half with stories and anecdotes as against a fast paced action packed gory second half.

Very well written book, short listed for Booker in 2007. Cunning characterisation and the events , clever use of oriental philosophical approach and taking refuge in the destiny. Good start of my reading in the new year.


The Gift of Rain

Tan Twan Eng

Myrmidon Books

447 Pages