Archive for February, 2007

Shadow of the Giant

Posted in SF on February 21, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

Orson Scott Card published his first short story, “Ender’s Game,” in 1977. He later expanded the story into a Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel and turned his attention to sequels. Now, twenty-eight years after “Ender’s Game” first appeared, Card has published the eighth novel about Ender and his companions, Shadow of the Giant.

The Ender books all follow a group of very gifted children who were sent at an extremely young age to an orbiting Battle School and trained for military command, in hopes they would find a way to defeat mankind’s powerful alien enemies the Buggers. Ender Wiggin, Battle School’s top student, was the star of the first four novels in the series. The four subsequent novels have focused on Bean, a.k.a Julian Delphiki, Ender’s friend and lieutenant at Battle School.

An excellent review by Steven H Silver does full justice to Card’s book. I enjoyed the audio cds far more than I might have enjoyed the book, because while the story zips about from Brazil to Rotterdam to Damascus to Hyderabad, it’s not driven by action, but long speeches upon the condition of the world, and the interplay of forces between the superpowers headed by the heroes of Ender’s Jeesh. 

A great deal unfolds as a slow-boiling wrestling match amongst competing interests. Bean and Petra are desperate to recover their brood of kidnapped in vitro fetuses. Caliph Alai, reluctant leader of all Islam, hopes beyond hope to discover a way to rescue intolerant Islam from itself. The living Hindu goddess Virlomi, follows in the footsteps of Gandhi to liberate her nation. The space-bound International Fleet, forbidden to interfere in Earthly affairs, is nonetheless pursuing a long-view strategy aimed at guaranteeing the survival of the human race and finding happiness for their Battle School children.

Above it all is Peter, the much-misunderstood Hegemon, hoping to find a way to grow humanity beyond the need for war. The novel is vividly rendered by a cast of a half dozen talented readers.

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A Long Way Down

Posted in Literary fiction on February 15, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

This is the first book I read by Nick Hornby, and it was a complete pleasure. If you’re sick of life and on the roof of a tall building, there are two ways down. The short way down is over the edge. The long way down is by the stairs or elevator and back into the living world.

Martin, former morning talk-show host is there through a series of bad decisions including sleeping with a minor and has lost his family and job.  When he goes to the roof of Topper’s House on New Year’s Eve to kill himself, he finds that this particular building is a popular spot for jumpers and New Year’s Eve is a popular time for suicide. Pretty soon, he is joined by three other would-be suicides.

Maureen is a middle-aged Catholic woman saddled with a son who is in a persistent vegetative state. Although she is devout and proper and considers suicide a sin, she is worn out by the burden of her son and the guilt over considering him a burden.  Jess is a depressive in her late-teens, obsessed over an ex-boyfriend, and her thoughts of suicide come to her almost on a whim. Finally, JJ is a former rock musician of minor note who’s now a pizza delivery guy. His band has [ha] disbanded, and he has simultaneously been dumped by his girlfriend.

Winding up on the roof at the same time, the distraction ruins the moment completely. In spite of coming from  completely different backgrounds and situations, a tenuous bond is formed between them. They may not like each other, but they are now linked, and the bulk of the book deals with their misadventures as they try to decide whether their lives can be rebuilt or if suicide is still inevitable.

The story is less about happy or sad endings or any sort of ending. In real life we do not talk about happiness without tears, joy without grief. And so is this book, about four people trying to bring themselves back from the brink. It is not what you’d expect, but it’s completely real.

An Equal Music

Posted in Literary fiction, Music, Romance on February 11, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

The painting on the cover is Orpheus leading Eurydice out of the Underworld by Il Padovino. It is the most gorgeous one from a series of wonderful covers that have graced this novel. And particularly apt as well, for the legend of Orpheus and Eurydice is a parable of love, lost and almost restored by the power of music.

Michael is second violinist in The Maggiore, a string quartet, where he still feels like an interloper for having replaced one of the founding members six years earlier. He teaches mediocre students, feels guilty about his non-relationship with his father, is bored of his girlfriend, worries about how he will cope when the legal owner of his precious Tononi violin dies, and is racked by the memory of his estranged love, the talented pianist Julia McNicholl, whose remembrance is entangled in the very music he hears, plays, and breathes – Bach, Haydn, Beethoven.

A concert and other random events brings Julia back into his life and Michael summons all his energy in an effort to resurrect their relationship once more. But Julia is married now, a mother, and she carries the secret burden of hearing loss, that will preclude the possibility of a love affair based on music-making. Nevertheless the two struggle awkwardly to find a new way of loving one another and communicating through music, even bringing Julia into Michael’s group for a performance of Schubert’s Trout Quintet, but their efforts inevitably fail when Michael presses Julia for more commitment than she is able.

Vikram Seth, who once said “writing about music is like dancing about architecture,” spectacularly succeeds in conjuring up particular spaces through aural cues, and not through descriptions of their appearance. Thus Michael’s home town of Rochdale is represented by a lark’s song, his Bayswater flat by its surprising silence, London parks by pigeons “cooing fatly” and Venice by the music of Vivaldi, played by Julia and Michael in the composer’s church. Music is more than a professional interest for them – they make sense of their surroundings through sound and music. This sonic relationship with the world was at once delicious and refreshing.

Seth also succeeds in representing the fragile and delicate relations of a chamber music ensemble, whose members are often as antagonistic as they are empathetic.

A strange composite being we are, not ourselves any more but the Maggiore, composed of so many disjunct parts: chairs, stands, music, bows, instruments, musicians–sitting, standing, shifting, sounding–all to produce these complex vibrations that jog the inner ear, and through them the grey mass that says: joy; love; sorrow; beauty. And above us here in the apse the strange figure of a naked man surrounded by thorns and aspiring towards a grail of light, in front of us 540 half-seen beings intent on 540 different webs of sensation and cerebration and emotion, and through us the spirit of someone scribbling away in 1772 with the sharpened feather of a bird.

Though this is one of the most beautiful love stories I have ever read, a working knowledge of classical music would have enhanced the experience greatly. The inner ear hears the strains of Beethoven, Schubert, Bach and Vivaldi. The inner eye evokes the mood of fall – a dying fall. There is a companion CD performed by Philippe Honoré, featuring all the pieces of music that are mentioned in the book, which is bound to deepen all the magic and mood of the book. Seth credits Honoré as the inspiration behind the novel in the epigraph,

Perhaps this could have stayed unstated.
Had our words turned to other things
In the grey park, the rain abated,
Life would have quickened other strings.
I list your gifts in this creation:
Pen, paper, ink and inspiration,
Peace to the heart with touch or word,
Ease to the soul with note and chord.
How did that walk, those winter hours,
Occasion this? No lightning came;
Nor did I sense, when touched by flame,
Our story lit with borrowed powers –
Rather, by what our spirits burned,
Embered in words, to us returned.

This is an interview with Vikram Seth about An Equal Music in the January Magazine.

The Song of Kahunsha

Posted in Diaspora, India / Indian, World on February 2, 2007 by Ishrath Farhana

The Song of Kahunsha
by Anosh Irani

Paperback, 308 pages, $19.95

Anchor Canada, Random House

When 10 year old Chamdi runs away from the orphanage, bits of glass from the spiked wall and the street get stuck in his feet. From that moment, I carried on with the shards stuck to my heart. We follow the idealistic Chamdi’s hopeless quest to find his father, and ending up starving on the streets of Bombay instead.

It is within a good writer’s power to bring to life what everyone has seen but no one has observed, and Anosh Irani is good. Extremes of social inquality and poverty are a sad and visible fact of urban life, and more so in the megapolis of Bombay. The Song of Kahunsha is a painful experience, and one that is guaranteed to refresh the conscience which has become inured to the plight of children forced to live and beg on the street.

Chamdi falls in with a young brother-sister duo who are planning a heist to escape from the poverty, filth, and the gangster Anand Bhai who controls a network of beggars by ruthlessly maiming them. Needless to say, the plan explodes in their faces, and Chamdi becomes embroiled in Anand Bhai’s part in the wave of communal violence that descends upon Bombay in the wake of the demolition of the Babri mosque.

The one thing that you cannot do with Irani’s offering is to hype it up. This is a text that does not lend itself to symbolism or mysterious interconnections. It is a realistic, straight-talking and incisive look at street children. The array of characters like the armless and legless Dabba, the fleabitten “Handsome” and the toy-boy Khilowna, and polio-ridden Sumdi himself are reminiscent of the Beggarmaster’s entourage in the incomparable Rohinton Mistry’s opus about Bombay, A Fine Balance.

Chamdi’s dreams are innocent and precious. He conjures Kahunsha – a place of magic and beauty, full of words that are positive, that can only soothe, never hurt, a place where people are of all colors…He will create a language that “does not have the word ‘No’ in it. Then his request for food will always have the desired outcome.” Who is to say to a boy who believes that imagination has the power to transform all things that his dreams are going to be squashed by the sordidness of reality?

UNICEF estimates that India has 11 million street children, the largest in the world. They are part of organized gangs, they beg and perform, clean trains, pick pockets, steal, or peddle drugs. They sell flowers or other small goods, work as ragpickers, at tea stalls, as porters, hawkers, for as long as 10 to 12 hours daily. There are ways to help them.

The Song of Kahunsha has been chosen as one of the five books that Canada Reads in 2007. Here is the author’s interview with the CBC.