Monday, May 15, 2017

The Cold War [2005]

Being a prominent Cold War academic and historian – he’s a Professor of Military & Naval History at the Yale University, a member of the Wilson Centre’s Cold War International History Project, and author of a number of influential books and articles on this field – writing yet another book on this might have been just another day in the park for John Lewis Gaddis. However, what made the succinctly titled The Cold War truly different from anything he’d written on this yet, is that he had to traverse a fine line between the rigour of an academician, on the one hand, and the ability to captivate non-academic readers, on the other. In other words, it had to be commensurate with his stature, while also having the appeal, lucidity and brevity of a paperback. Right from the foreword, where he began with George Orwell composing his ominous final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four – the 1948 masterpiece which would provide a near-surreal mirror to the post-War years ahead – one gets an immediate confirmation that this is going to be a compulsive read on a subject that couldn’t be more gripping and fascinating than this. The book covers nearly every key facet that either defined or was borne out of the Cold War – nuclear arms race and multiple crises averted between two superpowers at political and ideological loggerheads; the spread of overt and covert influence (forced occupations, regime changes, etc.) across East Europe, the Middle-East, Far East, Africa and Latin America; the devastating wars where the superpowers were brought to their knees (Korean War, Vietnam War, Afghanistan War, etc.); the personalities who shaped history (Truman, Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Honecker, de Gaulle, Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan, Deng Xiaoping, Pope John Paul II, Lech Wałęsa, Gorbachev et al), the defining events of the era (Berlin Wall, Cuban Missile Crisis, the Suez Crisis, the Revolutions of 1989, etc.). However, instead of being just a text on history, it was more of an op-ed, a critique and a discourse on geo-politics, and, oftentimes, also a diatribe, given that far more pages have been devoted to Soviet atrocities vis-à-vis the American ones.

Author: John Lewis Gaddis
Genre: Non-Fiction/Political History/War
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Rosie Project [2013]

The basic premise for The Rosie Project, the immensely successfully debut of Aussie IT Consultant-turned-novelist, is a romantic-comedy at its most archetypal, viz. “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl”. Fortunately, what prevented this book from becoming just another rom-com, which are a dime a dozen to start with, was its highly unconventional protagonist. Don Tillman has a staggering IQ and memory, is very well established as a genetics professor, and has a passing physical resemblance to Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird; yet, on the verge of hitting 40, he’s still single (and alone too). Don is afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the downsides of that have made him “weird” – his EQ is close to nil, he follows a highly standardized form of existence, he has an aversion to physical contact, and his literal-mindedness and extreme rationality and geekiness have ensured that he has no friends – except for Gene, a middle-aged womanizing colleague, and his psychiatrist wife Claudia. Deciding that he wants to get married despite his acute social ineptness, he concocts the ludicrous Wife Project – an elaborate questionnaire for identifying a compatible partner. All his well laid-out plans, however, get thrown out of the window with the arrival on the scene of Rosie – unpredictable, irrational, disorganized, emotionally vulnerable, and yes, ravishingly beautiful too. She couldn’t be any more incompatible than what Don could have ever conceived, and yet, over the course of the book’s length, he starts developing, over the course of the arduous task of identifying who her biological father is, the kind of bond and proximity with her which he’s never experienced before. Despite its generic conventionality, straightforward narrative structure straight out of Hollywood, sentimental core, and the despairing arc of its protagonist conforming into what the society wants him to be, among others, the book’s irreverence, zany humour, entertaining escapades, and most notably, a narrator as amusing and out-of-the-ordinary as Don, are certain to make this a hilarious read, if not a particularly profound one.

Author: Graeme Simsion
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Language: English
Country: Australia

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Monsignor Quixote [1982]

The delightful late-career gem Monsignor Quixote, one of his so-called entertainers, provided Graham Greene a rather direct and yet a disarmingly light-footed means to delve into his favourite theme, viz. crisis of faith. The canvas, structure, setting and even personality types of Cervantes’ legendary 17th century classic Don Quixote provided the inspiration and foundation for this quirky novel filled with absurdist comedy and warmth. And, like another of his brilliant, albeit lesser-known, works, Travels with My Aunt, its central tenet is a picaresque road journey undertaken by two persons who couldn’t be more unlike one another – they do not just get to know facets about their compañero, through their differences, during the course of their eventful trip, it also allowed Greene the perfect springboard for his explorations, through a mix of whimsical banter and seriocomic misadventures, on the inseparable nature of religion and politics, particularly in the troubled and volatile landscape of post-Franco Spain. In a cheeky blurring of fact and fiction, the tale’s eponymous protagonist, a parish priest in the town of El Toboso, is apparently a descendent of his more famous namesake. When a moment of good fortune gets him promoted to a monsignor, his local bishop, who had scant respect for him to start with, becomes outraged enough to allow him a leave of absence. And so, along with “Sancho”, a Marxist-Communist ex-Mayor – an atheist, whose skepticism and lack of belief has, ironically, made the two something of a friend – he embarks on a road trip on an antiquarian Seat 600, which refuses to do over 40 and which he lovingly calls his “Rocinante”. Their quixotic odyssey, across cities and countryside, and through chapels, cheap hotels and brothels, earns them the scorn of both the Guardia Civil and the Church; meanwhile, over ample supplies of wine, they chat and quibble, with droll wit and melancholic air, over Catholicism, politics and everything in between.

Author: Graham Greene
Genre: Comedy/Picaresque Novel/Road Novel/Religious Satire
Language: English
Country: UK

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Stasiland [2001]

I’d spotted Stasiland around 8 months back while rummaging through the intoxicating bookstore Shakespeare & Sons, located at a quieter alley in the otherwise lively Mala Strana, and I’d known right away that I’d read this book soon. The Ministry for State Security, better known as Stasi, created a near-perfect physical manifestation of the dystopian, Orwellian world of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the erstwhile GDR or East Germany; ironically, it also provided a disconcerting mirror into the future where mass surveillance by governments on the private lives of its citizens is seen by most as an accepted norm, and perhaps even a necessary one. Like The Wall Jumper, Peter Schneider’s mesmerizing hyperlinked non-fiction account of life in divided Berlin, this gripping polyvocal journalistic novel written by Anna Funder – the form immediately reminded me of Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys, with this being more spunky, and more personal too – takes its readers behind the Iron Curtain into a world where nearly every aspect of nearly everyone’s lives were followed and chronicled with clinical efficiency by the state secret police. Funder, while working at a TV company in Berlin after the Berlin Wall had fallen, felt the urge to chronicle about this world and the myriad stories of lives irrevocably changed by the deeply insecure regime but left to be lost to time – deeply human tales of people who are left scarred for their lives, unreconciled to their memories, still seeking answers, striving to ensure history is not forgotten, and, in the case of former Stasi men, callous, unrepentant, or even hoodwinked themselves. Through these tales which are disturbing, infuriating, heartbreaking, and at times, darkly funny, and interspersed with the author’s wry observations, disarming style and superb storytelling, one is plunged right into the bleak and colourless Cold War zeitgeist of East Germany, with its misinformation, disinformation, mistrust, paranoia, bureaucratic machinery, moody atmosphere, strange ironies and a Big Brother that had all its people under constant watch.

Author: Anna Funder
Genre: Non-Fiction/Political History/Montage
Language: English
Country: Australia

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta

With The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta, Llosa created as much a powerful novel on revolutionary politics – which, though written in the Latin American context, would be relevant for most oppressive third-world regimes – as he provided a glittering discourse on fact being represented through fiction or, for that matter, fiction masquerading as fact, leading to the indistinguishability between history and myth. The tour de force work, simmering with both vigor and vitality, was compelling in its political consciousness, illuminating in its ideas on the nature of fiction, and commanding in its formal audacity. The eponymous protagonist, a life-long Trotskyist from Lima and a perennial outsider, after a life dreaming of revolution to rip Peru of social iniquity and political persecution, led a failed armed uprising in the Andes in the 1950s – an event which, now over two decades later, is largely forgotten despite having served as a precursor to an explosion of the revolutionary spirit across Peru. The book’s narrator (a stand-in for Llosa himself), who has built a career as an author and émigré in Paris, but has never been divorced from his country, and purportedly a childhood friend of Mayta, has taken the onerous task of re-constructing the events that culminated into his leap of faith, and de-constructing the myths and legends surrounding it. Using a series of candid interviews with the people who knew Mayta – his loving aunt, his heartbroken ex-wife, the level-headed sister of his comrade-in-arm who expired during the abortive attempt, his political acquaintances and rivals, people who witnessed and were part of that now forgotten time capsule. And what emerged through these diverse and disparate perspectives – moderated with acrid wit and deadpan humour by the nameless narrator – was a hauntingly complex, nuanced and elusive account of both the man and the guerrilla action, a stirring meditation on the changing nature of a nation’s socio-political environs and dynamics, and, in the end, through Rashomon-effect, an engrossing exploration of Llosa’s fundamental tenet that truth is not monolithic but relative and multi-layered.

Author: Mario Vargas Llosa
Genre: Political Drama/Modernist Literature/Roman a Clef
Language: Spanish
Country: Peru