Sunday, July 25, 2010

Two States by Chetan Bhagat

Two States: The Story of My Marriage was a typical Chetan Bhagat book.

2 States: The Story of My Marriage

Like almost everyone in the country, I was quite caught up in the 'Chetan Bhagat' fad when Five Point Someone first came out. Recently I've seen many books that tried to achieve something like that again, like 'Oh shit, not again!' (which I didn't like at all - in fact, here is a review which describes it perfectly) and I've still not seen anything like Chetan Bhagat. However, due to the time passed in the interval, and due to the horrible reviews I got of Two States at first, I wasn't very inclined to read this book. (If you remember, I talked about this here.) On the other hand, my mother had read it, and she urged me to read it, and so I brought it away with me to my mini-break, and started reading it yesterday.

I enjoyed the book.

I think the best part about Bhagat's writing is that he manages to blend interesting stories with relevant morals. This is a fine balance. You can't have just a mindless story, because no one will ever remember you. You can't just have a moral story, because then no one will read you. I think Chetan Bhagat has managed the fine art of blending morals into his stories, and that is exactly why he is so popular. From Five Point Someone (which was about the education system), One Night at a Call Center (what are you doing with your life?) and Three Mistakes of My Life (life goes on after disasters) to Two States (your state and you identity within it) Bhagat manages to write about things which concern the youth of today's India - money, marriage, love and education (to name a few). I think the reason that he is so popular is that he touches a chord among the young indians who are going through an identity crisis as they battle with old convictions and new experiences.

Chetan Bhagat - 3 Books in 1; The 3 Mistakes of My Life; One Night At The Call Center; Five Point Someone (1)

This is not to say that the books are at all boring. Bhagat's writing is not without problems (and he tends to put in random things like the Sadhu sequence in this book that really didn't add much for me) but there was no point in the book when I wanted to put aside the book because it had become too dull to get through. The book goes at a merry pace from start to end, not slow enough for you to notice the little details, but not so fast that you lose the emotional impact of each scene. The writing is humorous in parts (though, contrary to the reviews I'd received, there was no part in it which made me laugh out loud, either) and reflective in others. It is an intensely personal story (and one must admit - not the most original story in the world either) but you must admit that it is a story that most of us, at some level or the other, can emphasise with. This is enhanced by the lovable main character and crazy but cute families that we all know about.

Final thoughts: This book is not the best of all fiction. It is not even Bhagat's best book. But it is definitely worth a read, for Bhagat's easy style of writing, for his great observational skills, and for the fine art of blending a message into fiction.

Other things: Don't think I've forgotten (or stopped) the Great Classics Read (And Re-Read) Festival. Now that my break is almost over, the Festival will continue. I plan to tackle Frankenstein and (if time permits) Secret Garden this week.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

How to be Popular by Meg Cabot

Despite its rather misleading name, How to be Popular is not a self-help book.

How to Be Popular

I read this book for the first time a few years ago. I recently re-read because I recommended it to a friend and she borrowed it from a library and then I just had to borrow it from her. (I also read Cabot's Airhead in a similar manner two days before this one. My friends are now being cautious about reading books around me. On the other hand, I've always been like Katy from What Katy Did and my friends do tend to lock up their books when I come to visit. Which reminds me that I must review that book sometime.) Anyway, getting back on topic. I think How to be Popular is Cabot's best book for teens (better than Cabot's Princess Diaries series, which frankly got totally unfocused towards the end, much better than some of her other stuff like the Mediator Series, the All American Girl books, and other, crazier novels like Airhead, Jinx and Avalon High. I think the only ones that I can think of that come close are Teen Idol and Tommy Sullivan is a Freak. (I looked at this list. I've read too many Cabot books. This isn't even the complete list of the books I've read by her, and I don't even like her that much.)

One of the first things that I like about the book is the main character - Steph Landry is one of the best characters in teen fiction - not 'beautiful without knowing it' or even a 'braniac' (which is Em in Airhead, who even becomes 'drop-dead-gorgeous' by the end of the book. Now you see why I don't like it.) Steph is a normal girl with the most normal of all teenage problems - crushes, and weight, and school and getting a social life. Which makes her a perfect character for teenage fiction, because lets face it - not everyone reading this can be either beautiful, or extremely brainy, or both. Steph has been a social reject for many, many years - mostly because she dropped a drink on a friend's white skirt in school and never managed to live it down. (This I thought of as a little exaggerated, but its a novel, so alright). In fact, its so bad that anyone committing a faux pas in her town is told "Not to pull a Steph Landry."

Steph Landry gets her hands on a book - and some money, borrowed from her grandfather - and sets about revolutionizing her social life.

The title of this book - well, you guessed it - How to be Popular.

One of the things I like about this book is the way the author writes, where each (short) scene is interspersed with an extract from the aforementioned book, mostly one which pertains to the following scene. Meg Cabot does this really well in another series of hers that I like - the Queen of Babble (see, I told you I wasn't done) and it works in this book. Not to mention that the advice is actually slightly sound (things like 'be yourself') and reminds me a bit of the best self-help book I've ever read How to Win Friends and Influence People for Girls by Donna Dale Carnegie, which is always a plus. The writing is simple and effective, well targeted, and always interesting.

I really like how this book breaks stereotypes. Airhead, even though it is quite literally about two worlds colliding, still managed to make everyone from the super-model world come off as bland and stupid. In this book, on the other hand, we get characters like Darlene and Alyssa, who just make the book alive, and also characters like Jason (who is seriously almost exactly like Christopher from Airhead, though) and Becky who are also sweet and likeable. Even the main villian, Lauren, is interesting enough to make you want to see her get her due, instead of you just wanting her to get off the page because she's so diabolical and weird that you can see right through her. I also love, love the way this book ends. In a book that calls itself 'How to be Popular', this book certainly managed to disillusion teenagers about popularity as a concept and puts it in its place.

Final thoughts: Good writing, interesting characters, and even a message. It even holds up to a re-read. A good book for passing away some time, especially if you're a teenager.

Other things: Hmm...still reading Frankenstein, and I also started reading Two States by Bhagat (which is not half-bad so far). I don't know which one I'll review first.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

There are few books as iconic as The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

The Mysterious Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (Puffin Classics)

So I admit I went to this book with a healthy doze of expectation. I first thought of reading this book because my little brother decided to dress up as Sherlock Holmes in her 'become-a-book-character' contest, and I had to find some good quotes for him to use - because the quotes that I saw, on this page, were so interesting that I just had to read it. And of course, with my great classics read (and re-read) project already on, I decided that it couldn't hurt to read this book.

My verdict: It was pretty good. Not mind-blowing. But not bad, either.

The first thing that irked me about this book were the size of the stories. This book contained roughly fifteen stories, each about 10 pages in length, which I felt did not do justice to the innovative plots, the characters, or the detective skills of Sherlock Holmes. In fact, the impression which I got was that the books, though the adventures of 'Sherlock Holmes' did more justice to the schemes of the villains (which were, quite frankly, quite, quite different - I mean, 'red-haired league', anyone?)than the detective skills of the main hero. In so many instances Holmes does not even explain how he comes to his miraculous conclusions, and I'm left with the feeling of 'there should be more to this'. I found this unsatisfying, which is why I don't think I'll be rushing to pick up the next Sherlock Holmes book from the library.

What did I think of the stories themselves. Well, I think I'll borrow the words of Dr. Watson for this (who, by the way, was just brilliant. I liked him more than Holmes) - "In the many adventures of Sherlock Holmes I have chronicles, there are many which are tragic, some which are humorous, but all that are fantastic or different." (paraphrased) I don't think I've read any mystery series (I don't speak as a mystery buff, but I used to be an ardent fan of the Hardy Boys, I used to read a lot of Nancy Drew, and I've recently begun to enjoy Agatha Christie) with so many interesting plots. The motives are the most basic of all human emotions - mostly money, sometimes love or jealousy - but the characters think of such interesting ways to get what they want (for a teaser - an organization that sends five orange pips to a person before killing them) that you really want to read these stories. This is what, in my opinion, separates a Sherlock Holmes novel from any old book.

Holmes himself is a fascinating character who should have more screen space. Although I can see why someone reading an abridged (read 'sanitized') version of this book might find him highly perfect and hard to emphasise with. His major flaws, which include drug addiction and an extreme arrogance, when shown serve only to complete his character, but when glossed over leave us with nothing to sympathize with. Some of his ways of inspection are still timeless - like the iconic scene where he tells a person where they're from and other details about them through observing their appearance, and then demonstrates this as the easiest thing in the world - still don't fail to impress. Others, though dated, still hold a certain charm. It seems clear to me that Holmes was way, way ahead of his time and therefore still manages to appear fresh and interesting even today, many decades after this novel was first written.

Final thoughts: I definitely don't regret reading this novel. I think everyone should read at least one Sherlock Holmes novel in their life, just to get a taste of how good this genre of books can get. For people who like mysteries, of course, these books are a must-read. But I don't think I'm going to return to this detective anytime soon - for now, I'm satisfied.

Other thoughts: My great classics read (and re-read) festival continues. I borrowed Frakenstein from the library today, and I'm quite excited to complete it. On the other hand, I have recently re-read Meg Cabot's Airhead and How to be Popular (because my friends were reading them and me, being me, couldn't resist) so I might give myself (and everyone) a break from the classics by reviewing one of these today or tomorrow.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors, and Pride and Prejudice is her most famous work.

The Annotated Pride and Prejudice

Therefore, it is natural that I would have some heavy expectations from this book. This was coupled by the fact that I read this book some 5-6 years ago, when I was in class 5 or 6, and obviously did not understand most of it (and even though I later read many Austen novels like Mansfield Park and Persuasion which convinced me of her genius, I somehow never read Pride and Prejudice again) and my view of the book was that it had become quite dated. Nevertheless, as part of my great classics read (and re-read) this book also came under the 'classics' section, so I picked it up.

I'm glad.

You see, if I look at this book on a superficial level I have nothing in common with Elizabeth (though she is, for her times, a remarkably forward and independent character) and I might not have been able to sympathize with her at all. On the outward level, the very values in this novel seem outdated and prudish. However, when we consider the underlying themes of this book - such as the theme of education (also a very strong theme in Mansfield Park), the theme of parenting, the theme of social barriers and the theme of trust and betrayal (among many others) we see that these issues haven't really changed. (In fact, these are things that I think will never change. Humans, as long as they live, are always going to wonder and have contrasting opinions about how children should be raised and educated, and jealousy and betrayal are always going to happen when there are three humans together.)

I think it is this which separates a 'classic' from an ordinary book.

Why is Austen's book remembered after so many years? It might indeed be the storyline - the instant dislike of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, his subsequent growing love for her, and her subsequent growing hatred of him (aided by Wickham), his winning her over by helping her sister, and their eventual love, but I think its more than that. It is that Austen describes some basic human emotions in a raw and beautiful way, and we are so taken in by that we are never going to stop liking this book (I have no doubt that all classics might be read less in the future, nonetheless, they will still remain classics and people like me will still read them).

The characters, of course, have a mighty part to play - proud, haughty Darcy (who has it in him to run half way across the country and do something he finds very humiliating for the woman he loves, and not even want to tell her), lively, laughing Elizabeth (who has it in her to diss a duchess) and even Jane and Bingley (who are, admittedly, both a little too good to be true - after all, Jane's primary fault is to not think anyone capable of bad, and Bingley's is to trust his best friend) steal away this story and take it to the level it has reached. Even Mary (Elizabeth's 'intellectual' sister, who made me smile several times) and Lydia (another of Elizabeth's sisters, and perhaps the most irritating character I have ever seen) Miss Bingley (who is in love with Mr. Darcy and who I found very, very interesting), Mr. Collins (who is so bad he's good), Mrs. Bennet (who is loud and without a particle of sense) and Georgina Darcy (sweet, shy, and quite well-characterized for the minimal page-space she gets) all have it in them to steal your heart.

The archaic language and odd structure may put you off, but if you have it in you to look a little deeper, I think you'll find a gem of a book.

Final thoughts: Some books you read from a library and then want to buy so you can keep them in your house. This is one of them. Exactly what you'd expect from Austen's most famous book. Read it for Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy, read it for love, and read it because you must read this book once before you die. Of course, there are also the movies:
Pride and Prejudice (Restored Edition) Pride & Prejudice Bride and Prejudice

Other things: The Great Classics Read (and Re-Read) continues. Next I've picked up Sherlock Holmes(which I've never read before, surprisingly) and I'm enjoying it so far. Also on my list are, 'A Secret Garden', 'Frankenstein' and 'Wuthering Heights'. Of course, if you have a classic to add to this list, feel free to drop me a comment. :)

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

A Little Princess by Frances H. Burnett

Some books stay with you your whole life. A Little Princess is one of them.

A little princess; being the whole story of Sara Crewe, now told for the first time

Thus it is not very surprising when I embarked on my latest quest to re-read the classics I'd loved as a child (and some which I'd hated, and others which I've not read before) I would go back to this book. But I will admit I was not quite sure about how good this book would be (part of the reason why I chose first to go back to Webster's Daddy Long-Legs, my review of which can be found here) because I remembered that the book had been a little slow in the beginning, and that Sara (the main character) was a bit of a Mary-Sue. In fact, I was quite sure that I would no longer like this book, and I was aghast at the thought of destroying a good childhood memory. However, yesterday I picked up the book.

I loved it.

The basic premise of this story is simple - when Sara first starts attending school, she quickly gains the reputation of being very rich and very eccentric. She is the richest pupil there (and certainly very spoiled by her father) and has got an imagination which is even richer - causing her to weave stories that enthrall those around her. In time, she even begins to pretend that she is a princess, because eventually she wants to be good, and kind, and generous as a princess should be. Most of the pupils in the school are quite enchanted by Sara (though, of course, some are jealous) and two in particular take a great fancy to her. Sara through her generosity and through her sweetness is able to make a lot of friends - with everyone from Lottie, who is four, to Becky, the unfortunate kitchen-maid.

However, when adversity strikes and Sara is left an orphan and penniless, a lot of things change. From being a show-pupil to a beggar, Sara must face the reality of a life without money and discover who her true friends in life really are. She must face the toughest adversity it is possible to face - not only physical (such as being forced to run errands and being deprived of meals) but also emotional (such as finding that many of her old friends no longer want anything to do with her). And she must discover many, many things about human nature - including whether or not it is possible to imagine in the midst of the worst of the troubles than life throws at us.

This book was not boring. Now that I'm older, I saw that there are many hidden themes in this book that I'd missed before - the theme of friendship, of love, of generosity in the worst of all circumstances (and not just by Sara), of imagination and of pretending, of beauty and home. This book is, in the end, a study in human nature. Sara remarks in the book that adversity can be the only test of character, and her adversity not only reveals the strength of her own character but also the characters of the people around her.

I did not find the writing slow or lagging. In fact, the first part which I found slow before was not half as slow this time, because I could appreciate much better the feelings of a father who is leaving his only child alone in a strange country, especially when she has been so close to him for so long. And I did not think Sara was a mary-sue. I know she should be - she's quite perfect, she is always nice, she is humble, she stands up against wrongs, and she believes all the good things that have happened to her are by 'accident' but Sara is just such a genuinely sweet character that you overlook that she is perfect. Also, she is not perfect all the time. There are times when she, too, is cross and angry and broken. She was very easy to sympathize with, even now that I'm 16 instead of 11 as I was when I was originally reading the book. (Incidentally, this is also Sara's age in the book). It is remarkable how Sara remains a princess through and through - through richness and poverty. The other characters are also very well written and compelling, from Lottie to the rat to the Indian servant.

Here's the true test of this book. When I first read the book at 11, I cried like a baby in the middle. I wondered if I would this time too.

This book can still make me cry, laugh, sigh and want to murder people. It still gives me hope. Sara still reminds me of myself - even now, at 16, the power to imagine has not (thank god!) disappeared.

Now I know the stuff classics are made of.

Final thoughts: This is a beautiful book for anyone who an imaginative young child (and maybe also for those less imaginative) and for anyone wanting to get back a piece of their childhood. Of course, like I noted when I wrote about Daddy Long-Legs, I believe kids nowadays might prefer the

A Little Princess

Other things: Wondering whether to go next with Pride and Prejudice (which I've read before) or with Frankenstein (which I've not). Of course, I might just forget both and go with A Secret Garden. Library tomorrow is going to be exciting.

This book review is part of my great classics read (and re-read) project.

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