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Archive for October, 2017

‘The Impossible Fortress‘ by Jason Rekulak was one of those incredibly lucky accidents that happened to me. I was at the bookshop on Diwali eve, just browsing, and somehow this book caught my eye, and I put it on my shopping list. Later when my book pile started looking quite big, I tried taking off some of the books. Rekulak’s book resisted that move with everything it had, like a pet dog which refuses to let go of us when we leave for work in the morning, and so finally I gave in and took it home with me. I am glad the book refused to let go and I am glad I gave in to its affection. I finished reading it a couple of days back. Here is what I think.

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The story told in ‘The Impossible Fortress‘ goes like this. The year is 1987. Billy is the narrator of the story. He is fourteen years old. He hangs out with his two friends Alf and Clark. Billy’s mother is a single mom and she works night shifts and so the three of them hang out at Billy’s place most nights. Sometimes they go out and have adventures. All three of them are average students at school. And all three of them belong to middle class families – not today’s version of the middle class but the ’80s version of middle class,when people worked hard and saved every cent, when going to college was expensive and many people opted to go to work mostly in the same town they grew up in, rather than go to college, when people didn’t have expensive gadgets at home and if they did it was bought on credit, when a computer in someone’s home was something which was very rare – the three of them belonged to that kind of middle class.

But Billy is different from his friends and other people of his age. He has a secret. He loves computer programming. Billy’s mom had won a computer in some kind of lucky draw, a Commodore 64, and so Billy’s home had a computer. In those days, even if people had computers, they mostly used it like a typewriter, or to play games. But Billy doesn’t stop with that. He teaches himself computer programming. And goes and creates his own games. He is good at it. He is great at it. His friends know that he can create games. But they have no idea of the expertise involved. No one else has any idea of Billy’s talent. Not even his mom.

One day Billy and his friends discover that pictures of ‘Wheel of Fortune‘ hostess Vanna White have been published in the latest issue of ‘Playboy’ magazine. They are so excited because they love Vanna White and ‘Wheel of Fortune’. They want to get a copy of the magazine. Of course, no store in America is going to sell a copy of the ‘Playboy’ magazine to three fourteen year old kids. So, the three friends make plans. Each of their plans gets foiled one way or another. Then they dress up like grownups, put on a suit, go to the local store, pretend to be running a business and buy some stuff and try buying a copy of the magazine too. They hope that the store owner will buy their bluff. But while doing their fake buying, Billy notices a girl in the storeroom behind. She is working on a computer. She is writing programs to convert popular music on tapes into computer music so that it can be played on the computer. The music that comes out of the computer is very impressive. This kind of stuff demands programming skills of a different level. Billy is impressed and amazed. He and the girl, who is the store owner’s daughter and is called Mary, start having a conversation. They discover that they have a common love for programming. Before long the girl tells Billy that there is a programming competition on, for high school students, and he should submit his game to be evaluated. At the end of this shopping expedition, the three friends still don’t have the magazine, but Billy has a new friend. What happens next? Does Billy enter his game for the competition? How does Billy’s and Mary’s friendship evolve? Are the three friends able to get the magazine? You should read the book to find the answers to these questions.

The Impossible Fortress‘ took me back to a bygone era, when the internet didn’t exist. It was a time when computers weren’t still widespread as they are today. When words like 8088, 80286, PC-XT, PC-AT, PS/2, MS-DOS, dBASE, Lotus 1-2-3, 5.25″ and 3.5″ floppy disks, Peter Norton, Alan Simpson, Kernighan and Ritchie meant something and got people excited. It was a time when an average computer user also knew how to program a computer. It made me nostalgic, because like Billy, I learnt programming, I loved it, I was good at it. My grades at school weren’t so good, similar to Billy’s, but my grades weren’t a reflection of my talent, as Billy’s wasn’t too. Unlike Billy, I wasn’t into computer games. I wrote programs in C language and I created a database management system with it. Now when I think about it, I wish I had created some games too. So, the book made me smile, laugh, cry. It was like the book was written for a reader like me. It was perfect.

I also loved the story. How Billy balances his life between his two best friends Alf and Clark, and his new nerdy friend Mary. How he balances the effort into trying to get a copy of the Playboy magazine and trying to create a game and submit it for the competition. How Billy’s mom manages the challenges of being a single mother, how frustrating it is to watch her son do badly in academics though he is talented, and how happy she is when she discovers Billy’s hidden talent. How Billy’s headmaster tries to be kind to him but has to also show tough love to him. How Mary is the cool character who suddenly enters Billy’s life, gives him direction, while she herself is struggling with challenges, loss and secrets in her own life. How Zelinsky, Mary’s dad, has a soft heart behind his gruff exterior. How small town life in the 1980s was beautiful, hard, happy, challenging. I loved how the story depicted all these. I loved all the characters in the story, especially Billy, but my most favourites were Mary and Billy’s mom. I loved them the most. I think that is my grown-up self talking. I think if I had been a teenager, I would have loved Billy and his friends more. There is a revelation towards the end which is surprising and which I didn’t see coming. The ending of the story was beautiful. I loved it.

I loved ‘The Impossible Fortress‘. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. It is a charming novel about teenagers growing up during interesting times. If you grew up in the ’80s or even in the early and middle ’90s in the pre-internet era, and you loved computer programming and fiddling with computers, this book is for you. It will take you back to a magical, almost Narnian time, and make you nostalgic. Also, it is hard to not see the similarities between ‘The Impossible Fortress’ and the Chetan Bhagat novel ‘Five Point Someone‘ and the Aamir Khan movie ‘3 Idiots‘. So, if you liked these two, you will love this book. I hope they make ‘The Impossible Fortress‘ into a movie. I would love to watch it. I also can’t wait to find out what Jason Rekulak comes up with next.

I will leave you with one of my favourite dialogues from the book.

Scenario : It is the year 1987. Billy and Mary are discussing computers. The 64 that the conversation refers to, is the Commodore 64, one of the early personal computers.

      “You’re the first person I’ve met with a 64,” I told her. “And you’re a girl.”
      “Is that strange?”
      “I didn’t think girls liked to program.”
      “Girls practically invented programming,”  she said. “Jean Bartik, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas – they all programmed ENIAC.”
      I had no idea what she was talking about.
      “And don’t forget Margaret Hamilton. She wrote the software that let Apollo 11 land on the moon.”
      “I meant programming video games,” I said.
      “Dona Bailey, Centipede. Brenda Romero, Wizardry. Roberta Williams, King’s Quest. She designed her first computer game at the kitchen table. I interviewed her for school last year.”
      “For real? You talked to Roberta Williams?”
      “Yeah, I called her long-distance in California. She talked to me for twenty minutes.”
      King’s Quest was a landmark computer game, an undisputed masterpiece, and now I had even more questions.

Have you read ‘The Impossible Fortress‘ by Jason Rekulak? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Lina Meruane’sSeeing Red‘ when I stopped by at the bookshop a few days back. The cover grabbed my attention and refused to let me go. Then I read a quote by Roberto BolaƱo on the back cover raving about Lina Meruane – well, who can resist that. I started reading it a couple of days back and finished reading it yesterday.

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Seeing Red‘ tells the story of a woman, who has a delicate health condition. Her eyes are in a delicate state – her blood vessels in her eyes can burst any time and she can go blind. Her doctor warns her that she has to be very careful during her everyday life – she can’t drink, smoke, make love to her boyfriend, can’t even bend down. There are so many other things she can’t do, simple everyday things, that we normally take for granted. She lives life in this careful way, avoiding anything which can result in the unfortunate event happening. But one day she is at a party and the dreadful thing happens – the blood vessels in her eyes explode and she becomes blind. She is able to see vague shapes and some light and shadow though. She tries meeting the doctor but she is able to get an appointment only a few days later. When she meets the doctor, he says it is hard to say anything. He says they need to wait for a month and then can think about an operation. He asks her to go on a holiday and spend time with her family in Chile. Well, I won’t go into the rest of the story. How her reunion with her family goes, what kind of support her boyfriend gives, does the operation help her – for answers to these questions, you have to read the story.

The heroine of our story, has the same name as the writer, Lina Meruane. I later discovered that the novel is based on the writer’s own experience. It shows in the story, because the way Meruane describes the way blindness explodes into our heroine’s world and plunges her into despair – it feels so real. The relationship between the heroine and her boyfriend is so beautifully depicted. The reunion scenes with her family, her very different relationship with her mother and her father, her two different brothers – they are all beautifully portrayed. I loved the character of her doctor. I loved this particular description of him –

“I never noticed Lekz rushing a single syllable or discreetly checking the time; there wasn’t a single clock on the walls of his office, no phone ever rang, he didn’t have a cell phone. No one ever interrupted him. He was an absolutely dedicated specialist, true Russian fanaticism inculcated by his Soviet lineage.”

That doctor was a no-nonsense character, dedicated to his work,  never made any promises that he could’t keep.

I love the way the book describes our heroine’s descent into blindness, how navigating everyday things becomes a challenge for her, for example in this passage –

“I got tangled up in rugs, I knocked over posters leaning against walls, I toppled trashcans. I was buried in open boxes with table legs between my fingers. The house was alive, it wielded its doorknobs and sharpened its fixtures while I still clung to corners that were no longer where they belonged. It changed shape, the house, the rooms castled, the furniture swapped places to confuse me. With one eye blind with blood and the other clouded over at my every movement, I was lost, a blindfolded chicken, dizzy and witless.”

– how simple things she took for granted are now challenging or impossible, how for someone who is a reader and a writer and a researcher, this is a kind of irreparable loss. Our heart goes out to the heroine and we sink when her heart sinks. But the book also descibes how our heroine handles these challenges with style and aplomb – it is inspiring. For example, in this sentence –

“As the car set off and began to gather speed, I looked into the rearview mirror with my mind’s eye…”

– and this passage –

“Yes, but I’m only an apprentice blind woman and I have very little ambition in the trade, and yes, almost blind and dangerous. But I’m not going to just sit in a chair and wait for it to pass.”

– and this passage –

“when he opened the door Ignacio exclaimed joder, the sun is coming up. But the word sunrise evoked nothing. Nothing even close to a sunrise. My eyes were emptying of all the things they’d seen. And it occurred to me that words and their rhythms would remain, but not landscapes, not colors or faces, not those black eyes of Ignacio’s that I had seen spill out a love at times wary, sullen, cutting, but above all an open love, expectant, full of mirages that the crossword puzzle would define as hallucinations.”

There is a scene in the book where our heroine kisses her boyfriend’s eye – it is so beautiful, sensual, even erotic. It was amazing, because I never thought that a description of a person kissing someone’s eye could be that way.

The description of Chile in the book is fascinating and beautiful and takes us a little bit into Chilean history of the past half century and makes us want to read more about that period. The ending of the book is unexpected and stunning – I didn’t see that coming. Then I stepped back by a chapter and discovered that there were clues strewn around by the author. It was like watching ‘The Sixth Sense‘.

I loved the structure of the book. It is not very long at 157 pages. It is divided into short chapters, between two and four pages long. Each chapter has a title. Interestingly, each chapter is also made up of only one paragraph. Punctuation is used minimally. There is no distinction between a statement, a question, a dialogue. Sometimes the speaker of the first sentence is different from the speaker of the second sentence and there is no signpost to indicate that the speaker has changed. This kind of stuff might bother some readers. It didn’t bother me. I loved it and the story flowed naturally for me. Lina Meruane’s prose is soft, gentle and smooth and flows beautifully and quietly like a river. Reading the book is a meditative experience, which is very fascinating, because the main theme it addresses is a bit dark and bleak. Meruane’s prose softens the blow and makes us turn the page.

There are places in the book where I couldn’t help wonder how a particular passage would have read in Spanish, how it would have been even more beautiful and poetic in the original. For example, this description –

“That accent, so unmistakably Chilean, harbored the glacial poem of the mountain peaks and their snows in eternal mid-thaw, the dark whisper of the south dotted with giant rhubarbs, the mourning of roadside shrines, the herb-garden smell, the rough salts of the desert, the sulfurous copper shell of the mine open to the sky.”

– and this phrase –

“to interrupt the peace of the worried”

– and this sentence –

“While outside the street revives – a gust or a whisper in the distance – and the sun peers indignantly through the gaps in the curtains to track us with its flame”

If you get to read this book in Spanish, I will envy you.

I also loved the fact that there was a lot of white space surrounding the words in a page – a beautiful place where the reader can write comments and notes. I love a book when it has that.

I loved ‘Seeing Red‘. It is one of my favourite reads of the year. I hope to read it again one of these days, more slowly, focussing on my favourite passages.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“I’m the heroine who resists her tragedy, I thought, the heroine trying to drive destiny crazy with her own hands.”

Good was a word Lekz sometimes slid out like a crutch, and other times it seemed to weigh heavy on his tongue, like a rock that sinks in silence, leaving only ripples. The word had an expansive effect in the room.”

“The lyrics of the song explain : what makes you live can kill you in excess. The refrain repeats : too much sun, too much sugar, too much water, too much oxygen. Too much maternal love. Too much truth.”

“The finger is no longer there. My hand isn’t there and neither is my arm. I’m not me anymore. Lucina vanished, her being is suspended somewhere in the hospital. What is left of her now is pure biology : a heart that beats and beats, a lung that inflates, an anesthetized brain incapable of dreaming, while the hair goes on growing, slowly, beneath the cap.”

Have you read Lina Meruane’sSeeing Red‘? What do you think about it?

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When I discovered that there was a movie based on David Foster Wallace’s life, I had to watch it! This is that movie – ‘The End of the Tour‘. It is based on a road trip that another writer David Lipsky took with David Foster Wallace and the few days they spend together before and after the road trip. David Lipsky is working with the Rolling Stone magazine at that time. David Foster Wallace’s mammoth novel ‘Infinite Jest‘ has just come out and it is making waves. Critics are saying that it will win all the awards. Lipsky is skeptical about the book. His girlfriend asks him to read it. They both do. And after reading, Lipsky knows that it is a profound work. He is inspired by it and wants to write an article about Wallace for his magazine. And he arrives at Wallace’s home in the middle of nowhere. What happens in the next few days is some of the most beautiful, profound, weird and mundane things that Lipsky will experience. You should watch the movie to find out what that is.

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There are a few characters in the movie and they are interesting, but the major part of the movie is a conversation between Lipsky and Wallace. So, there are no major plot twists and turns or cool scenes or stylish dialogue. While watching the movie, I felt like I was reading a book. The bookish atmosphere, the bookish spirit pervades throughout the movie. The conversation between the two characters is fascinating.

In one scene Wallace speaks these dark, bleak, profound, beautiful lines –

“There’s a thing in the book, about how when somebody leaps from a burning skyscraper it’s not that they’re not afraid of falling anymore, it’s that the alternative is so awful. And so, then you’re invited to consider what could be so awful that leaping to your death would seem like an escape from it. And I don’t know if you have any experience with this kind of thing but it’s worse than any kind of physical injury. It may be in the old days what was known as a spiritual crisis. Feeling as though every axiom of your life turned out to be false and there is actually nothing. And that you are nothing and it’s all a delusion. And you’re so much better than everybody because you can see that this is just a delusion and you’re so much worse because you can’t function. It’s really horrible.”

Hearing those lines being spoken, I realized that this is no regular movie, this is no ordinary movie. It is beautiful, deep and profound. It is one of the great movies ever made.

Jesse Eisenberg plays the role of David Lipsky. He has patented that nerdy character these days and he has nailed it here as well. Jason Segel plays the role of David Foster Wallace and he is brilliant. He is unrecognizable from the man who played the adorable Marshall in ‘How I Met Your Mother‘. Clearly he can do things which are more than romantic comedy. Such a wonderful, brilliant talent. How these two guys missed winning the Oscar for their roles here, I will never know. Joan Cusack plays a charming character who appears for a brief while. Anna Chlumsky makes a brief appearance as David Lipsky’s girlfriend. There are two dogs which are adorable and which do adorable things.

I loved ‘The End of the Tour’. It is one of my favourite movies from this year. I still can’t believe that someone made a movie about a nerdy author like David Foster Wallace. This kind of stuff doesn’t do well in the box office. This fact doesn’t seem to have deterred them. This warms my heart because it means that some people still value art over money. May their tribe survive and thrive. If you are like me and read long contemplative books and watch movies which make you feel like you are reading those books, this movie is for you. If you are a David Foster Wallace fan, this is a must see. Now, I want to go and read ‘Infinite Jest‘ and come back and watch this movie again.

Have you seen ‘The End of the Tour‘? Have you read ‘Infinite Jest‘? Do you like David Foster Wallace?

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