Tuesday 26 April 2011

Reading ramble: Solar by Ian McEwan

SolarSolar by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'll say up front that I'm a big McEwan fan. This novel is not so dark as many of his are and is actually the first time he has ever made me laugh. It is excellent!

.....SPOILER alert (but only a small one, and not plot related...)....listening to the scene where he describes his main character trying to get dressed in Artic gear had me in stitches - how many times did he put the gloves on only to have to take the gloves off again to stow his lipsalve, to put on his boots etc etc....then a rework of the classic "don't go to the toilet when its 20 below story" and I could see slap stick and cinema houses erupting. Very unusual for this writer, I am trying desperately to think of another truly rip-roaringly funny episode in a McEwan and failing.

The typical McEwan "twist"/ "incident" tipping point comes quite early on and from them on it has you hooked as to exactly where he will take the storyline. By the end part of me felt just a tiny little unsatisfied with the ending plotwise, but another part of me just smiled as ......SPOILER ...as all his lives work is falling down before him, he found what had been alluding him all the time because he hadn't been looking for it.

That said, I absolutely loved reading this book. It has one of McEwan's best characters ever in Professor Michael Beard. He was just so real to me. With his inability to look after his balding, overweight, drunk body, his inability to hold together any of his 5 marriages whilst having no problem at attracting the opposite sex, with him being a Nobel Prize winning physicist who finds himself working on artificial photosynthesis as an answer to the world's energy needs and potentially a way to combat climate change - saviour of body Earth versus destroyer of his own!

Throughout I had this vision of Bill Nighy doing a Robert De Niro / Raging Bull and putting on several stone to play Micheal Beard. It seems to me that this part is made for Nighy's mix of straight and comic acting ability, his droll voice, his on screen chemistry. Can't wait to see what they do with it as a film.

View all my reviews

Monday 25 April 2011

Reading ramble: The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

As I enter into the last quarter of my time here in India it becomes a time for thinking through options and making decisions about what to do next. No, I haven't made any firm decisions yet, except as I am enjoying blogging and loving the title as I do ( thanks Dean) I am going to keep blogging here and eventually just loose the subtitle.

With this in mind I am going to start by expanding the reading rambles in this blog from just covering Indian literature to everything I read. So my GoodReads reviews will move from the left hand panel to become main blog posts. So here is the first. I hope you enjoy them.

The Yacoubian BuildingThe Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Yacoubian Building may not be a great novel, but it certainly is an important one. It broke taboos when it first came out with its sexual frankness, and it tackles systemic corruption and political extremism.

There are lots of characters and some readers may find that confusing and may prefer more depth, but I think the range of characters is required to show the tenants and associated of the Building as a microcosm of Egyptian society and provide the many platform the author needs to address the various themes. He is not after in depth character building prose, he gives just enough in the way of character and plot development for the reader to get the picture and so to see the socio-political point he is making. I have heard somewhere that when the book first came out folks were trying to specifically identify particular real life individuals with the characters!

The authors treats us to several vignettes, woven together by providing short episodic sections on each characters story in turn – ….....SPOILER ALERT……there’s the story of aspiring student Taha and his transformation from innocent into to radical, there is Basuyna ‘s transformation from innocent through sexual-economic exploitation to affection, of Zaki’s move form lothario to husband, and others. Each has a catalyst, common themes of exploitation, corruption making one ask the questions how do people survive amidst endemic corruption? Do the exploited exploit there exploitation to get by and hereby self perpetuate the system?

But there are also lining themes of vengeance and violent physical and verbal retribution – .....SPOILER ALERT……Hatim’s verbal abusive outburst when Abduh attempts to finally leave surfaces his inherent unequal view of their status in their relationship, Is Abduh’s violent reaction the only one he can have? How different is this to Taha’s seeking vengeance against his torturers? Likewise the manner in which Hagg Azzam treats Saoud when she” breaks contract” and becomes pregnant. Is their intolerance, their economic, social and political corruption, leading to violence or threats of retribution (eg Big Man’s final threats to Hagg Azzam after his request to drop the percentage of the protection money), indicative of a moral malaise, or moral collapse or a moral vacuum and the creation of a new morality? Would we/anyone make the same choices as Taha, as Saouda or Abduh did when faced with the same situation?

Zaki and Hatim’s lives are rooted in a previous era, a more tolerant, more European focused Egypt. Are they seeing the past through rose tinted glasses? The finales to their stories in some ways pose two outcomes for Egypt itself – each story involves a sexual encounter across the lines – .....SPOILER ALERT……Hatim’s into homosexuality and he dies a violent death still intolerant even though his lifestyle would indicate tolerance on the surface whilst Zaki’s foray with a much younger woman blossoms and ends happily.

Yes there are some good story elements in this book, but it is a book which poses more questions than it answers, indeed that’s probably the reason for writing it and also the best reason for reading it.

Sunday 17 April 2011

It’s a dog eat dog world…

This post is not for the faint hearted. Animal lovers be warned!!

Our nagar, like everywhere in India is full of dogs. Some are actually owned and taken care of by people who live here, others are owned but not taken care of, others are not owned at all.

Sometimes you see them lazing around in the heat, all of them seem to love the piles of builders sand which are to be found everywhere with all the building work that is going on. Other times they are nose down sniffing out food or some scent, scurrying over whenever kitchen waste is thrown out: they are part of the local waste disposal system. At other times they can be running in packs, and howling their heads off.  Mostly they look healthy, but that’s because you don’t usually see the unhealthy ones. I recall a bitch who can to rest in a quite spot by H’s stairwell in Koraput last year around this time, we think she had been attacked by a gang of dogs and was in pretty bad shape, bleeding and festering. At home, you’d take it to a vet and get it put down. Here what can you do? 
Ex-volunteer AM adopted a street dog in Bhubaneswar as a pup and after vet visits, inoculations and a long flight, JB now has a new home in Canada. Lucky lad!  See JB the wonder dog!
(That was the  nice part!)

This post is not for the faint hearted. Animal lovers be warned!!

About a month back, we had a small pup find its way to my landlady’s house, it was tiny and not eating well and not growing. We have no idea where it came from, but it sort of tried to adopt her house as a safe haven. She started to feed it. But the bigger dogs in the neighbouring houses would steal its food. It clearly had lost its mother very young, been thrown out of the nest so to speak, and had not learnt how to interact with other dogs.  In the morning as I left for work it would always try and follow me, and I’d pick it up and turn it back to the house. Over the weeks it was becoming a little more energetic but still it was small for its age, and it was still whimpering every time we would leave the  house.
By this time it could still get under our gate and so escape the chasing from the neighbours dogs who were now all too big to get through. Then the week before  last it started to follow me to work again. Knowing that my landlady had told me only the day before that she had had to chase the neighbour dogs away to get them of it, I lifted him up and turned him back quite assertively so he wouldn’t follow. I walked off as he slumped back to the house. Just up the lane before the corner I looked back to see him beginning to wonder along the lane again. Next thing I knew there was much growling and squeaking, then screams from the young girl who lives in the house across from us. I was too far away to help. The whole story came to light when I got home in the evening. The 3 big dogs, a mother and two of her pups now grown, had begun to chase the small dog.   She had tried to chase them away, by “nicely throwing stones”, then more seriously throwing stones, but to no avail. The little pup stood no chance. he didn’t know how to play., he didn’t know how to say “I’m no threat, you are pack leader” and their biting took on grave consequences.  The smell of the carcass permeated the whole nagar for some days. The pups tore the small carcass to pieces. The smell brought all the big dogs around,  but interestingly none of them devoured the meat. I saw them approach, nose alert, pups barking, trying to stand their ground, but backing off in the face of the elder dogs. They approached, sniffed the carcass, looked at the pups, yelped, and wondered off. By this point I had my camera out…….

Thursday 14 April 2011

Who lives in a house like this?

It’s been ages since I showed you all anything to do with where I am staying here in Rayagada. Way back when I first arrived I posted pictures of the empty accommodation that greeted me on my arrival in placement in mid December 2009. Gosh doesn’t that seem a long time ago! So how has it  changed?  Inevitably the basic household goods have been acquired, but very few in the way of luxury items. I have not intention of having  to ship stuff home as many volunteers have done, and my every intention is to go back with less luggage than I came with! However the place does  now look lived in. For those of you who know me well, you will realise I haven’t tidied up for the tour – you take me as you find me, as always! So lets take a look through the keyhole, or more aptly the padlock, and see what it is like inside…..

Tuesday 12 April 2011

Getting tongue tied over dogs and cucumbers!

Speaking is always so much easier in one’s own mother tongue! Oh yeah? Even there one can make mistakes – English has its Spoonerisms  accidental or deliberate such as saying “A well-boiled icicle"  instead of “ A well-oiled bicycle” .  The deliberate form of this is much used in our humour and to write  such comical turns actually requires a considerable amount of linguistic knowledge.  The English comic Les Dawson had this character who played the piano atrociously: to pull this off as a comedic act actually takes true skill on the piano, hammering just any note in any sequence just doesn’t work, the tune has to be recognisable whilst being as far off key for it to not be – a delicate balancing act! And so it is with intentional word plays. But for us students of a new language it is the unintentional that can often be funny.

I always think that it is my responsibility to understand someone when they are trying to learn and trying to speak my language. In India there are some common mistakes people seem to make when learning English. It got me wondering what the common mistakes are for an English person learning Oriya, Hindi, French, Arabic, Chinese or any other language? Or for say a French native speaker learning Hindi?  Does a French person make the same mistakes as an English person? Does a Chinese? We have a number of Filipino volunteers in India for many English is at least a second language. Are their common mistakes in Hindi or Oriya  the same as mine?  I don’t know. So if there are any linguists and language teachers reading this, or if your mother tongue is something other than English,  how about providing some insight into this question?

Here are some that I have noticed

  • clothes and cloths – everybody wears cloths,  no one uses clothes!
  • the wind blows as if it were a winding path!
  • “How will we do this?” becomes “How we will do this?”

And my classic in Oriya is getting tongue tied on kukura and kakuri, and probably loads more besides that no one has yet corrected me on :)

Monday 4 April 2011

Kuch kuch hota hai

Kuch kuch hota hai is one of my favourite Bollywood movies, the storyline is a bit of a twist of the love triangle spun across the generations. Typical Bollywood slush but non the less brilliant.  The title song is well known all over India and here is my landlady Shushila singing it. You can find the lyrics here…….

Tum paas aaye yun muskuraaye
Tum paas aaye yun muskuraaye
Tumne na jaane kya sapne dikhaaye
Abto mera dil jaage na sota hai
Kya karoon haye kuch kuch hota hai
Kya karoon haye kuch kuch hota hai……

Saturday 2 April 2011

Flashing Oriya

imageFlash cards are really useful language learning aid and for ages I wrote them out by hand on pieces of card the size of business cards, actually I used old business cards from previous jobs until I have none left :)  then I discovered Anki. Online, free, software for developing and sharing sets of flashcards (in Anki speak decks). It works really well. ( I am not getting paid for this plug!) It is easy to use and it does what it says it does! In my book that makes it an ace piece of software.
Download the software from the Anki site. If you are lucky enough to be studying a language which is popular (e.g. French, Spanish)  then you may  find there are already decks you can download, edit and use. Anki also support Japanese and other characters sets. I have no experience of using these. There are some Youtube videos on how to use Anki
The basic principle is simple, you make one side of the flash card in your native language (in my case English) and the other side in the language you are learning. As you go through your deck, some words/phrases will stick, they will seem easy to remember, other will prove more difficult. Anki provides a choice of times to see the card again – after only a short interval for a word you either didn’t know or found hard to recall, on a scale through to a more distant time for one you found easy. As you continue through encountering words for the subsequent times the intervals get longer.
There are controls for setting the intervals, the number of cards reviewed each day – best do a small amount regularly is the recognised advice – and settings for many more things. To be honest I haven't explored that many as it is so intuitive to use “out of the box”, but clearly others have – you can even add audio to your flash card.
So much for the software. Inevitably there were no Oriya decks! Surprise, surprise! So I have started going through Niels Erik Wegge’s Oriya in Small Bites book and making up some decks. I reviewed his book on Good Reads. At the time of writing this post there are 2 decks loaded on AnkiWeb, and a third waiting in the wings with vocabulary I have picked up whilst here in Orissa. My plan is to continue through Wegge’s book, and adding in further words and phrases as I hear them. The decks are based on the exercises in the book but have some of my own examples added in. Inevitably there will be mistakes – typos, pronunciation errors, syntax and grammar errors, and probably the odd misunderstanding of meaning for which I accept full responsibility.
Please let me know if you use the decks, if they are useful and if you find any errors. I shall be happy to correct. Also if you are learning Oriya and make your own deck please let me know and share via Anki. Finally Anki remove decks if not used in 3 months, so if you find they have disappeared and would like them just drop me a message and I will re-upload.