Archive for September 12th, 2012

The Wildings of Nilanjana Roy

September 12, 2012

I completed The Wildings of Nilanjana Roy. I have a few comments; they have already been made by others, here and here! So, I will quote from these reviews:

In attempting to be serious and accurate, but also whimsical, mythic and tragic, The Wildings falls short in establishing its own internal vocabulary. This results in rather cloying anachronism. Humans are referred to as Bigfeet, a cutesy touch that’s particularly grating when one realises that the cats not only use perfectly normal, and human, names for most other species, but also utter phrases like “keeping the airwaves clear”, and “wet-behindthe- whiskers”.

There are inconsistencies between passages too. Early scenes with Mara the kitten employ the baby-talk and anthromorphising tendencies of works for younger readers, with the spoken-aloud enthusiasm of Enid Blyton. Elsewhere, a recollection of an adult cat’s first season and the lining-up of suitors for mating, while continuing the cats-as-people framework, seems like it belongs in a different book. A gliding cheel weighs – with comic machine-precision – the benefits of a SD&K (swoop, dive and kill) before registering a “46% kill probability”. A council debate takes place with mythic intonation to their speech (“In the years since Tigris died, there has been little need for a Sender among us wildings”). Unintentionally comedic phrases are created when the differing approaches collide, for example: “‘WoofWOOF’, he said in contrapuntal fashion. ‘WOOFwoof! WOOF!’”

Much of the dialogue is expository, meant to establish the personality types these animals represent. There is a desire to explain everything; the twitching of whiskers, for example, doesn’t have to be qualified: “twitch in irritation”. Claws are unsheathed “reflexively”. This overwriting is prevalent in the smallest of descriptions. Instead of a kitten simply staring at a face, we read about one who “found himself staring” into that face. This makes the reading slow going, and has the effect of distancing the reader from the characters, which end up feeling a bit like variations of each other – though they are sketched out as archetypes.

However, Prabha Mallaya’s black-and-white illustrations are superb; moody and yet brimming with energy. Each one adds a touch of a setting that ultimately feels unfulfilled by the book. These gorgeous pictures provide tantalising suggestions of what a different book this could have been, perhaps with reduced text and a co-authorship for the illustrator. The Wildings is an ambitious book, but would have been helped with a little more story and a little less telling.

————–

If I had to gripe about anything, it would be that some of the action sequences – a fight at the baoli, the long-drawn-out climactic battle with the ferals – didn’t fully hold my attention. Though written with skill and sharply observant of cat manoeuvres and the graceful litheness of their movements, these passages felt a little mechanical compared to the breeziness of the rest of the narrative.

The Wildings is, before anything else, a terrific adventure tale with a fine cast of characters, and because itcan be enjoyed wholly at that level one hesitates to over-analyse or get solemn about its themes. But “serious” and “entertaining” are not exclusive categories, and even genres that are viewed as being relatively low-engagement or non-cerebral often produce works of quiet, unselfconscious wisdom. This book has things to say about the potential for kinship between natural adversaries, about rules of conduct in a survival-of-the-fittest situation, about heroism taken to reckless extremes contrasted with reluctance to get involved at all, and about the advisability of taking only as much as you need from the world around you.

I also personally felt that with a little more of editing for consistency and several more illustrations, this could have been a book that one wanted to read and re-read. But, as it stands, it is just a good read!

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PhD: To or NotTo

September 12, 2012

Some advice on deciding to do PhD:

One thing I make sure to tell my students (and this is something I told myself before accepting to go to Texas for a Ph.D.) is that it is also completely OK to change your mind. Deciding to pursue a Ph.D. is not a prison sentence, and if they realize that they do not enjoy math as much as they thought, or that they don’t really want to spend so much time learning more mathematics, then there is no reason to stay.

Of course, other things besides not enjoying learning math can happen, like not passing quals or prelims or whatever they’re called these days. It is my opinion that people who truly want to stay in graduate school find a way to do so. I have also had friends who have left for a few years, come back, and are very successful. Other friends have switched from one institution to another that was a better fit. This reminds me of a talk Kathryn Leonard gave at MathFest this past August,  “I failed, and no one died”. In it, she explains how we need to teach our students (and learn for ourselves) to distinguish between failure and Failure. A Failure is when an airplane pilot fails to land his airplane or a surgeon botches a procedure. These are bad places to fail at what you’re doing. In mathematics, we are constantly faced with little-f-failure. We are working on a research problem that we can’t prove, or we don’t pass our qual, or we get a bad grade on our Real Analysis midterm. These are not huge problems, and no one is going to die. They are also indicative that you need to change something that you’re doing. Either try a new approach to your research problem, figure out how to study for your qual, find a study group for your next midterm. These failures could also indicate other issues, like maybe your problem is much more difficult than you thought (maybe you need to assume GRH!) , and in the other two situations, maybe you realize that you don’t care enough to struggle. This is important, because math is difficult, and if you don’t enjoy it then it is very hard to get through some of these obstacles. This goes for many difficult occupations, by the way.

Take a look!