Archive for the ‘Review’ Category

Bharadwaj Rangan in the New Year!

January 11, 2009

Bharadwaj Rangan is not very happy with the very first offering of Bollywood this year — Kaashh .. Mere Hote! While I commiserate with him and agree that it might not auger well for the year in terms of quality of movies, at least for reviews like the one that he has written, I guess they are worthwhile; here are a couple of samples!

And that we’d be treated, in this day and age, to one of those romantic interludes where the heroine squeals, “I hate you, I hate you,” when she really, really luurrves her man?

We’re used to films that treat the audiences like morons, but Kaashh… Mere Hote may be something of a first – the characters, themselves, treat one another like morons. The heroine asks, at one point, “Kya?” Then, cleverly intuiting that the hero needs more prompting, she adds, “Kya hua?” Finally, just to make sure the essence of her communication doesn’t get lost in translation, she tosses in an option in another language, “What happened?” But this is nothing compared to Rajesh Khanna’s fourfold declaration of his vision impairment. “I’m blind. I can’t see. Main nahin dekh sakta. Main andha hoon,” he yells, as if offering multiple choices to a contestant on a game show. In that vein, we too shall declare: This film is no good. It’s bad. It sucks. Total bakwaas hai, boss.

Have fun (and, bookmark his blog).

On reviewing (Or, is there an Indian way of reviewing?)

January 5, 2009

Amit Chaudhuri, in the very first sentence,lets us know that he knows that what he is doing is against the grain of conventional wisdom:

Ancient wisdom proclaims that it’s better not to respond to reviews.

But then, I guess, the frustration that importance is being attached to information rather than substance is too much to bear:

Chaudhuri’s review, I should add, is as generally thoughtful and generous (for which I am grateful) as the Telegraph notice is cursory. But both spend time on factual errors or omissions (the latter expends almost the entirety of its small space on these) in a way that’s reminiscent of a great deal of reviewing in this country. Are our reviewers just more meticulous in these matters than their counterparts elsewhere? What is the hidden, life-and-death, clinching import of information?

With any anthology of merit, structure, the relationships set up between the texts selected and the challenge posed to the reader thereby are questions that must be dealt with. Errata can’t take up too much review space, or be made to look more significant than they are; errata are errata and, contrary to what many of our reviewers think, not criticism; unless, of course, facts that were central to the book’s argument were misrepresented, in which case the argument itself falls apart.

A nicely thought out piece, which ends with some analysis of the role of authenticity in Bengali literary criticsm:

Authenticity has been a bogey in Bengal, and India, ever since modern ‘literature’ came into existence. Buddhadeva Bose claiming Madhusudan Dutt (picture) “didn’t know Bengali”; Tagore saying much the same thing in an interview to E.J. Thompson; Dineshchandra Sen’s opinion that Tagore’s “mode of thinking is essentially English”; Bankimchandra announcing there was no “authentic (khaanti)” Bengali poet after Iswar Gupta — the list goes back to the source itself. This is fine; except that the fundamental business of cultural reciprocity has got bogged down repeatedly in the issue of the authentic. Authenticity, and its unfriendly local incarnation, territoriality, have killed off a great deal of Indian criticism; they’ve often transformed criticism into bureaucratese; for which, as it happens, error-finding is an indispensable instrument. For the bureaucrat, with his emphasis on the correct information holding the key to identity, the fact that I haven’t mentioned (as The Telegraph points out) that Kaliprasanna Singha translated the Mahabharat or that Samar Sen edited Now puts the legitimacy of the five hundred-odd pages of Memory’s Gold and years’ work into question. But then the bureaucrat’s universe is very different from the critic’s.

By the way, I have also noticed that far too many Indian reviews, even while not taking this route of pointing out errors, just state some facts about the book, what it is about, who the author is and so on without getting to the business of criticism. If it is not errata, sometimes, it is just a precis that passes for a review. All of this makes me wonder (to borrow the words from A K Ramanujan), if there is an Indian way of reviewing.

Intelligent thought: a review

June 22, 2008

Slightly more than two years ago, one of my friends gifted me Intelligent thought — Science versus the intelligent design movement, an anthology edited by John Brockman. At first, I wasn’t too keen on the book — I knew that ID, as such, did not have any content whatsoever; so, why read a book that is going to tell me the same thing? However, my friend insisted that the book is not just about ID, but also about the science, and I might enjoy the science aspects of the book. So, I promised to read the book and blog about it too.

I am glad I did read the book; it is true that there are pieces in the book which did not excite me very much — the ones that deal with what Dembski or Behe have to say and how they are wrong, insincere, or, both; however, there are a few which I enjoyed thoroughly.

The first piece that I enjoyed a lot is Tim D White’s Human evolution; the evidence. In the essay, White writes about his paleontological studies and excavations in Ethiopia, and what they have to say about human origins and evolution.

The essay that follows White’s called The “Great” transition by Niel H Shubin was another that I liked very much; in this piece, Shubin recounts the story of the discovery of fossils of “fishapods”.

In my opinion, the finest piece in the book is the one by Frank J Sulloway titled Why Darwin rejected intelligent design. The essay begins with this vaguely Jane Austen-ish sentence:

There is considerable irony in the fact that Charles Darwin was at one time enthralled by the theory that all species are intelligently designed–a theory he later sought to banish from science in his Origin of species (1859).

And, it goes on to establish that

While in Galapagos, creationist theory primed Darwin in key ways for what he observed and understood there. Just as important, this theory also dictated what he failed to observe and understand.

Having just read Kuhn’s Structure of scientific revolutions, and not knowing that Darwin did fail to notice certain things which became a key part of his book and his legend, I could make some new connections between what my perceptions about Darwin and his work are and what he actually seems to have done, and put all of that in the paradigm perspective.

Even though the last four paragraphs of Sulloways essay are quotable in full, here are a few thought provoking sentences:

Ultimately, what Darwin’s transformation from creationist to evolutionist reveals about him–and about science generally–is that the best science is conducted in the service of really good theory. Darwin’s own scientific methodology was remarkably modern for a period when Baconian induction–supposedly letting the facts speak for themselves, independently of any theory–was the predominant scientific philosophy. … throughout his long career he employed what is known as the hypothetico-deductive method, by which hypotheses are used to generate predictions and to guide the collection of relevant evidence–information that is then used to confirm or reject the hypotheses.

And, that sentence about “science conducted in the service of a really good theory” reminded me of the pushing your cookie versus theoretical prostitution discussion of Teppo at Orgtheory.

To summarise, if only for Sulloway’s piece, Intelligent thought is worth your time and money. Along the way, you might also find a few more interesting pieces. Have fun!

Cushy comes from Khushi

April 6, 2008

Via the ever entertaining Jenny Davidson’s Light reading blog, I got a link to this piece, which is a review by Christian Tyler of a book called The secret life of words: how English became English by Henry Hitchings:

Did you know, for instance, that “cushy” has nothing to do with cushions but is from khush, Hindi for “pleasant”?

Of course, the movement of words from English to other languages is equally interesting:

It’s intriguing to note that the movement of words has not just been one way: Swahili has the charming kiplefti for a traffic island, and Japanese engejiringu for an engagement ring.

Take a look!

How fiction works

April 5, 2008

After fantasy, it is only fair that we ask the question, namely, how does fiction work? Pradeep Sebastian reviews James Wood’s How fiction works and recommends it strongly too:

This is the first truly illuminating book on the craft of a writer I have read. Writers making a start and writers well into their craft will learn nearly everything there is to learn about writing good fiction from Wood’s deep responses to the writers he so clearly knows and loves. Apart from Wood’s own brilliant commentary and remarks, there are phrases, sentences, and entire paragraphs here from the novels that he knows intimately that define imaginative sympathy, style, detail, endings, and dialogue in the most vivid and glorious ways. Wood feels academic criticism and literary theory have not answered these questions well, and his book poses these “theoretical questions but answers them practically…asks a critic’s questions and offers a writer’s answers.”

Along the way, of course, Sebastian, in his usual style, also gives a list of other books of the same genre which are also a must-read:

The book belongs to a critical subgenre quickly developing — a handful of books attempting a philosophy of the novel. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (which Wood feels is imprecise now) Alfred Kazin’s The Bright Book of Life (Kazin’s definition of the novel, borrowed from Lawrence, as the “one bright book of life” is still to be beaten) and Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel come quickly to mind. Recent additions to this genre of a literary user’s manual are Ruth Padel’s Fifty Two Ways to Read a Poem, John Sutherland’s The Novel: A User’s Guide, John Mullan’s How Novels Work and Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel.

Take a look!

Reviewing the reviews

February 16, 2008

It is always fun to read the review of reviews: the best example of such reviews is the series that Open Letters Monthly publishes for book reviews called Peer Review — take a look at this review of reviews of Guenter Grass, or, this one of Philip Roth for example.

In a similar fashion, but on an entirely different note, Arunn at Unruled Notebook (Hat tip to Gandham for the email alert) decides to have some fun interpreting, de-constructing and at times, just plain translating, the review of a music concert that appeared in the Hindu:

Though sporting a coquettish swing, there was dignity of Carnatic music.

Like commercial break between programs, this means ROFL break for my (Shri. SVK) review.

Through his competent singing (as agreed by me in the earlier sentences) Kasturi Rangan made me see the feminine swing (of hips?) of Mademoiselle Carnatic music. After enjoying it for a while, I realized it is wrong on my part to do so in public, so I shift the blame squarely on to Mademoiselle Carnatic music for sporting such an ungainly feminine swing that almost robbed her of dignity.

Long karvais, loops, gorgeous sancharas formed the raga edifice. His creativity was well matured by intensity of feeling with a skilful control of form.

All because of this good, creative singer Kasturi Rangan. Shame on him.

His training under a towering vidwan helped him enormously in the rendering of kirtanas.

Aha! He is very good because he trained under TNS.

His interpretation of ‘Sri Ranganayakam’ (Nayaki) and ‘Saragunapalimpa’ (Kedaragowla) clearly brought out the radiance of the composition. The spiritual excellence of the Nayaki kirtana was unfolded stressing its specific beauties. The shades of the raga in the song were precisely and compellingly revealed.

The Kedaragowla kirtana with its structural cohesiveness and chittaswaram was presented with passionate gracefulness. One significant feature noticeable was full-steam articulation both in ragas and kirtanas. But there was lack of clarity in the enunciation of sahityas.

Nayaki and Kedaragowla ragas and the follow up kirtanas were brilliantly done. Nayaki and Kedaragowla are difficult ragas to handle. Their important phrases present in the respective kirtanas were skillfully brought out. The singing was lively but the sahitya words were not sung with clarity.

If he desires to proclaim his individual identity he has to move away from the shadow of Seshagopalan.

Let me (Shri. SVK) close with the critic patented hypocritical cliche. Kasturi Rangan should move away from the “shadow” of Seshagopalan to prove himself to me.

Take a look!

Reviewing Khalil Gibran (the Gibranian way?)

November 6, 2007

Alan Jacobs reviews the recently published Collected works of Kahlil Khalil Gibran:

Expansive and yet vacuous is the prose of Kahlil Gibran,
And weary grows the mind doomed to read it.
The hours of my penance lengthen,
The penance established for me by the editor of this magazine,
And those hours may be numbered as the sands of the desert.
And for each of them Kahlil Gibran has prepared
Another ornamental phrase,
Another faux-Biblical cadence,
Another affirmation proverbial in its intent
But alas! lacking the moral substance,
The peasant shrewdness, of the true proverb.

O Book, O Collected Works of Kahlil Gibran,
Published by Everyman’s Library on a dark day,
I lift you from the Earth to which I recently flung you
When my wrath grew too mighty for me,
I lift you from the Earth,
Noticing once more your annoying heft,
And thanking God—though such thanks are sinful—
That Kahlil Gibran died in New York in 1931
At the age of forty-eight,
So that he could write no more words,
So that this Book would not be yet larger than it is.

There is more where it came from; go, take a look (via A&L Daily).

Cartoons and cutting-edge physics

October 15, 2007

Here are a couple book reviews in the Hindu today.

Cultural history of cartoons in Indian newspapers

A R Venkatachalapathy reviews a recent book by Mushirul Hasan titled Wit and humour in colonial North India (and recommends it too):

India’s leading historian of Muslim politics and communalism in colonial India has written and edited an engaging and offbeat book. Mushirul Hasan breaks the widely held misconception of the emerging Muslim public sphere as inward looking and degenerate in the wake of 1857 and its aftermath. The underlying politics behind the publication of the book, though unstated, cannot be missed by the reader. By putting together this riotous volume of cartoons Hasan seems to be conveying a subtle but nevertheless strong message to both Western champions of liberty and Muslim fundamentalists.

Ambitiously titled Wit and Humour in Colonial North India, this book is centred on the Urdu weekly Avadh Punch which was published from Lucknow from 1877 to 1936. Even though we know that the Delhi Sketch Book published cartoons even before 1857, the author is not too far off the mark when he states that the Avadh Punch “was virtually the first Indian newspaper to give us cartoons.”

Critique of string theory

T Jayaraman reviews Lee Smolin’s The trouble with physics and finds it

… a report from the cutting edge of theoretical physics. Such accounts are typically tales of success, occasionally of triumph, that focus on the potential of what in the author’s reckoning is likely to be one of the few major scientific waves of the future. What is uncommon though is the kind of account that Smolin provides in The Trouble with Physics — an absorbing, quasi-first person account from the inside of a sharp controversy related to understanding the foundations of the physics of our time.

However, looking at the cost of the book (Rs. 650), I think the potential buyers might do well to read some of the criticisms of Smolin’s critique at Cosmic Variance and the Storm in a tea cup series at Asymptotia before buying it.

A critique of Sacks’ Musicophilia

October 11, 2007

A piece by Kevin Burger in Salon asks if Sacks has struck the wrong note:

Unfortunately, Wearing’s story is the only great song on “Musicophilia,” which exposes the sentimentality and cursory science that unforgiving critics have always seen in Sacks’ writing.

Some biologists have never been comfortable with that soft core in Sacks’ articles. Sacks, they say, is the Ripley of neurology. Believe it or not, a man with visual agnosia mistook his wife for a hat! Believe it or not, a man with musical synesthesia sees blue whenever he hears music in D major! In a similarly sarcastic vein, Tom Shakespeare, a British disability-rights advocate, once labeled Sacks “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.” Richard Powers has a good time with that in his novel “The Echo Maker,” in which he sends a character based on Sacks spiraling into an identity crisis by the fear that he has exploited his handicapped patients in his popular articles.

When it comes to understand how music enters ours ears and lights up our emotions, the outright enjoyable “This Is Your Brain on Music,” published in 2006 by musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, reduces “Musicophilia” to permanent second billing.

By the way, Powers might have had a good time with his character based on Sacks; but, that is one among the many things that made reading Echo Maker not fun for me.

UpdatePaul Elie at Slate has similar complaints too:

 The material has the distinctive Sacks touch: at once earnest, tender, and slightly amused. But the anecdotes about music and the neurological disorders associated with it—which are what the “tales” really amount to—reveal surprisingly little about music or about the brain, other than that the mystery and vitality of music are useful correlatives to the brain’s mystery and vitality. In recounting the circumstances of individual patients, Sacks doesn’t evoke the sound of music or the ways sound takes shape as music in the brain. The case studies become examples of the gap between what happens in our brains and what even our most literate experts can say about it.

A book that recurs

October 4, 2007

I have written quite a few posts about the response that Ram Guha’s India after Gandhi had received as well as my own thoughts on reading the book (and, most of them are positive). The latest to join the Guha reading club is Amardeep, who has an interesting proposal:

What I propose is this: we’ll look at a chapter or so a week, and go in sequence. In each case, I’ll try and present some of the main ideas in each chapter in a blog post, so readers can participate in the discussion even if they haven’t read that chapter of the book. The idea is to do a survey of post-independence Indian history with emphasis on the conflicts that have occurred in various states.

The first such post on Chapter 3 is already in place, and, I can see that this is going to be lots of fun. Take a look!