Pop Culture Update: Books

I haven’t really been writing much about things that matter, like books and comics and things that make me want to run around my room shrieking with happiness. This post tries to fill that gaping void in your life.

There are a lot of shitty fantasy trilogies around, but Hunger Games is not one of them. The books were recommended to me by a librarian who sat next to me at a Neil Gaiman show. The movie trailer came out a little while ago, and no doubt I would have dismissed it as another of those post-Twilight teen-angst bubbles. But hey, librarian-recommendation. So I read book 1, and was blown away, and finished books 2 and 3 the same week. It’s hard to read when you’re on vacation, but these were just that good.

What’s the series about? If you’ve read/watched Battle Royale or The Running Man and The Long Walk by Stephen King, you will understand that Suzanne Collins takes familiar tropes, at least in the first book, and then takes those to their logical conclusion in the sequels. The protagonist is a girl that plays with metaphorical fire, and kicks up a political hornet’s nest of epic proportions. The cast of characters features a gruff Mentor-figure, a star-crossed relationship , a Diabolical Villain (who does not even make a proper appearance until the beginning of the second book – well-played there, Ms Collins), a Faithful Confidante, and surprisingly, the most awesome Fictional Fashion Designer you’ve ever seen. The three books work beautifully well together, and I loved the way how the storyline unraveled the world’s back-story slowly, the characters acquiring voices of their own. The books brought me on the brink of tears multiple times, and made me skip a healthy regime of sleep just so that I get my pulse-rate back to normal.

I read Max Brooks’ World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War on a recent flight. Had heard good things about the book on Joe Hill’s Twitter Geek list, even though I had known of Brooks as a parody guy. Expectations were low – how much more can this whole zombie fad be milked anyway? Turns out it can, and wonderfully at that.

Brooks looks at the zombie outbreak as an actual worldwide event and examines its sociopolitical implications. He presents it like a documentary-style set of interviews with survivors, soldiers, politicians, inventors, people from all over the world – much unlike traditional zombie media, where the focus is on a small band of individuals. The interviews lay out the timeline of the “war”, from the time the zombie outbreak caused society to break down, the slow and eventual return to some form of normalcy, and finally, the climactic showdown. In the process, it covers how every aspect of society is changed as a result – from racism to film-making, military strategy to everyday slang, how certain countries take the lead in containing the social meltdown, and how society mutates to keep up. The interviews lead into one another, jumping across continents, showing just how random events on one side of the globe affect other countries.

The book has tonnes of disturbing moments – a traumatized young girl’s account of a zombie attack, political shenanigans that lead to loss of lives, a zombie vaccine that turns out to be a marketing placebo, the build-up to nuclear war between unlikely enemies. And it has moments of stunning epicness – I refer to them as F!$* Yeah Moments. The Japan arc, for example, blindsides you completely, with two unlikely “protagonists” undergoing their own trials against the zombies. Pay close attention to the real-world nudge in the South Africa arc – where a plan concocted during the apartheid years to contain race mobs is resurrected to contain the zombie attack.

The movie is in production right now, but with stars like Brad Pitt attached to the movie, I have a feeling that the everyday aspect of the book will be abandoned in the favor of focusing on specific individuals. This book offers the refreshing view that human society as a whole can be heroic, somehow I do not see Hollywood subscribing to that utopian ideal. Oh well.

Life, Weirdness

A Neil Gaiman Evening

You would be surprised at how fast I managed to jump and book tickets when Neil Gaiman tweeted about his upcoming American Gods tour, sometime last month. And the minute I clicked on the ‘confirm payment’ button, the site refused to load. A few moments of panic when I thought everybody in LA was booking tickets at the same time, Indian Railways tatkal style, and hastily opened another browser, ready to buy another set of tickets. But the Paypal email confirming the purchase came in, and I knew I was good.

Too good, in fact. As the date grew closer, tickets were still available – strange for an author whose rock-star status sold out venues weeks ahead of appearances. I tried to get people in office interested, but no one was really interested, and Tuesday evening is not really a good day to go attend a show, I guess. So what happened was that I landed up in front of Saban theatre at 6 PM, for an 8 PM show, expecting to breezily pick up tickets.

Ah. O-o-o-kay.

Apparently it was a Neil Gaiman show after all. Go LA!

So I stood in line, reading Black Lagoon and listening to the ladies behind me talk about what a good time they had at previous appearances, and occasionally looking at the sun setting through the buildings across Wilshire Boulevard. And of course the line kept getting longer and longer behind me, even as I inched closer to the entrance.


And then I was in, carrying both my tickets, after the lady at the counter made me repeat my name thrice and then proceeded to serve other people in the line because she could not find my tickets. Yes, tickets in plural, because I had thought there would be someone I could go with and had booked two $15 tickets instead of one $35 ticket that would have gotten me a signed copy of American Gods as well. But you know what? I have multiple copies of the book back in India, from the first edition hardcover that was procured for 100 Rs at Best Book Stall sometime around 2002, multiple paperback editions, one of the them the preferred-text version, different covers, the whole shebang. None of the above stopped me from regretting the lack of a $35 ticket as I walked in and saw the lovely copies on sale. Signed stuff always get me good, I tell you. I bought myself a signed hardcover of Neverwhere, which I had a tattered copy of, and which I have not read in quite a long time.

As I went in, it struck me that seats numbered AA101 and AA102 could mean one of two things – I am either somewhere at the back, or way near the front. As it turned out, it was the latter. FRONT ROW SEATS, fuck yeah!

And nobody was in yet, of course. Except for two lonely chairs and a few over-excited nerds.

Soon it was 8, and people were still trickling in. Someone came out and announced that while Neil and Patton were backstage and ready, they were still selling tickets and would wait for some more time. C’est la vie. I did not want to waste the extra ticket I had, and randomly asked a lady sitting at the back if she wanted to sit in the front row. As it turns out, she was having a bad day – long drive, husband did not join her because of work, and she had an early morning event to attend the next day. Yup, she was totally up for a seat up front. And she was a children’s librarian, so I was fairly sure Neil Gaiman would approve. We talked about Joe Hill, His Dark Materials, and Lemony Snicket, and the awesome experience of reading Graveyard Book and Jungle Book back to back. She recommended I check out Hunger Games, and I asked her to try the Bartimaeus Trilogy and Chew.

And then Neil Gaiman waved to us from the corner of the stage, which made the fangirls squeal, and Twitter’s servers to momentarily groan from the flush of tweets that emanated from every mobile device in the vicinity.

At this point of time, I should probably remember to tell you that when I left the house that morning, I was running about 4 minutes late. Which meant that in order to catch the bus that left Admiralty and Palawan at exactly 8:07 AM, I would have to walk at the rate of a DJ Yoda album, and not, as was my usual music-to-walk-to-the-bus-stand-of-choice, the Tune Yards. Which also meant that when, about 2 minutes out of the door, when I felt my pocket to check for my phone and realized that it wasn’t there, I silently cursed my stupidity, but made no move to head back to pick it up. Remember this somewhat insignificant detail for later, all right? All right.

So it was time. The hall was nearly full. There were people even on the balcony, as the somewhat surprised Saban theatre remarked, which was not a common occurrence for an author appearance. Patton Oswalt came in, and began to sing Harry Belafonte songs with a Mid-western accent.

Uh, no, not really.

Oswalt was funny. Made fun of his own geek credentials (“This is like asking the world’s biggest Gaiman stalker to play twenty questions”), made fun of everyone in the hall, and then called the Man in Black out. Yeah baby!

What followed was what, in certain circles, would be termed as ‘total paisa vasool’. Questions were asked and answered, there were observations made about what constitutes weird in America. Neil talked about making an appearance in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where the venue was a 15 minute walk from the hotel, but the old lady driving his limousine managed to transform the drive into a 45-minute one, because she chose to make up her own directions, and he saw a nuclear submarine in a park. He talked of the time he listened to a critic’s complaint about how Violent Cases was an overpriced book and asked the publishers to lower the price, and no one really noticed the price-cut. He spoke about the origins of American Gods, and how he jump-started a bit of myth himself, by coming up with a Slavic goddess who has, since then, gone on to have her own Wikipedia page and numerous citations. His book apparently had its origins during a sleep-deprived tour of Iceland, where he wondered if the Norse gods travelled to America along with the Vikings. He typed out a one page summary for his publisher with a working title, which in turn became the fully-fleshed out cover image with the exact logo typeset that would become the cover of the book later on. And, on a comment from Patton Oswalt, he proceeded to do an impersonation of Bjork. Let me say that again – Neil Gaiman did an impersonation of Bjork. Heads around the Saban theatre proceeded to explode, your truly included.

Neil Gaiman, in case you did not know already, hypnotizes his audience. His comic timing is immaculate, the humor just dry enough, the punchlines enhanced by the charming British accent. When he read the first short bit from American Gods, about the origins of the Easter and a waitress who has a very vague understanding of the word ‘pagan’, his voice took on the rough tones of Wednesday, and changed to the somewhat clueless waitresses, and you did not even realize it was just one person. Yes, I have never heard any of Gaiman’s audiobooks and narrations, probably because I always knew I had to see him live. And I was completely, utterly blown away. The actual reading became a very entertaining cast version of the Bilquis sequence in Gods, a portion that involves sex, prayer and …umm….stuff that should not really happen during sex, unless you’re having sex with a goddess. I have a video. Neil, who played the narrator, was flawless. Zelda Williams, the lady who played Bilquis, cracked up multiple times and I do not blame her. Patton Oswalt takes his reading very seriously. The photograph you see is shaking because I was laughing just as hard as everyone else.

Then there were a bunch of audience questions that Patton Oswalt asked Gaiman on their behalf (questions had to be mailed in prior to the event). I had sent in a question about the nature of franchises in today’s popular culture, the need for prequels, sequels and spinoffs and about an author’s role in determining when a story should be a standalone thing and when it needs to be fleshed out even more. The reason behind my question was to find out if the TV series deal (Playtone is producing a six season TV series on American Gods ) made Gaiman want to write the planned sequel, or whether it was always meant to be. My question wasn’t asked, but a lot of good ones were, and Gaiman shared a lot of coming-soon news – like his collaboration with Stephen Merritt of Magnetic Fields, his upcoming children’s book about a panda who sneezes, called Chu’s Day (the name itself makes me smile), his attempt to interpret Journey to The West, the Chinese epic, which seems to have become a movie script, and lots, lots of other things. There is a very detailed transcript of the question and answer session right here, if you are interested.

And so, the evening came to an end, and everyone went home, except for the lucky few who got to go backstage and hang around with Neil. I wasn’t one of them. My primary concern was to catch bus # 105 to Fairfax and Apple, and from there, grab the connecting bus to Washington and Palawan, and reach home as soon as possible.

Except, it was 10:45, and when I reached the Fairfax and Apple, it was 11:15. The last bus to Washington had already left, at 11.

That was when my unfortunate decision to not pick up my phone in the morning came back to bite me where it hurt. I did not have anyone’s number, not even the regular cab company that I normally call in those unforeseen situations where I’m short of time and there’s no bus in sight. So I began walking. Thankfully, there was a gas station nearby, and when I asked the salesman there if he could call a cab, he agreed. “Ten minutes”, he said, and I bought a Coke can from him out of gratitude, and waited for my ride home.

It came. It was not a cab. It was an old lady in an SUV, who said – “you hoppa in. Where you wanna go?” and I asked her, like every money-loving Indian boy should, if she had a meter. “No problem-a. I go by the mileage. You pay 1.75 per mile, just like cab.” Well, who was I to complain? I hoppa-ed in, and the lady proceeded to drive me home, at a steady speed of 25 miles an hour. Turns out she was the salesman’s mother (I would have never guessed!) and she had just bought the car, and really liked driving it. Her husband had wanted to come drive me home, but she insisted on doing it herself.

It was, you will agree, a very appropriate end to the evening.


Books, precious.

Six books in seven days is not too bad. Books, as in proper non-graphic-novelly books.

Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys.

Twice-22 By Ray Bradbury. A collection of short stories collecting two previous short-story releases- The Golden Apples of the Sun and A Medicine for Melancholy. I have read some of these stories before, “The Fog Horn”, for instance, but I just can’t get enough of re-reading Bradbury.

Carl Hiassen’s Skinny Dip. Entertaining as always. I loved the fact that I could figure out that the cover art was by Charles Burns.

Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club. Now an interesting thing happened. There are these book exhibitions happening at the Institute of Engineers from time to time, but of late I have been skipping them because of three reasons – one, the way they price their books is completely random – mostly it seems to be based on the thickness of a book, and not whether it’s good or bad;two, the books are completely unarranged. Which is good for your book-hunting impulses, but at the end of a terrible day at work, one hardly has the impulse to tilt one’s head sideways and walk from one end of a hall to the other trying to filter the white noise of titles ( 90% of the listed books are stuff you find at Abids on Sundays for 10 or 20 rupees, and I swear the next time I see five copies each of Alexandra Ripley’s Scarlertt and Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale in a stack of 100, I will scream.) ; three – if you get books for cheap, all the restraints, all the mental promises you’ve made not to spend any more money on books, all of these are forgotten. So yeah, I try my best to ignore these sales, even though I pass the Institute of Engineers every evening on my way home.

Now this evening, it was drizzling, and traffic was suckadelic. Traffic is always suckadelic and it nearly always rains in the evening, but it was even worse this time because I was on riding pillion on a bike. So there, we decided to park the bike at the I of E and check out the book-sale. We gave each other 10 minutes. Now as I went up, the sign said “Last day of sale”, which was good, I told myself, because I would not be able to come back for second helpings if I saw something interesting, and because they were only taking cash. So off I went, nonchalantly checking around. Truth be told, I wasn’t looking too hard, because most of the good stuff would already be sold. Saw a book of Marilyn Monroe pictures, priced at 195, but decided to skip it. Too high a price for photos, especially after I had downloaded a 140 MB package called “The Ultimate Marilyn Monroe Photographs Collection, Ever” just a couple of days back.

And then I saw the familiar logo of Fight Club staring at me, with Brad Pitt grinning and Edward Norton looking sullen and “Chuck Palahniuk” written in bold on top, and I said “hallelujah!” and went and checked out the price, which turned out to be just right. Sixty rupees is not a high price to pay for this book, yeah? Then at the counter, the guy tells me, buy one book, get another free. GLUCK! Ten minutes were almost up, so I ran a bit and looked around for something good that would cost me 60 Rs, but alas, the only ones I could see were Terry McMillan and long-read Stephen Kings and the odd Steve Martini here and there. Finally, just picked up the Marilyn book, and asked the guy to price something.

“Pay 150”, he says. Woah! Has to be the first time I paid lesser for two books than I would pay for buying one of them. Began reading Fight Club right that night, during dinner, and finished it the next morning. Yummy. Can’t believe how faithful the movie was – except for the nip and tuck there, which added to the goodness of it. Seriously, it would take guts to make a script out of this book.

Bollywood Uncensored: What You Don’t See On Screen And Why by Derek Bose. Pretty interesting reading on the peculiar quirks of Indian film censors. I liked the attention Bose paid to the banned documentaries of the seventies and eighties, with a neat comparison chart of what happened to those documentaries. ( Some were allowed to be telecast on Doordarshan by High Court and Supreme court, and others were shafted by DD anyway, when they aired these post-midnight.)

Tim Dorsey’s Hammerhead Ranch Motel, that I finished on the train ride to Madras day before yesterday. One sitting. Another writer in the crime/comedy genre, and a thoroughly loony one at that. For the most part, the storyline hops around from one oddball occurrence to the other, and as pages turn and timelines mesh, a completely zany series of events transpire – the climax, naturally, happening at the Hammerhead Ranch Motel. A dancing chihuahua who meets a tragic end when he jumps off a weather-plane, a trivia-spouting schizophrenic who kills people by literally making stuffing of them. From what I have read about Florida courtesy of Hiassen and now Dorsey, the state seems to be full of lunatics and corrupt officials and fugitives on the lam from the other states.

Because I had coupons for Premier Book Stall left over, went and picked up Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and Pratibha Ray’s Yagnaseni: The Story of Draupadi. Began the second book, really well-translated ( it was in Oriya originally, I think). If only Ashok Banker could write half as lyrically as Pradip Bhattacharya can translate, I would be a happy man.


God is Dead. Meet the Kids.

I finished Anansi Boys last night, in two sessions. Now I am in that unhappy state of mind that is brought about upon the realisation that I would probably have to wait fo a long, long while before a new Neil Gaiman novel comes out.

Gaiman had already pointed out that the book was more humour than fantasy, and rightly so. There was the friendly Douglas Adamsy-PG Wodehousey narrator’s voice throughout the writing, and the observational gems that Gaiman indulges, the kind of opinions about everyday things that make you go – “Damn, now why didn’t I think of that?” I have been thinking of a way to write about the book without giving away any spoilers. Probably the best way to make you go and read it is to repeat the tagline – “God is dead. Meet the kids.” and to say that in the book, much like all other Gaiman books, Things are Not What They Seem, and Events Happen in Different Layers of Reality. I think it would also help if you read up on Kwaku Anansi, the trickster-spider-god character of African myth. I had bought a collection of Anansi stories off a sale sometime back, and could not but help smiling at the entertaining Gaiman spins on the myths.

It’s self-referentially humorous. I mean, just look at these lines:
Daisy made a noise. It was not a yes-noise and it was not a no-noise. It was a I-know-somebody-just-said-something-to-me-and-if-I-make-a-noise-maybe-they-will-go-away sort of noise.
Carol had heard that noise before.
“oy”, she said. “Big bum. Are you going to be much longer. I want to do my blog.”
Daisy processed the words. Two of them sank in. “Are you saying I’ve got a big bum?”
“No,”, said Carol. “I’m saying that it’s getting late, and I want to do me blog. I’m going to have him shagging a supermodel in the loo of an unidentified London nightspot.”

I must have spent three minutes, probably more, just laying back on the bed and laughing hard after reading these lines.

The version of the book I bought, the British trade paperback, has a deleted scene, a scanned excerpt from Gaiman’s diary ( which contains such entertaining information as an idea to begin every chapter in the book with a punchline of a popular joke, which was vetoed later) and an interview with the writer. On an aside: How much did I pay for it? Nothing at all. Bought it with the book coupons collected from KQA quizzes. Muhuhahahahaha.

Also picked up an Iomega 160 GB External Hard Drive yesterday. Looks really cool, but has an American 3-pin plug, so I need a converter for that, even though my spike-buster does have a socket that works with it. I need to work everywhere, that’s why.