Book Review: Sweet Tooth

Sweet_Tooth_(novel)I have a confession to make before anything else. My purchase of this book was heavily influenced by its cover. It featured a stunning blonde in a stunning red dress, on the stairs of what looked like the interiors of a mysterious building. In fact, I spent quite a few minutes trying to decide whether the blond looked more like Scarlett Johansson or Rosie Huntington Whitley, and gave up that pursuit only when I realised I’d more or less be equally happy with either.

Now that that’s out-of-the-way, let’s get down to business. Whenever you’re reading a book that’s written by a very popular author, there is usually this faint voice in your head that keeps telling you that you’re most likely reading a good book; and you’re probably missing something if you don’t like it so far. I have tried Ian McEwan before, but I have always given up halfway. This time I doggedly read through till the end, out of curiosity and determination more than anything else.

The story is about a pretty girl named Serena (Yes, the blond featured on the cover) who ends up working for MI-5 during the 1960s through an odd turn of events, and is eventually assigned to an operation called, yes, “Sweet Tooth”. This operation involves sponsoring writers who are critical, but not excessively, of Communist ideals and claimed achievements. This, was to be a “Slow Burn” thing in MI5’s Cold War propaganda activities. Serena is assigned a writer, Tom Haley, who she takes absolutely no time in falling for, and the real story kicks off from there.

Despite the immensely slow pace of the novel, I have to admit I enjoyed the multiple layers and rather diverse cast of characters. Also, this is probably the first book I’ve read which describes the 60s and 70s in U.K from a different angle than the typical 70s perspective of mad abandon. Serena, who herself is an avid reader of fiction, provides some real insight into the literary world as well as those of music, pub culture, government functioning and social and political turmoil.

It is perhaps in those angles that the novel seems more vivid than in its actual storyline. That, ironically is what’s both good and bad about this book. It is an intimate and affectionate memoir of England in those decades, a good spy novel it’s not.

P.S ~ Ian McEwan has been open about a lot of autobiographical elements featured in the book, and those have generated quite a bit of speculation. Honestly, I couldn’t care less. An author’s writings are usually the only part of his life I am concerned about.

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Thank You.

As Tony Stark said at the beginning of Iron Man 2, it’s good to be back! Considering the fact that it has been 3 months since I wrote here, I wouldn’t really mind if you took that with a bit of salt. Coming back to a blog after a long interval is a little weird. I mean, I have been planning to do this for a while now. You can ask my drinking buddies. Every time we have gathered round a bottle of Old Monk in the last couple of months, they have had to tolerate me lamenting my lack of creative output. It was funny. I could almost hear them  saying,”There he goes again. Jeez! Who does this guy think he is, Shakespeare?” And each time, I silently replied, “Hell no! But I ain’t no Chetan Bhagat or Durjay Das either.”

Anyways, as I was saying, getting back to your blog is difficult after a long interval. For starters, you have this nagging doubt that you’ll abandon it again after a couple of weeks. Like a Casanova who has suddenly found a conscience, you realise that you don’t want to be so heartless again. Also, there’s this thing about picking up the threads where you left them. And that, ladies and gentlemen, can be a bitch. In case you were writing a story (and I was), you suddenly realise that the characters have turned a little unfamiliar over this period. Its like they’re sulking, or they don’t trust you anymore with their lives or their secrets. The plot that you were so sure about suddenly seems flimsy. Also, there comes this sudden doubt about quality. You suddenly start getting a feeling that what you used to write wasn’t really good, and whatever you try writing next will turn out to be even worse.

So, what exactly am I doing here? Gee, I don’t know. I mean, I could explain how and why I am much more relaxed and at peace with myself now than I have recently been. But then I would also have to explain what has been keeping my on my toes for the last three months. And since I know damn well that you don’t really care, unless you are some sneaky, nosey SOB, I am not going to torture you with all that unnecessary information.

Crazy as this may sound, I do know this blog has, or maybe had some dedicated readers. And yes, I do realise I haven’t been very good to them. Being a voracious reader myself, I understand that few things in this world are as disturbing or annoying as a  story being suddenly discontinued after you have fallen in love with it. So, am I apologising? Hell No! Am I making promises? Of course not! What am I babbling on about then?

Why, I simply wanted to wish you all Merry Christmas, and offer you my sincere wishes for the coming year.

Thank you for reading.

Film Review : Safety Not Guaranteed

ea_sng_safety_not_guaranteed_ver3_xlg

My girlfriend classifies my taste in movies as “juvenile”. I don’t argue with her. Not because I agree, but because history dictates that you don’t pick fights that you cannot possibly win. To tell you the truth, whenever I’m on IMDB, fishing for the next movie to download, I usually find myself browsing through the categories Action, Sci-Fi, War and a few other equally cheerful ones. That’s how I stumbled upon “Safety Not Guaranteed“. I then proceeded to obtain it, never mind how, expecting a lot of sleek tech, computer graphics, sexy females in futuristic costumes and what not. The movie turned out to have anything but those, and I’m glad it did.

The story starts off in Boston, when Jeff, a reporter, stumbles upon an ad in the classifieds that goes like this,

safety-ad

The reporter, desperate for a story, decides to go to Ocean View to investigate. He believes he will have enough material to write a funny article about some lunatic. He takes along two interns with him : Arnau, a predictably nerdy and intense Indian with a predictably atrocious accent. And Darius, a pretty but outcast girl with an unhappy past.

They arrive at Ocean View, and locate the man who had placed that ad, one Kenneth Calloway : a man who believes that he has built a time machine. Jeff tries to talk to him but is rebuffed. The job then falls to Darius to befriend Calloway with some feminine charm and to draw the story out of him. What follows is difficult to describe without giving away spoilers, so I’ll not go there. But I can tell you this, even when the movie ends and the end credits start rolling, you’ll have trouble making up your mind whether you have watched a sci-fi movie, or a subtle dark humour movie with lot of unanswered questions, or just a sweet low-budget comedy. And that, is what makes this film special.

The director, Colin Trevorrow, is a complete unknown, but he does a beautiful job of stitching his characters and story together. The cast, an exceptionally small one, perform their roles well, staying true to their characters. Jake Johnson plays the middle-aged reporter, Karan Soni the usual hapless Indian, and Mark Duplass plays Kenneth. But it’s the pretty Aubrey Plaza who effortlessly steals the show with her portrayal of the social misfit girl. Through her curt dialogues, convincing body language and beautiful expressive eyes, she plays her role to perfection.

ea_sng_safety-not-guaranteed-trust

To be honest, the movie does have the occasional hiccups and frankly silly scenes. For example, the sub-plot about Jeff’s old flame is a little to obvious as an obligatory but unnecessary distraction. So are those two rather lame government agents. And so is the bit about Jeff teaching Arnau all about being a man. Also, not that Mark Duplass does any injustice to his portrayal of Kenneth, but I could not avoid the feeling that someone could have done a better job of that character. But then, it should also be noted that the movie was made for less than a million dollars, and that does place considerable restraints on casting choices. Also, truth be told, you wouldn’t really be bothered by those rare moments when the movie falters. Because the odd but endearing chemistry between Kenneth and Darius would be more than enough to hold your attention. And if I’m not wrong, you would to busy trying to figure out where the story is going to start bickering about the occasional few minutes when the movie turns slow.

The movie ends in a way that is more of a leap of faith than anything else, but I think you’ll like it even more for it.

To sum up, “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a nice, sweet, off-the-track indie film, both endearing and thought-provoking. In my opinion, it’s a must watch between all those big-budget blockbusters that choke you on star-power and expensive visuals. Sure, it’s just my opinion, and you’re free to have a different one. In fact, you can choose to be a cynic and keep sniggering every other minute. But then, entertainment in general and science fiction in particular, were never really made for cynics, were they?

Live long and prosper, and may The Force be with you.

The Road To Ithaca – 20

I’m sure you’ve heard that expression dozens of times, that of your worst fears coming true. Well, I can’t really claim that my worst fears were coming true at that moment. That’s because I had never imagined such a moment arriving in my life. But I can tell you, that with each word she said, I became more and more certain that things were going in a direction that I definitely did not want them to go in, and with each passing moment, my chances of recovering things were getting more and more slim.

I wildly asked myself what I should do. Should I stop her and tell her that she’s wrong? Should I tell her that she’s wrong and that I wanted this as much as she did, more than she did? Should I tell her that I’d be honored? happy?

“And then what? Pray tell.” A voice in my head seemed to mock me. “Do you really think, for even a second, that you are actually capable of this?”

“I can do this. I can, I will do whatever it takes.” I protested.

“Really? How sweet.” The voice again. “Like what, exactly? Tell me one thing, just one thing that you plan to do.”

“Shut up!” I said.

“Excuse me?” It wasn’t the voice in my head, it was her. I realised I had spoken the two words aloud. Shit.

“Er..sorry, I wasn’t speaking to you.” I mumbled.

With exaggarated slowness, she looked around the room, and then fixed her eyes back on me.

“Would you mind telling me” She said in that dangerous honeyed voice, “who exactly you were asking to shut up? Because unless you were speaking to Roopsa, who’s asleep anyway, I’m the only one who’s been speaking.”

“I was talking to myself.” I offered.

“You were speaking to yourself.” She pronounced slowly, with a distinct pause between each word, looking at me that typical way people look at madmen.

“Yes, I..uh..” I tried to explain, “I..I was thinking that this wouldn’t be a good idea, and I wanted to stop…”

“I think you’ve already made that perfectly clear.” She said in a tone of finality, each word dripping with scorn and contempt. Without a glance at me, she stood up and stormed towards the door.

“Wait! Please..” I begged, “just listen to me for a second.” She didn’t even bother to pretend that she heard. In my desperation, I almost jumped down from the bed, and grabbed her arm.

She whirled around to face me, and I involuntarily took a step back. I had never seen someone so angry. She was literally trembling with anger, with a face that had a turned a beautiful shade of red, and eyes blazing.

“Listen to you?” She almost spat out the words. “Listen to what? Same of your shit? That you love me but you don’t want me? That you’ve always loved me, but you’ve never thought of the two of us being in a relation? You expect me to believe that shit?”

“It’s true, I…”

“Well, congratulations.” She interrupted. “You didn’t want a relation? Well, guess what, you ain’t getting into one. In fact, you’ll never see me again, not in this life. Now let go of my arm.” With that declaration, she turned to leave.

I didn’t let go of her arm. In fact, I can’t really explain why, or from where I got the nerve, but I roughly turned her around, pushed her against the wall, and kissed her.

Her lips were cold and soft and moist, and they tasted of butterscotch.

I don’t know for how long we stayed like that. However, after a while, with my eyes still closed and my lips still pressed against hers, I kinda visualised what I was doing. I jumped back, terrified.

She didn’t seem to be perturbed by my indecency. She still leaned against the wall, with her eyes closed and an odd half-smile playing on her lips. I, on the other hand, was scared out of my wits.

“I’m so sorry.” I begged. “Forgive me, I..I’m not like that.”

“Do it again.” She ordered softly, not moving an inch, not opening her eyes.

“What? Listen, I’m really sorry. I’ll never do it again, I swear.”

“Do it, or I’ll scream.”

So I did it again, tentatively, expecting to be slapped any second. When I finally pulled back after what seemed a long, long time, her lips didn’t want to let go of mine.

“So that’s how it feels to be kissed.” She said aloud to no one in particular, smiling, as if at some personal joke. She appeared to be savoring the moment for a while, smiling to herself.

“Sit.” She told me, and sat down herself.

“Let me get this straight,” She smiled, “You love me, you don’t want a relation with me, and you just pushed me against a wall and kissed me?”

“What do you want me to say?” I asked.

“Tell me what you’re so afraid of.” She said, taking my hand in her own.

So I told her. I told her how I had always looked up to her,  how I had put her up on a pedestal and worshipped her. I told her that she was the only girl that I had remembered in the 7 years of boarding school. I told her about the snapshot in my head, that of her running away from me in the playground of our nursery school. I told her that I had always known she was too good for me. And I told her, very honestly, that I had absolutely no clue what I’m supposed to do if I’m in a so called relationship. I had no idea what would be expected of me, what would not be acceptable. I didn’t know how I would keep her happy, and not knowing that made me feel that I’d surely end up disappointing her, and I really, really didn’t want it to come to that. Also, I told her, I didn’t think I had anything to offer her.

When I was finished, she didn’t look like she was about to cry, like they show in the movies. She looked at me like I was stark raving mad.

“Tell me,” She said incredulously, “what do you think you are, my 17th boyfriend??”

“What?” I was flabbergasted. “I don’t know. Wait. Am I?”

“Don’t you think I would’ve mentioned it to you beforehand if I had a boyfriend?” She asked, exasparated.

“Well, yes, i suppose.” I had to agree.

“Well then, did it ever to occur to you that I might not have a set of predetermined expectations in my mind? Did it never occur to you that just like you, I might also be happy just to love you, and not ask something in return?”

“But that doesn’t make any sense.” I protested. “Why the hell would someone like you love someone like me?”

“Well, guess what lover-boy, I am just crazy as you are.” She said as she drew closer. “You see, ” She went on, ” in all these years, I never thought about anyone else either. Now then,” She put her hands on my shoulders, “do you want this or not?”

“I do.” I said with all the sincerity I had.

“Good, that’s good.” She smiled sweetly. “I would have killed you otherwise.”

A quick peck on my lips, and she was gone.

I slowly looked around, trying to convince myself that I hadn’t been dreaming. Proof was a couple of feet away, in the form of my beloved German Shepherd. Believe it or not, she had slept soundly through the entire conversation.

I petted her affectionately, as I started mentally replaying every second of the previous two hours.

The Road To Ithaca – 19

When I came back with three bowls of butterscotch, the two of them were getting along famously. My pet had dropped all pretense of sleep, and was grinning stupidly at my girl’s face from a distance of inches as she petted her.

“Which one’s mine?” She asked as I put the tray on the bed. I proudly pointed to the bowl with the largest pile of ice-cream in it. She handed it over to Roopsa without a word.
“O-kay”, I thought.
“Which one is yours?” Came the next question.
Somewhat uncertainly, I pointed at the bowl with the second-highest amount. She promptly picked it up for herself. I stared at the last bowl left on the tray with hostility, the one with the smallest amount, which was also the one I had intended to give Roopsa, for betraying me moments ago. I looked up at her, planning to object.

“Is there a problem?” She smiled that extra-sweet smile at me, the smile that gives men the distinct feeling that the something bad is about to happen to them if they don’t immediately give up whatever they are planning on doing.

I shook my head in silence, and started eating. I wanted to finish it before she changed her mind and decided that Roopsa deserved to have my share of the damned butterscotch as well.

I was struggling with a particularly large dollop in my mouth when she suddenly said, “So, you wanted to talk?”

“Unhh..” I tried to speak with my mouth still half-open, my heart suddenly throbbing against my chest.

She wasn’t really looking for an answer. As I swallowed the freezing thing in one gulp and struggled to find words, she went on absently, “Before you say what I know you’ll say, let me tell you, I’ve been thinking as well.”

I had noticed long ago that she had this disconcerting ( or perfectly normal, depending on who you are ) habit of staring right into my eyes when she spoke to me. Now, however, she was looking down, absently poking at the ice-cream with her spoon. There was something in that tone, that tilt of her neck, those words, her face, that suddenly scared the hell out of me. Yes, I had been scared around her before, but this wasn’t that tongue-tied nervousness that comes with situations that are too good to be true. This was genuine fear, the premonition that something bad was coming my way, something that I wouldn’t like a bit. I waited for her to go on.

She looked up at me as if to speak, looked away again, clearly steeled herself, and then spoke, “Look, I’m sorry.”

“For what, for god’s sake?” I wanted to scream, but I could not. I just stared at her, my dread robbing me of words.

“I’m sorry,” She went on, half in embarrassment, half in genuine regret, “I have been stupid. I did not realise that you never thought about all this. I…I just..I don’t know, it feels good to be with you, even when we’re talking on the phone..and you have this way of understanding…you can always tell what I’m going through, and-and I thought…”

I sat there staring at her in disbelief. “Is this how it happens?” I thought incredulously, “Is this what I have seen dozens of movies and read scores of stories about? This is how it happens? You love someone and she actually loves you back? This, is what inspires poetry and literature and art? And, hold on a second, this is happening to me??”

For a second, I had the irrational urge to stand up and do a football victory-dance. Then her face came into focus again, and I realized how much damage I had already done with my stupid reaction over the phone the previous day. She wasn’t talking about loving me. She was saying good-bye.

Suddenly, I was afraid again.

Good Luck Syria

So, yet another US backed military operation is imminent. After the Afghans and the Iraqis, it is now the Syrian people‘s turn to be gloriously “liberated”, live on CNN, one smart bomb at a time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for freedom. I’m an Indian after all, that great country which earned her freedom almost 70 years ago, and yet passed a Rs. 1.3 Trillion bill only yesterday to make sure 67% of its population don’t go hungry. Neither am I a great one of those America haters who can give you a dozen examples of the so-called “Imperial ambitions” of the US before Barack Obama can say “Change.” No, I’m just an average opinionated guy, whose opinion does not matter any more than the average American’s view of America’s war on terror.

I’d agree that the situation in Syria deserves a response of some kind from the international community. I don’t know if Assad has to go, or if he should stay. I’m not sure if handing over the reins to the so called Free Syrian Army would improve things over there, or whether it would just do to Syria what the Taliban did to Afghanistan. I don’t know. I’m not a Syrian. Do you? If President Assad is actually using chemical weapons against his own people, then yes, he has to go. However, allow me a skeptical word here. By all accounts, he was already winning the war. Why would he choose to use the one option, that too at this stage, which is almost guaranteed to invite a military intervention by the West? Anyway, no matter who is using those weapons, I’d agree that the best possible option would be for the bloody war to end, and if that means another “liberation” by the US, I’d say so be it.

However, this time there seems to be a twist in the story. Any military action, it has been said, will be targeted at “punishing Assad, not removing him.” Forgive my ignorance, BO, but what exactly does that mean? For starters, you’re gonna bomb or invade a country to punish a man? Doesn’t really sound very logical to me. Besides, how exactly are the US and its allies gonna take some military action without bringing about his removal? I mean, going by the last few wars fought by the US, we can look forward to all those hi-tech precision strikes against military targets, command and communication centers, weapons depots and government installations. Does it really take too much brains to figure out that this would all but win the war for the rebels, and achieve the exact same objective that the US officials are saying they do not want to achieve? I don’t really care if Assad is exiled, hanged or just vaporised, but why the fancy footwork to pretend that the West is on a hands-off approach this time? Besides, tell me, if the US was actually planning to remove Assad, how else would it have gone about it? A no-shit invasion? Somehow I don’t think the administration would have taken that kind of a political risk.

Once again, I’m not really against foreign intervention in Syria, yes, military if necessary. The situation has reached such a stage that the best solution for the ordinary people over there will be for this war to be over as soon as possible, regardless of who wins. And yes, a US led attack seems to be quickest path to that objective.

It’s just that I’ve heard all this before. I’ve heard the same tales of torture and tyranny, the same stories of chemical and biological weapons  attacks or stockpiles, the so called weapons of mass destruction. I’ve heard oppressive regimes and tyrannical dictators, I’ve heard strong arguments for “regime changes”, the need for immediate action to “deliver a strong clear message” to those misguided rulers. Last but not the least, I’ve heard of “irrefutable evidence” before, that of terror links and gas attacks and WMD stockpiles. I’ve heard of the desperate need to “liberate” the helpless citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq, more than once. Those countries have all been liberated, more than once by the US.

And guess what, they’re still burning.

Good luck Syria.

The Road To Ithaca – 18

The doorbell rang precisely at 11 the next morning. For some reason, I had decided that I did not want to appear too eager, so I was sitting in my room. I had rehearsed this moment for hours the previous day, and I had made a few notes to myself:

  • When you’re walking towards the gate, walk at a measured pace. Not too fast, not too fast.
  • Say something casual, when you open the gate. e.g – Hi, Good Morning, How are you?
  • Don’t stare. Remember to smile. Remember to smile!
  • Act casual when she’s talking to parents.
  • TRY BEHAVING NORMALLY..

Sadly, Roopsa, my beloved German Shepherd, shot all my best laid plans to hell.  It was my fault. In all my excitement, I had forgotten all about her. So, about two seconds after the bell rang, before I had even stepped out of my room, I could hear Roopsa barking her “stranger-alert” bark from the garden. I forgot all about measured paces and ran to the gate practically at a full gallop. Instead of delivering my well-rehearsed greetings, I found myself trying desperately to shut Roopsa up. Predictably, she wasn’t cooperating.

A word here. Reading that last bit might give you the wrong impression about Roopsa, so let me clarify. She wasn’t angry or hostile by nature. She was very friendly, and she loved having guests at the house. In fact, what she enjoyed most was sitting in the middle when me and a few other boys from school sat in my room and talked trash for hours. However, there was one specific type of visitors who she didn’t quite welcome with open arms, and those were female friends of mine. Yes, dogs are intensely jealous, and if you have any disgusting Freudian explanations about that, I suggest you keep those to yourself.

Anyway, I quieted Roopsa after a few minutes of effort and opened the gate. Roopsa sniffed her suspiciously for a while and then seemed to accept her presence for the time being. After the obligatory exchanges with my mom, I took her to my room. Roopsa quietly got on the bed and firmly sat down close to me, keeping an eye on her all the time. This did not seem to faze her. She looked at Roopsa with a half-smile and said, “Why do I have the feeling that I already have competition?”

Again, my rehearsals had not covered that possibility that she would be so direct. I smiled weakly and said,”Don’t worry, she likes you.”

I discreetly tried to push Roopsa off the bed even as I spoke. If only pushing full-grown Alsatians around were that easy. At first Roopsa just threw me an annoyed glance and made a strange sound in her throat that was halfway between a grunt and a growl. I pushed a little harder. Instead of budging an inch, Roopsa just snuggled closer, put her head on my leg, and apparently fell asleep. I gave up.

The girl I was doing all this for laughed delightedly at my embarrassment. “Let her stay,” She said affectionately,”I like her already. At least…”

“What?” I asked.

She smiled that naughty but bewitching smile of hers that I loved, “Unlike you, wimp, she doesn’t try to hide her feelings from everyone, especially from you. Where’s my ice-cream?”

She had once told me that butter-scotch was her favorite flavor of ice-cream, and I in turn had told her that I’ll treat her to it the first time she comes to my home. We had not spoken about it again, but she remembered, and she knew that so would I.

“Coming up.” I said, and firmly pushed Roopsa’s head off my leg. As I got off the bed to get the ice-cream, Roopsa lazily crawled to her, put her head on her lap, and apparently fell asleep again. I stood looking at my beloved pet in disbelief. Wasn’t she barking furiously at her, about 3 minutes ago? Besides…okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a bit possessive about my dogs as well.

“You ungrateful canine,” I muttered, trying to sound threatening, “You just wait till I get my hands on you.”

The ungrateful canine opened one eye, wagged her tail once, and licked my girl’s hand affectionately.

The subject of affection, in turn, laughed indulgently and petted her newest fan who had apparently fallen asleep again.

“Ice-cream.” She ordered. “And get some for her as well.”

I stood looking at the scene for moment. The beautiful girl and the huge German shepherd curled up at her feet, both of whom I loved more than almost anything else in this world. Then, despite myself, I grinned happily and went to get that damned ice-cream…

The ungrateful canine

The ungrateful canine