Tag Archives: reading

I never thought I’d say this, but Vikas Swarup’s latest book SUCKS

1 Jun

I don’t ever judge books by their covers. Instead, I judge them by their first pages. Whenever I find myself in a bookshop (which is probably more often than is healthy), I grab a couple of novels in the genre I fancy, skim the blurb, and read page 1. If the style doesn’t grab me, I move on. It’s a simple, efficient method that has worked for me with great success.

About two weeks ago, I broke my own rule. I bought a book without even opening it. Featuring a girl in ugly sweat pants running into a grey blur of traffic, what made this cover stand out was the name of the author. In larger-than-humble, bright and tacky purple capitals, a gleeful me was informed that VIKAS SWARUP had published another of his adventure stories.

I was elated. This dude is, after all, the writer who got me into all things Indian. His vivid portrayal of the country and its people was what led me to discover other literary favourites like Shantaram and The god of small things.

Vikas Swarup is the rare sort of writer who can use a completely unbelievable premise for a story and just weave such realness into in. Or at least, he used to be that sort of writer. Where Slumdog and Six Suspects were bloody brilliant – the type of books that cause a happy suspension of eating, sleeping and having sex – this new one, The Accidental Apprentice, may as well have been written by a 12 year old with average talent. It’s PATHETIC.

The worst book you'll read all year

The worst book you’ll read all year

Telling the story of Sapna Sinha (a not-too-pretty but heart-of-gold TV salesgirl), the book follows her through seven tests she has to perform in order to become the CEO of an eccentric gazillionaire’s multinational company. Yup, you read right – the story is about a shop assistant in a HiFi Corporation who gets picked to become the CEO of something like BHP Billiton. What utter shit…

Still – it has the makings of a good Vikas Swarup story.

1. Ridiculous premise – check!
2. Underdog main character – check!
3. Tests / quiz questions to base the chapters on – check!

I expected something like Slumdog – that the seven tests she is given are somehow informed by her life experience, each chapter telling the story of how she had come to possess the knowledge and skill to pass the given test.

I was wrong. The tests aren’t even tests, but instead random things that just happen to her. Plodding along slowly, we see Sapna pass “test” after “test”.

Each and every time, the same crap is repeated:

Step 1: Something unlikely happens. The language used to describe this something unlikely is painfully bad.

Step 2: Sweet, syrupy Sapna does “the right thing”. The language used to describe this right thing is painfully bad.

Step 3: The gazillionaire dude summons her and informs her that – boom! – she has passed yet another test. The language used to describe this is painfully bad.

Step 4: She is baffled by how he could have known about yet another good deed she did, and decides to go back to selling TVs. You guessed it – the language used to describe this is indeed painfully bad.

To illustrate:

The “Integrity Test”:

The lame-ass electronics store Sapna works for is visited by Bollywood’s biggest star. I’m talking Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Aniston kind of big. The star thinks a TV shop is the perfect place to announce her engagement to the press. She somehow loses her boulder-sized diamond. Sapna finds it and returns it, even though the star was mean to her. Yay, Sapna!

The gazillionaire summons her. She has passed the test of integrity. She is baffled and goes back to selling TV’s.

(Plot-fail alert! Why the hell would the Cameron Diaz of Bollywood announce her engagement at a HiFi Corporation? In fact – why would she even BE there?? Everyone knows only D-grade losers like Kurt Darren do “public appearances” in local shops. LAME!)

The type of celebrity that visits Hifi Corporation

The type of celebrity that visits Hifi Corporation

The type that doesn't.

The type that doesn’t.

The “Courage Test”:

Sapna visits a small village to help them plug in their new TVs. (No. I’m not kidding). On the bus there, she sits next to the Ruda Landman of India – a hard-hitting journo on her way to expose how young girls are forced to marry men they don’t love. She shows Sapna how she uses her cellphone to stream live footage to their CNN-ey website.

Sapna gets to the village and shows them how to plug in their TVs. She meets a girl who will be forced to marry an old perv. She saves the girl by going into the toilet and switching on her phone’s video camera. The girl’s family miraculously calls off the wedding because dear, sweet Sapna recorded them slapping her around a bit, and managed to stream it live to her bus-buddy’s website. The whole world sees, and the girl is free! Yay, Sapna!

The gazillionaire summons her. She has passed the test of courage. She is baffled and goes back to selling TV’s.

(Plot-fail alert! Since when can members of the public simply record random videos and stream it live to news sites?
At best, Sapna would have had access to her own Twitter account. And given how bloody annoying she is, that would only have reached about 14 people.)

Let’s stop this dismal summary right here. The truth is, I couldn’t get further than halfway through the book. I only got as far as I did because I was reading at a hair salon that did not offer me any magazines. And I only bought it at all because I was stupid enough not to read the first page.

Perhaps it’s a bit unfair to condemn a book I didn’t even finish, but I don’t care.

Don’t. Buy. This. Book.

If the mob had me on speed dial, I’d also say I made it all up…

6 Feb

Last Saturday night was one of those that party people like my ex-self would find categorically ‘sad’. I stayed in and read. In fact, except for sulking my way through some shopping, I stayed in and read pretty much the whole day. Book lovers would know the feeling – you find a novel that is both so long and so good that you have no choice but to put life on hold.

In this case, it was Gregory David Roberts’s Shantaram, recommended to me by my friend and fellow bibliophile, Jana. At almost a 1000 pages, I think it’s the longest novel I’ve ever finished (unless Harry Potter was longer? I’ve never been able to get into Tolkien, so embarrassingly Lord of the Rings doesn’t feature on my list).

Anyway – the book is bloody brilliant and I would recommend it to anyone who:

• Is obsessed with reading books about India (that’s me);

Likes their love stories to be complicated, messy and not have one dimensional happily-ever-afters;

• Likes their adventure stories to be layered and rich and just plain hardcore;

• Has a morbid fascination with the mob (if this is ever made into a movie, they better pick someone hot for the mobster called Abdullah); and

If you like your messed-up bad boys, you've just found your favourite character

If you like your messed-up bad boys, you’ve just found your favourite character

• Lives a humdrum desklife and uses such cheats as books and movies for some
vicarious excitement (that’s me again).

Also – to anyone who would like to know what life is like as a gun smuggler / heroin addict / slum dweller / mobster / prisoner / too many characters to fathom for one lifetime. Because the writer’s life is friggin CRAZY.

For those of you who don’t know – the book is Roberts’s semi-autobiographical account of a decade of living in India after escaping from an Australian prison. I’m not going to write a review – there are literally hundreds on goodreads.com – but suffice it to say that I cannot think of another book that combines such a rich plot with writing that brims with such descriptive poignancy and wisdoms.

The setting of our tale

The setting of our tale

What I wish to write about is my disappointment at realising that the book is semi-autobiographical (and then to leave you with some quotes that made me think).

You see, I spent the whole way through under the impression that the novel was pretty much the truth. Sure, us writers all like to edit and embellish our tales as we go along, but for the most part the truth stays intact.

Not so here. I suppose it shouldn’t matter – the book is amazing regardless of whether it is true – but it lost some of the magic it held for me after I found out that the characters were made up.

According to the writer, the events are based in truth, but the characters – so well written and so damn real – are not. Despite the events being pretty darn exciting, the heart of this book is its characters. Also – the events are so closely interlinked with the people involved that I am still finding it difficult to wrap my head around the fact that the two can be separated.

I’m especially disappointed that Karla is imaginary. Without giving anything away, she is Roberts’s love interest and the biggest reason I kept reading – like a typical girl, I wanted the guy to get out of jail / get off heroin / not get gangrenous frostbite in Afghanistan just so he could finally get back to friggin Karla. And now I find out Karla doesn’t even exist?? It sucks, I tell you.

Kind of what Karla is supposed to look like

Kind of what Karla is supposed to look like

(Karla is also the wisest and wittiest imaginary woman you’ll ever know – to realise that her words were actually made up by a male writer sucks ass.)

What Roberts claims her to be...

What Roberts claims her to be…

My personal theory is that Roberts is lying to us. I may just be in denial (or I may have become like those deluded old tannies who cannot separate fact and fiction, hobbling up to hapless soap actors to kick them in the shins when their character did something sucky on last night’s episode), but hear me out.

The characters MUST have been based in fact. There is simply too much woven into them not to be. If Roberts wanted to write fiction, why choose his own life as a template? More importantly, why link his own story squarely to the wills, worlds and intentions of other characters? A major theme in the book is that of fate and predetermination – of being connected to plans and people and purpose. Yet we are expected to believe that the events were real, but the people were not…

Our life stories are written by the people in our lives and how we interact with them – without the people described in the narrative, Roberts’s personal life events (the true part, he says), would never have come about.

Again – he may just be one helluva creator of characters, but I just don’t buy it.

I’m going to choose to believe that he never thought his text would take off and sell like it has, and was then forced to make a statement to protect the people he wrote about. They’re not exactly Mary Poppins and Winnie the Pooh – even Karla killed a guy, and the rest of them did worse.

All I’m saying is – if the mafia had my number on speed dail, I’d lie to protect them, too…

If this guy tells you to lie, you damn well do it

If this guy tells you to lie, you damn well do it

***
Now read these quotes slowly and let them sink in. There is SO much more – but I think this post is long enough already…

“There’s a truth deeper than experience. It’s beyond what we see, or even what we feel. It’s an order of truth that separates the profound from the merely clever, and the reality from the perception. We’re helpless, usually, in the face of it; and the cost of knowing it, like the cost of knowing love, is sometimes greater than any heart would willingly pay. It doesn’t always help us to love the world, but it does prevent us from hating the world. And the only way to know that truth is to share it, from heart to heart, just as Prabhakar told it to me, just as I’m telling it to you now.”

“Indians are the Italians of Asia and vice versa. Every man in both countries is a singer when he is happy, and every woman is a dancer when she walks to the shop at the corner. For them, food is the music inside the body and music is the food inside the heart. Amore or Pyar makes every man a poet, a princess of peasant girl if only for second eyes of man and woman meets.” (I love this!)

“If fate doesn’t make you laugh, then you don’t get the joke.”

“The truth is that there are no good men, or bad men,’ he said, ‘It is the deeds that have goodness or badness in them. There are good deeds and there are bad deeds. Men are just men —it is what they do, or refuse to do, that links them to good or evil. The truth is that an instant of real love, in the heart of anyone —the noblest of man alive or the most wicked— has the whole purpose and process and meaning of life within the lotus-folds of its passion. The truth is that we are all, every one of us, every atom, every galaxy, and every particle of matter in the universe, moving toward God.”

“Luck is what happens to you when fate gets tired of waiting.”

“The truth is a bully we all pretend to like.”

“Some of the worst wrongs, were caused by people who tried to change things.”

***
Absolutely friggin brilliant book.