I fell hard for the love interest


The Good German by Joseph Kanon

This is a classic, a twisty, noirish, romantic thriller. I fell hard for the love interest — the hero’s, that is.

American newsman Jake Geismar flies into Berlin after the death of Hitler on an assignment from a famous magazine. But he has returned really to look for the woman he loves. The moment he lands at Tempelhof airport, he is off looking up old haunts. But everything has been destroyed beyond recognition. Only the house where he lived while reporting from Berlin until he was expelled by the Nazis still stands. And there eventually he finds Lena.

He does not find her as soon as he returns, however. People have been uprooted by the war. Nobody can tell him where Lena is. Until he gets caught up in a murder mystery.

An American is found dead in Potsdam during the Big Three summit where Truman and Churchill meet Stalin. Investigating the mystery, Jake meets a German policeman who suggests meeting another man at a restaurant. There he chances upon an old acquaintance wearing one of  Lena’s dresses. But when he accosts her, she bolts. He pursues her to his old flat… and there is Lena. Sick, raped by the Russians, her home destroyed, Lena has taken refuge with the girl who was wearing her dress.

From that moment, the book is pure romance. There is plenty of mystery, enough graft and violence and all the horror of World War II — what the Russians did to Lena, the Nazis to the Jews — but then there is Lena. Beautiful, courageous, utterly feminine. Even when she is not on the scene, as the hero pursues the murder mystery, she is very much on his mind.

There is a connection between the murdered American and Lena’s husband, but no one is saying who killed the American. And the Americans and the Russians are both looking for Lena’s husband. He  has managed to escape from detention but no one knows where. They only know he has been looking for Lena.

Yes, Lena is married to a university professor of mathematics. But she fell in love with Jake. They had an affair. And after Jake was expelled by the Nazis, her husband went to work for them.

However, he is not wanted as a war criminal. The Americans as well as the Russians want him to work for them as a scientist — because of the work he did in prison camps.

Nothing is as straightforward as it seems. The title is heavy with irony. All that is par for the course for a thriller noir.

What makes this book a standout is a woman. Kanon can really bring characters to life. Even some of the minor characters make an impression, like the little boy whom Jake is forced to take under his wing and who immediately brings out the mother in Lena.

I won’t forget Lena soon. Jake is another Philip Marlowe. But Lena? Only one woman could play her: Meryl Streep.


PD James and The Lighthouse

The__lighthouse_pdjames I just finished reading PD James’ latest mystery, The Lighthouse, which came out last year. And I must admit I am a little disappointed.

Not that I would have missed it for anything in the world.

PD James is too good a writer to ever really let down her readers. The writing is as assured as ever, picturesque, elegant, smooth, the sentences beautifully constructed, unblemished by split infinitives like the one I used in the previous sentence. This is British writing almost at its very best, in the tradition of Graham Greene, quiet, understated, and yet vivid and seamless. Once I picked up this book, it was impossible to put down.

Commander Adam Dalgliesh, the Scotland Yard detective who has come a long way since he appeared in James’ first novel, Cover Her Face, in 1962, is called upon to investigate the mysterious death of a famous novelist on a little island off the coast of Cornwall.

There are only a handful of people on the island, which is privately owned and does not admit strangers. So the murderer cannot be an outsider. That makes it like an Agatha Christie mystery. And, like Christie, James profiles each of the suspects, their background and motivations, in considerable detail.

But while the plot seems like vintage Christie, there are differences. The story is set in Britain today. An outbreak of Sars, brought in by a visitor from Hong Kong, cuts off the island after the novelist’s death, hampering investigations. Pre-marital sex and same-sex relationships are accepted, unlike in Christie’s time. A peripheral character, who makes a fleeting appearance, is a lesbian living with her partner. James does not frown upon such relationships. She has kept up with the world which must have changed considerably since she was born 85 years ago.

It is remarkable how modern and up-to-date she is, given the fact that she will be celebrating her 86th birthday on Aug 3 this year.

But she has dated too, which is inevitable when you are that old. There is a puritanical streak behind that modern sensibility. She may accept  pre-marital and same-sex relationships but so restrained in her descriptions of the emotion of love and the act of sex that she would have been better off leaving them out of her novel. But she can’t. Dalgliesh has to have a romantic interest to make him more human. Yet the way James describes Dalgliesh’s feelings for the woman he wants to marry and her feelings for him, it is too sketchy and idealised.

And the weakest scene is the denouement, where the murderer is caught. As Dalgliesh is laid up with Sars, the arrest has to be made by his two assistants, Kate and Benton-Smith. The scene is obviously made for television. Kate has to strip to her bras and panties and greased up with Vaseline by Benton-Smith to wriggle through a narrow opening into the lighthouse where the murderer is holed up, threatening to throw a teenage girl from the top floor if the detectives try to arrest him. Kate has to get in through the only opening to unlock the lighthouse door and let in Benton-Smith who can’t get in otherwise. But the scene jars with the rest of the novel.

The Lighthouse is a serious earnest novel with plenty to say about crime, life, society, and the "ruthlessness" it takes for people to succeed in life. James has little sympathy for losers and underachievers. That comes out clearly in the end. I can’t say more, for that will give the plot away. But it makes James less attractive as a writer and a person.

One more complaint: She repeatedly reminds the reader that Dalgliesh is a poet as well as a novelist. But she never treats us to a sampling of his work.

James is comfortable describing a world where people listen to classical music, go to Oxford or Cambridge, quote Shakespeare in everyday life and have three-course dinners. That is natural for a woman who is an old-school Conservative and a life peer.

I preferred Death In Holy Orders, the previous Adam Dalgliesh mystery I read, which was published in 2001. I have yet to read The Murder Room, which came out in 2003.


The World Is Flat — and mind-blowing

The_world_is_flat Some of the chapters in this book are mind-blowing. Thomas Friedman really dazzles with the breadth of his knowledge about the innovations changing the world today.

He was not my favourite New York Times columnist when I could read him online for free. Some of his analysis struck me as too simplistic. Despite being one of the 191 million migrants in the world, an Indian working in Singapore, I wondered how anyone could so wholeheartedly root for globalisation like Friedman. But here, he notes its darker side too, about how it drives down wages for low-skilled workers.

He even quotes from Karl Marx. Marx and Engels were the first to identify the globalisation process in the Communist Manifesto in 1848, he writes. He does not take credit for that insight. Harvard University’s political theorist Michael J Sandel told him so, he says, and he found it to be true when he read the Manifesto.

That’s what I like about Friedman. He is curious, honest and covers a lot of ground.

We all know globalisation is changing the world. But how many people know how India became a key player in information technology?

It started with the Millennium Bug, says Friedman. The computer industry needed a big pool of cheap, skilled manpower to fix the bug, and India had the talent. When the dot com bubble burst, the American companies wanted to cut costs and outsourced the work to Indians. They could exchange data cheaply on the fibre optic cable networks whose prices crashed as supply exceeded demand.

While India gained from outsourcing — where companies get work done by other companies — China thrived on offshoring — where companies relocate factories and operations. There’s a difference between the two, says Friedman. That may not be news to a lot of people, but Friedman explains things simply, vividly, with a lot of interesting details.

I didn’t know that UPS or United Parcel Service, the delivery people, also repaired Toshiba computers. They provide after-sales service for Toshiba computers in North America, says Friedman, besides doing similar work for several other companies.

Businesses are changing — they must, and so must workers, says Friedman. They must specialise and upgrade their skills to remain employable or "non-fungible". That’s an ugly word but he is right. One either moves up or falls behind. As the Red Queen says in Through The Looking Glass: "Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!"

Globalisation is hard on laggards. Even Friedman acknowledges that low-skilled workers are losing out though he says more people gain from globalisation. It is creating new needs, new industries. I know: I have got a blog now! Friedman has quotes from Marc Andreessen, who created Netscape, and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and a host of other people involved in the technology revolution.

The World Is Flat is a book everyone should read to get a clear, concise account of globalisation. It supports the trend but doesn’t ignore the critics. It’s comprehensive.

As an Indian, of course, I am proud that so many of the innovators Friedman quotes are Indians. India, in fact, was the country where he got the inspiration for this book.

He is right when he says that the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party lost the 2004 Indian elections not because it embraced globalisation but because the peasants in the countryside felt left out of the economic progress being made in technology centres like Bangalore and Hyderabad.

Everyone wants to be better off. Most people will, with globalisation, says Friedman. That may be open to debate, but this is one hell of a book. I certainly wished I were at the cutting edge of the revolution!


Paul Theroux, Singapore and Naipaul

Paul_theroux Paul Theroux is in Singapore, planning to write a sequel to The Great Railway Bazaar, reported The Straits Times yesterday. I can’t recall what he wrote about Singapore in his famous book about the various trains he rode on an epic journey from London to Tokyo and back. I was more interested then in what he had to say about the Indian railways and the Trans-Siberian Express.

But Theroux has a Singapore connection. The American from Massachusetts taught English at what was then the University of Singapore — now the National University of Singapore — from 1968 to 1971.

His former students didn’t speak well of him, said The Straits Times. That surprised him, it added. He should never have been a university teacher, said local poet and academic Kirpal Singh, adding he was much better as "a personal coach, sharing stories during lectures and over a few drinks with a small group of students". He cut a dashing figure, said Singh, and girls were attracted to the young lecturer — Theroux was in his late 20s when he came here.

His experiences were not entirely happy.

"I was essentially fired," Theroux told The Straits Times. His contract wasn’t renewed, it added.

What the newspaper didn’t say is that Theroux was already bored with teaching. He wrote his fifth novel, Jungle Lovers, in Singapore and decided to become a full-time writer.

He moved to London in 1972 and hasn’t looked back. Saint Jack, his novel about an American brothel-keeper in Singapore, came out in 1973 and made into a film by Peter Bogdanovich, the hotshot director of The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc? and Paper Moon, in 1979. It was banned in Singapore, where it was filmed. But Singapore is a tiny market and Theroux was on a roll. The Great Railway Bazaar published in 1975 became an international bestseller and in 1981 he wrote his best-known novel, The Mosquito Coast.

I haven’t read Saint Jack but enjoyed his travelogues, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, The Kingdom By The Sea, Riding The Iron Rooster.   

He can be acerbic but is immensely readable like his former friend, VS Naipaul. They first met at Makarere University in Uganda, where Theroux taught before coming to Singapore. Naipaul, who went to the Ugandan university as a visiting scholar, was already famous then for his novel, A House for Biswas. He wasn’t keen on academics either and spent time drinking, whingeing and doing his own writing. So says Theroux in Sir Vidia’s Shadow, the book he wrote after falling out with Naipaul. It’s a bitter book. He portrays Naipaul as rude, arrogant and a bit of sponger. But he admits there was a time when he looked up to Naipaul as a writer.

Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001, three years after Sir Vidia’s Shadow came out. So in a way Naipaul had the last laugh.

But Theroux, now on his second marriage (again like Naipaul) and living in Hawaii, is still going strong. He celebrated his 65th birthday on April 10. The father of two — the elder son born in Uganda, the younger in Singapore — spoke to The Straits Times about his healthy lifestyle.

"I’ve written 40 or so books — could I have done that if I didn’t have a good night’s sleep, good diet or exercise?" he asked.

"I don’t smoke. I hardly drink. I’m a healthy person," he said.

"If you  want to be productive, you need to be healthy."


The amazing teen fiction factory

Writing fiction may no longer be a solitary exercise: other people may be involved too besides the person named as the author on the book cover. The New York Times spills the beans on how some teen fiction gets written.

Kaavya Viswanthan is named as the author of How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life.

"But on the copyright page — and the contracts — there’s an additional name: Alloy Entertainment," says the Times.  "Neither (the publisher) Little, Brown nor Alloy would comment on how much of the advance or the royalties — standard contracts give 15 percent of the cover price to the author — Ms. Viswanathan is to collect," it adds.

And, best of all, Viswanathan and Megan McCafferty — whose books she plagiarised — both worked with the same editor. Both the writers thanked her in their acknowledgements, says the Times. It has other interesting details in the article, First, Plot and Character. Then, Find an Author.

"In many cases, editors at Alloy — known as a ‘book packager’ — craft proposals for publishers and create plotlines and characters before handing them over to a writer (or a string of writers),” says the Times. And the company boasts several bestsellers.


How to write a bestseller — like an ad

Only the author’s name may appear on the book cover. But the book itself may be the product of team work much like a commercial advertisement. Writing a novel need not longer be a solitary exercise of a writer pegging away alone, putting down thoughts on paper.

Indian-born Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan apparently received expert assistance in writing her bestseller, Opal Mehta Gets Kissed, Gets Wild and Gets A Life from 17th Street Productions, a "book packaging firm". It’s part of Alloy Entertainment, which claims to be developing several film projects and TV pilots, whose president Leslie Morgenstein, told the Harvard Crimson newspaper: "We helped Kaavya conceptualise and plot the book."

The Harvard Independent Online quotes a former editor at a 17th Street unit who says: "A packager basically serves as both the writer and editor of a book."

Wow, and I thought a writer worked alone!

No doubt Viswanathan is extremely bright or she wouldn’t have got into Harvard. But money does make a difference. Her parents hired Katherine Cohen, founder of IvyWise, a private counselling service, which charged $10,000 to $20,000 for two years of college preparation services, reported the New York Times. After reading her writing, Cohen put her in touch with the famous William Morris talent agency. Somewhere along the way she got help from a "book packaging firm". 

It makes you wonder how much talent you need and how much money and "connections" to succeed in the world today. The preparation Viswanathan needed to get into Harvard may not be all that unusual. Plenty of students pay just as much to get into that charmed circle which can make all the difference in later life.


Opal Mehta eats crow

Time to eat crow. Harvard sophomore Kaavya Viswanathan has apologised to Megan McCafferty for borrowing words and phrases from her books, Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings.

I should apologise too to Harvard Crimson for questioning its coverage of the story.

In my post yesterday, I noted the Harvard newspaper in one of its early reports mentioned plot differences between Viswanathan’s bestseller, How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got a Life, and McCafferty’s novels, but did not mention that difference in its later reports. I wondered why.

Now I know. The New York Times says there are similarities in the stories too. And while the Crimson mentioned 13 similar passages, the Times claims there are "at least 29".

Viswanathan has apologised but even her apology is weird.

"Harvard novelist says copying was unintentional,” says the New York Times headline.

" I wasn’t aware of how much I may have internalised Ms. McCafferty’s words," said Viswanthan.

I love that verb,"internalise". She is — in her own words — such a "huge fan" of McCafferty that she unconsciously ended up using the older writer’s words and phrases.

Thank goodness, there are no copyrights on words and phrases, as I said yesterday. "Even if Viswanathan is found to have plagiarised passages, McCafferty may not be able to bring a copyright lawsuit against her,” the Crimson reports. "In fact, Viswanathan may be more likely to face a suit from her own publisher over a contract violation."

Plagiarism and copyright infringement are different concepts, it adds, quoting Lawrence Lessig, the blogger and intellectual property scholar at Stanford Law School.

"If I use a sentence from another work and pass it off as my own without citing it or quoting it, that might not be copyright infringement because I wouldn’t necessarily need permission to use it," Lessig said. "But since I’m asserting that I am, in fact, the author of that sentence, that would be plagiarism."


A teen prodigy & Harvard reporters who can’t count

Kaavya_vishwanathan Indian-born Kaavya Viswanathan, a Harvard sophomore, is being accused of plagiarism after news got out that her bestseller about student life will be made into a Steven Spielberg movie.

But it has also revealed that Harvard Crimson newspaper reporters and editors can’t count.

Count the words in this passage from Viswanathan’s book,  How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild and Got A Life: "Moneypenny was the brainy female character. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: smart or pretty." Twenty-three words.

Now count the number of words in this passage from Megan McCafferty’s 2001 novel, Sloppy Firsts: "Sabrina was the brainy Angel. Yet another example of how every girl had to be one or the other: Pretty or smart." Twenty-two words, right?

Not according to Harvard. The Crimson says: "At one point, Opal Mehta contains a 14-word passage that appears verbatim in McCafferty’s book Sloppy Firsts."

And then it quotes those two passages.

The Crimson quotes 13 passages in all where Opal Mehta has "some similarities" with Sloppy Firsts and Second Helpings, another McCafferty novel. But only two are almost identical.

What’s more is interesting is how the Harvard newspaper covered the story about one of its own students.

An early report said: "While the two novels (Opal Mehta and Sloppy Firsts) differ in plot, the similarities in language begin in the opening pages and continue throughout the works."

Later reports by the same reporter, David Zhou — who can’t count — don’t mention the difference in plots. One wonders why.

Not mentioning the difference gives the impression that Viswanathan plagiarised the whole novel.

I can understand McCafferty, a former editor at Cosmopolitan magazine, complaining about the similarities. Her publisher, Random House, has sent lawyer’s letters to Viswanathan’s publisher, Little, Brown.

There are no copyrights on words and phrases yet. But who knows what the outcome will be if it ever comes to court? This is certainly different from The Da Vinci Code.

Viswanathan had better be careful in her next book. It looks like the 19-year-old with a $500,000 two-book-deal can’t expect much sympathy even from her own college newspaper.


Shakespeare and his women

Shakespeare It’s a pity Shakespeare (1564-1616) is no longer compulsory reading in Singapore schools. So many girls here have the perfect figure to play the boy-girl roles of Shakespeare’s comedies. No offence meant. It’s just that Shakespeare is taken so seriously it throws people off. Lighten up, please, Shakespeare wrote for entertainment. One may ask where’s the fun in King Lear or Hamlet. Well, for now, I will confine myself to the comedies only.

The choice may seem curious, particularly on this day which may or may not be his birthday but is certainly his death anniversary. But we all have our favourites and I prefer the comedies.

I just commented on the figures of the heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies. Obviously they couldn’t be DD cups if they had to pass themselves off as young men, which they did so well that other women fell in love with them. Much of the fun in Shakespeare’s comedies comes from the sexual confusion of the characters in the plays. In Twelfth Night, Orsino woos Olivia, who falls in love with Viola, who is in love with Orsino. No, Olivia isn’t a lesbian, she sees Viola dressed as the youth, Cesario. Now there’s no way Viola could have passed off as a youth if she had DD cups. Rosalind, in As You Like It, couldn’t have had an hourglass figure either — or she wouldn’t have been able to dress up as the young man, Ganymede. Not even her father, the Duke, nor her lover, Orlando, can recognise her.

One wonders about the men in Shakespeare’s comedies. They are silly putty in the women’s hands! Excluding Prospero the magician in The Tempest, of course. That’s why I love the comedies. They get the sex thing so right! I know, being a married man myself. Not that my wife could have ever passed herself off as a young man. Thank goodness, I wouldn’t have liked being fooled like Orlando!

But my wife has the same high spirits and vivacity as Rosalind. That’s what’s so attractive about the heroines of Shakespeare’s comedies — their wit and vivacity and high spirits. I think that’s what Shakespeare prized most about women. He couldn’t have been one of those gentlemen who prefer blondes. The Dark Lady of his sonnets had to be a brunette. She could have even been black, according to the writer William Boyd. Shakespeare, of course, expressed mixed feelings about the Dark Lady. But the exotic appealed to him. Otherwise how could his most celebrated heroine be the Egyptian Cleopatra? He was alive to sexual attractions across colour lines and their tensions too, or he wouldn’t have written Othello. But I am straying from the comedies.

My wife prefers the tragedies. After all, she teaches Shakespeare in her college in Calcutta (Kolkata). But I prefer the high jinks of the comedies. And the fun doesn’t stop at cross-dressing. There are other complications too. Think of the shenanigans in the wood near Athens in A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Act II, Scene 2 and Act III, Scenes 1 and 2.

Shakespeare can be bawdy but not lascivious. I haven’t read Venus and Adonis and his Poems so I don’t really know, but I don’t think he wrote anything as explicit as some of the passages in Spenser’s Faerie Queene. 

My Shakespeare is far from perfect but I am grateful we had to do Shakespeare in school in India. So did my son for his Indian School Certificate examination before going to college in America last year. He and I both read Julius Caesar but he also had to read The Tempest.

By the way, yesterday was Lenin’s birthday.


Blink: Not what it’s blurbed to be

Blink "Trust your instincts. Don’t think — blink," says the blurb.

But I am beginning to have doubts about my instincts after reading this.

"Blink is all about those moments when we ‘know’ something without really knowing why," says the blurb.

But I thought the book showed our first impressions could be both right and wrong.

The blurb adds, "This book shows how we can hone our instinctive ability to know in an instant, helping us to bring out the best in our thinking and become better decision-makers in our homes, offices and everyday lives."

If that’s the lesson this book has to offer, sorry, I didn’t get it at all.  I went through the stories about the Greek statue, Warren Harding, the cola tests, the Aeron chair and the women classical musicians and came to the conclusion that first impressions can be both right and wrong. Gladwell explains why they can be both right and wrong, and how to get them right. But the process — what he calls "thin-slicing", looking at only the relevant details — is not easy. For to judge a musician, you have to listen to the music only, but to judge a cola, it’s not enough to take a sip, you have to drink the whole can.

If there’s anything else I learnt from this book, it’s the wisdom of the old saying: Never judge a book by its cover. Or its blurb. You could be disappointed.