Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Last Lecture: Randy Pausch

The concept of the last lecture is as interesting as it is doomed to fail. It is all very well to ask professors: What wisdom would we want to impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy? But if a professor is faced with such a question, what are the odds (s)he would not get maudlin and sound like a badly written motivational book full of such gems as “speak the truth”, “get your priorities right” and “be humble”?

In the case of Professor Randy Pausch, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, the situation is even more poignant than the last lecture just being a hypothetical “last”: he had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and had been given just a few more months to live. So he treats the last lecture as his opportunity to download everything from his head; it is his “how to” guide for the world. This book is serves as a companion volume for the actual lecture, put together by Professor Pausch himself through Jeffrey Zaslow.

When you are faced with a lecture title like “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams,” you know what to expect. And Professor Pausch does not disappoint. A collection of poignant childhood stories, a series of courageous statements about why he wants to live on not for himself but for his children, some cries for honesty and truthfulness, and glowing tributes to his wife, his children and his colleagues.

Well, to be honest, the professor makes a clear disclosure in the book itself, when he suggests: If at first you don’t succeed, try a cliché. And he certainly walks the talk. It may not always be a cliché in expression, but it almost invariably is in thought.

Professor Randy Pausch is known to be one of the best in the field of computer programming and virtual reality, and his greatest contribution to mankind is well likely to be Alice, an educational software that teaches 3D computer programming to kids – it a non-profit project from CMU that he has pioneered from the beginning. This book, as Pausch himself admits, is his legacy to his children. So it’s not fair for anyone else to judge it but his children. May be it shouldn’t have been made commercially available.

The actual lecture can be found at the end of this post, but considering it lasts more than one hour, you really need to have a lot of time to view it. The book, on the other hand, because it has been written as 61 semi-independent pieces, enables you to dip and dip out whenever you get small time slots.

Tailpiece: Randy Pausch was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer some time in October 2006. In August 2007, he was told that he had about 3-6 months of relatively good health. But the good news is that as recent as 10 June 2008, he seems to be fit enough to even blog about his latest success – a letter from none other than George W. Bush. You can access the professor's blog here.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Hangman’s Holiday: Dorothy L. Sayers

The re-issue of this collection of short stories by one who, the author introduction in the book claims, was the greatest detective novelist of the golden age (a claim that can be contested, perhaps successfully, considering one of Sayers’ contemporaries was a certain Dame Agatha Christie), proclaims loudly on the cover: Featuring Lord Peter Wimsey.

Lord Peter Wimsey was the famous detective created by Dorothy Sayers, a character not unlike Hercule Poirot, a rightful occupant of the front row in the list of illustrious amateur detectives, and one, who Sayers once commented was a mixture of Fred Astaire and Bertie Wooster, so it is not unnatural for the publishers to use the Lord’s name as a marketing vehicle for the collection.

However, as you read the twelve stories that comprise the collection, you realise that only four of them feature the aristocratic sleuth. And they are not the best stories in the collection either. Pride of place should perhaps go the story titled The Man Who Knew How, a light satire on the genre itself – truly brilliant stuff. It is one of the two stories in the collection that don’t feature either Wimsey or the intriguing Montague Egg, a travelling wine salesman by profession who does some crime-busting on the side.

Montague Egg features in six of the stories, solving crimes by virtue of simple thinking and common sense. Modest when it comes to accepting too much credit for his final achievements, Egg’s otherwise persistently and mostly self-referential chatter is interesting in itself, as is his tendency to quote from the seemingly encyclopaedic Salesman’s Handbook, a collection of (mostly) rhyming aphorisms for people in that profession. Ranging from the philosophical “Discretion plays a major part in making up a salesman’s art, for truths that no one can believe are calculated to deceive” to the more practical “The salesman’s job is to get the trade – don’t leave the house till the deal is made.”

Like Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers also wrote, apart from a few other things, what one may call “puzzle fiction”, as opposed to crime fiction. It’s a genre in which the plots are precisely carved, the characters are neatly etched, the detective is a memorable character, the motives are clearly established, the settings are picture-perfect and the endings are pleasingly well-rounded. To achieve all this, you need space, time and sufficient events to build up the plot. This is something the short story format does not afford, and it shows in Hangman’s Holiday, particularly in the stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. Wimsey aristocracy, his stately pace of working, his detailed approach, evident in some of Sayers’ full-length novels (Murder Must Advertise comes to mind) just don’t get a look-in in the works of this collection. The story titled The Incredible Elopement of Lord Peter Wimsey is a particularly terrible tale. The Egg stories are relatively better, because of the light touch.

Overall, there is a deep sense of dissatisfaction when you read the stories, a sense of something hurried, a sense of there being too many loose ends, a sense of glibness in the detection; in sum, a sense of artificiality permeates the collection. And yes, I must confess I didn’t understand the title.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

The Tenant & The Motive: Javier Cercas

Mario was a fanatic for order; when he went out for a run each morning he followed an identical itinerary.

Álvaro took his work seriously. Every day he got up punctually at eight. He cleared his head with a cold shower and went down to the supermarket to buy bread and the newspaper. When he returned he made coffee and toast with butter and marmalade and ate breakfast in the kitchen, leafing through the paper and listening to the radio. By nine he was sitting in his study ready to begin the day’s work.

With protagonists like this, the plot typically tends to go in one of two directions – the routine of the protagonists gets disrupted and breaks them or their obsession with order starts ruling them. Javier Cercas, however, breaks the mould and offers these two exquisite satirical novellas.

The Tenant is centred on Mario Rota, a professor of linguistics who twists his ankle while out on his morning run, which leads to more than just a few days off from the university. The Motive follows the efforts of Álvaro, a writer seeking inspiration and meat for his next novel from his neighbourhood, thus leading to disastrous consequences for his neighbours.

What makes these novellas worth a read or two?

To begin with, perhaps the format itself. The relative shortness compared to a regular novel-length, enables a tight narrative and a sharp focus on the central characters, so much so that while The Tenant has at least two (if not three) other characters who have a significant impact on the storyline, the narrative never focuses away from Mario Rota. In The Motive, all the other characters are really as much characters of Álvaro as they are of Javier Cercas. On the other hand, by not writing these two pieces as short stories, Cercas gives himself enough to breathe, to bring out the character of the protagonists, to provide enough events to give the narratives some solid dimension. The level of detail grips without distracting.

Another noticeable feature of these two novellas is the contrast between the bleakness of the situations faced by the characters and the lightness of the narrative tone (a nod to the translator as well – Anne McLean). While this may appear to come in the way of building empathy with the characters, it works because it creates a sense of irony, a good and ubiquitous ally when satire is the object.

However, the most important reason these novellas merit high praise is the way Cercas has ended them. As you race through the narrative, many possible endings come up in your mind, and one of them does actually turn out to be Cercas’ ending as well. So it’s not so much a surprise ending, as it is a logical and realistic one. And a brilliant one, in both cases.

Note: In the unlikely event this review comes to the notice of someone who has read Javier Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis, I would appreciate some views on it.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle: John Creasey

To many people, characters like the Baron may sound straight out of scripts of low-brow entertainer movies, centred on superheroes who can achieve whatever they set out to, be irresistible to every woman they meet and escape every seemingly fatal situation virtually unscathed. So they may be, but they are entertainment unlimited for lazy Sunday afternoons and for train journeys.

It was in one such longer-than-anticipated train that I read The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle. This very clearly is one of the later pieces involving the Baron, because he also used to be a Robin Hood of sorts earlier, stealing precious stones from the undeserving rich. I like that Baron better: The Baron and the Chinese Puzzle is a bit too tame by those standards; it does not feature the Baron, just John Mannering.

But Mannering is a superhero, isn’t he, so the plot requires superhero-dom as he goes off to Hong Kong, originally to attend an exhibition of rare jewels, but, as it turns out, to broker peace between two warring political factions in China. Why does he do it?

The truth was, he wanted to. It was not that he thought he should, conscience had nothing to do with it. He responded to such a challenge as this as other men responded to the call of the high mountains, or the great oceans, or great causes. It was the same call that made him the Baron.

So Mannering does, and succeeds, with the usual mixture of foiled attempts on his life, the odd red herrings, his impeccable disguises (he changes himself to look and talk like an American, and fools everyone, including those at the American embassy) and the inevitable not-so-surprising twist in the end.

Honestly, I think Creasey should have stayed inside the British isles (or restricted himself to the odd adventure into the mainland European continent). Asia is not his comfort zone, and it shows. The stereo-typing is un-missable and the touch of exotica, inevitable. But the real let-down is the absence of even some minimum research to get the facts right.

“The woman approached me as I walked here, and I gave her five twenty-anna notes.”

This is a dialogue mouthed by Mannering to the police in Bombay, India. Never in the history of India have they had currency notes denoted in annas. Even if one assumes a printer’s devil and substitute notes with coins, it doesn’t stand up, because twenty-anna coins never existed in India either. Two printer’s devils and you get twenty-paisa coins, which may just pass muster, but then that’s too much blame to apportion to the editors and to save the author.

Will this stop me from reading or re-reading more from my John Creasey collection? Reading Creasey has perhaps become too much of a habit for me to give it up completely, but I reckon I certainly will think twice before reading another of his books set outside England.