Bombur Yambarzal and the Art of Naming Characters

I’m almost done audiobook’ing Rushdie’s Shalimar the Clown and I’ll write about that later. At the moment, I want to talk about his art of naming characters.

There’s Bombur Yambarzal, the waza of Shirmal. Boonyi Kaul Noman, the Anarkali of Pachigam, and her mother, Pamposh Kaul. There is Nazar-e-Buddoor, the seer of Pachigam. Maximillian Ophuls, the flying Jew.

Larger than life characters need larger than life names.

To quote RGV, as I usually do:

Why do villains have names like Bikhu Yadav, Bhai Thakur, Gaddam Narayana, etc instead of Santosh, Ramu, etc?
Ans: Larger than life characters demand larger than life names. If Vito Corleone’s name was John David, Godfather would not remain Godfather.

Another book that I recently audiobook’ed also had extraordinary names. Ignatius J. Reilly, Myrna Mynkoff, Claude Robichaux, Angelo Mancuso, and Burma Jones, the colorful cast of characters from A Confederacy of Dunces.

I think hearing the names in audiobooks makes you a lot more aware of the music of the names.

Some of Rushdie’s names have strange roots. Max Ophuls is the name of a German director who died in 1957. Bombur Yamberzal is the name of the first Kashmiri opera.

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World War Z

World War Z is a book written by Max Brooks, on behalf of the United Nations. It is a series of interviews, presented as an oral history of the zombie apocalypse. No, the zombie apocalypse has not actually happened.

The book tells of an alternate present, where an outbreak of rising dead turns in to a world-wide epidemic. The story doesn’t unfold as classical horror, but as a look at geopolitical implications, military strategy, and individual survival instincts in the face of an unprecedented, global threat.

It deals with the big questions– wouldn’t Israel deal with such a threat in a fundamentally different way than say South Africa or Russia, because of their history? How would our military machinery work against an enemy who does not work under the traditional parameters– has no emotions, no family, no expenses, and can only be downed by decapitation? And for every one soldier you lose, they gain one.

As I said, the story is told as a series of interviews, a few years after the war is over– an interview of a doctor who saw the first cases in China, an Israeli intelligence agent who was among the first to take the threat seriously, of US military personnel, a South African politician, and of so many individuals from across the globe. While the climax is told from an American perspective, this is a global story and that is what really makes it special– the plausible military, social and political implications.

The audiobook makes this book even better. Here’s part of the cast: Alan Alda, Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner, John Turturro, Mark Hamill, Henry Rollins, and Jürgen Prochnow. Since each chapter is an interview with a different person, this format works really well.

When a True Genius Appears in the World

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him.
— Jonathan Swift

Those are the opening lines of one of the best books I’ve read in a while– John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, a grand tale of eccentrics and borderline loony characters in ’60s New Orleans.

Toole wrote it in the ’60s and then promptly killed himself. A decade later, his mother sent a smeared carbon copy of the novel to Walker Percy (author of that other New Orleans tale, the story of my life, The Moviegoer). His mother insisted it was a masterpiece. Percy read it on a whim, and agreed. It was a masterpiece.

It is a masterpiece.

Percy published it, and it won a Pulitzer Prize. Continue reading

Tracy Morgan is the New Black

Just finished the audiobook of Tracy Morgan’s I Am the New Black. You would think it’s a funny book, if you knew his work on SNL or 30 Rock or elsewhere. But you’d be wrong.

I Am the New Black is kind of a stream-of-consciousness narration of thoughts, lessons, and stories from Tracy Morgans life. To get an idea of what the book is like, check out this interview on NPR’s Fresh Air. And there is an excerpt from the first page there as well.

Don’t read it if you don’t know who Tracy Morgan is or if you just kind-of like him. If you are a fan, it’s worth it, especially if you do the audiobook. Listening to him narrate it is a lot more fun than (I would imagine) reading it. Compare the NPR interview with the excerpt on that page— it works better coming from his mouth.

Kitchen Confidential

Kitchen ConfidentialTwo things are changing the way I eat, or at the very least, changing the way I think about food.

The first thing was the documentary Food, Inc. which we watched on new year’s eve. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but this movie will help you come up with half a dozen. From simple ones like “Eat food” (as opposed to gook), to more challenging ones, like “eat healthy, cheap, local, green, fair and wise”. Five out of six is good enough too.

The other thing that changed the way I think about food– specifically restaurant food– is Anthony Bourdain’s excellent book Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain has worked his way up from the most unseemly corners of the restaurant industry to the… most unseemly corners of the restaurant industry. To hear him tell it, all the corners are unseemly, and so is everything in between.

This is not a story about the horrors of hygiene around food, though there is some of that. It’s about the characters that the restaurant industry attracts, the traits needed to make it in the business, and war stories from behind enemy lines. To hear him tell it, the restaurant kitchen is a pirate ship, with all manner of highly-skilled, foul mouthed, burly thugs, who can give abuse in six languages and take it in nine. As long as they’re some variant of Spanish.

Bourdain is at his best when he’s exploding myths and letting us in on insider secrets, and directing his highly opinionated attacks at himself or restaurant industry standards. Or when he walks us through the day in a life of a high volume, high priced kitchen. The biographical bits are not the best part, but they do provide context to the rest of the story.

I did this one as an audio-book, and it pays off. Anthony Bourdain’s own words benefit from his delivery, especially in the chapters on a day in the life of his kitchen or the parts about the language.

Sudhir and Barack Go to Chicago

I had not planned it this way, but these past couple of weeks I was listening to the good president Obama narrate Dreams From My Father during my commute, and reading Sudhir Venkatesh’s Gangleader For a Day as I fell asleep.

I recommend both books– especially Dreams to understand the incredibleness of what we’ve wrought here by electing Barack Obama president. Talk about the audacity of hope. And hearing him narrate it is quite a pleasure, doing voices, Kenyan accents, f’words and all.

If you’ve read Freakonomics, you’ve read Sudhir Venkatesh‘s work. The chapter about why drug dealers live with their mothers was based on his research. This guy is a son of Indian immigrants, raised in protected suburbs of California, studying sociology in the worst neighborhoods of Chicago the only way that seems logical to him. By hanging out with the drug dealers, the hustlers, the prostitutes and average folk in the Robert Taylor Homes, projects in the south side of Chicago. By hanging out with them for more than half a decade.

It is quite a story, and it smashes all kinds of stereotypes about people who live in these circumstances.

And it was chance that I was reading both of these books at the same time, but they have a common thread. Poor black communities in Chicago, their communities, community leadership, the futility and the hopefulness.

Obama was there in the mid-80s (in this book, obviously he comes back to Chicago later in life), working as a community organizer to help people. Venkatesh was there in the early ’90s, seeing things from the other side, among the poor, the hustled, the hustlers. Where Obama is hopeful, Venkatesh starts out naive and ends up cynical. To be fair, in the time-frames that these books cover, Venkatesh has actually spent more time among the poor black community than Obama.

But I wonder if their paths ever crossed? Venkatesh was a graduate student in the University of Chicago while he was hanging out in Robert Taylor. Obama was a professor there at the same time. There are only two references I can find. The first is that Obama is in Venkatesh’s documentary Transformation. And this Forbes article:

(Venkatesh) heartily approves of the proposal by Barack Obama–a fellow pickup basketball player at the University of Chicago when Venkatesh studied there–to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit to give a bigger break to low-income parents.

So did they play basketball with each other, or did they both happen to play basketball in the same university around the same time? It’s like saying I played basketball in Chicago when Jordan played for the Bulls. I did. In a suburban driveway.

The governor of my state, Deval Patrick, lived in the Robert Taylor Homes. So did Mr. T. I wonder if their paths ever crossed?

A Scanner Darkly

ascannerdarkly_giamattiI’ve been meaning to read Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly for a long, long time. It is my second PKD book,  the first being Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (adapted as Blade Runner). With that book, I felt burnt by the ending (I prefer the director’s cut movie ending). I’ve read both books after having seen the movie.

Of course, I say read when I mean heard. A Scanner Darkly was also my second audiobook, the first being Choke. This was a far better experience. It benefits from being a far superior book, but also a far superior audio book. A Scanner Darkly is read by Paul Giamatti. Need I say more? He does different voices for each of the characters, and is a joy to listen to.

This is a great book, about the science of the brain and addiction, about addicts, about the relationship between the user and the narc, the pusher and the pushed, often in the same person. It has a science fiction facade– in that it is set in the “future” (written in ’77 about the 1990s) and people have scramble suits that preserve their anonymity. Otherwise, it’s a story about any post-60s time.

This book was adapted for the screen by Richard Linklater in 2006. It is a good movie, with especially great casting (Woody Harrelson, Robert Downey Jr., Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, each perfect for their part). The movie was done with rotoscoped animation, like Linklater’s earlier Waking Life (2001), and it is the correct technique for this movie, where everything is either hyper-real or only slightly real, but never obvious.

The movie is quite faithful to the original material– in fact, more than it could have been if it was not rotoscoped.

Continue reading