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Surviving the Red Planet

I should have written this post some time ago, at the very least a week ago, but then life and confusion that it brings, took over and now I get the time to finally get down to it! If I have said it once, I have said it a million times, science and I are not good friends; in fact we do not have any friendly relation at all; it’s more of one eyeing the other suspiciously and moving along. Unlike History where I am automatically drawn in, science makes me run in the opposite direction. Therefore my adventures in Science Fiction have been very far and extremely few. I was happy in leading life this way until I read Stefanie’s review of Andy Weir’s The Martian and I must confess, against my instinct, against my avowed dislike, I was curious enough to pick up this science fiction.

The Martian begins when NASA astronaut, mechanical engineer and botanist all rolled into one Mark Watney is left stranded on Mars, after his crew mates presumed him for dead, when he was impaled by an antenna blown away in the dust storm, that forces Ares 3 crew to abandon their work and head back to earth.  Mark wakes up after a couple of hours and realizes what has transpired; including the fact that all radio communication has been destroyed and NASA has no way of knowing that he lives and to plan a rescue mission. Mark comes to the conclusion that if he wants to make it  back to earth, he needs to survive on Mars for four years , when Ares 4 reaches Mars. Thus begins his efforts and endeavors in surviving Mars- from creating water, to potato farming in the Hub, Mark is now to use all his mechanical and  botanical skills to survive years. In the meanwhile , via satellite NASA discovers Mars is alive and begin a race against time to plan and execute a rescue mission to get Mark back. When a tear in the canvas of the Hab is breached, collapsing the Hab and destroying Mark’s potato farm, NASA is even more pressurized to turn out a solution quickly or Mark would die of starvation. This is further complicated by the fact that the unmanned probe hastily prepared to send Mark supplies, fails and crashes within minutes of launch. The only option left is to send the Ares 3 crew back through a slingshot trajectory to Mars to get Mark back, potentially endangering the lives of 5 crewman of Ares 3.

While the synopsis sounds kind of gloom and doom and if you have seen the trailer of the film, your idea may be reinforced, (this is why I thinks books should never be made into films…Hollywood messes up good books!) the book is anything but gloom and doom. Written in form of logs that Mark keeps , it is vibrant, humorous and a scientific account of all his adventures on Mars. The books thus contains detail accounts of how to create water, how to maneuver the rover to get across Mars and how to convert water from hydrazine. You see Mark take Mars by the horns and get on the planet’s back to reach the finish line. There is plenty and I do mean plenty of science, but it is easy to understand and simple enough for science zero like me to follow. But its just not science, there is a lot of humor, and it is this humor which sustains the reader through the book, because between science and the incredible plot twists, things to get kind of fuzzy. But Weir handles the whole thing with mastery with nail biting moments and laugh out loud moments all balanced together for a wonderful and brilliant read!

If you have not read the book, read it! I have seen the trailer and trust me regardless of how the movie turns out to be, you have got to read the book. Not reading the book is to truly miss out on something awesome!

Thank you Stefanie, once again for convincing me to read something outside my comfort zone, and guess what…as always, you are so right!!!

The Much Awaited Spin…

I have really been missing the Classic Club Spins and as they say, ask and you shall receive! Lo! Behold I open wordpress and guess what?  There is an update from Classic Club page, inviting everyone for Spin#10! Needless to say I will be joining the Spin and the more interesting experiences of my last Spin reading will not stop me. (Ahem! Ahem! Kate Chopin’s The Awakening was …well something else!). Anyway, the way forward is to march on and I do.

The rules for the Spin remain same and simple; I quote directly from Classic Club’s post –

  • Pick twenty books that you’ve got left to read from your Classics Club List.
  • Try to challenge yourself: list five you are dreading/hesitant to read, five you can’t WAIT to read, five you are neutral about, and five free choice (favorite author, rereads, ancients — whatever you choose.)
  • Post that list, numbered 1-20, on your blog by next Monday.
  • Monday morning, they will announce a number from 1-20. Go to the list of twenty books you posted, and select the book that corresponds to the number we announce.
  • The challenge is to read that book by October 23, even if it’s an icky one you dread reading!

And now for the list – drumroll please –

  1. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
  2. A Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
  3. To The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
  4. The Wings of a Dove by Henry James
  5. The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
  6. Love in the Times of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  7. Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
  8. Death Comes to the Archbishop by Willa Cather
  9. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
  10. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee
  11. Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
  12. Doll’s House by Henrick Ibsen
  13. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
  14. Death in Venice by Thomas Mann
  15. The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
  16. The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens
  17. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
  18. Taming of the Shrew by William Shakespeare
  19. The Time Machine by H.G. Wells
  20. Queen Lucia by E F Benson

That’s the list…some old, some new, some I would love, some I am anxious about! Nevertheless, now that the die had been cast (allow me the drama…it’s the weekend!!), can Monday be far behind? (I know that is really bad! But it is the weekend! And everyone knows I lose my marbles during the weekend!)

Intellectualism in Alexandria

After all the brouhaha about the stress of book reviews and the constant need to keep thinking about what to write, I am back doing exactly that! Talk about eating your words! But the Goodreads Historical Fiction reading week was not something I could give up without an effort – I mean its History and its Fiction and we all know that I am OBSESSED with that genre. Unfortunately I discovered the event a bit too late, so could not finish the book on time and hence the delayed celebration, if one could call this that!

After much deliberation, I chose to read Flow Down Like Silver: Hypatia of Alexandria : a Novel  by Ki Longfellow. I had never read her works and I knew very little about Hypatia beyond that she was a mathematician and a philosopher in Egypt and Goodreads had given the novel a rating of 4.43. It seemed like a good book to start with and read something new, which addressed a genre that I loved!

The book opens with the destruction of the great library of Alexandria by the orders of Bishop Theophilus, the newly crowned religious leader of the city, who brings with him the new religion of Christianity and is determined to destroy all that is “pagan” and “ungodly”. Hypatia and her family and friends make a desperate effort to save some of the most valuable books in the library and there she meets and saves Minkah, an low born Egyptian who is also there trying to salvage the precious books from the leaping flames that engulf the library. The destruction of the library brings about a change in Hypatia’s life; her father, the brilliant mathematician Theon aggrieved by the destruction caused by Theophilus hides in his bedroom, forcing Hypatia to take on the job as a teacher and in turn become the breadwinner of the family.  As she struggles to keep sanity in her household, with a mentally ill father, a dying sister and yet another sister, who hates everyone and everything; she is also tasked with the charge of preserving the books salvaged from the fire in some remote corner of Egypt, where the Bishops powers cannot reach out to them. The books follows the life of Hypatia over the next 30 years, as she becomes an acclaimed philosopher of her time and travels all over the Roman world, all the while continuing to believe in “pagan” rituals and teaching the forbidden texts of Aristotle and Plato, all the while holding on the knowledge of the secret library, until a betrayal that changes everything, consigning those precious texts to ignominy.

What is there not to like about this book? It based in Egypt, with an intellectual woman as a central character and books that need to be saved….the perfect ingredients for a perfect novel. Not quite. The politics of the then Roman world is described with great detail and accuracy as is the religious conflict between the old religions and new emerging Christianity. There is a magnificent overview of some of the best texts in philosophy, mathematics and prose from the ancient world. But that’s all there is to the book. The characters are not real – everybody loves Hypatia. Great! But why? Because she is an intellectual? There were many intellectuals in the city that time….we just know everybody loves Hypatia and she is extraordinary. As a woman and as an intellectual she is indeed extraordinary considering the time, but her brilliance never comes out in the book. She is perpetually the babe lost in woods, needing Minkah or an Isadore to rescue her. She continues her obsequious behavior towards her cowardly father, and lets him treat her youngest sister with disdain without any complain or protest. She needs Minkah to make all decisions related to her own household, including whether to take her sick elder sister out of the house for an outing. There is no strength or intellect or brilliance that shines out of this character and she seems to be the central protagonist, only because the original Hypatia was a figure of intellectual authority. The other charterers are  equally incomplete – Isadore , the much loved heir of Theophilus, falls out of grace with the Bishop because of his beliefs and does good work among the poor and sick. Then when the Cyril. nephew to Theophilus,  becomes the bishop, Isadore returns to power as a blood thirsty curling who is out to kill Hypatia whom he loved desperately! Eh! Did I lose something in the plot? Nope! It’s just the way it’s written!  The author fills the book with debates on philosophy about intellect, after life etc – I don’t mind it one bit, I quite like philosophical and abstract discussion, except within a few minutes, you know that it is extremely superficial and shallow.  The only redeeming factor is when Hyptia points out that Christianity is a male dominated religion because the founding fathers of the religion suppressed woman’s voice and not because God said so…but I do not think that this angle of feminist studies really happened in 351 AD. I do not expect a historical fiction author to be necessarily an expert on philosophy, but then don’t rush in where angels fear to tread! The plot is so linear that you can see the end right into page 5 and the language ordinary.

Overall it is not the most inspiring book I have read, and should you choose to give it a miss, you will not lose out on anything significant.

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