The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Western literature and movies of the 20th century are obsessed with the Second World War and its fallout The Cold War. An unjustly large proportion of the works deal with these subjects and I intentionally avoid them. But even I could not avoid finally picking up a John le Carre novel. I had liked what I saw in the movie adaptation of his Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I picked up The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

This slim novel is part of a George Smiley series and is centered around a burnt out British spy named Alec Leamas. All the spies under the command of Leamas in East Germany are methodically killed by a ruthless new Communist spy head named Mundt. Leamas is pulled back to England, loses his job in disgrace and ends up working at a library. Turns out that this is all a front by MI6 to make him an enticing defector for the East German side, a great chess game to take down Mundt.

I had not read a le Carre novel before and I can see that his high praise is well deserved. Since he was an actual spy during the Cold War, his writing is supposedly very real, and it seemed so to me. The plot in this one is quite an intriguing puzzle and kept me up on the edge. To his credit le Carre never lets go of the moral implications of the loss of life in this secret war. When Leamas defects, he is pulled deep inside East Germany, with not a single British or American spy to help him. Finding out if and how he succeeds is a thrill not to be missed.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0143121421

Books I enjoyed in 2016

2016 was such a busy year that by the time I could clear some space in my personal schedule to read books, half the year was already up! I had set an overly optimistic target of 24 books for the year. I finished just 10 books. Listed below are the books that I enjoyed the most. As you might deduce, the books are mostly all light reads. The book titles are linked to my book reviews, in case you are thinking of picking them up.

For 2017, I want to get back to reading a book or two on history or non-fiction. Reading a classic fictional work or two would be nice too. As for targets, I think I can aim for 24 books again this year, that is, 2 books per month. Let me see how that goes! 🙂

Movies and TV series I enjoyed in 2016

2016 was a crazy busy year and I could not really relax with a movie or two every weekend. I mostly watched popular movies, and a good number of them were quite entertaining. TV series took a far bigger hit, and I could only manage a few this year. Popular series like Game of Thrones and House of Cards (US series) are great fun in the first few seasons, but to be frank they get quite boring pretty soon. Here is a list of what left an impression on me this year.

Charulata (চারুলতা)

I am slowly making my way through Satyajit Ray’s brilliant movies. This movie revolves around Madhubati Mukerjee (whom I last saw in Mahanagar) and the evolution of her relationships with her husband and her cousin. As usual with Ray, the movie is flawless: the plot displays the nuances and complexities of everyday relationships, every frame is oh-so perfectly shot, Madhubati is staggering in her acting and beauty and the movie actually ends on a happy note. A visual masterpiece made way back in 1964!

Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火)

From China comes this dreamy snowy neo-noir movie. Everything is perfect: the disturbed hero, the angelic heroine and a mysterious murder to solve. The stark winter setting is gorgeous like a dream and the movie abounds in black humour. Pitch perfect!

House of Cards (UK Series)

This is the original series from 1990 which has been remade in the US now starring Kevin Spacey. The US series does not even come close to this original cause this is one of the best TV series I have ever watched! I would place it next to The Wire, at the supreme pedestal for TV series. Ian Richardson turns in a God-like performance of a scheming politician who rises to become Prime Minister. Pardon my abuse of adjectives, but the acting is quite simply fantastic and the plot superlative. In 3 seasons, you will learn everything you will ever need to understand politics in every damn nation of this world.

Fargo (Season 1)

Fargo is one of my favorite movies and I must admit I was a bit afraid they would ruin it with this TV series. Thankfully, the small town essence of the movie is perfectly captured in this series. The body count just keeps racking up in this peaceful-looking town. I kept rooting for Martin Freeman, wishing he got a happy life, but sadly it is not meant to be. The last 2 episodes are especially nerve-wracking. Seeing the loving family at the heart of the series cozy up in their nest amidst all the cold at the end is bliss.

Gone Girl

This is a fantastic nail-biting mystery by David Fincher. Who knew Ben Affleck could act?! He and Rosamund Pike give epic performances here creating a couple of unforgettable characters. The plot and its settings have a huge Fargo feel to it. The movie has the feel of reading a thrilling novel. Loved it!

Badlapur

What a beginning this movie has! Undoubtedly one of the best to come from Bollywood in 2015! This is a dark noir revenge drama where the villain turns out to be not so bad in the end and the hero turns into pure evil. This is the best I have seen of Varun Dhawan, but with Nawazuddin, Radhika Apte and Huma Qureshi at their peak here, he has too much competition. Minor quibbles in a visceral work.

Heaven’s Gate

Director Cimino’s vision to make the perfect Western shines through in this masterpiece. Camerawork is jaw droppingly awesome, the sets are grand and the acting is brilliant. It may have sunk the studio that produced it, but thanks to Cimino’s maniacal precision we get a gem. The movie is slow and takes its time, the war at the end is a bit heavy handed, but the rest is beautiful.

NH10

This movie is scary as hell and very visceral. The premise descends brilliantly from modern luxuries of New Delhi to the rural badlands of Haryana. The couple are chased like dogs for witnessing an honour killing. The surprises, like that of the police officer, are just brilliant! When justice is finally served, it feels so wrong, but also right. Anushka Sharma is all over this one and this is the best I have seen of her.

Dirty Harry

This is one Clint Eastwood essential. It is a classic cowboy Western transplanted nicely into a modern police setting. The city of San Francisco plays a major role in the movie and the city is great to watch here.

Nishabd

This is the best RGV movie I have seen yet. He makes the taboo love all seem so natural. The Munnar settings are gorgeous and Big B and Jiah Khan are both a treat to watch. If I have one complaint, then that is the abuse of the ridiculous crane shots used in the movie.

U Turn

This second Kannada movie from Pawan Kumar is a quaint urban thriller where a flyover comes to life and starts killing traffic rule breakers. Shraddha Srinath, her love interest and the cop have acted really well. The movie is as much about Bangalore city as it is about the characters. The movie is a tad long, but well scripted and beautifully shot.

Kapoor & Sons

A perfectly crafted Bollywood movie created to tear you up and leave you with some great memories. The dysfunctional parents Rathna Pathak and Rajat Kapoor are perfect depicting the kind of marital decay after living together for 35 years. The parents, the sons all discover secrets about each other on a trip home and it all goes to hell just when it could have been fixed together well. In between all this, Siddharth and Alia’s romance seemed a tad unnecessary and out of place.

Main Aur Charles

This movie is very engaging, thought it captures the enigmatic faker Charles Shobraj at the fag end of his career. Randeep Hooda pulls in his best performance and even the secondary characters remain etched in memory cause they are fleshed well. The story gets a bit lame towards the end, but that is a minor quibble in this beautiful noir.

Back to the Future

Finally got around to watching Marty McFly and Doc in this perfectly crafted pop movie. It is quite fun to watch the trouble that ensues when Marty travels back in time to his parents’ teenage years. But why oh why are there a zillion blatant product placements in this movie?!

That pretty much rounds up my list. Here’s hoping for more great watches in 2017! 🙂

The Color of Magic

The Color of Magic

For many years, I had been hearing the name Terry Pratchett and about his fantasy novels. I had never bothered tasting any of his books since I am not really a fan of fantasy and I assumed his books were for folks who play Dungeons and Dragons and so on. You get the picture. An Economist obituary after his demise in 2015 piqued my interest so much that I picked up The Color of Magic, his first book in the Discworld series. Within the first few pages itself I was hitting myself for waiting this long and was well and truly hooked.

You see Pratchett has nailed a genre that I had never previously imagined: fantasy parody! Drawing from Hindu mythology, the world of the book rests on four elephants which are standing on an ancient turtle. Our so-called hero is a cowardly wizard who is paid to be a tour guide for a good-hearted rich guy who wants him to show the badlands of this world. Together they bumble along on some fantastic, ridiculous journeys meeting and escaping death at every turn.

Pratchett turned out to be the best new discovery for me this year. Like the first time I listened to Michael Jackson, it is an amazing experience to feel something entirely new. Color of Magic was incredibly funny, I was literally rolling on the bed laughing my heart out throughout this book. Do not be misled that this is one of those fantasy tomes with hundreds of characters and details you need to remember to be able to follow and enjoy. This is an extremely light and raucous read and a great way to perk up your mood!

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0062225677

Dave Barry Does Japan

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A year that has been mentally and physically demanding, having to learn to live with a tiny human, is drawing to a close. Not surprisingly, I turned to humor to lighten my mind by picking up Dave Barry Does Japan.

Barry visited Japan with his wife and son for a few weeks way back in 1991, the Bush Senior years, if that helps jog your memory. This book is an observation of the differences between American and Japanese cultures from his point of view. Almost everything imaginable is covered from language to food to sports to society. I was snickering and laughing on every page, with the chapter on Kabuki theater having me in the biggest splits.

Barry is the funniest contemporary writer I have come across and this book does not disappoint. I am amazed how he can see what we see and yet give that examination such a fun innovative spin and generate such excellent wordplay that leaves one chuckling and laughing. In my book, that is just as impressive a skill as the serious writing that wins those serious literature awards. I can easily recommend this book to lighten your spirits anytime. If there is one complaint, it is that this book is way too short compared to his other books and he could have covered way more Japanese idiosyncrasies in far more detail. If this year is any indicator of how 2017 will be, I will surely be hitting the humor shelves more often in the coming months.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0449908100

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

It is hard not to fall in love with Mma Ramotswe, the detective behind The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I cannot remember the last time I had so much fun as reading her adventures in solving the domestic problems of the citizens of Botswana. I was hooked from the very first page and totally fell in love with Ramotswe, the people she works with and whole African environment the story is set in. I had only read books that either peddle the poverty or war porn or romanticize the tribal life of the continent. So, it was heartwarming to see semi-urban lives of Africans dealing with everyday problems like theft, cheating and infidelity.

Author Alexander McCall Smith has created a popular series around Ramotswe and it is not hard to see why. This lady detective has a heart of gold, but also a strong will and a sharp wit. Her investigations of quaint cases takes her driving across the Kalahari in her rickety white van meeting people of various classes and colors. These petty problems and the people are incredibly multi-faceted, often humorous and reminded me of an innocent time and place years ago.

This book is easy, fast and pleasing to read. I was reminded of the people and settings of RK Narayan and the inquisitive eye of Sherlock Holmes now and then. A good book like this wraps around you and carries you up and away to its world. I look forward to reading more of the idyllic quests of Mma Ramotswe and to getting my hands on some of the redbush tea she seems to drink all the time!

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 9780307456632

The First Bad Man

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There is a certain joy in seeing all the pieces come together in harmony. It is that feeling I ended up with as I crested the middle of The First Bad Man and the bits started to slowly fall into place. The narrator Cheryl is a middle-aged unmarried working woman who lives alone and day dreams about an older colleague who she has been working with for decades. Into her spic-n-span sunny home enters a sulking and voluptuous teenager who she initially hates. But they soon discover a strangely funny relationship based on the self-defense videos that Cheryl’s firm peddles. When the lazy teenager turns out to be pregnant, what follows is a ride that Cheryl could not have imagined in her million dreams, but one that turns out to smoothly sate all her unfulfilled desires.

Some books are great, but a slog to get through, but others like this one by Miranda July are effortless. From the very opening lines, I was hooked. There is a pleasant self-deprecation in the protagonist and a constant humor that runs through the book keeping it light. The writing is top notch, effused with enormous sensitivity and a great eye for detail. When you finally close the book, you really feel like you lived an year with Cheryl in her sunny California home. I was not surprised to learn that the author is also a filmmaker and a screenwriter. The book is very visual, the experience akin to watching a good afternoon movie by Koreeda. I barely noticed it, but the author had laid all her clever traps from the beginning and in the latter half of the book she expertly reels them all in a super satisfying manner. It is so heartwarming to witness good tides finally getting to the protagonist you are so invested in. The First Bad Man is a well written funny and sunny read that is full of surprises.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 9781439172568