Thanks For Keeping Blogs Relevant

Alternatively titled, Blogging Like It’s Ten Years Ago.

Sherlock is back, and Sherlock is great again! After a largely fan-servicing third season, Sherlock season four is nothing short of amazing.

Um, okay, I’m speaking too soon. At this point I’ve only watched up to episode two.

Before I continue writing what I find so great about season four (or what I’ve watched of it so far), let me note something that breaks the show’s immersion for me. It’s there in episode two, repeated with irritating frequency for a span of…umm…ten minutes I guess? I think it was repeated thrice, the first two just within a few lines of dialogue of each other. And then again, just when the suspense was building up and the immersion is kicking back in for me.

People read (and like!) Sherlock’s blog. Blog, seriously, in this day and age of social media. For crying out loud, Sherlock’s got a Twitter feed!

Okay, I’m guessing there’s an out-of-universe explanation why that is so. Like, maybe, they didn’t get longform-compatible social networks to agree to a sponsorship deal to get mentioned. The product placements in the show aren’t lost to me, you know. But do you really need product placement deals to mention a website? Granted, websites/domains are brands now. I don’t know. Whatever.

In the spirit of open-source software, let me rewrite one of those irritating scenes.

Faith Smith: Oh my God, Sherlock Holmes! I loove your blog.

stillreadblogs

Or, more in-character, “Hah! I haven’t updated my blog in ages. That makes all other possibilities impossible, convincing me, beyond any shadow of doubt, improbable as it may be, that you, Faith Smith—and not your father—are the serial killer.”

Quit cooking meth, Sherlock.

Though, it is around this time when the story really gets going. That scene where Sherlock’s case built on a “foundation of miscalculation” comes crashing down on him heavily is one hell of a visual ride. Interspersed with John’s interview with Lestrade, and flash backs from the time when Sherlock started his “miscalculations”, it is the perfect visual realization of the unreliable narrator. Mind. Blown. Add Toby Jones’ acting where, one moment you want to punch his horrible teeth in if only you weren’t afraid those saws for teeth would deal your fist permanent damage. Next moment he is a startled goodie two-shoes schoolboy, a dog surprised at his owner’s sudden madness. Masterful.

I also like the development of the characters. I don’t get people who are disappointed because Sherlock is not about solving crimes anymore—a fair criticism, but if they had their way, Sherlock would’ve been stagnant. Other than the contemporary setting and the medium, this rendition will have nothing to set it apart from Doyle’s canon. Owing to its serial nature (and maybe even of Doyle’s disdain on the whole thing), the self-contained stories and novels have no sense of continuity; in one instance, it even contradicts itself on a matter regarding Moriarty.

If there’s anything the third season gave us, other than Amanda Abbington’s portrayal of Mary Watson, it’s that it provided a period of transition for Sherlock. It started showing his humanity, started showing him failing, miscalculating, fatally imperfect as the people he deems lesser.

And now we get him talking to John Watson about grief. Goodness, your fangirls are right. Just kiss already.

And when that happens, I have no doubt Mary’s projection would be in the scene, watching, a surrogate for the whole interwebs.

While the ladies are busy fainting from delight— “Johnlock! I knew it! Johnlock. John. Lock.” —allow me a moment of nostalgia for an age of the interwebs long past. Back then, blogs were personal, a sort of diary except you obviously hid just enough to keep your crush intrigued, in the slight chance they followed your online thoughts. The designs ranged from garish, like Molly Hooper’s, or very simple to the point of sterility, like John Watson’s.

But that was because blogs then were a form of self-expression. And if self-expression means #FF0000 Monotype Corsiva font on a black background complete with animated 256-pallet GIFs, then so be it. Back then, blogs weren’t a corporate thing—heck corporations did not do something as low as a “blog”—written to advertise


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(This is the part where I apologize that all those words I wrote is just one hell of a build-up for that shameless plug. I assure you my manager did not put me up for this.)

But really, thanks Sherlock for keeping blogs relevant, in a good way, if only for ten minutes in one episode.

Rationality in the Time of Gunfire

He is a ghost. He is from some other world. He is Papa, Madame Manec, Etienne; he is everyone who has left her finally coming back. Through the panel he calls, “I am not killing you. I am hearing you. On radio. Is why I come.” He pauses, fumbling to translate. “The song, light of the moon?” She almost smiles.

“Are You There?” All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr (emphasis added)

And then I found water in my eyes. How similar is it to the rain that falls outside, I do not know. Where rain is tasteless it is often salty. But it does not matter. They may be fiction, figments of fickle dreams but they found each other. A meeting that is a thing of beauty in the midst of a wretched war.

In a time saturated with generic posters from Nicholas Sparks movies, I worry that there is a strong tendency to overly romanticize the passage I quoted above. The thing with quotes is that you shower a particular part of the text with emphasis—put it on a pedestal, so to speak—and inevitably you lose at least some of its context. And at this point so early in this post, I would like to come out clean and admit that, contrary to common protocol, I started writing this review with a fraction of the book still unread. I found that quote that beautiful that I just felt like I have to write what I feel about it. Right. Now.

For every bit of Doerr’s skill, all the words in that quote could not begin to convey what or why I found it beautiful. I do not feel any guilt opening this post with a passage from the final stretches of the book. Can you really read the early stages of the book without thinking that they will meet? This piece of text does not matter. What matters (and what makes it beautiful) is how they got here.

And, just in case you need it spelled out loud, this passage is not beautiful because it speaks of romance in any way. Heck I don’t even know if this will blossom into one before the story breathes its last. He is German, part of the army invading Saint-Malo, while she is a blind French girl forced by circumstance to be in Saint-Malo at the time of invasion.

At this point, I think it is proper to admit that my interest (and horror) at the two world wars is more than casual. However, this book has dragged into my consciousness that my knowledge about them is horribly tainted by movies and pop culture. Just considering the second, it is so easy to divide the participants in black and white. Like highlighting certain parts of a text, this strips history of its nuances, the undiscussed footnotes and marginalia.

Take, for instance, the “heroes” of WWII, the Allied Forces. Slapping the label “hero” on them masks the fact that Winston Churchill let India starve to support the forces. How different is that, in principle, from the deaths the Nuremberg Trials accounted against the Germans? And speaking of Nuremberg, it is highly compelling to question the justice meted out in that court. Was it true justice or victors’ justice? Did that court evaluate the war or just one side of it? The atrocities the Nazi committed is beyond doubt but, had they evaluated the war itself, isn’t it suspect that the Allies come out more or less completely clean after all those proceedings? (Were they even held under scrutiny?)

How about labeling all Germans as the villains in this war? After all, they, as a nation, decided to put the Nazi party in power. Not to mention the state surveillance that marked the Nazi years, citizen against citizen. But, again, such sweeping labels seem an insult to the memory of brave efforts like The White Rose Movement. Beautiful, if maybe foolish, but futile (or was it?).

Footnotes to the greater narrative. Lights invisible inside the tide that brought us to present times. They are parts of the picture we should never neglect as we judge history.

Which brings us back to the text of Doerr’s Pulitzer-winning novel. Our ghost is Werner, a pale German orphan with an aptitude for electronics who finds himself in a time when getting education means assisting, if not outright swearing allegiance to, the Nazi cause. His talents take him to Schulpforta where he develops means to triangulate radio signals—a valuable skill if they are to crush underground resistance movements against the German forces.

It is the cast of Schulpforta which begs readers to challenge any stereotype they may have held regarding Germans in the time of the Third Reich. Sure, the common German portrayal is there: Werner feels stigmatized as most of his fellow students are just so willing to blindly follow the cruelty of their superiors. But during this time Werner encounters two contrasting characters: his friend Frederick and the revered giant Volkheimer.

Where Frederick is described as spindly, much is made of Volkheimer’s physical stature. Where people would not think twice before picking on Frederick, epic tales of superhuman feat are woven around Volkheimer. Where Frederick enthusiastically shares his interest in nature, Volkheimer’s demeanor is a caricature of German soldiers during WWII: aloof, calculating, and efficient.

What Frederick lacks in physicality he more than makes up for in moral courage. He has no remarkable qualities save this moral fiber and despite that I find Frederick the more-admirable individual in his friendship with Werner. Such is his conviction that, in one poignant scene, he proved better than even me, the reader, after I tried putting myself in his shoes. I can only hope that when the time comes that I am offered a cold bucket of water to douse a helpless prisoner with, I can make the right decision and choose what is right over what is easy.

(Werner, on the other hand, for all the stigma he feels, often takes the easy way out when confronted with moral decisions, even if hesitantly.)

As for the giant, there is so much more in him than initially presented. I will not specify instances as that I would consider spoilers but he stays silent for most of the text and yet he is never outright cruel. He defies tropes but manages to somehow remain familiar. Maybe, I find him so because he is me, trying to survive and do what is right, at least most of the time.

There are stretches of the German side of this story that felt particularly difficult for me to read not because of the prose but because the characters are made to face decisions whose horror managed to transcend the printed word and gripped me as I read it. Maybe it is just the zeitgeist I am currently witnessing. Or maybe, Doerr just writes that damn well.

As Werner is no prince I am pleased to inform you that her female counterpart, the blind Marie-Laure, is no princess nor damsel in distress either. In fact, it is actively due to her agency that Werner locates her. Unlike Werner she is seldom hesitant in her decisions, a trait that puts her in harm’s way more than once.

Marie-Laure, an avid reader despite her condition, spends most of the story under the care of her war-traumatized uncle Etienne. His father, a locksmith from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, was taken prisoner during a trip from Saint-Malo back to the capital. Displaced when Paris was taken, her father’s arrest does nothing to help her adjust to the circumstances of a war that is only getting worse.

Marie-Laure’s longing for familiarity and normalcy is understandable but her courage and willingness to fight for that sense of normalcy is astounding and praiseworthy. Instilled with a belief in reason early on by her father, she shows courage like Frederick as well as resourcefulness and resolve in no small amounts.

In the midst of our protagonists’ affinity with rationality, they are bound, if loosely, by a mythical piece of jewelry. And here, again, I praise Doerr for his skill. After everything that is said and done, the reader is left puzzling as to how much did that piece of jewelry really affect the story. Was it a passive object, a McGuffin, whose purpose was only so that the writer can make his characters want something, anything? Or did it play a more active role in the salvation or damnation of the characters who had the (mis)fortune to cross paths with it?

All of which comfortably puts All the Light We Cannot See into the shelf of magical realism. I have not read much from this shelf, I’m afraid, but, so far this is the one I like best. Unlike the superstitious nature of Gabriel García-Marquez’s characters. the rationality professed by our protagonists provides a nice counterpoint to the possibility of supernatural interference. Unlike the zeitgeist of Salman Rushdie’s The Temptress of Florence, these characters find themselves in a war, with no sorcerer nor god to save their skins. Will that stone have saved them? Did losing it made them perish? Go read the book, find out what happens, and decide for yourself.

I can only heap so much praise on Doerr’s work before it becomes redundant can only write so much about the book before I actually tell it word-for-word. This book is many things; it will make you ask questions and ponder on your moral values, all in the guise of a warm tale of an orphan boy and a blind girl.

Our Interstellar Wonderlust

There was a time, during my undergraduate, when I stumbled upon Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The name aside, I found it amusing how this principle on quantum particles also holds true for people if maybe in a weaker form: you can never really observe someone in their natural state as you, the observer, will always affect the observed. This lead me to a fascination with pedestrian Physics, something to go with my all-time fascination with stars and outer space.

So, imagine my excitement when I found out about Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. Screaming Physics sci-fi from its title to every bit of its promotional material and with Christopher Nolan’s name [1] for an endorsement, this is definitely one film I am not going to miss.

Interstellar starts in an agricultural town beset by constant dust storms. Ex-pilot, ex-engineer Cooper works the fields harvesting corn. We are also introduced to his daughter Murphy and her “ghost”, a poltergeist, who displaces books from her bookshelf. With her penchant for science and Cooper’s background, she decides to scientifically prove the existence of her ghost.

During a particularly violent dust storm where Murphy forgot to close her room’s window, Cooper and Murphy witness a bizarre manifestation of Murphy’s ghost: the dust, instead of uniformly covering the floor, settles in patterns of thick and thin lines. Cooper soon decodes the message which leads them to an underground camp, the “world’s best-kept secret”, or rather, what remains of NASA in a devastated world more in need of farmers than scientists. And so begins their adventure.

With the whole film nearing three hours in length, I find the opening of Interstellar to be rather uneventful and winding. Nolan’s way of laying down the setting of this story is subtle and, I think, unconventional but there are acts—like the one where they chase down a rogue drone—which I find to be unnecessary. The film’s story will not be affected by its absence nor is it particularly remarkable as a visual experience. If you go into Interstellar feeling like you’d need a toilet break sooner or later, do it at this scene. Your cue is the line that goes something like “It’s a parent-teacher conference, not grandparent”.

But when the film starts to find to its tempo stars, indeed, fly (puns intended). I’ve done my share of science and although I am no astronaut/physicist, I appreciate the film’s attempts at scientific realism. I am sure that the realism isn’t 100% (those space-assistant robots, for one, have AIs several decades—if not centuries—ahead of what we have) but at least this is a world where science advances in incremental steps, not huge leaps [2], where interstellar journey is a high-risk venture, not a video game.

Good science fiction isn’t really about science but about humanity and Interstellar delivers well on that though you may have to wait a bit, even after the winding intro. There is the expected drama of the characters dealing with the spatial, temporal, and emotional distance brought on them by this space venture but the film has lots more to offer than that. Soon the characters are waxing poetic on love, gravity, higher beings, and human destiny. Those were pleasant moments for me, akin to my undergraduate Heisenberg-principle moment.

And just when I’ve given up on the film having a happy and conclusive ending (it could hang the way Inception did), the engines of Nolan’s story goes into full throttle and throws its audience in gravitational slingshots. In contrast to its slow opening, the defining conflict rose fast and well to slide gracefully into the film’s denouement.

If you ever want to silence my logical/scientific-critical voice, one of the best ways to do it would be through a romanticized sci-fi tale. Biased as it may sound, I was expecting something beautiful along those lines from Nolan. However, true to his genius, Nolan tackles the inconveniences of real-life science and still manages to find a relatable human angle to it. As I said, Interstellar might not be 100% realistic [3] but it is definitely not romanticized or sugar-coated and it is beautiful because of that.


I have not managed to find a way to squeeze this in the main review but I feel that Hans Zimmer, the film’s music composer, also deserves mention. Stay mindful during the film and listen to the music and see your emotions rise and fall along with it. Zimmer’s melodies is a good complement to Nolan’s plot.

  1. And Anne Hathaway. []
  2. Hello there Iron Man. []
  3. Though what exactly is realistic in a film that throws quantum principles in the equation? []

Threads of an Atonement

I first encountered Ian McEwan’s Atonement from the film, directed by Joe Wright with James McAvoy and Keira Knightley. I remember the film having that dreamy quality which is so often attempted in excess by amateurs. That the film managed to play this style well marks its genius, an early verdict that is justified more and more as the story unfolded. One scene, in particular, stuck with me that I looked forward to reading the book just to see how that visual transition translated into words.

First things first. I would not want to spoil anyone who has not yet read or watched Atonement the pleasure of its surprise. So, for the sake of this review, I think it will be safe to refer to that scene as “Briony’s reveal”. And also, I am getting ahead of myself by starting with a scene that is obviously a twist in the plot and so occurs in its later parts. And so we backtrack.

Our story revolves around Briony Tallis, budding writer and little sister to Cecilia Tallis who is, in turn, a childhood friend of Robbie Turner. One summer day, Briony becomes an accidental witness to a rising romantic tension between Cecilia and Robbie, a scene which she (mis)interprets through the eyes of a child. Shortly afterwards, things spin out of anyone’s control and Briony finds herself responsible for a crime the consequences of which play out for years.

The artistic work that is Atonement is many things and almost everything that I find it to be strikes a chord with me. As a novel it is self-referential, using Briony’s artistic endeavors to reflect on the relationship of an author with her work; it even features a kind of foreshadowing, if you can call it that, with Briony’s The Trials of Arabella. It is a love story, not one where knights save damsels but one where a happy ending is as much a possibility as damnation. It is a war story, portraying war in all the exhaustion and futility it delivers. It is also, to paraphrase from someone else, a classic English novel with the “c” word in it.

…he dropped forward and typed before he could stop himself, “In my dreams I kiss your cunt, your sweet wet cunt. In my thoughts I make love to you all day long.”

It is at this point in the novel that the plot is stirred, the storm confirmed. You are not reading Pride and Prejudice, it seemed to say, where ladies and gentlemen spend almost a whole book in an emotional deadlock. In this story, women smoke, men are untrustworthy, and lives are ruined.

This is how Atonement sets-up its exploration of the burdens and complexities of growing up. Through the consequences of Briony’s misinterpretations and misplaced intentions, the novel waxes poetic on lost time and on a love that could have been. What keeps Atonement‘s take on this cliched plot element fresh is in how it gives context to the characters’ hopes and longings. For our lovers, there is the shadow of WWII hanging over them, around which they build their dreams and plans of being together. For Briony, that dread feeling of guilt never leaves and strengthens over time, which leads to her reveal, her act of atonement.

The years where Briony ages is obscured from the reader but her transformation, her growing up, is fleshed out well for the readers to follow. Taken plainly, the bulk of this work is not in how Briony atones for her faults but in how she grows the backbone to take responsibility of her mistakes.

“Growing up,” he echoed. When he raised his voice she jumped. “Goddamnit! You’re eighteen. How much growing up do you need to do? There are soldiers dying in the field at eighteen. Old enough to be left to die on the roads. Did you know that?”

As someone who has, on multiple occasions, tried to spin up a story, I cannot help but admire Ian McEwan’s mastery of words (and, consequently, Joe Wright et. al.’s visual language). I am delighted to report that this is one of the books whose opening I’ve found to take me in at once, a sequence which was repeated well in the opening montage of the film.

McEwan also has that gift of voicing his character’s inner thoughts so well. It is what fleshes them out, what makes them real and tangible. His descriptions of Briony’s initial attempts at writing, her reactions upon her initial encounter with the aforementioned “c” word, places her so well as a kid. Later on, McEwan treats us with Robbie’s exhausted thoughts while walking a war-torn France. And then of course, there is Briony’s own experience in the war, a part of her growing up as much as her crime is.

All those praises said, I still think that Briony’s reveal is better handled as a visual experience. I may be biased, having seen the film first, but I can’t help but think that the way Briony’s reveal is done in the book would require a bit of experience with authors and the way they sign introductions, the extra leaves of their publications. It is not something which even most well-read people would’ve understood at once; I admit that, when I reached that point, it still took me a few moments to realize how the reveal was handled, and I have seen the film at that. Had I not seen the film, I think it will take me the first few pages of the succeeding part to realize what just happened. Not that I have a better suggestion in how this bit could be handled in the book.

Take the book, take the film, it does not matter. I think both works are sufficient to convince anyone that an atonement is an act that requires as much gravity as any act concerned with a heartfelt emotion.

Did she really think that she could hide … and drown her guilt in a stream—three streams!—of consciousness? … Everything she did not wish to confront was also missing from her novella … It was not the backbone of a story that she lacked. It was backbone.

On Mirrors and Second Chances

Our story starts with an accident involving a seventeen-year-old girl, two deaths, and a second Earth. That’s right. A second Earth.

Lifelong astronomy-enthusiast Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling) learns that she has been accepted into MIT the same night news about a second Earth hits the radio. Intoxicated from celebrating her acceptance into MIT, she drives home and literally crashes into the life (and car) of  John Burroughs (William Mapother), killing his wife, pregnant with their daughter, and his five-year old son on top of sending John into a coma.

She serves four years of prison time and, when she gets out, starts on a journey looking for the grace to forgive herself. She tries to apologize to a devastated John (who just woke from coma at around the same time Rhoda got off prison) but her nerve ultimately fails her and she ends up cleaning John’s house for free, all the while just waiting for the moment of her apology.

The story of how Rhoda struggles to find forgiveness is by no means unique but Another Earth still manages to stand-out with its beautiful visuals, evocative storytelling, and clever use of leitmotif. This is one of those films where you would really have to watch with the sounds on and please, whatever you do, do not try to enjoy this one with only subs—it is curious how Another Earth manages to evoke so much with so little words spoken. Indeed, I guess, pictures (and good ambient music) can paint a thousand words.

While certain elements of Another Earth‘s story definitely feels sci-fi, I am pleased to report that the whole story is something even non-sci-fi fans can find enjoyable. This is not the Star Wars/Star Trek kind of sci-fi. Think of the emotions the stories in Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles evoke and understand that Another Earth will make you feel the same way. At its core, this film is very human.

In fact, the film turns a huge blind eye to science in portraying Earth Two. They dwelt more on what is beautiful and romantic about a second Earth rather than on what is practical and, admittedly, inconvenient. For a person like me, this lack of rigor would’ve been a very big issue. However, Another Earth‘s other merits managed to extract a larger amount of tolerance on my part. Another Earth is the kind of story that asks for a huge amount of creative license from its science-oriented viewers and I advice you to grant it. You will be pleasantly surprised.

I find it funny that a slew of other things popped into my mind while watching Another Earth. On the topic of Bradbury, that scene where Rhoda’s neighborhood reacts to the news that the second Earth is not just a second Earth but even possibly a mirror Earth reminded me strongly of the third expedition in TMC, a.k.a., Mars is Heaven. The scene where John asks Rhoda what she would do were she to meet herself inadvertently reminded me of the Choices xkcd series. Maybe, it’s as I said that the story takes on a certain formula, one no stranger to current viewers.

Also of note is the fact that Another Earth came into my attention because of Mapother’s involvement in another work I’m such a huge fan of: Lost. In Lost Mapother plays the role of a rather creepy and irritating antagonist named Ethan, one of “The Others”. However, while watching Another Earth, his performance strongly reminded me of another character in Lost—a protagonist this time—by the name of John Locke. It’s a compliment when an actor’s performance for a new role erases the ire a typecast from a previous role may have formed.

To sum up, Another Earth is a magical film about forgiveness disguised as a sci-fi film. Try counting how many characters actually figure in this film, how many minutes of dialogue it features, and marvel how little it is compared to larger-scale productions. But even at that, it manages to stand out and portray more than in two hours you may spend in other productions. Alas, beautiful things come in rarely.


Another Earth is a film by Mark Cahill starring Brit Marling and William Mapother. It premiered in the 27th Sundance film festival.