‘Lamb’ by Christopher Moore

Lamb by Christopher Moore‘Fantasy comedy’ writer Christopher Moore could not have picked a more controversial topic for his novel Lamb. Inspired by Soviet author Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (which, in my opinion, is one of the best Soviet literary works because of its satirical nature), Lamb is a retelling of the life of Jesus Christ “through the eyes of his childhood pal, Biff”.

The fictionalised account is a first-person narrative from the perspective of Biff who is brought back to life in the present day to write a gospel that tells the “whole story behind Jesus’s life”. This artistic license arises from the fact the gospels in the New Testament do not cover the early life of Jesus. I was also surprised to learn while reading this novel that much of the commonly held beliefs about Nativity are, in fact, folklore that has been added in relatively modern times.

The novel starts off from the time when Jesus was a kid, tracing his journey as a teenager who realises that he is the Son of God. As they grow up, Jesus and Biff depart on a spiritual journey that takes them across the world to study with three Magi – who are, in the story, a wizard living in Afghanistan, a Buddhist monk in China, and a sage in India. The basis for this is the now mostly-debunked scholarly theory that Jesus travelled to or was otherwise influenced by Buddhism. Regardless, the novel borrows theology heavily from other religious texts such as the Torah (frequently quoted by the characters), the Gnostic Gospels, the Bhagavad Gita, and the works of Eastern sages such as Lao Tzu and Confucius.

The overall tone – the closest parallel I can think of is Monty Python’s The Life of Brian – is somewhat irreverent but at its core, the story is respectful of divinity of Jesus. The controversial aspect of the book arises from the fact that it considers both the fictional Biff and Mary Magdalene as close friends of Jesus, albeit it stops short of calling them apostles. Mary Magdalene, especially, as she plays the role of Jesus’s love interest.

If you’re willing to look past this, Lamb is a rollickingly funny novel that still manages to give food for thought on what morals we should have as human beings. It has Jesus fighting demons, being on first name terms with a Roman legionnaire, rescuing sacrificial kids in India, and making friends with a yeti. In the words of the author, the book has an answer to the ‘eternal’ question: “What if Jesus had known kung-fu?”

Rating: 9 / 10


‘John Dies At The End’ by David Wong

John Dies At The End by David “Dave” Wong (pseudonym for editor Jason Pargin) is a novel that one would expect to be the output of an author hallucinating on acid, yet still have enough coherence to write jokes. The story is a written as a first-person narrative set in Undisclosed, Midwest America from the perspective of Dave who is recounting incidents he has lived through to a skeptical journalist. He, along with his friend John, meet a Jamaican drug dealer Robert Marley (but of course) who gets them get them on a drug that goes by the name Soy Sauce which makes them hallucinate and gives them super-enhanced sensory perceptions – the ability to see ghosts, among other things.

The book is steeped in demonology and mythology, with a narrative arc loosely centred around an evil malevolent deity known as Korrok who is trying to open a portal from his dimension into our world. But wait! Before I loose you to thinking that this book is some kind of Lord of the Rings-style fantasy (and/or that I play Dungeons & Dragons in my basement) let me stop you right there: this book’s genre is best described as satirical horror. The tone of the story throughout is the kind of playfully satirical humour made so popular by Douglas Adams (think Dirk Gently rather than Hitchhiker‘s). Think Ghostbusters meets Sherlock Holmes meets The Sixth Sense meets Monty Python.

David Wong doesn’t shy away from gore either with very graphic descriptions, making the horror elements work. What I liked particularly about the style of writing is that he also describes sounds, textures, and smells (without getting too distracted by them that it gets in the way of the story) that make the narrative come alive. The characters are colourful too: “shadow people”, a seemingly immortal dog, the aforementioned “Robert” Marley, Detective “Morgan Freeman” Appleton, frequent appearances by Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit…among many others.

There aren’t many books in which you will get to read anything along the lines of ‘The phrase “sodomized by a bratwurst poltergeist” suddenly flew through my mind’ and find yourself alternating between terror and laughter. John Dies At The End is perhaps the most insane book I have read, and I mean that in a good way.


Of haiku and poetry

I’ve never understood the ‘point’ behind haiku in English. Conceptually, I can grasp the idea that it’s just another form of poetry with its own rules – in this case, the restricting yourself to 17 syllables. (I’m referring to the looser form of haiku in English that isn’t necessarily associated with seasons and metaphors.) What I don’t get is how one can definitively count ’17 syllables’ for the purposes of haiku. I consider that in English the number of syllables in any given word can be ‘variable’ depending on what dialect of English it’s spoken in, unlike other tonal languages such as Japanese where the number of syllables for any character is fixed. What, then, is the bleeping point of haiku with this straitjacket if not just an exercise in control – and in showing off?

That is, until I read an excellent essay The Heart of Haiku  by Jane Hirshfield (exclusive to Amazon Kindle readers as a Kindle Single) which explains the essence of haiku through the life and work of Matsuo Bashō. I highly recommend this as a read if you like haiku / poetry, or even if you don’t because Hirshfield does such a good job of demonstrating how haiku is tied to higher concepts of Zen Buddhism and how the beauty of much of haiku gets lost in translation.

There’s one Bashō haiku that particularly stood out for me in its ingenuity.

looking exactly like
blue flag iris: blue flag iris
inside the water’s shadow

kakitsubata nitari ya nitari mizu no kage

I’ll let Hirshfield explain how ingenious this poem is in her own words:

The main point in the original Japanese is the poem’s mirroring construction: the two identical words at the haiku’s center replicate both visually and in sound what is being described. In Japanese, which is written vertically the visual onomotopoeia [sic] is even more clear; a small “cutting-word”, ya, creates the slim line of water dividing the flower stem’s two apparently equal stems.

That’s just brilliant, innit?! I desperately want to look at the original Japanese version now to see how magical this looks. (I’ve tried searching online for this, without success. I’d appreciate it if someone can post a link in the comments section if you do find it.)

I have an incredibly love-hate relationship with poetry in general. When it’s done right and is clever – like the example above – I can appreciate it and enjoy it. I also think that a poem should, in its own way, tell a story; perhaps that’s why The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is by far my most favourite poem. (The other reason being this poem is a major plot point in Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency.)

What really turns me off from poetry sometimes is the sense of entitlement that poets and poetry lovers have, as if prose is somehow ‘easier’ to write or ‘worse’ at expressing thoughts and feelings. Good longform prose is hard to write and edit, just as clever poetry isn’t easy to write. Well-written poetry can be used to communicate complex feelings of a poet, but sometimes, poetry is merely used as a shortcut to writing less and yet still pretending that makes it better than prose that runs into a similar number of lines.


‘The Plot to Get Bill Gates’ by Gary Rivlin

Most people of my generation would be aware of Bill Gates and why he is so popular – perhaps less so these days after he has stepped back from the limelight – only vaguely. He is that Scrooge-McDuck-ian level rich guy, isn’t he? Within the tech community there is a lot of hate for Bill Gates and Microsoft, especially among free/open source software supporters. You only have to peek in my archives to see I was cut of the same cloth.

Yet, it struck me that I hardly know anything about Gates as a person. From my tech quizzing days I know of what he wrote in his books The Road Ahead and Business @ The Speed of Thought – without ever having read the books; I know about his temper tantrum; stories about speeding violations and dates that went downhill. I have seen countless documentaries about him and the tech industry, not counting the ‘faction’ film Pirates of The Silicon Valley.

So when I came across an old copy of Gary Rivlin’s The Plot to Get Bill Gates: An Irreverent Investigation of the World’s Richest Man…and the People Who Hate Him at a book sale, I pounced upon the bargain. The book, published in 1999, is refreshingly free of the retrospective analysis post-dot-com-crash; celebrating The World as Brave and New. Rather than focussing on just a single individual as biographies do, Rivlin turns the spotlight instead on Bill Gates’ larger-than-life contemporaries Scott McNealy, Larry Ellison, and Steve Jobs too. What he excels in portraying is how these men and Gates fed off each other in obsessing “cutting off a competitor’s air supply” and making “supergreat” products.

Rivlin, for sure, is a technology-beat journalist who may not understand the intricacies of software development but to his credit – beyond the perfunctory introductions to any technical topic – he politely steps aside and lets people who do understand express their opinion. This approach might appear biased to you, depending on whose Kool-Aid you have drunk; ultimately though you have to admit that he does a good job of balancing stories from highly polarised camps. Those who demonize Bill Gates will cry out that this book borders on trying hard to restrain itself from fawning over him – but then I think it’s a carefully calculated result arising out how people envied and hated Gates (and still do). In that sense, the tone of the book mirrors reality a lot.

The amount of research put into the book clearly shows. I have heard many wildly unbelievable tales over the years – so has Gary Rivlin, of course, and he tackles this by chasing down the ‘original’ source of each apocryphal story, often with results that tend to indicate that they were manufactured. Again, Rivlin shows great restraint in hardly ever calling anyone a liar outright, preferring to let the reader draw his own conclusions based on the evidence presented.

Over the years, I personally have come to admire and respect him a lot more, moving away from Stallman-esque rhetoric. He is prominent philanthropist and whatever he may have done in the past, he is doing so much more for disadvantaged people in developing countries. I am saddened these days, thus, when I came across the same ad hominem attacks against him (again, especially in the FOSS community) that should have gone out of fashion a decade ago. The Plot to Get Bill Gates reveals the flaws in his character, but so does it also trace the journey of an incredibly intelligent person who matured over the ages. By comparing his contemporaries with him, it highlights how they probably wouldn’t have acted much differently, had they been in Gates’ position instead.

To the many people who know me from my school tech quizzing days: I highly recommend this as a read. You may no longer be actively involved in tech quizzing but I am sure you still cherish reading old trivia. Here’s a book that you guys will undoubtedly like. And – for the whipper-snappers still in the school tech quizzing circuit in Delhi – who knows whether reading the book will help you crack a crucial 10-pointer when you need it most at an event (hint hint Code Wars hint).

Stop The Press

‘The Social Network’ sequel

High drama today as it appears Mark Zuckerberg is being hauled to court for the third time over potentially screwing people out of their dues when Facebook started. (The first two being Eduardo Saverin and the Winklevii.)

The person suing this time is a snake-oil wood-pellet salesman called Paul Ceglia who looks like an unemployed Bengali art teacher. He has already  been convicted once for fraud (long story, but apparently that’s how he unearthed the evidence to file this lawsuit) so on normal days people would laugh him away. Which indeed he was, when he filed the lawsuit last summer.

Now, however, he is being represented by a law firm that specialises in technology IP disputes called DLA Piper which says it has done the due diligence in this matter and certain that none of the evidence is faked.

This is big because if a law firm is willing to financial risks and loss of face by backing the authenticity of evidence it’s submitting to court, not to mention that Ceglia has already been to jail once and knows the consequence of such an outrageous fraud claim (even more jail time), this makes it all the more believable that there might actually be something here.

Hoo boy. Who could’ve thought circumstances would make a sequel of The Social Network possible?


In my review of The Social Network, I was fairly critical of it but I don’t think I explained my stand clearly. See, the problem with it – in my opinion – is that although it’s an exceptionally well-written and acted movie when seen on its own, it is not a good movie about the origins of Facebook. Where The Social Network failed for me was that even though it got the events and the chronology right, it got all the motivations of the characters wrong. And I’m not even talking about the ‘official’ Zuck / Facebook version of what happened (the ‘official’ Bible happens to be The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick); I’m talking of how blatantly Aaron Sorkin twists everything to tell a story he as a person who didn’t know much about Facebook (like most of the viewers) wants to tell rather than the one even its source material tells. (The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich, the book the film is based on.)

The iconic scene right at the start with Rooney Mara? Fabricated, as Aaron Sorkin himself confesses. While the film portrays Zuck as a misogynistic nerd who made Facebook out of spite, Mezrich tells the story of an ambitious college kid who knows the masterpiece he wants to build (and, FYI, is not driven out of hatred out of being spurned; instead mentioning Zuckerberg’s relationship with current fiancé Priscilla Chan). Mezrich also give a more complete picture of how uninterested Eduardo Saverin was and how he put up ads for competing social networks on Facebook early on, while the movie glosses over this to make Saverin look a handsome Brazilian hombre who got royally screwed over by an asshole. Even the stake dilution was completely overblown, as in real-life and in Mezrich’s book (which, if I may remind again, is supposedly the source material for the film) the stake was reduced to “slightly less than 10%”, not the jaw-dropping “less than 1%” in the movie.

Sorkin had an agenda here to tell a gripping story, but it just isn’t the one which captures the true motivations and intentions of the characters he could have pieced together from so many accounts. Nobody expects a documentary – but when it got the chronology and the events themselves right, changing the other bits to make Zuckerberg come across as a jerk seems intentionally malicious. This is why I feel The Social Network is ultimately a bad movie because it fails to do what it sets out to achieve: tell The Story of Facebook.


And while the latest lawsuit does open up the discussion again on whether Zuckerberg really was a jerk, you have to remember this is a 20-21 year old kid (at that time) we are talking about. In the same position – with an idea you feel can truly revolutionise the world – with no life experience dealing with millions or with VCs or investors, how much wiser decisions would you have taken instead in Zuckerberg’s place?