April 30, 2012

Book: A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:39 pm

A really cosy, nice, family drama. The story follows the lives of Alice Goodwin and her family, which includes her husband Howard Goodwin and children Emma and little Claire.

This was a book that was chosen for the Oprah Book Club as well as made into a movie starring Sigourney Weaver and Julianne Moore. I did not hear of the movie earlier, so I do not know how it did in the box office.

Howard is a man who is the most happy when farming, and realizes his life’s ambition in having bought a farm in a small town in Wisconsin. Alice works as a nurse in the local school and is happy and contented.

They are close friends with Theresa and Dan Collins, their neighbours. Theresa often leaves their children Lizzy and Alice, in her care. Theresa works as a psychologist.

The book takes off immediately when Lizzie, under Alice’s care, wades into a pond in front of her house and drowns. The life of both families turns upside down with this tremendous tragedy. The friendship is put under a strain it cannot take, and the already mercurial and emotional Alice goes to pieces, wracked by guilt and remorse.

She cannot even face attending the funeral of Lizzy. Theresa cannot face her after the tragedy.

Alice becomes unsbalanced and withdrawn into herself, unable to cope with even the quotidian drudgery of everyday life, when disaster strikes again.

A child in her school, Robby Mackesy, accuses her of sexual harassment. When two other students come forward to make the same accusations, and when Alice is arrested and thrown in jail with a bond for release set at an unaffordable $100,000, an already bad situation seems to get worse.

The story moves on to describe the experiences of Alice in the prison, Howard’s desperation, the family’s virtual ostracizing by the entire community, – he cannot even find anyone to babysit his kids when he goes to visit Alice in prison – his decision to give up his dream to raise money for Alice’s bail, and the subsequent court case.

The story is told by Alice, then Howard, and finally Alice again – so it is all in the first person. The story is nicely told, with comfortable narration and pace that keeps the readers’ interest. It keeps moving at an easy pace and the story unfolds at an even pace. There is no cliffhanger situations or nail-biting climax, but the author makes the situation interesting enough and the prison experiences of Alice and the later courtroom scenes keep the story interesting to the end.

The characterixation of the defense lawyer is interesting, as is the characterization of Robbey Mackessy and his mother. Alice comes across as a stubborn, willful woman but then that is exactly the intended effect the author seeks to portray. The emotions are real and believable and the book is a good read.

Let us say a 7/10.

— Krishna


Book: The Chamber by John Grisham

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:32 pm

This is a slightly unusual book by John Grisham’s standards – at least the formula of his stories I have seen so far. There are no courtroom battles, there are no high and mighty experienced lawyer brought down by an upstart but idealistic rookie lawyer. And yet it is a moving portrait.

This is the story of Sam Cayhall, a Klansman. He is a third generation Klansman, his father and his grandfather both having belonged to the Klan  in the South, when the Klan was dominant and the culture was one of segregation.

He engages in several acts of vandalism against property belonging to supporters of black empowerment. When with another accomplice called Rollie Wedge, he attempts to bomb the offices of Marvin Kramer, a Jewish lawyer who fights against acts of violence against the African American people. The bomb is intended to just destroy the offices and is set to go off early in the morning  when the lawyer is still  at home, the act goes horribly wrong and the bomb explodes  killing Marvin who had reached the office early as well as his twin children Josh and John Kramer. Sam is  caught. Rollie escapes undetected.

Sam is arrested twice but could not be convicted but he is caught a third time, and this time it looks like justice will be done. He is convicted and sentenced to death by the Gas Chamber (and thus the title). He petulantly fires his own lawyer firm ( because it is a Jewish firm doing his defence pro bono as a part of the charity) and resolves to fight on by himself.

When he has spent seven years in prison and his death sentence seems imminent, a young lawyer (I did not say there was no rookie lawyer in the book!) takes up his fight on behalf of the same company that Sam rejected. His name is Adam Hall. We learn that he is the grandson of Sam, through Sam’s estranged son Eddie, who did not agree with the violent and partisan beliefs of Sam and moved away from him, going so far as to change his name. He commits suicide, leaving his family devastated. Eddie’s sister, Lee, became Lee Carman after marrying a wealthy industrialist, but could not escape depression and guilt due to her father’s past and its childhood influences on her. She became an alcoholic and ended up living alone, divorced from her husband. Adam and his sister, Connie, are protected by Eddie from even knowing about Sam in their childhood and Adam learns of it only when Eddie kills himself.

Adam battles family history, learns secrets that makes him despise his grandfather even more, and is yet determined to save him, with the help of Garner Goodman, the experienced lawyer who had represented Sam before.

The story has several subplots and is told well: Adam learning the sad truth about his family and grandfather; Discovery of Lee and the new family Adam finds, and the subsequent discovery of the deep trauma in Lee and her alcoholism; the brilliant campaign by Adam and Garner Goodman to save Sam; Sam’s change of views and his reaction to his own death undergoing changes slowly; Adam’s own family history unfolding slowly – all of these come out very well.

The story is fascinating and shows the horrors of living in the Death Row very well. It shows the hopelessless of the  situation, the reaction of fellow inmates when they learn that Sam’s execution date has been set. It also involves Nugent, a pompous prison Warden, McAllister, a scheming, populist governer and other interesting characters.

The end is really moving, and is well told. John Grisham’s technique of telling the crime as it happened creates a wave of hatred for Sam in the minds of the reader but conveys the situation of the crime in a convincing manner. To turn that hatred around to pity and compassion for the same man towards the end of the book is a real mark of a very gifted writer and John achieves this remarkable feat.

I think that all in all, it is a great book. There are moments in there where the story seems to stall a bit but never for long. It is a good read, if you like Grisham’s style and is a fan already. I would say a 7/10 will not be out of place for this book.

— Krishna

Book: One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:21 pm

This is considered to be the best book written by the author. He won the Nobel prize for literature in 1982 and I have heard about this book for so long and from so many sources that this was in by `should read‘ list of books for a long time.

The story is a generational saga and it would be wise to keep referring back to the family tree given at the beginning of the book often. I said this during the review of A Suitable Boy (reviewed earlier here)  but for this book, you need it  even more because confusingly almost all of them share two or three names! You have to keep track of the Aurelianos and Arcadios of several generations, especially when they live during the same time frame and interact with each other. The tree comes in handy on these occasiona.

First, let us recap the story a bit. The book opens with the life of Jose Arcadio Buendia, who with this wife Ursula Iguaran founded the village of Macondo, while in fact searching for a way to the sea from his native village in Columbia (presumably, because that is where the author comes from. I do not know if Columbia is explicitly mentioned anywhere in the book). He has enough charisma to carry a large group of people in the search, who then populate the stories in the book.

There is another motive for the move. Since Ursula is a close relative of his, she is afraid that, if they have children, they may be born with a pig’s-tail-like appendage, as happened to a related couple previously and she denies conjugal rights for a while. During that time, taunted by another man, Prudentio Aguilar, who cast aspersions on his virility, he kills him. Tormented by his ghost, the couple is forced to move.
Then follows repeated sagas of visits by a gypsy band to the village where each time they are shown artifacts from the outside world – a magnifying glass, mercury, dentures, ice etc. Each time Jose is absorbed to the exclusion of everything else in the scientific possibilities of the new invention and neglects daily duties to maniacally follow his vision. He strikes a friendship with the chief of the gypsies, Melquiades, that lasts a lifetime.

Melquiades is reported dead but turns up alive much later in the book, simply saying that he came back because he `did not like being dead‘ and lives with the family for a long time before he `really‘ dies. Yes, the stories are quirky in their own way.

The story follows Jose Arcadio Buendia’s life until he goes completely insane and dies.

In the meanwhile, he has a son called Jose Arcadio, who has a son with a semi gypsy called Pilar Ternera, and, confused by this, runs away with the group of vagabond gypsies. He comes back much later in the book to play an important part.

His brother, Aureliano Buendia, later Colonel Aureliano Buendia, goes into politics and leads an armed rebellion on behalf of Liberals against the corrupt, self-seeking Conservative government (Please do not read this as a comment on your favourite country’s politics! ) When the Liberals sell out and join the government, he gets so disillusioned that he spends the rest of his life as a man detached from the world. He, however, finds time to father a child with the (same) Pilar Ternera and 17 other children all named Aureliano (I am not kidding!) with their mothers’ surnames as the last name. Incidentally, all of them are killed in a single confrontation with some enemies of the Colonel when they have grown up, so you as the reader are spared from the problem of how to tell them apart in the story.

He also has a daughter, Amaranta and an adopted daughter, Rebeca, whose rivalry for the same man, Pietro Crespi, poisons their relationship with each other for life. Amaranta incidentally foresees her own death, to the minute it happens. (I told you the story has its quirky bits!)

Jose Arcadio returns to marry Rebeca and Amaranta never marries.

Jose Arcadio’s son with Pilar Ternera, is Arcadio. He spawns a family that includes Remedios the Beauty, who drove men wild and to suicide just by their looking at her once, and simply ascended to heaven body and soul, when her time was up. Her twin brothers include Aureliano Segundo and Jose Arcadio Segundo. Jose Arcadio is as wild as the original Jose Arcadio Buendia, and Aureliano, while equally wild and fond of a bohemian lifestyle, settles down enough to marry Fernanda del Carpio and fathers three children, Meme, Jose Arcadio and Amaranta Ursula. The story ends with the birth of Aureliano, who is the son of Meme, giving birth to his son called  – wait for it –  Aureliano.

I told you it is confusing!

Now, the above narration  is just a skeletal outline of the story that gives nothing away. The uniqueness of the story comes in the telling, in the casual intermixing of the mundane and the fantastic, almost in the style of the movie Pan’s Labyrinth. Supposedly it is the trademark of the author and the book in particular, and that is what made the book famous and memorable. He discusses the fantastic as casually as he discusses the everyday life.

Just to give you a sample. When Colonel Aureliano Buendia shoots himself, his mother opens a vessel she is cooking food in and finds it full of worms. She then `knows’ that something has happened to Aureliano. As said earlier, Amaranta just rises up with the clothes she is folding and disappears into heaven. The blood of Jose Arcadio, when killed, goes all the way turning corners and even skirting around the carpet (so as not to ruin it) to reach the feet of her mother, so that she can follow it to find the fate of her son. An Insomnia Plague strikes the village; it is so contagious that soon the entire village cannot get sleep – but they are not tired as a consequence. So they shrug their shoulders and adjust to the new
reality. Butterflies follow a minor character wherever he goes – not just one or two but a whole swarm of them.

You ask why? Don’t! They just do.

It grated on my nerves a bit. I did not like a far less inconsistency in The Fountainhead (reviewed earlier)  and compared to this, that story is a model of propriety. Yet, if you accept the hyperbole, this story does have some charm and takes you to a South American lifestyle in the old times that is interesting.

The style is otherwise fluid and the story is told in a straightforward manner.

I do not think that the book really justifies all the hype surrounding it, and can give it a honest 5/10

— Krishna

April 27, 2012

Book: The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:09 pm

The story is interesting enough, in its own way. But the style does not satisfy. More on this, later in this review.

The story is that of Frank Chambers, who is a vagabond and “a bum” to use the words of some of the other characters in the novel itself. He finds himself footloose in the gas station of Nick Papadakis. What holds him back there  is the beauty of Nick’s wife, Cora Papadakis nee Smith. Cora is dissatisfied with her `greasy Greek’ husband, and falls for Frank.

They first plan to kill Nick and make it look like an accident. Inept planning botches the scheme, which is abandoned. Then they plan to elope but back out of that scheme too. Cora is resigned to live with the Greek and Frank departs for other pursuits.

But he cannot forget Cora and comes back, and they plan to complete what they started by killing Nick, and succeed this time. The inept handling again almost lands them both in jail and they escape by a hair’s breadth. The prosecutor Sacket was a demon but was defeated by the greater wiles of their attorney, Katz.

Well, Nick and Cora now differ on how to lead their life together, and the idyllic relationship starts to turn sour, with mutual suspicions and recriminations. Add in other affairs, and a blackmail, and the story really gets convoluted. In the end, there is an ironic twist, that is supposed to make you sit bolt upright and go `Aha!’

However, the 1934 pulp style jars and takes away much of the enjoyment from reading a book. The book is filled with cliché and inane conversations and the whole thing reads like some Dick Tracy comic strip in style and depth of analysis. How is this for a sample?

Frank desires Cora and she says no. So he hits her hard, so that she bleeds. Then instantly she falls for him. He betrays her every chance he gets because Sackett hookwinked him into it. He indulges in extramarital affairs the moment Cora’s back is turned. If this was intended to portray weakness of the human mind, it just ends up irritating the reader because you lose your sympathy with almost all characters instantly and you do not find anyone else whom you could even vaguely respect or empathize with.

It is interesting that the book was considered so risqué in 1934, when it was written, that it was altogether banned in Canada.

It is also interesting that the author, James M. Cain, tried his hand in writing movie scripts, failed, and then started as an author for books. He found that almost all of his major books were turned into blockbuster movies subsequently!

Incidentally, in the movie version, they seem to have taken her maiden surname (Smith) and given it to her husband, thereby making him Nick Smith and presumably “not a greasy Greek”.

You may argue that it is unfair to judge a 1934 book now  as dull, because times and style have changed a lot. Yes, but truly great books will still be interesting after all these years (See the review of Great Expectations earlier for an example.)

This one is not a truly great book and I can award it only a 4/10.

— Krishna

Book: Robert Louis Stevenson – A Biography by Claire Harman

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:00 pm

Robert Louis Stevenson’s life has many interesting parts – to be sure. For one thing, he (“RLS”) was sickly throughout his life, and expected to die at a young age even before any of his most famous novels were conceived. For another, he spent most of his last years in life on Pacific Islands, away from his native Scotland. And his last few novels were arguably not his best works: those came before. There is enough to keep the reader occupied. But….

Before we come to the `but‘ part, here is the preview of what the book covers. Like any good biography should, it covers the family background, where his great grandfather, his grandfather and his father were all Engineers, and so were the two elder brothers of his father, Thomas Stevenson. Even his grandfather, Robert Stevenson, had contempt for schoolwork, preferring practical engineering and on the job learning as superior to book learning. His father was the youngest of three brothers. His father’s brothers show this streak of sickliness as if the whole family is stamped with that affliction. His father’s eldest brother, Alan Stevenson, was a great engineer but was suddenly `afflicted with a total mental breakdown’ and completely withdrew from work into a world of books and writing (yes!). The next brother, David, was the one who stayed in the family business of engineers – for generations, they built lighthouses in very difficult places. The family seems to have been wealthy.

Thomas Stevenson, father of RLS, also was an engineer, and also was afflicted with what appears to be a nervous breakdown. He was very strict, Calvinist to be precise, and his nanny of young age was even stricter. Interestingly, RLS was the only child of his parents, unusual in his day, I think. Even more interestingly, he himself fathered no children.

What is unusual about his life is that RLS rebelled at being an engineer and played truant, citing his constant illnesses as an excuse not to work. He was asked to study to be a lawyer and quit that too, in the middle. Even in his beloved writing, he was not consistent. He used to start a lot of projects and lose interest in them before he could finish, starting  something else. Even at the time of his death, he had many projects half finished. He tried his hand at plays, meeting no success and abandoning it midway.

He was in love with an older lady called Fanny Sitwell, who married his best friend Colin. He then fell in love with Fanny Osbourne, a married woman with a grown up daughter Belle, and son Lloyd. She was also older, like the other Fanny. It is interesting that she was in love with his cousin Bob Stevenson, and was `persuaded’ by the cousin to transfer her affections to RLS. She seems to have been brash, outspoken, and with her American mannerisms that found instant disfavour with all of the crowd around RLS. She changes her mind midway and tries to get back to her husband, with whom she is still married, but it does not work out. A love struck RLS pursues her to the US and marries her.

His relationship with his parents seems to have been complex. They disapproved of everything he did. But they sponsored him almost throughout his adult life, even after marriage, until he could support himself through his writing. He also had a great heart, helping out friends with great sums of money when they needed it.

He seems to have had blood vomiting episodes almost all his life. He was so troubled that he found that only at sea and in islands like Hawaii and, later, Samoa in the Pacific that his health stayed stable and decided to live there (after trying to be a `flower child‘ among peoples of Gilbert Islands).

The last years of his life were tragic, with Fanny in the throes of full blown insanity, and his work frittered away with the major preoccupation being writing letters to the Editor on the plight of the Samoans.

It is interesting to note that his best known work, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written just in about three weeks – written twice and not once, at that! (He destroyed the entire story and rewrote it slightly differently). It is also interesting to read that most of his life, he wrote desperately to support his ever more expensive livelihood (a large entourage, marine trips, what not)

We learn that those times, Hawaii was called Sandwich Islands and was ruled by (what turned out to be the last) King.

We learn that even after great popularity, the house he built for himself in Samoa had a tin roof and leaks with pouring rain, and all the discomforts one would associate with poverty. It is also interesting to note repeatedly that Fanny and Robert had no concept of dress sense and were seen often in dirty clothes, and lived what would be called a `hippie’ lifestyle if they had lived in the nineteen sixties.

Now comes the `but… ` part mentioned in the beginning.

In spite of all these, the book does not really have much to say. RLS lived a pretty uneventful life, for a person living in his time. He worked and lazed, and died abruptly in Samoa.

The long book gives a lot of details about his life, but after reading it, one does not get the sense that one watched a great life unfold. It is not the author’s fault, perhaps, but the subject had a very ordinary life, all in all, and that does not make a great story. Of course, if you are interested in RLS and his life, and are not looking in general for an entertaining biography, this is the book for you.

I would say a 5/10

— Krishna

Book: The Lost World by Michael Crichton

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 3:49 pm

This is my first Michael Chrichton book. It was really interesting, not just to read the book by itself for the story but also to get a feel for the author’s style and angle. Michael has written a large number of books where he brings his own unique style to the plot and storytelling. Even though I may be sticking my neck way out there trying to judge the author on the basis of a single book, I tried to do just that, while reading this book.

The story should be familiar to almost everybody, at least in its outline. It is the second part of the Jurassic Park series, and has been made into a film by Steven Spielberg. This continues the story of what happened to an island in Costa Rica following the fiasco described in the first part of the book, the Jurassic Park, and why it happened.

The book is significantly different from the movie in storyline. Apart from that, even in the parts where they are the same, it is a completely different experience. More on this later.

The story involves Ian Malcolm, the scientist who features in the first book, who is firmly convinced that he has put the whole sorry saga of dinosaur-breeding firmly behind him, and is off into his research world.

Richard Levine, who is convinced from reports heard earlier that some dinosaurs may have survived in Isla Sorna, an island next to the main island featured in Jurassic Park, tries to go there but the Costa Rican authorities send him back before he can get anything but a small piece of flesh of the dead animal. He orders an expedition with a large amount of custom built equipment, but sneaks back with an assistant, to take a closer look. What he finds is that he is completely unprepared. Losing his assistant, he himself faces death by savage, carnivorous, beasts.

Before he leaves, he convinces Ian Malcolm of the existing threat, and Malcolm assembles a team consisting of scientists Eddie, and Doc Thorne, and leaves for the island. Two kids, who assist Malcolm and Levine in their research, join the team as stowaways, in the mistaken assumption that the team is going out to a palaeontology site to dig for bones of long dead specimens.

When they arrive there, they reach an island full of free and wild roaming dinasaurs. This is the secret `Site B’, which served as the factory site for the other, `showcase‘ island featured in the Jurassic Park book.  Eric Hodgeson hears of this through his private network and sets out to the same island, with the intent of bringing back some eggs at least.

Ian Malcolm contacts Sarah Harding and asks her to join him. When she arrives, she teams up with Dodgson who throws her overboard half way down to the isle…

Then things get worse!

Well, the story is interesting. In the movie, you are too busy watching the dinosaurs to pay much attention to the dialog, except enough to follow the story. Here in the book, you are immersed in the scientific discussions and arguments that are presented, many of which are fascinating. It is not a heavyweight story – though Michael Crichton always takes basic scientific research (in this case, on DNA) and takes them farther in his imagination, and though he always presents his arguments in a really interesting scientific way, backed up by scientific facts, ultimately, his books are thrillers, meant to keep you turning the pages until the end. There are absurd Hollywood like behaviour (children as stowaways, kids solving technology puzzles that would defeat even experts in real life, scientists behaving either like James Bond clones or as completely irresponsible individuals in the face of obvious danger, to name just a few) and so do not expect a serious story with real-world-like behaviour from almost any of the characters that populate this novel!

In addition, in this book at least, there is a creature that is described (in the night, even Tyrannosaurus Rex avoids moving into its territory because of its nature) that is not in the movie. For those of you who plan to read this book, I do not want to give anything away, and so will refrain from discussing this further.

But it is an enjoyable ride, like the one that Wilbur Smith or Sydney Sheldon provides, but with some intellectual science thrown in for good measure. (I hesitate to compare him to Dan Brown because this is a completely different sort of story.

I would say I can give it a 7/10

— Krishna

April 26, 2012

Book: Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:04 am

This is a comedy by John Mortimer, a well known British author who has written a series of books involving Rumpole and most of whose books have been serialized on BBC Television.

This story is about Molly Pergeter, a housewife in London, who goes to Tuscany, Italy to rent a villa for a few weeks’ vacation. She plans to go there with her husband Hugh, and her daughters Samantha, Henrietta and little Jacqueline. Her father, Haverford Downs, who is an old man into ribaldry and lewdness a lot, manages to gatecrash into the party using emotional blackmail. He is a writer in the local paper, and his column `Jottings’ is about to be axed by the Editor, even if he is oblivious to the fact.

Hugh, an attorney, has a mild crush on a previous client, Marcia Tobias and sees her for lunch often. Caught by his father-in-law in a mildly compromising position with Ms Tobias, he is in no position to vigorously object to Haverford joining in the party. Thus winning a moral victory, the extended family starts off for the vacation.

The castle Molly rented is called `La Felicita’ and belongs to a Buck and Sandra Kettering, and all arrangements have been made by letter. When Molly visited the castle, she found only the caretaker, Mr Fix-It, one William Fosdyke.

The family arrives into a little mystery, with Molly finding clues of marital discord. She is puzzled by explicit instructions left by the Ketterings on what kind of family should rent the castle (`Must have three daughters’) and by the sudden and inexplicable issues with water that all buildings seem to have.

She goes snooping and makes contact with neighbours – a Nancy Leadbetter, who happens to be an ex-Flame of Haverford, the huge gang of teenage school kids which include Chrissie Kettering, the daughter of the Kettering couple, a priest who befriends Haverford, the weird Prince Tosti-Castelnouvo, the old and friendly couple (the Tapscotts), the Ketterings themselves, and a lot of others.

The humour is dry and wry. The book beings with Molly, prospecting the castle for possible rent, encountering a snake on the way to the castle. Unfortunately, that is the only interesting thing that seems to happen for much of the book, until nearly the end. The attempt at mystery and humour together fails to work: it does not do justice to be a mystery novel (not enough clues, no tempo or suspense) nor it is very humorous (funny attempts to make you smile, with Haverford taking a leak in the garden and setting off an alarm is not the kind of humour that works very well).

I would even rate Blott on the Landscape by Tom Sharpe (See Review earlier ; I was not very impressed with that either) as a far more humorous book than this. I hear that Haverford is a typical Mortimer character – risqué old men seem to be a staple of John Mortimer.

The book does pick up towards the last 15 pages but by then you are too tired to feel any elation.

Let us say a 2/10

— Krishna

Book: When We Were Gods by Colin Falconer

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:57 am

Another great historical drama by Colin Falconer. Reminiscent in style of the story of Suleyman, Ottoman Empire’s last great Sultan, his earlier `Sultan’s Harem‘ (Reviewed here before)  this time, it is a story that is very well known and written about numerous times: the story of Cleopatra of Egypt. Again, he makes history come alive.

The reason this story resonates well with many readers is the same as the reason that many purists will be upset with the treatment: Colin tries to set the conversations and feelings in contemporary style. Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony all talk like modern Americans. If you cannot digest Cleopatra saying things like `She is a bitch’ about another character because you are a historical purist and do not think that she would have spoken in such contemporary  terms,  then this book is definitely not for you. I prefer the tone and the scenes set by Colin. He has not twisted history, as Disney
famously did with many of their movies – The Little MermaidHercules just to name two,  are not faithful to the original stories – but has just made it contemporary.

The story comes alive and vibrant under his pen, where we follow Cleopatra as she is forced into Exile at a young age, betrayed to Rome by her own family. We follow her daring entry into Caesar’s presence under the very nose of her relatives, her gaining favour with Julius, and eventually emerging as a monarch in her own right – almost gaining the throne of Rome with Julius.

When Julius is murdered, and a triumvirate including the pimply, gangly and sickly youth called Octavian, Mark Anthony and another Imperator takes over, she begins anew. She loses her heart a second time to Marc Anthony.

The events that led to Marc Anthony’s disastrous failure, his drinking and womanizing, his descent from the heights of glory, where he could have snatched Rome easily from Octavian’s weak grasp to the ignominy of his defeat at the same Octavian’s hands are all brought out very well.

The story centres around Cleopatra, her trials and triumphs are well told. Her feelings in being instrumental in her more beautiful sister being brought in chains by Julius to Rome are interesting to read; her unease when her sister Arisnoe is allowed to live, albeit in exile is well etched. Her machinations in getting rid of her sister are ruthless.

The strategist that Cleopatra is, she is indispensable to Marc Anthony’s efforts in regaining his power; however, all around him snub her every chance they get, since she is a woman and `should not participate in affairs of men’.

The successive victories of Octavian against seemingly impossible odds, the game of cat and mouse played by him with Anthony and Cleopatra, the unfortunate failure of a cunning plan of Cleopatra to escape to Persia, the successive defeats that Marc Anthony and Cleopatra suffer due as much to lack of luck as to failure in war are all well described.

Her calm under pressure, the devotion of Mardian, her tutor from childhood and confidant for life, her capture by Octavian when Anthony dies and her subsequent choice of death (not by asp but by Cobra; not bitten at the breast but on her hand) which was known to Octavian who deliberately allowed it to happen – are all brilliantly told.

Even for those who know the outlines of the story, this should be a very interesting book, and it shares with other historical works of Colin, the quality of excellent narration.

A Great and enjoyable Read. This one gets a 8/10

— Krishna

Book: France – The Dark Years 1940- 1944 by Julian Jackson

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 10:46 am

The subject matter is immensely interesting. Many people allege that France, during the German Occupation, aided and abetted the deportation of Jews over and above what was justifiable under the circumstances. In addition, there is a lot of curiosity about the Vichy regime that administered France under German control: Was it a puppet regime? Was it sympathetic to the German cause of Aryanization? What was the French reaction to the almost complete and instant collapse of the French army under German assault?

The book covers extensive ground but has some major flaws: read on!

The book prepares the ground for the Second World War events by starting from the pre-Second-World-War times, when the political confusion instability existed, and the rise of the Popular Front. It is interesting to discover that anti Semitic feelings ran high even then, and prominent Catholics like Henriot who were in the Popular Front were in the forefront of spreading ethnic hatred against the Jews. The book traces the rise and fall of the brief National Unity Government under Blum followed by the first popular government of the day by Daladier.

When the French army was routed, the Northern part of the France, including Paris was under the direct control of Germans, and there are indications that German’s intended to absorb that portion of the country. The Southern truncated piece was called the Unoccupied Zone by the French and Marshal Petain took over as the ruler, and signed the Armistice with the Germans.

It is horrifying to read that Jews were rounded up enthusiastically and sent to Germens, who sent most of them straight to Auschwitz. Initially only `foreign‘ Jews were sent. French nationals were not sent, but later the difference was discarded. Writers joined the movement of praising the Germans and condemning the Jews through their club, NRF.

The deputy of Petain was so much of a fascist and anti-Semitic that he was dismissed by Petain but was forced to reinstate him a few years later. The book chillingly describes how the Jews were systematically discriminated against, first barring them from most professions, then rounded up and sent. Children and women were not spared.

The book also tells of the treatment given to women and the outlook at that time: women had no votes; their role in society was to be the mother and produce more Frenchmen. The parallel story of the Communists and their part in the resistance is well told. Discussions on whether the Communists were initially neutral despite German atrocities and whether they started resisting only when Hitler invaded Russia, are made in detail.

De Gaulle’s rise and his acrimonious relationships with both Churchill and Roosevelt are described, tracing the events from the earliest times. After reading this, I realized why De Gaulle was so against England and went to the extent of blocking UK’s entry into EEC.

The Liberation and the atrocities committed in the name of summary executions and wild justice are fascinating to read; another interesting portion is the shocking treatment given to women who had relations with Germans, especially compared to the total absence of any reaction if a French man had a relationship with a German woman.

A huge surprise is to realize how many years the French struggled with the memories, first ignoring inconvenient facts, and when that did not work, dragging it out and debating it to the end. Francois Mitterand’s alleged  skeletons in the cupboard, his Vichy past, and his Vichy sympathies and attempts to influence the recording of the history of the times and even the court cases against some of the more egregious elements in it are shocking.

But in the main, overshadowing all these nice details, the book suffers from one major flaw: poor narration. It reads like a college textbook and often is an endless procession of names of the people who played minor parts or endless examination of what happened in particular localities with statistics on the number of people affected. It may help to highlight the general condition, if used sparingly but if you fill the whole book with such details, it gets boring. To get interesting nuggets, you have to sift the vast majority of the material in this book just shy of 650 pages, like the old gold hunters sifting through the river sands to find gold. It almost put me to sleep many times, and sorely tested my resolve to read on further.

The sections on Jews, De Gaulle and the post liberation frenzy are the most interesting and are parts of the book that retain your interest.

The sections that describe completely racial views of some of the old leaders well into 1980’s are shocking; so is the constitution of Jean-Marie Le Penn’s Front National organization and how it ties into the Vichy and German sympathizers.

In summary, good subject matter, badly told. Read it if you have infinite patience!

I will give it a 4/10, mostly due to the interesting bits in there.

— Krishna

April 25, 2012

Book: The Educated Imagination by Northrop Frye

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:32 pm

In fact, this small (less than a hundred pages) book is a series of lectures Northrop Frye, an ex Principal of Victoria College at the University of Toronto, given at Massey Hall. (By the way, he could not look more like a professor even if he set out to design his looks from scratch!)

The above summary should be enough to make you throw the book out of your To Read pile, but tarry a minute, and hear me out.

Though this is a series of lectures by a University Professor, the intended audience was the general public, and like `An Inconvenient Truth‘, the topic may be serious and out of the ordinary, but it is presented in a very interesting way.

The book attempts to answer the question, “Why do students need to study literature? What use is poetry and fiction in the real world? Ican understand a student taking up Chemistry, Mathematics or even (shudder) Economics, but how will you use literature in the workplace? I understand that Reading and Writing are important skills but that should be enough, right?”

To convince sceptics of the value of literature, Northrop asks us to imagine a family shipwrecked in an uninhabited island, like Robinson Crusoe. But unlike the eponymous book, here we are not interested in the tools crafted by the family. Here we explore the family’s mental needs. In a brilliant set of logical steps, Northrop `proves‘ that the mind craves literature after most basic of the needs have been satisfied.

He talks about the world we live in, and an idealized world that everyone aspires to, and relates how literature fills the gap between the two. He contrasts the practical skills like science and engineering to the imaginative skills of poetry and fiction, and gives amazing insights into the evolution of both.

Particularly fascinating are the passages that talk about how all fiction is the same, running through the same grooves – even supposedly radical ones that crop up from time to time. He also argues that literature does not change as science changes. He shows how the myths and legends form the basis of all learning in literature and how the basic patterns of literature are woven into it. His arguments about the historical figure of Achilles, the mythical figure of Achilles in Literature and the difference between the two are absorbing. And so are his descriptions on how religious figures pass into mythology when that religion dies (say, Ancient Roman religion) and take on a literary quality to survive and even thrive.

A lot more material is covered in the lectures, including how the literature covers `what I want it to be‘ and the other sciences cover `what is‘; why literature has tragedies if the world is about `what I want it to be‘; and so on.

He concludes the lectures with why and how literary training will help in everyday situations, even if you are in a non related profession like an accountant, a conference convener, an advertisement executive or whatever.

A really fascinating book, full of `Wow, I did not think about it!’ insights, and worth reading.

I will give it a 8/10

— Krishna

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