November 27, 2012

Book: An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:22 pm

This book was written in 1925. The first surprise to me was how well the story is told. It is in modern English, as this author lived in the early 20th century, and the narrative flows beautifully and builds up tension and suspense slowly, ratcheting up consistently. (No, this is not a suspense novel). It is remarkably well written, and I was often reminded of the writing style and storytelling brilliance of Charles Dickens, especially his The Great Expectations, even though, to reiterate, there is no great suspense or twist in this book, as there is in the book by Dickens.

The story opens with a family, very poor, set in their ways and deep in their beliefs in God, proselytizing in the streets of Denver. They have moved from city to city, living barely above subsistence level. The father Asa Griffiths is a severe man, quoting scriptures constantly, and is rather incompetent in the practical sense. His wife Elvira Griffiths bought into this wholeheartedly and was a deeply religious woman who taught her family to live as Good People. Their eldest daughter Esta seems devoted to the way of life, but her younger brother Clyde, cannot stand it. He sees boys of his age having the comforts of life, good clothes, food that is varied and tasty, an education, which is denied to him for no good reason. Besides he cannot see his way out of this, and is pained. His two younger siblings, Julia and Frank are too small to understand or like or hate the vagabond lifestyle.

This story is about Clyde, who plans to run away when he can no longer bear this, especially when the family is planning to move to yet another city in what seems to him as a never ending stream of migrations and humiliating singing in the streets, barely a step ahead of panhandling, as it seems to him. But before he can act on it, his sister Esta, the seemingly well adjusted kid, runs away with a boy she met, and with the same speed comes back pregnant, abandoned by him. Since Asa will not allow her back, Clyde’s mom houses her in an apartment in another part of the town and secretly looks after her, struggling for money and borrowing from Clyde.
In the meanwhile, Clyde secures a job with a chemist and then moves up to get a job at the upmarket Green-Davidson hotel as a bellboy. He gets a group of friends, and saves and spends money on himself, buying himself nice clothes and shoes. That is not all he picks up. His new friends Ratterer, Higgelund and Arthur take him to a brothel and introduce him to the pleasures of the flesh. A virgin, all this is heady and new to Clyde.
When he meets Hortense, the cheap but pretty girl who has high ambition, Clyde falls head over heels in love with her but she keeps him dancing to her tune while she does not have any interest in him except for what he spends on her. She escalates her (wily) demands and finally asks him to buy a fur coat that costs several months of his salary. He pays partly for it, but still Hortense Briggs keeps stringing him along.
When a friend “borrows” a car from his employer (An expensive Buick) and as a big party they go to a far away place, they are late returning and in a hurry to get back to the hotel on time, they run over a child, killing the girl, and in panic trash the car. The driver and the girlfriend get arrested but all the others run away in panic to avoid jail. Clyde changes his name and starts fresh again in Chicago, doing menial jobs and then finally gets a job as a bellboy in a big hotel there – not as posh as Green-Davidson but good enough.

His mother is in shock and cannot believe that his boy would be involved in a scandal like that. However, when he writes back to her, she tells him of a rich uncle in Lycargus, who owns a Collar factory there and is doing well.
Accidentally, he meets Samuel Griffiths in the same hotel and introduces him. Samuel invites him over to Lycargus, promising him a job at his factory, more out of guilt that his brother Asa (Clyde’s dad) did not get a fair shake of family fortunes due to mental instability.
Clyde is hated on sight by Samuel’s son, Gilbert and his dislike intensifies when everyone says that Clyde looks just like him but ‘is better looking’. He shoves Clyde in a corner, in a menial job, washing collars since his father insisted that he be given a job.

When Samuel visits the factory, he feels that Clyde, being a Griffiths should not be seen washing collars but wants him transferred as a supervisor. This department is full of girls, and one girl in particular, Roberta Alden, catches Clyde’s eye. She falls for him too, but since the Griffiths have a strict rule against workplace romance, they meet on the sly and against her wishes, Clyde coldly forces her to have sex with him.

She gets pregnant and in the meanwhile, he finds that the rich society of Lycargus has opened its doors to him and what is more, one of the richest, Sondra Finchley, falls in love with him and wants to marry him! Riches and comfort at last! Only if he can escape from Roberta. He tries to get her pregnancy aborted, with her consent, but to no avail.
Finally, she says that the only way out for her is if he marries her, and then, after a decent interval and the child’s birth, she will let him go. But that would be the end of his dream with Sondra.
He sees a news item where a boat was drowned with a couple in a lake. They found the body of the girl but not that of the boy. This gives him an idea… Can he go through with this plan to get out of his predicament?
The story is well told, his slow transformation to riches and a slow moral degradation well told. His plans to execute murder and the last minute change of heart are also extremely well told. The subsequent turn of events and his clumsy efforts to get out of trouble are good but the third half of the book, which is a courtroom drama is brilliant, as well.
In the meanwhile, especially at the end, there are thought provoking discussions on the nature of faith, morality, true guilt and really informed viewpoints, especially for a book written in 1925. Taking into consideration the story, the narrative style and the issues discussed, this book could have been written today with minor changes (in language style) and will still be considered relevant.
The ending of the story is a bit surprising, at least to me but what is surely an epilog, though it is not named as such, has a pleasing symmetry with the beginning of the book.
In all, a very surprisingly well written book. As I said before,  with minor changes of language (for instance the “Gee”s and “anyhow”s sprinkled liberally and the word gay (which now has an acquired, different popular meaning) it could read like a book written today and you could read it as a modern story!

This book deserves a 8/10

— Krishna


November 21, 2012

Book: Honorary Consul by Graham Greene

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 8:24 am

An interesting story set in South America in a small town in Argentina, across the river from Paraguay. In a small town (does he even name the town, ever? I forget) it revolves around the characters of Doctor Plarr, a young doctor of English origin who practices medicine so far away because his mother is  (and hence his first name, Eduardo) and his father is a revolutionary of English origin, captured by Paraguay government after he walked away leaving his son and wife to join an insurgency on behalf of the poor people. His mother is completely heartbroken, weeps constantly for years, and finally settles down to a diet of sweets exclusively, letting herself go and nagging Eduardo constantly whenever he meets her (- which he does very infrequently).

Eduardo is also influenced by idealism enough to settle down in a poor little town and serve the poor instead of moving to a bigger town like Buneos Aires (cutely called B.A. several times in the book) and making money.

There is also Sir Humphries, a cantankerous British old man and the entire English population of the city is completed by Charley Fortnum who is the eponymous Honorary Consul mentioned in the book.

Charley is a divorced and bitter man, a heavy drinker, and using his Consul position, (though not paid any salary), he imports cars once every two years from England legally and sells them to make money.

The only restaurant in town that seem to exist is a Hungarian one favoured by Humphries, which serves a sort on an awful Goulash all the time.

In the midst of this quiet scene enter the `revolutionaries’ who plot against the government of Argentina to fight for the poor people’s liberation. They all answer to the elusive leader who calls himself El Tigre. Two of the revolutionaries were class mates of Eduardo, and they come to meet him one day. Aquino is a poet, and was caught in Paraguay, and tortured, losing many of his fingers in the torture, before escaping from captivity. Leon was a robed Catholic priest, who left the Church disillusioned by its association with the cruel General, the dictator of Paraguay, and joined the rebels. He has even chosen a girl from the slums, Maria, and married her. They come to enlist his help in finding out the whereabouts of the US Ambassador, who is scheduled to visit Argentina. The plan is to kidnap the Ambassador and ask for the release of 12 prisoners in Paraguay, including Eduardo’s father, whom they have met in the Paraguay prison.

With the details given by Dr Plarr, they kidnap the ambassador, only to realize that by mistake, they have got Fortnum, the Honorary Consul, who had accompanied the Ambassador. They try to keep him in a hut and in secret, Plarr helps tend to him to ensure that he is in good health.

In the meanwhile, Charley has remarried, and though the whole town knows it, tries to hide the fact that his new, young, wife Clara, is a girl from Mama Sanchez’s, the local brothel where he met her.

Dr Plarr ended up having an affair with her, and also made her pregnant, and Charley thinks that it is his baby that Clara is carrying.

After the kidnapping, Dr Plarr is requested to visit the place when Charley is shot in the leg trying to escape and when he goes to attend to him, is also retained as a hostage.

The government finds their hideout and surrounds the hut. The police chief Perez has given them until 8 AM the next day to send the Consul unharmed out or else face certain death….

This is not a thriller. It explores the human angle and makes for an interesting reading. Dr Saavedra, the impeccably and richly dressed world famous novelist found to live in poverty in private; his one protégé turning against him and calling his work trash; Leon, the priest’s conflict in his beliefs of God and of the need to kill the Consul if the government does not give into his demands. His lying about Eduardo’s father, who was killed even before they came to him, trying to escape with Aquino.; the dichotomy of Clara, a call girl, falling for Dr Plarr as well as having tender feelings towards Charley, who rescued her from a life in the brother.

Dr Plarr struggling to avoid recognizing even the word `love’ from anyone else; his conflicting emotions about his father…

A well told story, worth a read. Makes you thoughtful for a long while after you have finished the book.

I would say a 7/10

— Krishna

November 18, 2012

Book: Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 1:51 am

This is a modern classic the first book of Tom Wolfe that I have read. It has also been made into a movie, a long time ago, with a young looking Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Melanie Griffith. I was told it was a bad movie made out of a good book but have not seen the movie so cannot verify it for myself.

The book is interesting indeed. It tells the story of Sherman McCoy, a Wall Street Bond Trader who is a Master of the Universe, (a term that Tom Wolfe made famous about investment bankers and bond traders),  a master of all he surveys. He has a wife, Judy, a young daughter Campbell, whom he dearly loves, and a party lifestyle. His mansion in Park Avenue is worth several million dollars. But he conducts an affair with Maria Ruskin, wife of a millionaire, Arthur Ruskin. Once when he is escorting her back from New York airport, he makes a wrong turn and his BMW enters Bronx. When his path is stopped by tyres on the road, he gets down and is accosted by a pair of black men. Suspecting attempted robbery, he gets into the car as Maria backs up and drive away. He thinks he
heard a thump but was not sure. When finally the news breaks that a Honour Student from Bronx, Henry Lamb, was hit by an unknown Mercedes and is in a coma. Before losing consciousness, he named three numbers of the number plate of the BMW that hit him, thereby helping police to narrow down the search.
The news would have been drowned in the endless data of city events but for the fact that a lazy, down on the luck, and alcoholic journalist called Peter Fallow writes about the tragic case of Henry Lamb, which lights the fuse of the seething resentment of the black people in Harlem on the supposed injustice and partiality of the rich white folks and makes him a poster boy for injustice. In comes politicians like Reverend Bacon, who are looking for a cause to angrily protest about.

The goverrner, who is up for re-election, wants the case solved in order not to jeopardize his chances of winning again. The police had no chance of finding the assailant, but the bumbling and terrified Sherman practically points in his own direction with a completely inept handling of a routine investigation. His life unravels slowly thereafter, and goes out of control. The case transforms the life of Peter Fallow and Sherman McCoy.

This is meant to be a social satire of the rich and the famous, but reads like a serious novel. His style is difficult to follow at first, with frequent shouts of the phrases with a lot of exclamation marks, but later it grows on you. I later realized that this is the normal style of Tom Wolfe, but thought this odd at that time. The story is told well, and it moves along well, and the interest is retained. There are a lot of other characters in the book, like Sherman’s father “The Lion”, Fallow’s boss, The Mouse, and Tom Killian, an attorney that Sherman hires, who appears sleazy and efficient in alternate turns. There is Andriutti, the chief prosecutor, and Gene Lopwitz, head of Pierce and Pierce, the Investment Bank where he works.

His experience in prison, his betrayal by all of those he knows, his ostracism by his colleagues, his apartment residents, and his social circle is well told. His slow transformation into someone else, his realization of how he has to face everything by himself, is well told.

A great read. I would say a 7/10

— Krishna

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