bookspluslife

November 25, 2017

Book: Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:53 am

imageAfter reading the author’s Poisonwood Bible earlier, which I still consider one of the best books I have read, I could not wait to read this. As far as the story content goes, this could not be more different from that. This story happens in the wilderness of US not a tiny city in Congo. The protagonist is an independent lady Deanna, not the fanatical priest and a family under his thumb. But this book shines too. I still think that the other book is in some way crafted better but this does satisfy you when you have completed this.

 

The story starts with a girl in the woods, Deanna, living alone for years, working for the government and keeping an eye on the animals and the forest in general. She meets Eddie Bondo, a younger man, and seems to feel an instant attraction. We quickly learn that she is the ranger of the forest .

 

Lusa, another girl  is married to a farmer, but feels alienated by his entire family, near whom she lives. She is from Lexington and is constantly ridiculed for her ‘big town ways’, her education and her sympathy with wildlife. (She is an entomologist and an animal activist in her opinion). Her husband, whom she married as a rebellion against her parents, also constantly belittles her and fights her in his ideas. He dies in an accident about five years into their marriage. They expect that she will now leave and go back ‘where she came from’ but to their surprise and a little bit of chagrin, she decides to stay right there, tending to the farm alone.

 

Garrnett is a widower living alone. He is in battle with his next door organic, no-chemicals kind of neighbour Nanette. What he thinks as a heart attack is a snapping turtle attached to his leg. Parts of this relationship are very funny and part absorbing.

 

Lusa is irritated by everyone assuming that she will sell the property and move back to town where ‘she belongs’. She explains her Jewish and Muslim ancestry to a bewildered young man who is a relative.

 

In the meanwhile, Deanna discovers that Eddie is a hunter and he discovers that she is an animal lover and over twenty years his elder. The love of animals and ecology comes through in her  character and every character is true to form. This is what makes her books so readable. For example, Eddie says that hunting is definitely a part of the natural order and that if done within scientific principles, the culling of the animals in facts aids the ecological balance and helps the environment of the forest.

 

There is another  great example of this  where Nanette explains how prey multiply much faster than predators and by indiscriminately killing them both with spray, how you are actually promoting faster infestation of pests than predators! But when she uses that argument to question genetically modified food, the arguments are much weaker. Interesting view, nevertheless.

 

Lusa slowly wins over the people, even rebellious children, to her side. There are interesting viewpoints. Nanette, though subscribing to evolution, is against genetically modified foods, based on the same principle as prey and predator and the unknown effects of it.

 

She has done for the naturalist and animal world what she has done for fanatical beliefs in her earlier excellent tome, The Poisonwood Bible. Barbara proves her ability to immerse her in this world too but it is naturally not as shocking as the other onw. You learn a lot of tidbits about moths and you learn other interesting details almost as a byproduct of that story – for example, you learn  that the male turkey does not look after the young, it’s procreation being the ‘hit and run’ variety.

 

Garnette’s story  is really funny and well told. His fights with Nanette are really fun to read. Nanette cures the dizzy spells that Garnette always got into. He is offended by her (even for wearing a dress that is not age appropriate)

 

Deanna discovers that she is pregnant. Everything links up at the end. Garnette is related to Jewel (Lusa’s relative by marriage) – he is her father in law, is estranged but agrees to receive Jewel’s kids. Those kids will be adopted by Lusa due to the cancer eating at Jewel’s body. Nanette is related to Deanna who wants to come live with her. Interesting links and very well written story; very believable, and lovely to read..

 

The language is poetic and immerses you into the world of every character there is, and Barbara definitely has the knack to make you totally absorbed in a story that is not a thriller, and yet opens up a new world to you and keeps you reading, more and more absorbed in the story as you go along for the ride. You will enjoy the experience.

 

8/10

–  –  Krishna

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Book: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:26 am

imageThe author dares in his Notice for the readers to find any moral or plot or motive for the story. The threat is well made, though intended as humour,  since I could not find any of these in the story at all.

 

Cute story though. Huckleberry joins Tom Sawyer in a gang where they want to murder and pillage and want to ransom some people without even knowing what ransom is. Mark Twain is known for his one liner humours and this story is also written in the style of his famous Tom Sawyer. Huckleberry is an orphan being raised by a woman who tries to make him “civilized”.

 

He is beset by his good-for-nothing father who accuses him of putting on airs and asks him to stop going to school forthwith, and takes the only dollar Huck had to go drinking. He gets upset and takes Huck away and locks him up in a cabin. When he tries to harm Huck, he manages to wait until his dad is away, fake his own death and go off to an isolated island where he meets Jim, Ms Watson’s slave who has run away because he hears that Ms Watson plans to sell him away.

 

When Huck finds that the town is looking to lynch Jim because they think that it was he who killed Huck, he alerts Jim and they move on in the raft down the Mississippi and they surprise a gang plotting killing of one of its own members in an abandoned ship. It all reads like a cheap two-penny Western book of old times. Which fills you with surprise because this is one of the best known classics of all times.

 

This is not the ‘adventures’ in terms of Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain refers multiple times to Tom in this book, as Huck is one of his best friends.

 

But really interesting visions of life then creep in almost by stealth. Jim dreaming of freedom when he reaches Free States is touching. As is his plans to go back and buy his wife and kids who are slaves in different households. As is Huck’s guilt in helping Jim because Mrs Watson, the widow ‘had paid good money for him’.

 

To get more information, Huck goes ashore but steps into the clan feud between Grangerfords and Shepherdsons. At the height of massacre, he is taken by the house nigger to a place where Jim waits for him and Huck is overjoyed to see that Jim has not “drownded” or lost as he thought.

 

Mark Twain is not deep by any means. All of it – the story, the narration –  has a juvenile feel. There are two vagabonds who get onto the raft chased by unknown people and they pretend to be a duke and (not to be outdone, the other says he is a) king. All simpleton dialogs with wry and shallow humour, not to mention the story. You cannot plead that it was early times and old style because Dickens and Dreiser wrote eloquently well during the same period.

More descriptions of a circus and a duel follow. It all feels disjointed. Then they go and scam a town putting up a play.

 

Then they try to cheat a family out of a dead man’s bequest. The stupid thing is that a traveller whom they meet on the way tells them everything they need to know to make a successful impersonation and nobody, I mean nobody even tries to check them out. See what I mean by childish?

 

Huck simply prats on nonsensically and they all lap it up. He has a change of heart when he realizes how good everyone is and how they are about to be cheated. He buries the gold with the coffin. Then they all get exposed and all escape to the raft. Juvenile again.

 

Then the duo goes behind Huck’s back and sell Jim off to someone. When Jim finds out he has a moment of guilt. He is bad and sinned because he helped a nigger escape who was legitimately the property of poor old Miss Watson, who had done him no harm. He knows he will go to hell for that but he cannot bring himself to do the right thing and write a note to Watson telling her where Jim is. He decides to be evil as that is his nature anyway and help Jim escape from his new slavery.

 

When he reaches the house where the slave was bought, he is mistaken, of all people, for Tom Sawyer. Realizes that Tom is coming back and waylays him and gets him as an accomplice. But Tom’s plans are foolishly elaborate. He gives warning that Jim is to be saved, rousing the entire village and so a number of farmers with guns are waiting in the house.

 

In the melee Tom gets shot in the leg and goes missing too.

 

Finally, everything is sorted out in a fashion satisfactory to all, with shades of PG Wodehouse-like revelations at the very end which makes everything hunky dory.

 

4/10

– – Krishna

November 12, 2017

Book: The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 12:47 am

imageEdith Wharton’s maiden name was Edith Newbold Jones. Unlike the normal stereotype of a starving author, Edith was born into so much wealth that the term ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ was coined after her family, really. She also married a wealthy sportsman Edward Wharton (though that marriage did not last long and they got divorced. She stayed in France, even though she was an American who grew up in New York, until her death in the twentieth century.

 

The story starts with a play attended by Newland Archier. He goes to see a play by Christine Nilsson. He sees a young girl of another family in the opposite balcony. Miss Welland is one possibility of a bride and the story brims with gentle mockery of the presumed male superiority in ‘looking after and guiding a worthy woman whom one takes as a wife’.

 

We learn that the girl is Mary Welland, his betrothed, who belong to the Mingotts family. Then a girl enters and everyone gasps because, they did not think that the family had the temerity to bring ‘poor Ellen Olenska’, a cousin of Mary’s out in the public.

 

I love how Edith describes Catherine because she is different and ‘has built a home in the ‘inaccessible wilderness near Central Park’.  Yes, we are talking about New York in the old days! Inaccessible wilderness? How times have changed!

 

Ellen, the black sheep of the family, has been separated from her husband and is not even trying to get back with him and is rumoured to be living with another man. In those priggish times, this naturally creates a huge scandal. Those who knew her hear of a speculation about a divorce and, as you know in those times,  this is NOT a subject that should be discussed in the family, especially in front of the house butler. Quaint days, those.

 

When Ellen Olenska and the Mingotts are snubbed by the society Newland Archer and his mom canvass to have the bigwigs of society accept to the invitations to the party everyone else seem to have spurned.

 

Slowly Newland finds that his spectacularly gorgeous betrothed May Welland is not as lively as he thought and drawn to Olenska. But his betrothal to May makes it awkward. In the meanwhile Ellen continues to stir up trouble and eyebrows by her unconventional behaviour.

 

When she wants a “formal” divorce from her Count husband, the entire New York society is horrified at her daring. Wanting it is one thing, but openly discussing it? Simply not done!

 

He gets closer and closer to Olenska. And realizes the dullness of May in comparison. This comes out slowly in the story. However – and here is another sign of those times – he has given his word that he will marry May and he cannot go back on his word without losing face in front of the entire society.

 

He marries May and tries to put Ellen out of his mind. But May is so dull. Ellen and Archer discover that they love each other but are bound by social conventions.

 

It causes huge strain with May, who is after all innocent of any crime on her part. He even fantasizes about her being dead so that he can be with Ellen.

 

Brilliantly told, the ending is moving. This book is also an exploration of the changing social mores of the times, where Archer is constrained by much that his children are not constrained by; an amazing amount of unspoken understanding between him and May and him and Ellen; about how, after the passage of many years, he refuses to meet with someone he had not seen in over thirty years because he is afraid that the reality may never catch up with his mental image of what he would see.

 

In all, it is a movingly told story that carries you away even today, after all these years. And stays in your mind quite a while after you have finished reading it.

 

8/ 10

– – Krishna

November 5, 2017

Book: Are you Smart Enough To Work At Google? by William Poundstone

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:50 pm

imageWhat a title! Full marks for the title that wants you to read the book at once. Unfortunately, the book itself does not live up to that hype. It would have been far better if it was the other way around – a great book with an insipid title.

 

Started with a weird interview of a candidate with Google. Then he goes into types of interview questions that are cliche and some which are oddball.

 

If you love puzzles, you would love this book. For instance, one of the questions is “What is the next number in the series 10 9 60 90 70 66?”. Try as I might, I could not guess the answer. Perhaps you can but the answer is very surprising!

 

Another question is : If you were shrunk to the size of a nickel and thrown in a blender and the blender is about to start in 10 minutes, how will you escape? The “right” answer and the science behind it are interesting indeed. As is the discussion on what to take seriously in the question (as a given, without questioning it) and what to infer!

 

The analysis of why the scene of the Incredible Shrinking Man fighting with a spider using a needle has been picturized wrong is nice indeed. (It is related to the above is the only clue I am willing to give, so as not to spoil the book for you).

 

He talks about how interviews are useless predictors of future performance. The idea that not all intelligent people are successful or creative etc. Questions on creativity “Give me all the uses you can put a brick into” are interesting.

 

He talks about a world where paucity of jobs makes the employers choosy due to applications overflowing for each job and even Walmart asks tricky questions to test your thinking prowess.

 

But the book is not about questions that make you think. I thought it would be a puzzle book, cleverly titled to draw in readership but it is actually more an analysis of the hiring practices in most companies, especially Google. Does not consistently retain your interest.

 

Some puzzles are brilliant. The 100 prisoners who wear red or blue hat and stand in a line so that everyone can see the hats in front of them but not theirs or the ones behind them. They are asked to name the colour of their own hat and will be shot dead if they get it wrong. There is a strategy that is foolproof that can help everyone (except the last one). The explanation is simply brilliant! Pieces like this save the book from being another uninteresting discussion on google’s hiring practice.

 

The puzzle about two men talking about a man’s three daughters (product of the ages is 72 and sum of their ages is “equal to the number on that house opposite” without giving you the number. The other says, “I still don’t understand” and the first one clarifies fully by saying “my eldest daughter plays the piano” and it is all clear to the second one!) is excellent as is the reasoning behind the answer.

 

Those are the best parts. There is an overwhelmingly tedious description on how everyone wants to work for the best tech companies and how you can prepare for the job.

 

But most of the book is about the quirky nature of questions in today’s interviews in the tech world and how you address them. Most of them are not logical but very esoteric and the answers are, frankly, not enough to hold your interest if you are not pining for an interview in one of these tech giants or if you are not interested in unrealistic problem solving. The book does not hold your interest for long, if you are a layman.

 

I will give it, at best, a 4 / 10

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