bookspluslife

May 19, 2018

Book: Middlemarch by George Eliot

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 5:34 pm

imageA classic, so let us march right into the story.

 

Miss Dorothea Brooke and her sister Celia. Celia is practical but Dorothea is religious. Orphaned, they are looked after by their uncle. Dorothea, the elder seems to be a religious zealot of the first kind. Even though the baronet desires her, she likes the withered and old Casaubon, the philosopher.

 

She agrees to marry him even over the interest shows by Sir Chetham and contrary to the wishes of her uncle and her own sister. Sir Chetham is frustrated, but advised to look closer at the other, more practical, sister Celia by the town pastor’s skinflint, but practical, wife.

 

There are the Vincys, who are rich merchants. Rosamund and Fred are his children. Rosamund is an exquisite beauty and their old and cantankerous uncle Featherstone is rich and issueless so Fred hopes for a piece of the pie. Mary Jane, who lives in the house is plain but a close friend of the fair Rosamund.

 

Rosamund deliberately contrives to meet Mr Lydgate, who is handsome and a physician to boot, and manages to fall in love with him. Lydgate only cares for medicine and he fell for an artist once and was betrayed, so he has no interest in romance. He was a poor person who wanted to do medicine, but his benefactor approved “despite the impact on family dignity by this choice’. How different were those times.

 

There is an election for the priest where Farebrother is ousted by the more dogmatic but tedius preacher.

Meanwhile, in Rome, Dorothea seems to realize that marriage to Casaubon may not be what she thought it would be. He seems to want to do his research alone and rebuffs her every attempt to contribute. When she meets the young and sunny relation of Casaubon’s, Ladislaw, the contrast is immediately apparent. Ladislaw is amazed that Dorothea, who is simple and endearing, would have chosen his uncle as a husband. He himself is financially supported by Casaubon and seems to have no fixed aim in life.

 

His friend Naumann, an artist, also persuades both Mr and Mrs Casaubon to sit for separate portraits for him and seems to angle for Dorothea’s attentions at the same time.

 

Meanwhile Fred seems to have let his extravagancy impact even Mary’s parents and is vaguely guilty. He seems to have a reckless streak with no morality and no understanding of other’s pains even caused by his own actions.

 

When Fred gets ill, the younger Lydgate shows up the family physician Mr Wrench by diagnosing Fred’s illness as Typhoid, earning the wrath of the senior physician. Lydgate gets close to Rosamund as a result. She is delighted and is in love but he thinks of it only as harmless flirtation. Finally circumstances force him to confront his feelings and he finds that he is in love with her after all.

Meanwhile Celia and Sir James are betrothed.

 

Ladislaw becomes the editor of Pioneer, a newspaper under Mr Brooks, uncle of Dorothea and seems to want to be with Dorothea alone a lot, much to the disgust of Casauban.

 

Lydgate creates enemies by openly talking about the new medicinal methods and when Bulstrode finances a new hospital, the protests against Lydgate’s “arrogance” rises to a fever pitch.

 

Ladislaw tries to meet Dorothea, much to the disgust of Casauban. After asking her to promise to fulfil his wishes after his death without specifying what they are, Casauban himself dies before she can give her promise. When they realize that the will says that she will not inherit a cent if she marries Ladislaw, everyone is scandalized.

 

Ladislaw goes away for a long time.

 

Meanwhile, Fred asks Fairbrother to plead his case to Mary. Setting aside his own attraction to Mary, Fairbrother does so. Fred decides not to pursue priesthood, and settles on business (an unpreferred profession!) as assistant to Caleb, much to the chagrin of his parents who consider his university degree “wasted”.

 

Lydgate finds himself in debt due to increased expenses after marriage to keep up with the Joneses. Now, it is cute that he is “obliged to keep two horses” like we would two cars these days. He tries to bring up the subject to Rosamund but she is bewildered.

 

Raffles, the rapscallion, comes back to haunt Bulstrode, calling him “best friend” and extorting money. We learn that Bulstrode, in his past life, married a wealthy woman hiding the fact that the daughter who had runaway had been found and keeping all the money for himself (when the woman died eventually). Raffles was in on the secret and has ever since been blackmailing Bulstrode for money. Now he tells Bulstrode that he plans to ‘come and live’ permanently in Middlemarch, close to his victim.

 

Ladislaw goes away for good.

 

Meanwhile, Rosamond and Lydgate have a rift, especially when Lydgate suggests that they live within their means, with bankruptcy staring in his face. Now we find that Bulstrode faces Garth who had realized, through Raffles, who seem to be dying, the secret and resigns his post. Bulstrode himself cares for Raffles and lends the money needed to Lydgate in a change of heart.

 

When Bulstrode’s deceit gets exposed in a public meeting, much to his chagrin, Lydgate finds himself tainted by mere association. But Rosamund is feeling more and more out of love with Lydgate and refuses even to commiserate, immersed in her own misery.

 

When Dorothea goes to comfort Rosamond, she catches her in what seems to be a compromising position with Will Ladislaw and flees the place, causing pain to both Rosamond and Ladislaw.  All is sorted out and the lovers who made up decide to marry, even at the risk of Dorothea losing most of her inheritance.

 

The ending is neat, especially the epilog which, later, like Harry Potter, follows the characters several years later and tells what happened.

 

6/10

 

–  –  Krishna

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February 25, 2018

Book: Les Miserables by Victor Hugo

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 8:27 pm

image.jpgThis needs no introduction but it was a huge surprise for me to read it. I have this concept that well regarded classics are have complex narration, old fashioned descriptions and serious stories. Many books have completely demolished that notion. The Count of Monte Cristo was one. (Our review earlier tells why). Tolstoy’s War and Peace is another. And this is the third. The story is simple, and, if written today, will not garner the epic fame that it has garnered with movies and plays galore being made out of it. Or, perhaps, I don’t know what a classic is or should be.

 

What is the story? Actually it reads like a Bollywood or a Hollywood movie plot!

 

Jean Valjean enters a French town (D_) as an ex convict, with a yellow passport as was the custom there. He is refused accommodation everywhere but a priest kindly takes him in and treats him decently. So you are shocked that he steals the priest’s silverware at the first opportunity and runs away.

 

You learn his back story. To avoid his only relatives in the world, his widowed sister and her seven children, from starving to death, he tried to steal bread and was arrested and thrown in jail but he stayed there for seventeen long years due to unsuccessfully trying to jailbreak multiple times and getting caught, thereby having his sentence extended every time.

 

When he runs away, the police (gendarme) catches him and brings him back to the priest and the priest chides him for ‘not taking the silver candlestick also, as he had been given that’ and sends him away with more loot. He then steals a coin from a small boy and then repents and runs away.

 

Confused about what this is all about already? If not, then consider this. The story now forgets all of them and zooms in on Corset, who is a child left by a poor hapless mother with an evil family of Thenardiers, who sell all its clothes, take all the money sent by mother for her upkeep and demand lots more and generally keep her as a kind of French Cindarella. (Minus the magic or the animal friends)

 

The story then veers to a mysterious man who founded a factory, became rich but focused on doing good. His name is “Father Madeline” but it is really not hard to guess the twist. He rises to become the Mayor of the small town, despite wanting to keep a low profile. The author introduces the silver candle holders and remove all doubt in your mind.

 

The only one not taken in completely is Inspector Javert who moved in from Paris recently and seems puzzled that he had seen this man somewhere, though he could not quite remember where. The style is simplistic and straightforward. We are told that even this is an abridged version as the original tends to wander off in tangents a lot. Surprised that this book has such a great reputation and a cult following (not to mention a Broadway musical).

 

The story gets interesting when Javers tells Monsier Madeline that the “real” Jean Valejan has been caught and is about to be tried. Jean is torn between duty and safety.

 

The good deeds of Madeline is to keep many factories afloat when they were in trouble.  He is almost a saint. So when he admits to being Jean to save a criminal, the whole region is stunned. There is also a girl who is admitted into an asylum (hospital in the old days?) to get well whom Jean seems to be looking after.

 

The brutish Javert oscillates from total submission when he thought he had mistaken Madeline for Jean to roughhandling when the latter’s confession is known. Meanwhile Fantine, the mysterious ill person being looked after by Jean dies without knowing about her missing daughter. This has all the elements of a melodramatic movie in it. Indeed a Bollywood producer would be thrilled to get a script like this. Alexander Dumas, I remember, also writes in a similar light vein, purely to entertain and not to inform.

 

We then shift focus to Marcus, whose father, a good man, was not allowed to see him. He is taught to hate his father but realizes the truth only when his dad is dead. He meets and falls in love with young daughter, whom Jean adopts. He shows his interest and a suspicious Jean disappears.

 

Marcus meets him when he is blackmailed by a neighbour, but Jean escapes by the arrival of Javert. In the meanwhile we learn that Corset also loves Marcus. They meet. But a suspicious Jean takes her away and Marcus joins the revolution against the government and the king.

 

When Jean finds out the truth, he rushes to the help of Marcus. When the place is about to be overrun, Marcus is wounded and falls unconscious. Jean carries him through the sewers to safety.

 

Marcus comes to and vaguely remembers the benefactor. Even after happily being reunited with Cosette and his erstwhile estranged grandfather, he is tormented with the idea of finding and thanking his mysterious saviour.

 

Jean informs Marcus of who he is, in private, and slowly withdraws from their life.

 

He feels miserable but due to a series of coincidences, the story comes to a suitably melodramatic end.

 

Interesting.   5/ 10

– – Krishna

 

November 25, 2017

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

October 22, 2017

Book: A Great Deliverance by Elizabeth George

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 11:53 pm

imageAn American author writing in a British setting in itself is unusual.

 

An shabby priest (Father Hart)  is talking to a very old but sprightly lady in the train and she silently disapproves his generous outpouring of nose fluids, spittle etc when he is very close to her.  He is traveling to London. He is going to the Scotland Yard to report a murder.

 

Wembley and Hilliar are senior detectives there. Wembley, the junior is shabby in his desk but brilliant in work.

 

Barbara Havers, a plain looking detective, is not suited to any partner, and causes trouble. She is now put on this case, which is one of a series of what looks like a serial killer’s work.

 

To her dismay, she is paired with the detective she hates most, Inspector Lynley. He is a womanizer and her being paired with him is a testimony to her ugliness (‘Even Lynley will not make a pass at her…’)

 

She grabs Lynley from a wedding reception he is attending with his current mistress. They discover that the person killed had no head and his daughter,Roberta admits to killing him. An open and shut case, right? Wrong.

 

Back story on Barbara. She lives in a squalid home with her useful mother and thieving father, and they have a “shrine” for her brother Tony who passed away.

 

They puzzle over the first murder. Why was the axe cleaned? Why was the dog killed? If Roberta did it and also admitted to it readily, none of this made sense.

 

They go to the village to be received by a beautiful innkeeper who gives them room in a castle like hotel. they go and visit the nephew who inherits everything and go see the place where the murder took place. Roberta has been confined to an asylum with no proof of insanity.

 

In the meanwhile, they discover that a sister to Roberta existed, a pretty version of their mom, and also that Roberta may have had a food stash to cheat on her diet.

 

Erza Farmington the town artist is sleeping with Danny. (who is she?)

 

Havers and LInsey find out about the verbal fight between Richard and Thomas before he died and meet Tessa, the wife who ran away. She was exposed as a bigamist and had a motive to kill Thomas, as did her husband who discovered the huge issue. She explains how she married a very older man when she was 16 and after Gillian’s birth, he got religion and was intolerable and was not allowed even to go near her own child (and near Roberta when the second kid was born after eight years) and had to leave.

 

Gillian also runs away, increasing the pain of Thomas, who obliterated all photos of Gillian.

 

Nigel Parrish, the musician who inexplicably prefers the pub far away from home and also seems to hang around where his talents are not appreciated is a strange character. Erza and he have a flaming row.

 

They get invited to a party where Lynley meets his ex love again.

 

meanwhile he hears conflicting reports of Gillian. Richard swears that she is a slut and their neighbour the old woman who was a teacher to both Gillian and her mother Tessa, swears that Gilly was an angel.

 

How Barb rails often at Lynley every time mistaking his intentions as that of a roving cowboy and how she finds Gillian in her new hiding place and how it turns to a disaster when Lynley asks her to go fetch her are very well told. A good read, even if it is pure fluff.

 

The final meeting between the sisters Gillian and Roberta and the revelations that come out are astounding. The twist is something that you probably can guess but the descriptions and how it impacted both Gillian and Roberta are told in a phenomenal way. The shock is stunning. One of the best climactic scenes in a semi light fiction, the scene in itself elevates the book several levels above other mysteries, in my opinion. Great writing. And to consider that this is a debut novel!

 

Where the book falls flat is in too many knots and the author trying to unravel them all. And there is no explanation of how many things are found out. How did he know so many things about the life of Stepha (the innkeeper) ? A lot of things are simply “revealed” by Lynley the great detective with no explanation at all. Another example is how he knew who hid the murder weapon and cleaned the axe of fingerprints. No clues, no pointers. Suddenly Lynley says “you did it” to the culprit and that person says “yes” and sobs. Give me a break!

 

Though some scenes are fantastic, the above takes much away from the book , so let us say 6/ 10

–  – Krishna

November 6, 2016

Book: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:46 pm

imageFlaubert is said to have modelled the heroine on one Delphine Delamare, but was unable to say so due to the social mores of the time. He said that “Madame Bovary is me” which convinced nobody. The infamy followed the men whereby the man whom Rodolphe portrayed emigrated to US and returned years later. As scandal still followed him, he committed suicide in France!

 

And the story was considered so raunchy for those times that there was a movement demanding that this book be forbidden in France. So what is in that book that caused all this hullaballoo?

 

Charles Bovary is a dull student from a fairly well to do family. His mother somehow makes him a physician, against the wishes of Charles himself, as he was a dull student and could not get in through merit only. On top of that, she gets him married to an unattractive, older but a very wealthy woman, whom Monsieur Bovary does not love. She becomes a shrew, disillusioned with him.

 

He goes to take care of the broken bones of a wealthy farmer Monsieur Rouault and falls in love with his daughter Emma. When his wife dies, he marries Emma. He is besotted with Emma but Emma gets bored easily. She wanted to be a nun and then backed out. She does not feel the romantic dreams with a country doctor. The highlight is when they are invited for dinner by Marquis d’Andervilliers. Emma is, of course, the Madame Bovary of the title.

 

She longs for the rich life and hates her husband, fires his most trusted housekeeper over a trivial error and behaves abominably to him who worships her every footstep. They move to another town to help her, against the husband’s wishes and against the interests of his practice. She pines for extravagance and resents fate for denying her the share that is “owed to her”.

 

The new town offers friendship with Leon, which Emma eagerly receives. When he leaves town to go to Paris, she is devastated but a playboy called Rudolphe gets interested in her. He is bored with his current mistress, an actress and wants to conquer Emma. Makes his play at the agricultural fair where he gets her alone. He plots and slowly convinces her that he is in love when he is only after another fling.

 

When you read the book, you are struck by how the age of the book shows in the story : Rudolphe “feasted his eyes on the bit of white stockings [that Emma wore] that showed like naked flesh between the black of the [riding habit] cloth and the boot”.

 

He seduces her and she becomes brazen in seeking him out in his own house in the nights. She almost got caught by Binet, who was out hunting ducks, when she returned from one such visit.

 

His object acquired, Rudolphe begins to lose his passion and ardour for her, which stings her. After her husband bungles a clubfoot operation necessitating another surgeon to come and amputate the leg of the unfortunate Hippolyte, her contempt of her husband and ardour for Rudolph overflow and she forces Rudolphe  to plan an escape with her – to run away. He is in it only for fun and runs away one day earlier, leaving her devastated.

 

She also is so free with her husband’s money as to nearly ruin him and steals other money from him to hide the fact. She also flaunts her affair to the extent she dares (before he runs away, of course) so much as to scandalize her mother in law and half the town she lives in.

 

After Randolphe leaves her,  she is crestfallen but goes back to Leon as an easy prey for his seduction and spends her husband’s money prodigiously again while she finds ways to meet Leon on a weekly basis. I can understand why the book may have scandalized society in the nineteenth century when it was published.

 

Finally, her wayward ways catch up with her and her debts mount, Leon grows tired of her and she tires of him as well but still is unable to stop.

 

The heroine of this story is supposed to be understood and pitied by us readers. It is very hard to sympathize with her when she has no concept of money, has an unrealistic ambition of living an aristocratic life, tramples over her husband who even gave up his mother in her support and then makes him bankrupt too, when the noose tightens around her neck (figuratively speaking), when all the loans come due and no one will help her. In desperation she takes a lot of arsenic and dies painfully.

 

It is pathetic to watch Charles devoted faithfully to her memory and still blind to her infidelities even when he is drowning in debt and even when he comes across one of Rudolphe’s letters to Emma. He alienates everyone including his mother in his stubborn devotion. There are side stories of Monsieur Homais and his journalistic crusades etc.

 

The scales fall from his eyes when he finally stumbles across all the love letters of her various lovers. He soon dies.

 

The book ends with a mock trial where the prosecuting and defence ‘attorneys’ present the case for and against – wait for it – not Emma but the book itself! Kind of cute. Overall, not a bad book, and rightly judged scandalous all those years ago for ‘preaching immorality’.

 

The only complaint about the last trial is that it is mostly a rehash of the story. I like the idea of attacking and defending the author for immorality but instead of arguments, all you get is extensive quotes and repetitions as well as a summary of the story again. That drags down the impact a lot. On top of that the self-praise on how well Flaubert has written the story jars a lot. Like reading the Taita series of Wilbur Smith or even the annoying Seventh Scroll where Wilbur Smith is praising himself as a historian.

 

The theme according to the epilog is “the education that is given to a woman which caused her misstep and corruption”. Really? Women should not be educated above their station in life? Or else they start a series of adulterous relationships?

 

I would say this deserves only a 5/10

–  – Krishna

February 1, 2015

Book: Candide by Voltaire

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 2:45 pm

imageThis is a classic. Many of us have heard of it, but not many have studied it. I decided to give it a go. The overarching impression I am left with is one of puzzlement. This is a satire and Voltaire definitely ridicules the notion of the Grand Scheme of Things and the idea that Everything Happens for the Best. You get it loud and clear when you read it but the story goes all over the place with gut wrenching changes that leave the story’s plot in tatters often, and you wonder whether it is intended.

A bit about Voltaire himself first – he is one of the most recognized names in literature. Francois-Marie Arouet was Voltaire’s real name and he adoped the nom de plume when he was arrested and jailed in France.

It is a comedy romance? Look at even the place names. Where Candide was brought up with a Baron, the city is called Thunder-ten-tronckh and the next down where he goes when driven out by the baron is Waldsberghoff-trarbk-dikdorff  .In fact the weirdness starts right there, and does not let up until the end.

It is not just the place names that are odd. Even the story is. Why was Candide  driven out? He dared fall in love with the baron’s daughter, the fair Miss Cunigonde and she reciprocated the feeling. Master Pangloss teaches what in the castle? Wait for it… he teaches metaphysico-theologico-cosmolonigology. Come on now!

Heavy sarcasm permeates the narration – heroes in one army destroying villages with mass killings and mass rape and the heroes belonging to the victim’s side doing the same thing to another innocent village belonging to the victor of the previous raid.

Candide  hears that his beloved and the Baron were killed when he meets Pangloss in a near skeletal state. Then a whole pile of things happen. Pangloss recovers, they go on a voyage for no good reason (I mean to do with the story), get shipwrecked…. Oh boy!

He meets Cunigonde when he least expects it and learns that she is not dead but is the object of desire by a Jew and a Merchant and kills both! He runs away with Cunigonde and her servant on horseback.

He is then separated from Cunigonde because a Governor desires her. Candide then meets her brother. And after shedding tears of joy seeing him, kills him! Wait, what?

It gets weirder. Runs away dressed as the priest (Cunigonde’s brother is a priest and a colonel at the same time!) He acquires a squire called Cacambo and then goes to Peru, which is supposed to be the El Dorado of ancient myth. It is bordered by ‘a river so swift that none could cross over’ on one side and ‘mountains which have perpendicular sides’ on the other so that it is in splendid isolation. (You wonder, if it is that impregnable, how did Candide himself, never mind his servant, manage to reach it? They themselves reached there through the river. Oh I see –  everything is now crystal clear!).

There the streets are all gold – not paved with it but full of it. Their sand is gold, their pebbles are gold nuggets and children play with it. No rich, no poor, no crime… Your practical side rises its pesky head again and you wonder  how they earn their income. Obviously gold is of no value right? (No explanation. This is not an economics text book).

Then if the gold are worthless (dirt and stones) and the gemstones are used as playthings, what are the houses constructed of? Not a clear explanation. But beds are made of hummingbird downs (what? how many millions of these have to be slaughtered to make one bed? )

They decide to return despite the king’s plea for them to stay but the king, of course, can make carriages that are capable of taking them out of the country despite the formidable obstacles mentioned. (Helicoptors? you wonder cynically). Candide  promptly loses almost all his wealth.

Voltaire is unconcernedly irreverent about all nations: the French for instance are monumentally stupid and violent and they laugh at everything, even when in a rage and are slitting somebody’s throat.

On with the story : Candide  meets Pococurante in an inn. Pococurante seems to think every famous author is bad… no, everything in the world is bad. But to learn that you have to go through every author in the world at that time, and learn why he or she is awful. It gets so boring after the first two.

Then comes narration of seven kings who have lost their kingdom but who congregate in the same inn, disguised, and each one tells a story. What is this? Adolescent’s literature?

Then there is this: None of the characters who die stay dead. They keep coming back, like a cartoon Wyle E. Coyote which gets crushed with his own Acme equipment. Even a person who was seen to be hanged comes back later, not to mention a person that Candide killed and his own sweetheart, who was supposed to have been raped and killed.

The beautiful become ugly, the ugly were once beautiful, the pauper becomes rich and then again a pauper. All of these are told in jumbled sentences that make your head spin.

Intended as a parody but is too juvenile and confusing to have the intended effect in these modern times.

2/10

  • – Krishna

October 31, 2014

Book: Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 4:51 pm

Looks like I will never understand satire by the great writers in English. The author himself describes this book as a “comic book about death” and of course it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1976. But to me, it reads like an artsy film-club-movie-experience in a book. Yawn.images

What is the story? Humbodt, a writer, is jealous of the success of his protege Charlie Citrine and tries to badmouth him constantly. He dies a mad man but strangely, leaves some money to Charlie in his will! Humboldt had a friendship with Adlai Stevenson as he claimed, and therefore should Adlai win the presidency, he will have influence in the government! US will then be utopia.

The story wanders a lot.

Charlie was married to the gorgeous Denise but was always fighting and so, after the divorce he married(?) Renata.

He befriends hoodlums and refuses to pay in cards, and for his pains, has his Mercedes smashed badly with a baseball bat. How boring! He goes to pay the hoodlum but gets humiliated, forced to watch him take a dump.

The book is all about Humbolt and how he lived. Nothing happens. More about Humboldt going slowly mad when Adlai lost to Ike Eisenhower.  He conspires to get a chair in Princeton but that falls through as well.

Kathleen leaves him, unable to take his paranoia, but he goes raving mad, attacking a young scholar who he suspects, without proof, is hiding Kathleen.

Cantabile now thinks he is the bosom buddy of Charlie and offers up pretty Polly to share.

Charlie’s  women: First love dies in a plane crash; Denise, the pretty and intellectual wife sues him for all he got; he meets Renata as a mutual friend of a friend in jury duty. He gets arrested due to his association with Cantabile and the stupidity of his friend Thaxter who takes everything he can monetarily from Citrine.

The descriptions are very good and Citrine’s musings are brilliant to read. It does not add to the story but many times but you go along for the ride, for once not caring what it has to do with the story. His musings are unconventional but interesting. Humbolt has left the outline of a plot as a ‘gift’ to Citrine during his brief lucid period before his death. When Charlie learns that the same story has also been given to Kathleen, he is amused. He next visits his businessman brother who is having an open heart surgery.

His musings can come off as ramblings, and they do annoy sometimes, and his belief in clairvoyance and other duff stuff also can irritate, coming in the middle of other interesting thoughts. This gets to be a bit too much as the book progresses.

In a nice irony, the hero Charlie is an author who had won two Pulitzer prizes!

It then  gets positively weird! Listen to this: when you sit and try to talk to dead people, you can! And the questions you ask are actually from them and the answers they give are actually from you. In spite of the ‘comedy’ quip from the author, this seems to be a serious passage.

Why have I not been harsher in this criticism? Am I impressed because the author is Saul Bellow? Not really. I give it a milder critique because his other musings are very interesting and intelligent. That still does not take away from the from the fact that some parts of the book are very weird and downright nonsensical.

Charlie comes across as a soft squeeze and a pushover but then that perhaps this is what was intended to be his character.

He loses all his money due to all his friends’ duplicities but a gangster stands by him! A mad caper written by him with Humboldt makes it big in the movie business and Cantabile helps him sue and recover money but he treats the only guy who helps him like shit.

The ending has a nice ring to it, but is abrupt.

In summary, parts of the book are interesting, even though they may have nothing to do with the main plot, but it is heavy lifting to read. Nonsensical, irritating, and sometimes downright absurd.

Let us say 4/10

  • – Krishna

September 7, 2014

Book: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 6:56 pm

imagesA classic novel review after a while. This is a romantic comedy and of course, the language is that of the old times (the book, after all, was published in 1749). This is considered by many to be the best book written by Henry Fielding and is definitely the most popular.

 

For all the passing of time, this book remains surprisingly readable, like for instance, The Great Expectations by Dickens. The language also does not jar much and is very much contemporary, unlike Gulliver’s Travels for example. Which is nice.

 

The story revolves around the eponymous protagonist, Tom Jones. He was found at the doorstep of a wealthy man called Mr Allworthy, who is  a model citizen, kind, helps others, very pious, and decides to take him in and raise him as his own son.

 

Allworthy’s sister is courted by a man called Mr Bilfil and they get Master Bilfil, who considers himself the rightful heir of Allworthy, and has a cause to resent Tom Jones.

 

Sophia Weston,  daughter of a neighbouring landlord, falls for Tom and Tom for her. But this is a story about a man with a lot of weaknesses, and Tom is always up to some mischief or the other. He gets Molly, daughter of Black George the gamekeeper of Allworthy, pregnant.
Mrs honour maid of Sophia, is loyal to Sophia and to no other, not even her father.

 

As we said, Tom and Sophia realize that they love each other.  He has a broken arm in an accident when this love blooms.

 

Molly has had affairs with another boy before and with Square, a priest, when Tom goes to see her!

 

The story gets a bit weird and completely contrived. For example, in more than one instance, people fall dead at the least pretense, exactly when they are creating trouble. (Very conveniently for some major characters)

 

Tom Jones again tries to have an affair with Molly almost got caught and fights with the parson and Master Bilfil. This is not normally the behaviour of a hero, even in a comedy, and so this makes it very interesting.

 

Sophia falls for Tom Jones and Sophia’s aunt thinks it is for Bilfil that she pines and arranges marriage. When Sophia rebels, her father gets mad.

 

The dialogs are easily understood but that does not mean that the sentiments are ordinary. They reflects the times and are quaint when read now. One example, where Sophia’s father says “Wealth is as necessary to a marriage as the opposite sexes”.

 

 

Some innocuous remarks can be seen out of context too. Take this example “Though he [Master Bilfill] was not the man who would eat every woman he met….”

 

The story wanders off. Tom is banished, his money stolen by Gamekeeper George and he is penniless.

 

Sophia plans elopement with Honor, the maid, who is herself not very trustworthy initially.

 

The author frequently spews venom on critics whom he seems to hold is low estimation… Don’t miss footnotes in Tom Jones because they are funny too. A ‘critic’ in footnotes is explained as ‘anyone who can ever read’.

 

 

Tom joins the army as a volunteer or tries to and gets into a tussle with a sentry. He saves a man who was trying to save his friend from gambling debts and then saves a damsel in distress, Mrs Fitzpatrick, who is a lose woman married to an army captain. She promptly tries to seduce him and with Tom Jones, finds it very easy to do so. Sophia unexpectedly comes in at the wrong time and flees Tom Jones in disgust.

A friend,  Nightingale, appears and there is more bizarre sentiments. For instance, Nightingale seduces Nancy, makes her pregnant and then says that he cannot marry her because she has no virtue, even if the cause for that is himself!

 

Tom convinces him to marry Nancy to eternal gratitude of her mother.

 

Mr Warren is all this time in hot pursuit and finally captures Sophia and locks her in a room. His sister rescues her.

 

When Tom writes a note to Mrs Fitzpatrick to marry her, this story becomes the comedy of errors that it sets out to be from the beginning. The whole letter was a ruse to cool the ardour that the woman feels for Tom but it reaches Sophia who is repulsed by his repeated infidelities. Everyone falls for Jones. He kills the husband of Mrs Fitzpatrick who dies and Jones ends up in prison.

 

The book is full of comments that reflect those times but sit odd with the reader today; Allworthy praises Sophia since she has “no pretenses of wisdom”, which ‘becomes a woman as much as the pretenses become an ape’. Also she is wonderful because, when asked “as a test” to adjudicate among differences between two of his friends, she modestly declined stating “how can you even assume that I am capable of solving the differences of opinion between two gentlemen!”. Wow!

 

Another oddity : Tom is in prison yet, people go in and out constantly to meet him as if he is staying in a restaurant!

 

Odd phrases abound too. Forget about the two families having “the most agreeable intercourse among them”. What about the father in law saying to Tom Jones “Give me thy fist…it is as honest a cock as any that can be found in the kingdom”?

 

A satisfying but unconvincing end. All Sophia’s reservations, determination to avoid Tom etc. melt away conveniently and there are a lot of hurried coincidences to bring the story to an abrupt but happy end.

 

A surprisingly good read with too many holes in the story.   6/10
– – Krishna

July 26, 2014

Book: The Jungle Books by Rudayard Kipling

Filed under: Books — Tags: , , , — krishnafromtoronto @ 9:57 am

imagesYou can imagine how many people have seen the movie Jungle Books by Disney and how many people of those would have read the original series by Rudayard Kipling. So, it is not surprising that the movie version is the one that people will remember.

 

And also, most people know that Rudayard Kipling was a poet and a serious writer, and that the story will not be funny like the movie version, aimed mainly at children and adults too. (And the songs in that movie! I digress.)

 

And knowing Disney has a reputation of twisting the fairy tales to suit its taste for happy endings, especially in the past when it made Jungle Books, I fully expected to read a completely different book when I took up this one to see what it is really like.

 

It is amazing how much Disney has not deviated from the book, while making it still fun and entertaining. You have Akela, the wolf pack. Mowgli (meaning ‘frog’ according to Rudayard) and Baloo the bear.

 

Overall, I would say that it is a narrative work, no deep meanings, no thought provoking ideas, but it keeps you engaged. Hindi words are used here a lot –  Sher for Tiger (with a honorary title of Khan), Baloo for bear, Bagheera for panther, Hathi for elephant and Dewanee for madness, Bandar Log for monkey people, all literally true.

 

On the other hand, Mowgli and Kaa are not borrowed from Hindi but seem to be invented

 

Talking of Kaa, he is very different in the book but close enough to be recognized.  The movie wisely leaves Sher Khan until the end (climax) whereas the book keeps him constantly intriguing against Mowgli.

 

Another interesting thing is that the book is episodic, which is like a collection of short stories about Mowgli and the Jungle. (Incidentally, the word ‘jungle’ itself originates from Hindi). The first story in the book is about how Mowgli is expelled from the wolf pack by the younger group seeking to overthrow Akela; the second is about Bandar Log kidnapping Mowgli – so you realize that the order in which the story is told in the movie is also different.

 

How Sher Khan dies in the book is interesting – I understand why it was not inserted into the movie! And the stories about seals (Sea Catch and his wife and the baby seal) is not included for the same reason in the movie. Riki Taki Tavi is interesting but a sidebar to the main story.   There is an elephant called Kala Nag (stands for Black Cobra if you go for the literal translation) but no Colonel Hathi. There is a story related to Little Toomai the elephant mahout, not anything to do with Mowgli.

 

Then there is a story about army animals (camels, mules, bulls) that is soooo boring and pointless.

 

What an imperialist attitude especially in the story about Mowgli’s return to the village and banishment! Only the white man can stop savages (native Indians) beating and killing each other; only a white man can arrest Jungle from taking over a village and destroying it. The hidden paternalism and condescension is fascinating. I know Rudayard loved India and spent most of his life there but his ideas and attitudes reflect the times he lived in (the book was written in 1894).
and are interesting and anachronistic to read today.

 

A story about a sannyasi (as Kipling spells it) who had a white man’s education and therefore was wise, who saves a village from destruction through mud slide. Purun Dass who becomes Purun Bhagat.

 

A very different proposition from the movie, you realize as you read on. It is a jumble of stories, all unrelated to each other, continuity being given only with the repeating characters and their past experience.

 

The biggest surprise is the colonial attitude that drips from each page. The English got the filthy natives to clean up Calcutta. And only they can save the natives who are needlessly slaughtered by other natives in the same village… And of course, only a white face will dare come hunting a crocodile.

 

The one cute thing is that everyone spouts poetry at the end of (almost) each story. Rather like a story turning to a musical at the end.

 

Kaa’s relationship with Mowgli is very different in the book(s). It is a mixed bag. There are stories which are only mildly interesting and some are plain boring and a pain to get through.

 

Disney I think got it right when they decided which parts to choose and which parts (Colonel Hathi) to invent.

 

This is one of those cases where the movie is far better than the book

 

The book gets a 4/10

 

–        – Krishna

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