Wednesday, October 31, 2007

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by R L Stevenson

Title: The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Author: R L Stevenson
ISBN-10: 0582427002
Publisher: Penguin Classics/64 pages

Robert Louis Stevenson’s "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is a timeless novella first published in 1886. The classic battle between good and evil is played out not in the forms of a hero and a villain, but within the mind and soul of one man who plays with the idea of acting out his malevolent wishes. It is a much deeper study of the human soul and its longing to be evil, suffering none of the consequences. Repeatedly, Jekyll drinks his liquid courage and sets free the evil that lies inside. As the days, weeks and months pass by, Jekyll finds it harder to control the beast within, and his unholy friend starts appearing more often. Ultimately, Mr. Hyde goes too far on one of his escapades, driving Jekyll to the brink of insanity.

The story starts with the introduction of characters such as Enfield and his friend Utterson. After hearing a bizarre story involving Dr Jekyll, Utterson sets out to unravel the mystery surrounding Mr Hyde. We also get to meet Poole, Dr. Lanyon, and a maidservant who witnesses actions against one Mr. Carew. Although Jekyll and Hyde are the title characters, most of the book focuses on Utterson.

While reading this book, I thought that Dr Jekyll is more evil than Hyde. Instead of prohibiting himself from taking more of the elixir, Jekyll openly enjoys it. He could have controlled it but he did not.

Robert Louis Stevenson portrays every man's dual character and the onus is on us to choose which way we want to go. Stevenson describes the city, buildings and people as they were at that time. The characters are very real and convincing; some might even be compared to people on our own lives.

Somehow, I found that the whole plot was a bit slow and boring at the beginning and there was a forceful rush towards the end to finish it. Still I felt that one should read this book at least once if only to enjoy the sheer beauty of words. I am glad that I read it.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Feudal Lord by Tehmina Durrani

Title: The Feudal Lord: A Devastating Indictment
of Women’s Role in Muslim Society

Author: Tehmina Durrani
ISBN: 0552142395
Publisher: Corgi Books/1995
Pages: 382
Genre: Non-fiction/Biography

Though The Feudal Lord is pegged as making a powerful statement about Muslim Society in Pakistan and men interpreting Islam to suit them, marrying and divorcing is common amongst the men. I consider this as a powerful statement for all those parts of the world where feudal system still exists. All the power is centred on the men and the women have no say in the matter.

Tehmina belongs to a powerful family in Pakistan and is expected to marry in a family of same stature, having children and lead a life, which is sheltered. Tehmina meets Anees while she is in school and marries him despite her parent’s misgivings. After a while, she finds herself bored with him. When Mustafa Khar, twenty years her senior, slowly seduces her, she is ready for his attention. He is one of a very prominent figure in Pakistan Politics. She is flattered by his attention, when he professes love for her; she divorces Anees and secretly marries him becoming his sixth wife. Her parents promptly disown her.

Her life turns into a nightmare after a while. Mustafa is a violent, possessive and a jealous male who expects complete obedience from his wife. The abuse and beatings start although she is pregnant. After beatings, he seems to come back to his senses and professes love for her. This is indeed a vicious circle. Tehmina too falls for it. She suffers for thirteen years, bearing him four children in between. Once he kidnaps their children to make her return to him. She does go back to him. The torture starts all over again. He has an affair with her younger sister. Finally, she leaves him giving up on her children and all her possessions. She is alienated from her friends and her parents yet again reject her.

Tehmina is repeatedly broken, betrayed, used, abandoned, mashed up, but in the end rises and survives in Pakistan's male dominated society. Its message is for any woman oppressed anywhere.

After the divorce, Mustafa tells Tehmina, “You have to introduce yourself as my ex-wife. You have no identity of your own. Nobody knows you. People meet you because you have something interesting to say about me.”

After she wrote this book, he called her before its impending publication and asked her about it. Her reply was, “Well, Mustafa, now the world will soon know you only as Tehmina Durrani’s ex-husband.”

The book also makes political statements of contemporary Pakistan but I am not dwelling on that. Writing this book was the best thing Tehmina did by giving a voice to oppressed women not only in Pak

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Tenth Circle by Jodi Picoult

Title: The Tenth Circle
Author: Jodi Picoult
ISBN: 1741146933
Publisher: Allen & Unwin/2006
Pages: 385

This is my second Picoult. Not as good as The Sister's Keeper. It tends to be boring at some points. There are too many loose ends too. However, it has raised valid issues about teenagers, which every parent should know.

Trixie, a fourteen year old comes home one night and tells her father, Daniel Stone that her former boyfriend has raped her. Daniel is a cartoon artist who has always looked after his precious daughter by being a stay at home dad. When he hears that, he is filled with rage. First, he has to take her to the hospital for check up.

Daniel Stone has a past about which his family is unaware. He was the only white boy in a native Eskimo village and was ragged ruthlessly because he is so different. He escaped from there by stealing, drinking, robbing and cheating his way out sharpening his artistic talent. He wills himself to give up his rage and anger to become a docile, devoted husband and father. Fifteen years later, Daniel is a successful comic book artist. Laura, his wife teaches Dante’s Inferno at a local college. The analogy of the Inferno and the story are well depicted.

Now that his daughter has been date raped, his rage and anger returns full force. He is unable to cope with that sense of helplessness, which only a parent can feel. He feels guilt about not being able to protect her. His wife Laura too feels that she should have been home each night for her daughter.

What I found very disturbing after reading this book is that our teenagers are growing up very fast. At fourteen when they should be involved in studies and other sports activities, they are affected by broken relationships, drugs etc. Trixie even lies to her parents about her whereabouts. Her story does seem to have many loopholes as she herself does not really remember what happened to her. We see Trixie trying to commit suicide, and running away from home. We observe Daniel and Laura going into pieces.

Picoult tries to show us all the sides, all the perceptions. She makes us weigh the pros and cons without being judgemental. She makes us decide what is right and wrong. It might not be the best Picoult but it really covers a very relevant issue about date rape.

The graphics too go very well with the story as is the intention of the writer.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Booking with Abandon

what books have you abandoned and why?

In the course of my reading, I have abandoned quite a few books for varied reasons. The ones I remember most are:

1. Ulysses by James Joyce: I could never go beyond page four. It simply did not interest me. God knows, I tried.

2. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho: I read it halfway through but abandoned it. The simple philosophy did not gel with me. I am yet to pick up another Coelho.

3. A Passage to England by Nirad Choudhury: The language detracted me from reading it beyond page forty.

4. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway: I can't read Hemingway for nuts. This is not the first Hemingway I abandoned. The Old man and the Sea is the only Hemingway I have ever finished.

5. A House for Mr Biswas by V S Naipal: For some reason, though I identified with the characters, I could not finish it. May be some day..

6. Exodus by Leon Uris: I started it when I was in school. It was too horrifying at that time for a 15 years old. I suppose it is time to pick it up again.

The list is pretty exhaustive....:D

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Title: Alice in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll
ISBN: 0710501447
Published: Priory books/November 1993

This is another of my re-reads of children’s fiction. This time I enjoyed it even more. The story begins with Alice being bored and suddenly observes a talking white rabbit. Curiosity aroused, she follows the rabbit down a rabbit hole into a world full of eccentric creatures, weird happenings, and baffling pastries.

Alice is a great heroine. Throughout all of her backwards and upside-down adventures, she remains level-headed and logical, always trying to reason her way out of the most unreasonable situations. Other characters include- the White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Cheshire Cat, Bill the Lizard, the Caterpillar, the Duchess and her peppery cook, the Queen of Hearts, the Mock Turtle, the Gryphon, the Red and White Queens, the talking flowers, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Sheep, Humpty Dumpty, and the Red and White Knights. Carroll also created many fascinating new creatures in his stories, including bread-and-butterflies, rocking-horseflies, slithy toves, mome raths and many more.

My favourite part of this book is when Alice encounters the Cheshire Cat. He is very witty and his grin is unparalleled. When Alice first speaks with the cat, and asks him which way she should go, his typical response is-

'In that direction,' the Cat said, waving its right paw round, ‘lives a Hatter: and in that direction,’ waving the other paw, ‘lives a March Hare. Visit either you like: they're both mad.’
'But I don't want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.
'Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat, ’we're all mad here. I am mad. You're mad.’

I also love the whole tea party setup, in which the Mad Hatter and March Hare keep moving from seat to seat round a large table, drinking tea and eating bread and butter. The Gryphon and the Mock Turtle are similarly hilarious, as well as the Queen of Hearts, who orders everyone's head to be chopped off at her whim.

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was the first book written for children. It is entirely void of moral, and instead written exclusively for pure entertainment. Before this, children were stuck with stories that preached goodliness and virtue. Even Carroll pokes fun of those stories during the course of this story. His stories were an unexpected breath of fresh air amongst Victorian society, and that is what made this book immensely popular with both adults and children.

What I find most captivating as an adult reader is, Carroll's brilliant use of wordplay and symbolism throughout the stories. Almost everything has some sort of double meaning. There are veiled messages and understated witticisms on every page. Carroll also takes in quite a few lampoons of famous songs and rhymes in England in those times. A must read for all ages. It has that timeless quality of fantasy.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl

Title: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Author: Roald Dahl
ISBN: 0-141-31990-9
Publisher: Puffin/2005
First published: 1964
Genre: Children’s Fiction (9-12)

Another book I re-read for my nephew. This book is a pure classic of imagination, magic and fantasy, telling the story from Charlie Bucket's point of view. Charlie, who lives with his four very old grandparents and his mother in a one-room house, can only dream about his future, since his family has barely enough money to survive. He is so poor he gets only one chocolate bar a year, a combined present from his parents and grandparents. To make matters worse, he lives in the same town as Willy Wonka's mysterious chocolate factory.

One day, Willy Wonka announces that he will open his factory to five lucky kids. The rest of the tale is one of scrumptious folly and nerve-wracking sentiment, highlighted by magical workers (the one and only Oompa Loompas), the ethereal Willy Wonka, a host of loony characters, adults and kids, and a thrill ride in a factory where time stands still and also rocks forwards, backwards, sideways and then some!

The main characters of this book are, Charlie who is a very bright boy, Grandpa Joe, a well caring Grandpa and wishes they could give Charlie more in life, and Willy Wonka, the chocolate factory owner. He is hilarious, creative, and somewhat crazy.

The setting of the whole book is the chocolate factory. One can smell the chocolate being made. It is the only factory in the world that has a chocolate waterfall. All of the other candy factories are always jealous and they always try to steal the formulas.

The title gives away any suspense the first part might have, whether he will get a ticket or not. Roald Dahl let his imagination soar when writing this book. It is a classic tale of the triumph of good over evil, generosity over greed and family over fair-weathered friends. The result is a fun tale sure to entertain kids of all ages.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Booking through Typos

What’s the worst typographical error you’ve ever found in (or on) a book?"

Although I have come across a few, I do not recall glaring typographical errors as such. A few times I have been put off by sentence formations. Not that it has stopped me from reading the said book. What really gets my goose, is improper punctuation. Like use of thats intead of that's. I can read poetry without capitalizations. I too write it that way a few times. But prose writing without capitalization, is a big no-no for me. I have found usage of double commas too. Now that I call a biggest goof up one can make.

When I find mistakes in text books I teach from, it is a major setback. I can make out the mistakes but how does a kid do? I have sent a few letters for such errors. In mathematics, one can't afford to have typographical errors.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie

Title: Elephants Can Remember
Author: Agatha Christie
ISBN: 000712080X
Publisher: Harper Collins/2002
First Published:1972
Genre: Mystery

I picked up an Agatha Christie after a very long time. I have read most of her works but not this one. 'Elephants Can Remember' is
one of the last works of Agatha Christie. She wrote it at the age of eighty-two years and was in failing health.

It is not one of those typical Hercule Poirot mysteries. It starts with the introduction of mystery writer Ariadne Oliver who contacts Poirot to help solve a case, which was closed for further investigation due to lack of clues. The case is about what was seemingly the double suicide of a loving husband and wife and the impact of that upon their children.

At a literary lunch, crime novelist Ariadne Oliver is approached by a stranger and asked about the double deaths in the past concerning Ariadne's goddaughter Celia Ravenscroft, who is to marry this woman's son. Mrs. Burton-Cox is concerned that there might be some sort of hereditary insanity involved that could affect Celia. Mrs. Oliver hates to be confronted like this but is intrigued enough to pursue it further. She thinks although human memories are not as permanent as proverbial elephant ones are, but most people do retain bits and pieces. She and Poirot wish to sort out the truth from the embellishment, oversights and speculations.

The story switches between the findings of Ariadne Oliver and Hercule Poirot as they each go about their own way of investigations searching 'elephants' who might remember what happened around the time of the accident. Most are ready to talk about it too as it was not solved. Many did not believe in the double suicide theory either.

The mystery is easy by Christie standards. Its central mystery has a unique, although a little predictable twist. The prose is heavy-handed at times and the dialogues too get a bit boring with too much allusion about 'elephants'. The characters are two-dimensional which does not hold interest for the reader even though one is interested in the mystery at hand. Still Agatha Christie Mysteries are worth reading at least once!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Coral Island by R M Ballantyne

Title: The Coral Island
Author: R M Ballantyne
First Published: 1857
ISBN-13: 9780140367614
Pages: 296/ Penguin Young Readers Group
Rating: 4/5

I read it first when I was 13 years old. Now I re-read it for my 10-year-old nephew. I possess a very old copy of it, which is completely unabridged with all the ‘racist’ terms intact. I censored those out for him!

This story begins with 15-year-old Ralph Rover telling about his life. As he belongs to a family of seafarers, he too has it in him to sail the seas. He is allowed to go to sea as an apprentice on a ship by his father where he makes two great friends, eighteen-year-old Jack Martin who is a tall, strapping, broad-shouldered youth with a good sense of humour and 14-year-old Peter Gay, a funny, mischievous boy. Their ship is caught in a huge storm and the trio end up as the only people to wash ashore on a South Pacific island.

This, however, is not a story of excessive hardship as one might expect! With many adventures of discovery, bloody battles, and pirates and of course a cat, it is evident from the beginning that it is far from the customary run-of-the-mill survival stories. This novel is a creative and educational story of three shipwrecked boys on a Coral Island and how they learn to survive in the wilderness after encountering natives and pirates. Captured by pirates, Ralph escapes and returns to the island with Jack and Peterkin to try to sort out family problems with some of the natives they met.

Ballantyne's thinks that the free acceptance of Christianity by the natives can bring them all the benefits of European civilization. Ballantyne has an unshakeable belief in the adequacy of voluntary conversion to Christianity to improve the conditions and conduct of the natives, and there is no hint in his novel that altruistic concern should lead to measures forced on the natives for their own good.

Ballantyne also attempts to place economic motives beyond the light of civilization by identifying them with the pirates, who represent the purely economic motifs of Europeans. Although the natives are transformed, the Europeans in the story remain unchanged by their experiences. This compares with Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad where the character of Kurtz goes native with horrendous consequences.

Booking through authors

  • Have you ever met one of your favorite authors? Gotten their autograph?
  • How about an author you felt only so-so about, but got their autograph anyway? Like, say, at a book-signing a friend dragged you to?
  • How about stumbling across a book signing or reading and being so captivated, you bought the book?
Actually no. I have not really met any author at any close quarters unless one considers Vikram Seth. He was in Delhi to promote one his books. One of my friends coerced me into attending it. So we listened to him talking about 'Two Lives', which is a memoir of his great uncle, Shanti and German-Jewish great aunt, Henny. Afterwards, he was on a book signing spree but I did not get his autograph or anything like that. I was not much keen to get anywhere near him in that very crowded place. My friend did manage to get one!

In a book fair, I did see Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner in Economics in 1998 and bought one of his books, The Argumentative Indian, on a whim. I have not regrettted that ever! It is not an autographed copy either!

Maybe someday, I might get to see Gabriel García Márquez..:D

Who knows?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Kim by Rudyard Kipling

Title: Kim
Author: Rudyard Kipling
ISBN-13: 9780140183528

Publisher: Penguin Group/338pages
First Published: 1901

Kim is a story about a British orphan about thirteen years of age who has been raised on the streets of Lahore, now in Pakistan. He speaks fluent Hindi, understands assorted dialects and, is well versed in whirl of religions and cultures. He takes to the road as a disciple of a wandering Tibetan priest in search of a mythical holy river with healing powers. Along the way, he has a chance meeting with his deceased father's old army regiment and his identity is revealed to him. The army sends him to an English language Catholic school in the south, but his underlying value, because of his knowledge of local language and understanding of culture, is quickly made use by a member of the British secret service.

Kim is not a children’s book. A child may be the main character, but the book is too philosophical and filled with complex human behaviour to be of much interest to children. The main thrush of the book is the relationship between Kim and the Red Lama, the basic story of two people, one an orphan boy and the other an elderly mystic, finding many of the things they are seeking in caring for and looking after one another.

In Kim, Kipling characterizes all the good of India while playing down the contrasts. He shows us what India would have been like in an ideal situation of mutual tolerance. Kipling’s observations are remarkable and one realizes from time to time that it is not the writer’s imagination about a period long gone but that he was in fact a part of that period. The sights, sounds, phrases, references, and personalities are entirely authentic. Kipling captures the sound, smell, and colour of India in the early part of the 20th century like no one else. He was a writer gifted with an acute sense of observation and a keen eye for details.

Another angle on the story is what is says about modern human intelligence operations. The leading British intelligent agent recognizes that Kim has language and culture skills that cannot be taught in any academy.

The story takes place after the Indian mutiny of 1857when many families were divided by violence. That period was a time of immense upheaval in India. It went from being a country made up of many native princely states with Englishmen as merchants to one unified under the flag of England. There was tension between the English in India and the Indians. There was also a staunch love of India by those same ruling Englishmen and women. Even Kipling did not envisage that the mutiny of 1858 was a step in the fight for India's independence. He was convinced that what England was doing was right despite his love for India. There in lies the irony.

At places, one has to plod through despite the poetic language. Still this is well worth the read. It does give a good glimpse of British rule in India.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Title: Northanger Abbey
Author: Jane Austen
ISBN: 1853260436
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics/165 pages

This early Jane Austen novel is a satire of the reading tastes of the young, their near addiction to Gothic "horror" stories. Here Austen is overflowing with her unmistakable satiric wit, charm, and astonishing worldly wisdom.

Catherine Morland, aged 17, is expanding her horizons by visiting Bath with her neighbours, The Allens. She gets involved with the Thorpe family, who are not what they seem, and the Tilney family, with whom she forms genuine warmth that leads her to visit their family home, Northanger Abbey. Catherine has spent a good deal of time reading novels, and she allows her imagination to run wild once she finds herself in the dark corridors of the abbey. The appearance of Henry helps subdue her theatrics a bit but she still finds herself drawn into situations she does not understand. She expects the worst horrors because of her enthusiastic reading of Mrs. Radcliff’s novels. She feels certain to have stumbled upon a secret family shame or even horror. The General's odd behaviour seems to confirm her growing suspicious of dark deeds surrounding the death of the late Mrs. Tileny.

Without any explanation, the domineering General gets Catherine thrown out of his home defying all the rules of hospitality and decency. Henry is not present to protest, so Catherine is sent off in ignominy and secret tears back to her unsuspecting family.
Austen is mocking the meeting and mating customs of that period in Britain. She is also mocking the gothic novels of the day: Catherine, influenced by the lowbrow literature she reads, is forever attributing dark motives to her acquaintances and skeletons to their closets.

Catherine is easily manipulated and slow to learn from her mistakes, and she bumbles into her eventual successful conclusion completely by accident, none the wiser for her troubles. Austen makes clear right at the onset that she does not wish to attack the novelists who wrote the books from which Catherine derives many of her false ideas but that the error is Catherine's interpretation of the stories.

Much of the story fits in with typical Gothic novel, but the frightening and dismaying things Catherine eventually discovers are of a far from supernatural sort. Greed, selfishness and pride, these are the horrors of Northanger Abbey. The hidden motive of seemingly delightful friends is brought to light, teaching young Catherine as well as the reader a painful lesson in real life.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

Title: The Handmaid’s Tale
Author: Margaret Atwood
ISBN: 0770428207
Publisher: Seal Books
Genre: Fiction/388 pages

The Handmaid’s Tale is my first book by Atwood. It kept lingering in my mind long time after I finished reading it. It follows in the footsteps of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four creating a cold fear in the heart by imagining it to be true.

As the title conveys, it is a story of a handmaid, Offred in an imaginary place called Gilead, which was previously known as the USA. Every month on a day called the ceremony, she has to lie on her back in the bed of commander and his wife and pray for him to make her pregnant. In that bed, all three lay together, the wife holding her hands and commander doing the needful. She keeps staring at the roof while the ritual is being performed. Handmaids are valued only because of what they can provide via their wombs.

She is allowed a walk once a day to the market along with another handmaid in the neighbourhood. She keeps thinking of her husband, Luke, her daughter, her best friend, Moira and her mother. She has nothing to record her thoughts as reading and writing is forbidden for females. She keeps all those in her mind wishing to write those down some day. Does she escape? Only time will tell.

The male characters have no surnames, a few are guardians, or drivers or some such like for the commanders. Woman are either the Wives, Marthas, the working class, Handmaids—those who are there to produce babies. Others who are not useful in anyway end up in colonies or killed. The colonies shown here are like those concentration camps.

Offred flits from thoughts to thoughts. Despite her plight, we glimpse a rebellion streak in her. The story moves forward with irony, wit, sadness, and comical relief too. Contemplating it is too horrifying. Imagining a time when there are no children and only surrogate mothers in the form of handmaids can help bearing them.

A very chilling account and it can happen too if we are not careful. A must read.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Booking through Decorum

Do you have “issues” with too much profanity or overly explicit “romantic” scenes in books? Or do you take them in stride? Have issues like these ever caused you to close a book? Or do you go looking for more exactly like them?

I usually do not read romances. When I am in the mood to read one
which is rare nowadays, I look out for soft ones. Sometimes one cannot tell from the cover, what kind of book it would turn out to be. If steamy scenes are part of the story, I suppose I dwell right into it. I have not stopped reading any book because of it. Some romance writers can write those scenes very well without it getting raunchy.The romance element is important for me. As for as looking more of it, that was in my younger days. Now it is few and far between. Mills and Boon and Harlequin romances have undergone lots of changes over the years. These have got steamy scenes but even now those are not hard-core!

Hard-core porn puts me off.