George Orwell – Down and Out in Paris & London

Posted on | April 14, 2013 | No Comments

Let’s defy convention for  a second, and instead of quoting the opening lines of this fantastic classic, below are the closing lines:

I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. This is a beginning.

It’s the last sentence in this vibrant yet bleak book that makes one want to go back and re-read it straight away. This is my second read of the book, and I was as mesmerised with Orwell’s tales residing in the slums of Paris and London now, as I was then, some ten years ago.

It is difficult for me to pen down my thoughts on this book. Maybe start with the cover of my edition – it’s incredibly simple, yet eye-catching. If I were to judge this book by its cover, I would say it’s unpretentious, unapologetic, and is quite “black and white” (literally speaking). The contents are true to the cover – at least of the edition I am lucky enough to have on my shelf.

Paris, the most romantic city in the world, nicknamed the city of lights, unsurprisingly has a dark underbelly. Romanticism is abandoned as Orwell chronicles his time in Paris in the 1920s, spent completely broke in fairly squalid quarters. To get by, for some bread, wine and tobacco, Orwell worked some fairly grim jobs, which introduced him to a multitude of fascinating characters. The restaurant scene was buzzing in the city, and there were jobs available, but nothing to really write home about. Plenty to write a novel about though, littered with introspective and retrospective thoughts.

A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work. He is kept at work, ultimately, because of a vague feeling that he would be dangerous if he had leisure. And educated people, who should be on his side, acquiesce in the process, because they know nothing about him and consequently are afraid of him.

Scammers, foreigners, war heroes, and eccentric neighbours all made multiple appearances as Orwell traipsed through Paris, fatigued and sleep-deprived, constantly being conned out of money, with most of his earthly possessions pawned.

It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure, at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs – and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.

When he finally hits rock bottom, he sends a note to a friend in London, trying to see if life in London would improve. The friend suggested a job which seemed as an improvement, but Lady Luck was not smiling down on Orwell at the time, and by the time he got to London, the job was no longer available. History was about to repeat itself, as Orwell tried to navigate a very expensive city with no money, and few friends.

It (London) was the land of the tea urn and the Labour Exchange, as Paris is the land of the bistro and the sweatshop.

He slept in skipes, cheap skanky lodging houses, and Salvation Army shelters. For some of these places, you had to hand over all your money before you were allowed to enter; at others, you handed over all your tobacco. Unlike Paris, one couldn’t sit on a bench in London lest the police arrested the offender for loafing around. Amidst other things, Orwell joined a bunch of ungrateful tramps in prayer for a cup of tea and a bun, he conversed at length with an amateur artist, and walked through the city waiting for shelters to open. One of the more thought-provoking sentences in the book was, in fact, mentioned by the amateur artist:

The stars are a free show; it don’t cost anything to use your eyes.

It is an amazing thought – simple yet evocative. Orwell even contemplates on the nature of jobs, and why the world sneers at beggars.

Beggars do not work, it is said; but then, what is work? A navvy works by swinging a pick. An accountant works by adding up figures. A beggar works by standing out of doors in all weathers and getting varicose veins, bronchitis etc. It is a trade like any other; quite useless, of course — but, then, many reputable trades are quite useless.

It is hard to dismiss poverty and beggars considering the amount they pay in suffering. Orwell, throughout the book, remains mostly conscientious and honest, as do a lot of the people he interacts with. He does not apologise for his situation, nor does he make any excuses for it. Orwell’s claim to fame wasn’t posthumous like Van Gogh’s. Yet, when one considers how “down and out” Orwell was, and where he got to, and some of the books he churned out, one cannot help but be blown away. I say “one” in an abstract third-person kind-of way, but the previous sentence is meant to reflect what I think. I am absolutely blown away, for the second time, with this fantastic work of non-fiction.

“Don’t Be Evil”

Posted on | April 1, 2013 | No Comments

I’m fast starting to believe that everything in the world is a giant conspiracy theory against me. Okay, that’s me being a tad hyperbolic. Just a tad – not more, not less. There are two pieces of news that I have stumbled upon in the last seventy-two hours, which depress me to no end.

Amazon Purchases GoodReads

There you have it. Amazon suddenly has a lot more power and influence in the book industry. For those of you who like graphs:

The chart is staggering. The rise of Amazon’s dominance is almost unreal, but as we have our beloved bricks-and-mortar stores closing all around us, one has to wonder? How much of this industry is Amazon going to monopolise? Has it already reached the point where there is no competition in this space? At least, not from the other so-called “big players”. The online stores have quite possibly already won this battle. That said, I fully believe there will be indie bookshops that will be survive – as long as there are book-lovers, there is a place for the smaller, more independent bookshops, that’s more about the books, less about the money.

Yet, with Amazon purchasing GoodReads, a site “for book-lovers by book-lovers” (I’m ad-libbing), it almost seems like there will soon be no real e-competition left either. Amazon already owns The Book Depository, Shelfari (the “Shelfari by” banner makes me cringe, ever-so-slightly), and Abe Books (by virtue of which, it has a stake in LibraryThing). The one thing we learn in high school economics is, monopolies are detrimental to the economy. It doesn’t take rocket science to work that out. With the purchase of GoodReads, Amazon is one step closer to attaining that monopoly?

GoodReads is fantastic. I use it to maintain lists (boy, I love my lists!), keep track of what I am reading, and to connect with other book lovers who may not be on the blogosphere. I’d browse it for hours, peruse the quotes from a book if the book itself piqued my interest, and read reviews. Also, I spent a fair bit of time browsing through all the various editions and covers of the books, marvelling at how they have evolved through time. Yes, it is entirely possible that I have squandered precious time exploring GoodReads, much like a child in a candy store. The one option I have never used (yet always appreciated) on GoodReads is “Get A Copy” – the immediate option is ‘Kobo’ and then there are a bunch on ‘online stores’ listed in a drop-down. Amazon doesn’t even feature at first glance, such that it is almost refreshing. That’s going to change! It is inevitable.

With this purchase, Amazon now has a great recommendation site, that caters to passionate book-lovers and that’s it. This will add an immense value to Amazon’s “recommendations” (if you liked this…), which for me has been a bit hit-and-miss lately. It also means that one can expect tight integration with the Kindle and GoodReads, for, from what I have read, the Kindle social component is virtually non-existent. GoodReads, on the other hand, very very good.

I am not going to delete my GoodReads account – honestly, I don’t see the point. As long as it continues giving me what it gives me right now, and doesn’t undergo a complete metamorphosis after the takeover, I will carry on using it. However, if it does undergo a complete metamorphosis…

…let’s not worry about that for now.

The Death Of Google Reader

Apparently, a few days ago, as part of it’s spring-cleaning, the “Don’t Be Evil” company that is Google announced that it would be killing Google Reader. Now, I don’t know about you, but I use Google Reader excessively – to keep up with my reading blogs, tech blogs, language blogs, and well, a plethora of other random things that pique my interest at some point or the other. I suppose it is true: Google giveth, and Google taketh away. But seriously – Google Plus stays (is anyone even using it?) but Google Reader goes? I would be quite interested in getting the numbers for both those services, in terms of how actively they are being used.

I’ve been exploring alternatives, and while Feedly seems to be the obvious one, I’m not blown away. It’s not that I am hard to please. However, Feedly doesn’t seem to have:

  1. a web interface – instead it relies on a browser add-on.
  2. search functionality
  3. no “Mark All As Read” feature
  4. the ability to read in the app itself – it means, for each article, I need to visit the site.

This is all second-hand information, but it does make me worry a tad. On the bright side, it remembers the articles I’ve “starred” in Google Reader which is a major plus.

How about you? Are you a big Google Reader user, and if so, what alternative(s) are you leaning towards?

Virginia Woolf – The Waves

Posted on | April 1, 2013 | 1 Comment

The inexplicable fear that surged through me at the very mention of Woolf’s name has alleviated somewhat after my first foray into her works three years ago. Granted it has taken me three years to pick up another book by one of the foremost modernists, but, it was also a book I picked up while trying to return to the world of reading and literature. I expected to struggle, as I did with Mrs. Dalloway; I was prepared to lose myself in the long-windedness, the meanderings; I looked forward to being blown away and challenged, in equal measure. I was not disappointed.

That would be a glorious life, to addict oneself to perfection; to follow the curve of the sentence wherever it might lead, into deserts, under drifts of sand, regardless of lures, of seductions; to be poor always and unkempt; to be ridiculous in Piccadilly.

The Waves is a colloquy of sorts. The interspersed monologues of six characters, through different phases of their lives is essentially the crux of the book. However, none of the words are being said out aloud; instead, it is simply the thoughts fleeting through their minds, in present tense. It starts when the six characters are children – friends – and carries on through the various phases in their life: school; marriage; children; and finally, inevitably, old age.

Let us again pretend that life is a solid substance, shaped like a globe, which we turn about in our fingers. Let us pretend that we can make out a plain and logical story, so that when one matter is despatched—love for instance—we go on, in an orderly manner, to the next.

Yet, can you really call them characters when all that is revealed to you, as a reader, are the thoughts racing in their minds, and nothing more? And nothing less? Merely their voices, distinguishable by subtle inflexions and that’s it?

The nine chapters that make up this book represent two things: the time of the day, and the stage of life the protagonists are in.

The first chapter, abundant with the voices of childhood and playfulness, is prefaced with a beautiful image of the sunrise, with the waves softly splashing. All six characters make an appearance in that first chapter, almost as though they are introducing themselves. The final chapter, carries a lot more weight, and is a lot more reflective; it is prefaced with a stunning image of the sun going down, with the waves crashing, and only has one of the characters – Bernard – reflecting and introspecting, in his old age, with the benefit of hindsight. The book does rise gradually to the crescendo that is the last chapter, for when you turn that last page, the feeling that overcomes you, as a reader, cannot be translated into words. That is the power of Woolf’s writing.

Initially, it is difficult to get accustomed to the writing. The main challenge has nothing to do with the convoluted sentences that Woolf is famous for. In fact, due to the extremely lyrical writing, the temptation is almost to close your eyes, and let the words take over. The emotions evoked by the descriptive writing results in images dancing before your eyes, more overwhelming than expected. Significantly so.

The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.

Instead, the challenge arises from how each character is an extension of the other, such that it is almost impossible to distinguish the soliloquies of one character from the next. The shift in voice is subtle, and easy to miss, unless you take in each word – slowly, patiently.

‘But when we sit together, close,’ said Bernard, ‘we melt into each other with phrases. We are edged with mist. We make an unsubstantial territory.’

No, the writing does not mimic the way people speak, or the way people think. It is overtly poetic, excessively exaggerated and wonderfully evocative, but that’s what ensures the connection between the reader and the character. Due to the stream-of-consciousness writing, one can be assured of the character’s candour, and this in turn strengthens the bond.

There is, then, a world immune from change. But I am not composed enough, standing on tiptoe on the verge of fire, still scorched by the hot breath, afraid of the door opening and the leap of the tiger, to make even one sentence. What I say is perpetually contradicted. Each time the door opens I am interrupted. I am not yet twenty-one. I am to be broken. I am to be derided all my life. I am to be cast up and down among these men and women, with their twitching faces, with their lying tongues, like a cork on a rough sea. Like a ribbon of weed I am flung far every time the door opens. I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room.

As a reader, who has undergone similar experiences, it is easy to empathise and sympathise with the characters, while simultaneously berating them or unconsciously nudging them to change their course.

This is Woolf at her most experimental, after the unfortunate demise of her brother at the age of twenty-six. The themes of absence, loss and death are prevalent in the book, with the existence of a seventh character: Percival. At no point do you hear Percival’s voice, or the thoughts running in his head, yet he is a central character in the book, by virtue of the fact that he is constantly referred to by the other characters. Praise is flung at him, and the consensus amidst the six characters that you interact with through the book is that Percival is perfect, and cannot do any wrong. Initially, there are high hopes and aspirations for him, until he dies in his twenties (Percival has died (he died in Egypt; he died in Greece; all deaths are one death)). The other characters try to rationalise his death, to no avail.

And in me too the wave rises. It swells; it arches its back. I am aware once more of a new desire, something rising beneath me like the proud horse whose rider first spurs and then pulls him back. What enemy do we now perceive advancing against us, you whom I ride now, as we stand pawing this stretch of pavement? It is death. Death is the enemy. It is death against whom I ride with my spear couched and my hair flying back like a young man’s, like Percival’s, when he galloped in India. I strike spurs into my horse. Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!

I have not dwelled on the six characters whose voices make up this classic. That is almost immaterial, I feel, as I reflect on this book. They all have their place, and their importance, and the lack of even one of them would render this book slightly less impactful. The imagery, the cornucopia of metaphors, the insecurities and the accomplishments of the characters, and the lingering presence of a dear departed friend results in a book that necessitates a re-read. And another read. A single read is not enough to appreciate The Waves the Woolf has woven, at what has to be her best. It’s a bold claim for someone who has simply read just one other book by her, but over the course of this year, I would like to change that. And hopefully, re-read this masterpiece someday soon.

Gabriel García Márquez – Leaf Storm

Posted on | July 6, 2012 | 2 Comments

Leaf StormIt’s been just over a year since I read Of Love And Other Demons, so I figured it’s time to read another book by one of my favourite authors. Well, not exactly. I had just pulled out four books from my bookshelf as I headed for a week long respite from reality, and ended up talking to one of my colleagues about the books I was taking with me. So, he mentioned that his favourite authors were Camus and Calvino (neither of which have any presence on this blog, embarrassingly – I really need to catch up on their works! I’ve only read the one Calvino!!). I automatically replied that Márquez is one of my favourites, and then realised that I have an unread book by him on the shelf, so surely – surely, it should travel with me. And so it did.

Leaf Storm is Márquez’s first published work, and it took him seven years to find a publisher for the book, before it was eventually released in 1955. While Márquez claims this is his favourite work, ambivalence floods me. I can categorically state that this isn’t my favourite work by the Nobel Prize laureate. It’s not even in the top three, but, the novella does still wow me. Márquez seems to have that effect on me every single time.

The entire novel is set in a single room, on one afternoon. Three voices from three generations – the Colonel, his daughter, and his grandson – take centerstage, as the Colonel attempts to keep a promise made a long time ago: give the much-disliked French doctor a Christian burial.

The doctor arrived in Macondo, a village one might know from One Hundred Years of Solitude, on the same day as the village priest, and while the latter became an influential part of the society, the doctor made himself fairly unpopular. He lived with the Colonel for eight years, and then, moved two houses down with the housemaid. Through all the time the Colonel knew him, he never knew his name.

While the premise is straightforward, and the scope of the book tightly contained, the wonder of the book lies in the stream-of-consciousness narration of the three protagonists, as they reflect on the current state of affairs, what brought them here, and how their actions here (to bury the doctor) will influence their future in a village, which once prosperous, has gone back to being poverty-stricken, after the leaf storm passed. Amidst other things, the reader is privy to the circumstances surrounding the Colonel’s daughter’s wedding, the thoughts of the child as he encounters death for the first time, the commitment of the Colonel, and of course, the explanation behind why the doctor is as unpopular as he is.

What was incredible was being re-introduced to the fictional village of Macondo, and Colonel Aureliano Buendía making an appearance again – even if it was only as the writer of the letter which the doctor gave the Colonel on first arriving in the village, which led to the Colonel extending an invitation to the doctor to stay at his house. There is something quite special about finding old friends in new books, and being on familiar ground. Of course, in this case, Leaf Storm is the predecessor to One Hundred Years Of Solitude, but, that’s a small detail.

For me, the difficulty in this book arose while trying to figure out which character was narrating at any given point in time. For the most part, it was not that laborious, albeit at times, passages had to be re-read, in order to determine who the narrator was, and personally, I found that diminished the reading experience.

All in all though, as a one-shot, and as a first novel(la), this really must be read – specially by fans of Márquez. Have you read this novella? What did you think? And more importantly, which of Márquez’s works should I read next?

A Ride Through Silence

Posted on | July 5, 2012 | No Comments

Yes, I am ad-libbing Pink Floyd’s Coming Back To Life here, but it does seem apt, considering how long I’ve been AWOL, and well, I am trying to crawl my way back to writing. It’s not that I haven’t been reading – I have! It’s just – I’m struggling with writing at this point in time. Stringing together two sentences is so much effort, and every time I re-read what I’ve written, it makes me want to ‘Select All’ and ‘Delete’. It’s rubbish.

I have half a dozen or so posts sitting in ‘Drafts’ waiting to be re-worked, proof read, and deleted so that no one will witness my oh-so-cringeworthy writing. I can’t really attribute this to writer’s block, but I think it’s something to do with a hundred things running through my head as I try to write, instead of a clean slate.

A friend sent me this article yesterday, and I can’t help but wonder if that’s where I am stuck – the so-called “busy trap”. Life’s too short to work this hard, life’s too short to be this busy, but yet – the completely batty, crazy and unreasonable person in me refuses to acknowledge this. It’s like talking to an out and out idiot. When I was unwell a couple of years ago, I decided that it was okay to indulge the neurotic OCD half of my personality, who really did suffer during those few months. I think, possibly, that needs to change. Or stop. Life, as I know it, is getting ridiculous.

I guess that’s part of the reason why I read The Fountainhead again. It’s a book I can ramble on about. Just mention Roark’s name to me, and off I go! It’s awesome. Amazing. And a bit nostalgic, for reading that book always takes me back to the fourteen year old me.

Anyhoo, I am going to try and blog more, but please have patience, and don’t judge me for not being able to string sentences together. I’ll get there eventually. All I need is a little time, and well, that’s it really.

Lost in thought and lost in time
While the seeds of life and the seeds of change were planted
Outside the rain fell dark and slow
While I pondered on this dangerous but irresistible pastime
I took a heavenly ride through our silence
I knew the moment had arrived
For killing the past and coming back to life

I took a heavenly ride through our silence
I knew the waiting had begun
And headed straight..into the shining sun

Ayn Rand – The Fountainhead

Posted on | July 5, 2012 | 3 Comments

The FountainheadThe fourteenth re-read. In thirteen years. That’s how much I love this book, and how much I’m totally and completely in love with the protagonist, Howard Roark. For years, I’ve longed for a world of Roarks, and all I’ve seen around me is a world of Keatings and Wynands. And at that point, I can’t help but quote Wordsworth’s Lines Written In Early Spring:

Have I not reason to lament,
What man has made of man?

This post is destined to be a ramble. Me writing about this book without gushing is much like the weather in London not being totally whimsical, i.e. extremely unlikely. Therefore, I attribute the nature of this post to the stream of consciousness style, and derive significant comfort from the fact that I’m able to use a classic literary device in order to justify gushing. I apologise, but it can’t be helped. It is inevitable.

You see, when I was fourteen, and read this book for the first time, I was an idealist to the core; naive, innocent and untainted. The eventual triumph of Roark, of “selfishness” as Rand sees it, was almost like a fairytale to me – a fairytale I clung to from that moment on. As long as you stick by what you believe in, as long as you try to do the right thing, as long as you don’t compromise on your ideals, the world is guaranteed to be yours. So basically, I spent the latter half of my teenage life – my formative years, if you will – with Kipling’s If and Rand’s philosophies ingrained in my tiny brain. That probably explains why I am the way I am to a large extent.

“Howard Roark laughed.”

That is the opening line of the novel, and in this chapter, the reader discovers that Roark has been expelled from Stanton for refusing to submit works that were in line with traditional architecture. Instead, his complete disregard for architecture through history, coupled with his bold modernist designs means that he stands apart from the herd, and consequently, his works aren’t appreciated.

“But you see,” said Roark quietly, “I have, let’s say, sixty years to live. Most of that time will be spent working. I’ve chosen the work I want to do. If I find no joy in it, then I’m only condemning myself to sixty years of torture. And I can find the joy only if I do my work in the best way possible to me. But the best is a matter of standards—and I set my own standards. I inherit nothing. I stand at the end of no tradition. I may, perhaps, stand at the beginning of one.”

In parallel, we’re introduced to the ingratiating Peter Keating – the pompous popular student who has graduated from Stanton with honours.

While Roark seeks tutelage under Henry Cameron in New York, a once popular architect who has since fallen from grace, Keating is hired by a leading architectural firm, Francon & Heyer (also in New York), where he quickly tries to eliminate the competition, and brown-noses the partners. As the book proceeds, Keating’s character becomes increasingly insufferable. He lacks original thought, plays the corporate game, and for every big contract that lands on his lap, he goes to Roark for help. Yet, unsurprisingly, despite his success and fame, he never reveals Roark’s contribution to his works, or gives him any credit. He eventually makes partner at the firm.

Roark, on the other hand, doesn’t land very many contracts while working with Cameron. The two work hard, they stick by their ideals, by what they believe architecture is meant to be, but to no avail. Upon Cameron’s retirement, Roark drifts between architectural firms, never really managing to stick around for long enough in any, due to his absolute refusal to compromise on his ideals.

When all else fails, he goes to work in a quarry in Connecticut, where he meets the main female protagonist of the book: Dominique Francon, the estranged daughter of Keating’s partner in the firm. Dominique is probably the most intriguing and compelling character in the book – dare I say, more so than Roark. She is intelligent beyond belief, wary of a world where mediocrity is  lauded, and petrified of society reducing greatness to nothing. A long time ago, I recall reading that the inspiration for her character wasn’t anyone from the real world, but simply a “Romantic” creation by Rand, who in some biography does say that Dominique is Rand herself – in a bad mood!

The chemistry between Roark and Dominique is evident from the time they first meet, but considering the personalities of both, a regular courtship isn’t on the cards. Instead, it’s a battle of wits, which eventually results in a sexual encounter, that, at a later point in the book, Dominique calls rape. Roark leaves Connecticut for New York, when he gets a surprising commission, and much before Dominique knows his name. The connection between the two is so incredibly strong though, that it’s almost as though they are simply an extension of one another.

“She thought how strange it would be if she ever said ‘Hello’ to him. One did not greet oneself each morning.”

Yet, when Dominique discovers that Roark isn’t just a quarryman, but an architect, and not just any architect, but an architect whose work she genuinely admires, she sets out to destroy him. To ensure that he gets no work. That any commission that he’s being considered for goes to Peter Keating, the anti-Roark. It’s not out of spite, but out of love, for she thinks that Roark’s work is pure and unadulterated, and the world will ruin it, debase it, and eventually destroy it and consequently, do the same to the man she is in love with. The world, in her opinion, does not deserve Roark.

She seeks help from Toohey, who is by far the most despicable character in the book. Possibly the most despicable character in literature. Unsurprisingly, Dominique shares that sentiment, but uses him to reach her end goal. She also marries Peter Keating, who is completely smitten with her, but way before she proposes to him, she does tell him:

“Peter, if I ever want to punish myself for something terrible, if I ever want to punish myself disgustingly— I’ll marry you.”

I will not start with the whole consequentialism vs. deontologism debate here. This goes way deeper, way beyond that. The philosophy here isn’t quite so simple, it’s not quite so naive. She marries Keating simply because she doesn’t want to live in a world where she sees Roark getting crushed as the evil forces of the world gang up on him, she can’t bear to see him lose. So, she goes to the other extreme – to live in the ugly world which will always prevail over the beautiful. Yes, the mind boggles. Dominique gives up on her own happiness to ensure that in the long term, there is no chance of her getting hurt. Well, I can kind-of relate, and empathise.

But, back to the despicable Toohey – Toohey represents everything that is wrong with the world. He creates the monsters, he encourages mediocrity, he champions the untalented, but fears the likes of Roark – people with the character and the strength to make a difference, to influence society in a positive way. Toohey’s column in the New York Banner initially refuses to acknowledge Roark, and eventually when he can’t ignore the architect, he undermines him and mocks him. Honest to god, the future that Toohey envisages is the kind that would make a great dystopian novel. The sad truth of the matter: there are more Tooheys around us than one would like to believe.

“If you learn how to rule one single man’s soul, you can get the rest of mankind. It’s the soul, Peter, the soul. Not whips or swords or fire or guns. That’s why the Caesars, the Attilas, the Napoleons were fools and did not last. We will. The soul, Peter, is that which can’t be ruled. It must be broken. Drive a wedge in, get your fingers on it–and the man is yours.”

Sad but true, society laps up what the media sells. If a journalist raves about a play, the public who view it will shy away from admitting that they didn’t “get it” lest they appear to be philistines. The power of media, specially in today’s day and age, is second to none, and society is so malleable, so easy to influence, so easy to taint, that if one media tycoon decides to sell something, it will sell, even if it is drivel. Toohey recognised that, built his group of followers, who didn’t know better, and through them focused on becoming omnipotent. He almost prevailed. This is the world we live in. This is what man has made of man.

And then you have Gail Wynand – the media tycoon, inspired by Hearst – who has deliberately chosen to propagate mediocrity and sensationalism, being an egregious panderer. Wynand, in fact, is the owner of the Banner, and despite some of the truly shocking stances his newspaper takes, he never gets involved, even if he does disagree with the stories at a personal level. What is incredibly interesting is just quite how similar Wynand and Roark are, in terms of their socio-economic backgrounds. What stands out, of course, is how Wynand exemplifies Nietzsche’s will to power, whereas Roark’s epitomises Rand’s selfishness, and at the end, only one wins. And considering I called this book a fairytale, no prizes for guessing the winner.

It really is gratifying to see conformity and collectivism (for the sake of collectivism) losing out to integrity and idealism. A man sticking by what he believes in, irrespective of the hurdles in his way, and refusing to compromise on his core beliefs, no matter what the cost – that’s something. I don’t need to dwell on the negative connotations of the word selfishness, but the true definition remains “concern with one’s own interests”. Take away the moral dilemma one faces each time they are called “selfish”, for, let’s face it – no one, absolutely no one, thinks there’s a compliment hidden there, anywhere. If, at my very core, I am not driven by evil but by a considerably more positive force, is me being selfish a bad thing?

We live in a world where money and power can get you anywhere, where those two evils tempt you beyond belief, where the mere suggestion of either or both makes people do things that they know are morally wrong. You see it everywhere – people compromise, people discard their beliefs, people shrug off their morals, people give in to temptation, simply because they believe that the end justifies the means. Consequentialism.

“To sell your soul is the easiest thing in the world. That’s what everybody does every hour of his life. If I asked you to keep your soul – would you understand why that’s much harder?”

I don’t see anything evil in a desire to make money. But money is only a means to some end. If a man wants it for a personal purpose—to invest in his industry, to create, to study, to travel, to enjoy luxury—he’s completely moral. But the men who place money first go much beyond that. Personal luxury is a limited endeavor. What they want is ostentation: to show, to stun, to entertain, to impress others. They’re second-handers.

At the age of fourteen, when I first read this book, Roark immediately became the first person I fell in love with – yes, he is fictional, but I had faith, that if such a character can exist in a book, surely he can exist in the real world. And well, I started holding myself to that standard.

“I hate incompetence. I think it’s probably the only thing I do hate. But it didn’t make me want to rule people. Nor to teach them anything. It made me want to do my own work in my own way and let myself be torn to pieces if necessary”

This time when I pulled the book off the shelf though, I was looking for something much more than the annual re-read of one of my all-time favourite books – a book I learn from each time I read it; a book I get something from each time I read it. Through time, my attitude towards the book has remained the same. Roark’s shown me the path I need to walk on. It’s as simple as that.

But – and pardo the repetition, please – this time, I was looking for something much more. I don’t second guess the person I am normally. I don’t question whether what I’m doing is morally right or wrong. If in doubt, don’t do it. Shades of grey don’t really exist in my world.

“Ask anything of men. Ask them to achieve wealth, fame, love, brutality, murder, self-sacrifice. But don’t ask them to achieve self-respect. They will hate your soul.”

What was I looking for? Reassurance, I guess. I’m no longer the idealist I was when I was fourteen. I’m more cynical than I should be. Excuse the comparison, but I find myself becoming more Dominique and less Howard. I don’t want to give up my fairytale, nor do I want to give up the person I’ve spent just under half my life trying to be. I liked being an idealist. Being a cynic, on the other hand, not so much. Specially as the idealist in me hasn’t actually died – it’s just in a never-ending battle with the cynic. Yet, when I look at the world around me… and here – here I quote Wordsworth again: Not without hope, we suffer and we mourn. I don’t know. Is it still safe to say that idealism will triumph over all else? Is it still enough to say that as long as I am selfish and stick by my convictions, there will be happily ever after? Is it still accurate to believe that it’s the Roarks that prevail and the Keatings and Wynands that will give up and give in? For, fair’s fair.

John Updike – The Widows of Eastwick

Posted on | March 18, 2012 | 7 Comments

Updike’s Rabbit series has been on my to-read list for a very long time, so I’m not quite sure how my foray into his world started with his final book, published in 2008. And, as the blurb on the back didn’t say anything about this book being a sequel of sorts to The Witches of Eastwick, which is also kind-of unfortunate for I approached this book as standalone. Which it possibly isn’t. That said though, this book can easily be read in isolation. It’s just that, sometimes, context is a good thing. But, anyway…

The Widows of Eastwick follows three witches who used to be friends in their youth, but have since gone their own separate ways, in marriage and parenthood. However, once their husbands have died, and the children move away, the “three old ladies, gone brittle and dry in their corruption” reunite.

As widowed Americans, they travel – first it’s Alexandra who goes to Canada alone, and then it’s Jane and Alexandra who go to Egypt together, and finally, the coven come together with Sukie, as they travel to China. This part of the book reads more like a travel brochure than a piece of fiction, and while descriptions are normally a good thing, this was just incredibly slow-moving, and had me longing for an uptick in pace.

The wait didn’t last too long, for when the witches visit the hometown they had run away from one summer, things start getting interesting. They gather that their crimes from the yesteryears would be forgotten by now, and nostalgia coupled with curiosity leads them back home. It doesn’t sound plausible, but as a reader, you go with it, for you want to see why Updike is taking the witches back to the scene of their past crimes – is it atonement, or is it for the victims to exact revenge?

The homecoming isn’t quite what they imagined. Eastwick has unsurprisingly changed over the years, from the fun hick place they all remember,  to a homogenised one. For the most part, they are forgotten, but they meet Christopher Gabriel, who blames the witches for the unfortunate demise of his sister – and he is looking for recrimination by casting spells on the witches using electricity. This is serious mumbo-jumbo territory. The witches look to magic, in an effort to protect themselves, but… is it too little too late?

I hate saying this, but the book really did leave a lot to be desired. None of the protagonists were in the least likeable. Forget likeable, I couldn’t even relate to them at any level. The story came across as forced and instead of witchcraft, the theme seemed to be about three old ladies repenting their past – or the past they couldn’t have.

From the reviews I’ve read, this does not sound like Updike’s best work, so I suspect there will be more Updike on my reading list soon, for if nothing else, his writing is quite accessible (which surprised me). What would you recommend? And, should I go back to read about the shenanigans of the witches in their youth?

Jeannette Walls – The Glass Castle

Posted on | March 12, 2012 | 8 Comments

I think sometimes people get the lives they want.

This is a rather unflinching nonfictional memoir, in which Walls traverses her childhood days. For the most part, the book focuses on her parents, who were ill-equipped to raise children in the real world. Yet, it’s the affection and lack of judgement leaping off the pages, that makes this book incredibly endearing.

In the opening paragraph, Walls is in a taxi in New York City, and she notices a woman scavenging a garbage bin, only to realise it’s her own mother.

Once the present has been asserted, the trip down memory lane begins.

Walls’ childhood isn’t one most of us can imagine, and it is difficult to not to judge her parents. By the time she’s four, her family’s moved some eleven times, for a myriad of reasons and whims.

Her father, Rex, is an intelligent man, who’s spent a fair bit of time educating the kids, to ensure that they’re well ahead of other kids their own age. However, “a drinking situation” and the inability to keep a job means that money is always a problem.

Her mother, Rose, on the other hand, is a painter, and possibly one of the most self-involved and deluded mothers you’ll come across. A self-proclaimed ‘excitement addict’, Rose doesn’t really seem to care about anyone but herself.

“Mom told us we would have to go shoplifting.

Isn’t that a sin?” I asked Mom.

Not exactly,” Mom said. “God doesn’t mind you bending the rules a little if you have a good reason. It’s sort of like justifiable homicide. This is justifiable pilfering.”

A self-proclaimed ‘sugar addict’, Rose hid a king-sized bar of Hersheys in her bed, for herself, even though the kids had nothing to eat, and were scavenging for food in the school trash.

“Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” she’d ask us, “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?”

The “let it be” ideas that Rex and Rose harboured about parenthood was, in a conventional sense, far from ideal. Not only were they constantly moving cities, on the whims of Rex (or when his creditors were chasing him), but each traumatic experience that the children experienced was dismissed as mandatory lessons.

“Life is a drama full of tragedy and comedy,” Mom told me. “You should learn to enjoy the comic episodes a little more.”

When Jeannette managed to burn herself at the age of three, and required skin grafts, her father bailed her out from the hospital, because he doesn’t like the bandages, against medical advice. Later, when they were moving cities in the old car, their cat was thrown out of the window by her father. At another point, Jeannette herself was hurled out of the car, and had to wait for a few hours before her parents picked her up again. And then, when her grandmother molested her brother, Rex sides with his mother.

Christmas is always an interesting time, as it’s celebrated a few days later, to allow the family to get second-hand wrapping paper and presents. One Christmas though, money is tight, and Rex takes the children outside, and asks them to pick a star, for he knows a fair bit about astronomy – which they all do, but Jeannette who picks Venus. That’s their Christmas present.

We laughed about all the kids who believed in the Santa myth and got nothing for Christmas but a bunch of cheap plastic toys. “Years from now, when all the junk they got is broken and long forgotten,” Dad said, “you’ll still have your stars.”

In West Virginia, they buy a “house” which is where Rex intends to the build “the glass castle”, after striking it rich. He continuously updates the plans, and shares it with the children giving them false hope that someday – someway – their life will be ideal. One can argue that he means well, but it’s his inner demons that continuously hurt the children. At times, it almost comes across as though he’s not even aware of the damage he’s doing, or in fact, that he’s doing anything wrong.

It’s a wonderfully written memoir, which isn’t self-pitying or condescending in any measure. In fact, it’s a novel that reverberates of filial devotion and love; that in spite everything, the children did love their parents unconditionally, and the family stuck together through thick and thin. They grew up to be resourceful, bright and independent, pursuing a more conventional lifestyle.

“One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me.

“You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.”

There is absolutely no bitterness, but instead, the affectionate forgiving tone indicates that Walls and her siblings have made peace with their childhood, and with their parents’ eccentricities. Personally speaking, I find this quite commendable and feel as though I could learn a lot from the Walls’ family – mostly Jeannette. The poignancy, humour and the lack of psycho-babble or emotional drama make this a must-read.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón – The Prince of Mist

Posted on | February 19, 2012 | 5 Comments

The Shadow of the Wind is one of those books that I absolutely loved, and although my second experience with Zafón didn’t have quite the same happy ending, the desire to read his works didn’t really come to a complete halt. I picked up The Prince of Mist, a book aimed at children, at Greenwich Market, just the other day, and started it feeling quite positive.

The Prince of Mist is Zafón’s first published book, albeit the English translation came much later. Thirteen year old Max Carver is forced to say goodbye to city life, as his idiosyncratic father decides that the entire family must move away to a house by the sea-side, during the War. It’s safer, after all. However, no location is ever mentioned.

The book starts off slow, with the Carvers moving to their new home, which isn’t all that it seems on the face of it. In the mysterious garden behind the house, Max discovers creepy statues of circus characters, . Investigating the history of the house, he discovers that the house was abandoned by a couple after their son died. In the shed, there’s a projector and some old home-made movies. One of the movies is set in the mysterious garden, and once over, his sister, Alicia, claims to have sene the clown before – in her dreams. Something’s a-creepy. Something’s amiss.

When Max befriends a local boy, Ronald, the pace picks up. While the budding romance between Alicia and Ronald is one story-line, the parallel story is what grips the reader. When the boys go scuba-diving by an old shipwreck, Max and Alicia learn the legend of the ship, the crew and its story. And the fact that no bodies were found.

Curiouser and curiouser.

The story, in itself, ends with more questions than answers. Some of the plot developments are all-too-convenient for the story, but perhaps that’s me being unfair, for it is a children’s book. The suspense is built throughout, sometimes a little too melodramatic; a little too hyperbolic. But – perhaps, that’s what good fiction is.

I did enjoy the book, and like before, I will actively seek out more of Zafón’s works.

Thomas Keneally – The Tyrant’s Novel

Posted on | January 30, 2012 | 2 Comments

Schindler’s Ark was one of those books that left me speechless; the story, the writing, the emotions it evoked. Everything, basically. A couple of months back, I picked up The Tyrant’s Novel from a second-hand bookstore, just to see how it would compare to the 1982 Man Booker Prize winner.

In a nutshell, this book is not a patch on Schindler’s Ark. The location of the book remains ambiguous, although it’s easy to reach the conclusion that the book is set in Iraq, and the dictator, referred to as Great Uncle is none other than Saddam Hussein. The reason for the ambiguity of the location and its dictator confused me. Perhaps it was down to the fact that it was a fictional novel. Or then, for the same reason as The West Wing, where Qumar is a fictional Middle-Eastern country, which represents the worst of all extremist Islamic states.

The narrator of this book, Alan Sheriff, has been commissioned by the Great Uncle to write a novel addressing the injustice of the sanctions imposed on the country by the international world. The book will be published under the name of the Great Uncle, and the objective of the book is to initiate some debates in the literary circles in the States, in order to get the G7 nations to re-think their stance. The deadline imposed to Sheriff is nothing short of unrealistic (one month), and as this narrative within a narrative progresses, one just gets the feeling that the novel leaves a fair bit to be desired.

At the very outset, Sheriff, who is narrating his story, says that this is the saddest and silliest story you will ever hear. The tinge of self-deprecation coupled with the curiosity it arouses is a great way to start the story. It immediately draws the reader in. In a way, it’s a tall order – recanting a story that’s both, the “silliest” and the “saddest”. But then, despite being set in the Middle-East, all the characters have Western names, which is, in a way, inexplicable. The author, through his protagonist, does attempt to justify this, but it’s an unconvincing argument.

“I would very much like to be the man you meet in the street. A man with a name like Alan. If we all had good Anglo-Saxon names…or if we were not, God help us, Said and Osmaa and Saleh. If we had Mac instead of Ibn.”

Is there really that much to a name? Would it make a difference if Saddam had a different name? Or Osama? Would their crimes be considered any less trivial? Would their fates end differently? All rhetorical questions.

I digress… Back to the story:

The deadline imposed on Sheriff has been done so at a time when he’s suffering from a serious writer’s block. His wife is recently deceased, and all the materials for his second book have been laid to rest with his wife. He doesn’t really have much to go on for this novel that he’s been commissioned to write. And, if not written by deadline day… well, we all know how that story ends.

The emphasis seems to be on how completely powerless and helpless Sheriff is, as the powers that be seem against him. To quote Mark Twain, at this point:

There are many scapegoats for our sins, but the most popular is Providence.

And he’s just one man trying to make sense of his reality. As are probably very many other men living in that dictatorship, as they desperately try to figure out their lives, and strike a balance between their personal demons (griefs) and the political terror that haunts them every waking minute. It’s not a life I would care for, needless to say.

Sheriff’s story is fascinating; specially as he talks about how he ended up at the asylum, which is where he’s sitting as he tells his story. But, even as he ends his story, it doesn’t change the world. All said and done, it doesn’t really matter. In the grand scheme of things, it’s fairly insignificant. But despite that, it’s a story that needs an audience, and it’s a story that’s worth listening to. In a world where we take freedom for granted, and our fundamental rights are something we can’t live without, this story serves as a reminder that even now – even in the twenty-first century – history is being made, and we haven’t really moved on from dictatorships of the past.

I do want to read more works by Thomas Keneally, but I’m not quite sure where to go next. Any recommendations?

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