Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Great Expectations. By Charles Dickens

Great Expectations

Charles Dickens

First published 1861. I read the Oxford Classics Edition, published as a paperback in 1994, with an introduction by Kate Flint.

This must be the 5th or 6th time I am reading this book. Not my most favourite Dickens - that place goes to 'David Copperfield' - but one of his best. Somewhat gloomy. The character of Pip is well delineated for most part - there are a few small inconsistencies, particularly with regard to his emotionally mature feelings even when he is barely 10 years old, I guess, when he is first rejected and insulted by Estella and Miss Havisham. I suppose we must forgive such small problems in a book that is as great as this one. The description of his feelings when he first learns of his true benefactor is magnificient. As is his desriptions of his feelings towards Joe and Biddy and finally Estella and Miss Havisham. As with all of Dickens's books, love, softness and gentleness is valued above success and riches and valour.

I must confess to a feeling of deja vu throughout the book, and not just because I have read it before. Pip himself is, by turns, like David Copperfield and Nicholas Nickelby, Estella is faintly like Dora (in 'David Copperfield'), Biddy is like Agnes (again in 'DC'), Wemmick is faintly like Micawber, Jaggers reminds me of Nickleby Sr. the lawyer, Herbert Pocket is like Tommy Traddles in DC, and his Clara is like Sophy. But with all that I loved reading the book for the nth time. Some of the passages literally brought tears to my eyes, e.g. the interchanges between Pip and Joe after Pip has dicovered his true benefactor and realized how badly he has treated Joe, and then he falls ill and Joe faithfully nurses him back to health. Maybe the tears were because I'm much older now - I don't remember feeling so emotional on my earlier readings. Anyway I'll probably read it many times more.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Brothers in Law. By Henry Cecil

Brothers In Law

Henry Cecil

Rupa and Co., New Delhi
First published 1955. This edition 2003.

Another light-hearted book, like 'Doctors in The Nude', this time about lawyers. Deals with the experiences of Roger Thursby who has just been 'called to the bar', his enrollment into the bar council, his first cases, etc. The main tension and continuity in the narrative is caused by the fact that Roger is loved by two girls, both pretty, both nice, one of them, Sally, very smart, and the other Joyce, rich and influential, who can get him cases. Roger likes them both, but finally does not choose either. A very gentle book, no harsh, laugh-out-loud jokes, no sex (unlike Richard Gordon), but also no 'nifties' even, and therefore nowhere as near good as PGW. All the same a book for a train journey or just a relaxed 'time-pass'.

The book appeared topical to me because Shenba, my Tenkasi niece, and her two friends had just the previous week come over from Tirunelveli after their final Law exam results were declared to enroll into the TN bar council here in Chennai.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Matilda. By Roald Dahl


Roald Dahl

Puffin Books
First Published 1988

A book for children, enjoyable. About a child (five and a half years old) prodigy, Matilda, who is completely neglected by her parents, terrorised by the headmistress at school, but loved by her class teacher, a lovely young woman, who, like the rest of the school, is also terrified of the HM. Matilda discovers magical powers and uses these to restore to the classteacher her rightful inheritance, which the HM, revealed to be the classteacher's aunt, has stolen from her. As with all Roald Dahl, there are scenes which are just not right (e.g. Matilda get her own back on her father by supergluing his hat on to his head), and scenes which you want read again and again (e.g. when the class teacher discovers Matilda's genius). In one of the early chapters Dahl gives the following list of books that Matlida reads, obviously approved by him. Nicholas Nickleby, Oliver Twist, Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, Tess of d'Ubervilles (!), Gone to earth (by Mary Webb), Kim, The Invisible Man, The Old Man and the Sea, The Sound and the Fury, The Grapes of Wrath, The Good Companions, Brighton Rock and Animal Farm. I have read almost all of these, and find Dahl's choice of great works coinciding with mine. The ones I have not read are Gone to Earth, The Sound and the Fury, and Brighton Rock.

Two quotes. The first one a limerick written by Matilda

The thing we all ask about Jenny
Is 'Surely there cannot be many
Young girls in the place
With so lovely a face?'
The answer to that is 'Not any!'

Another is quote by Dahl of some lines from a poem (In Country Sleep) by Dylan Thomas.

Never and never, my girl riding far and near
In the land of the hearthstone tales, and spelled asleep,
Fear or believe that the wolf in a sleepwhite hood
Loping and bleating roughly and blithely shall leap,
My dear, my dear
Out of a lair in the flocked leaves in the dew dipped year
To eat your heart in the house in the rosy wood.
There are two more stanzas as well, but more about these poems when I read them.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

The Book of Merlyn. By T.H. White

The Book of Merlyn
T.H. White
Ace Books, New York, 1977
The book was written during WWII just after 'The Once and Future King' (TOAFK) as its fifth part, but was first published only in 1958. I expected this to be a magical ending to TOAFK, giving White's spin on the Lady of the Lake, and Excalibur, and Sir Bedwedyr, and Lancelot becoming a Hermit, and Guenever becoming a nun and later Abbess, etc. But except the last two events, which are briefly mentioned in the last few pages, the book is a boring diatribe on White's take on politics, before, after and during WWII. A committee consisting of animals and Merlyn is convened ostensibly to advice Arthur, (now a very old man, waiting on the battlefield to fight his bastard son, Mordred, and as it turns out, die at his hand) on the future course of his great civilisational project. White comes across as a misanthrope who sees nothing good in mankind, as compared to animals, birds or insects except perhaps ants. Ants colonies represent totalitarian (or even communist) societies, and are harshly dismissed. So is capitalism, which the committee claims is a form of society that is solely man's creation, and that no animals exploits its own kind or even other animals for personal benefit - an irrelevant observation, I thought. Anyway the final conclusion that White appears to heading for is some more ideal form of a free market society, actually quite in tune with neo-liberalism. A thoroughly disappointing, badly written book, especially since the two chief set pieces - Arthur's visit as an ant to an ant colony, and then his visit as a wild goose to a colony of wild geese - have both appeared already in The Sword in the Stone. The rest of the book represents the committee's discussions and arguments, except, as I said, the last few pages, where Mort d'Arthur and the rest of it is written as a kind of brief essay in an encyclopedia (Wikipedia?).

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Doctor in the Nude. By Richard Gordon

Doctor in the Nude

Richard Gordon

Penguin Books

One of the Doctor series, no storyline, mainly jokes, witticisms, and a climactic sit com scene in which all the principal characters are nude, mainly for sexual reasons, and happen to meet at the top floor of a newly built hospital building about to be inaugurated by the Queen. 1960s British humor starring Sir Lionel Lychfield and Sir Lancelot Spratt. Very very light read, for a flight or train journey.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Leopard. By Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

The Leopard

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (tr. from Italian by Archibald Colquhoun)
First Published 1958
Everyman's Library, New York
This edition published 1991

The novel relates a few years in the life of Don Fabrizio di Falconeri (known as the Leopard, because he looked like one, and his family coat of arms bore a leopard), a Sicilian Prince, who faces a rather rapid disintegration of the age-old feudal system after the 'risorgiomento' or revolution spearheaded by, among others, Giuseppe Garibaldi in 1860.

The novel opens with Don Fabrizio at home in Palermo, Sicily, and establishes his status as a feudal lord. It also gives the political background, it being the time just after Garibaldi and the 1000 men fought their battles in Sicily in favour of a republican and united Italy. The novel then moves on to Donnafugata, a desperately poor village, near which the prince has his luxurious summer resort palace. The entire family moves there. We are made acquainted with Tancredi, a poor nephew of the prince, who has joined with Garibaldi but is still the Prince's favourite, even more than his own son. Tancredi is adored by the prince's daughter, he in turn falls in love with Angelica, the beautiful daughter of a nouveau riche minor official of the village, who is rapidly buying up the land of his 'betters', but is not able to rapidly enough change his manners and habits to be accepted easily as one of them. Nevertheless, Don Fabrizio is happy to give his consent to the wedding of Tancredi with Angelica who comes with a large dowry, thus retrieving, for the Prince's family, some of their lost wealth.

The rest of the novel is mainly descriptions of hunts and balls and parties, and at all these events we see a wearing away of the power and authority of the prince, and then the comeback of his family by making correct marriages, and practising correct politics. The last few chapters takes us a few decades forward and deals with the death of the prince, in unremarkable circumstances. The very last chapter is somewhat comic - the religious relics in the family chapel, looked after now by the princes's aged daughters, are assesed by the local prelate of the catholic church and shown to be mostly fake, fit to be only consigned to the rubbish heap.

The language is gripping and the story itself is so well written, it fully deserves its status as a classic. One other thing that struck me was the apparent continuation of the manners and habits (and names) of these feudal lords by the mafiosi, both as depicted in books like 'The Godfather' and as described in TV and newpaper reports of modern day happenings in Sicily and Italy.

Some quotes:

'The bonfires were stoked by men who were themselves very like those living in the monasteries below, as fanatical, as self-absorbed, as avid for power or rather for the idleness which was, for them, the pupose of power.'

'... the Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery; every invasion by outsiders, whether so by origin, or, if Sicilian, by independence of spirit, upsets their illusion of achieved perfection, risks disturbing their satisfied waiting for nothing; having been trampled on by a dozen different peoples, they think they have an imperial past which gives them a right to a grand funeral.'

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Once and Future King. By T.H. White

The Once and Future King

T.H. White

This is one of the first 'modern' reworkings of the Arthurian legend. Originally published in 1939, the copy I read is a 1959 edition. There are 4 books. The first one is called 'The Sword in the Stone', and describes the happy childhood and education of Arthur, being brought up in Sir Ector's castle educated by his tutor Merlyn (the wizard). This part is lovely, with a lot of magic. White's style of writing, depicting Arthur, known as Wart, as an eager, intelligent, brave child, gently being molded for greatness, is refreshing and very readable. Merlyn is a man who is living backwards, predicting his own eventual downfall by enthrallment to Nimue the beautiful witch. White uses a lot of references to contemporary politics and culture - he even mentions cricketers like Jack Hobbs and Bradman. Sir Kay is a boy who 'would neither be a follower nor a leader, but only an aspiring heart, impatient in the inadequate body that imprisoned it'. White's general language in this book, and throughout most of the other books, is amusing, somewhat Oxford Donish. One may imagine that JD Bernal would speak in this manner. There are also roles for characters not part of the original Arthurian legend (as I know it), e.g. Robin Hood.

The second book is called 'The Queen of the Air and Darkness' and there is a description about Morgause, half sister of Arthur as a witch who, in the opening chapter, boils a live cat almost simply for amusement. The tone is this book is quite dark as compared to the first one, even though the characteristic turns of phrase continue. This book also describes the seduction by Morgause of her unwitting half-brother Arthur and the birth of their child Mordred, eventually to cause the downfall of the Arthurian Kingdom. Her four previous sons are also described, all to play somewhat negative roles in the legend.

The third book is about Lancelot, Gwenever, King Arthur, the search for the holy Grail, Galahad. This is an interesting story, all Norman knights, and jousts, and swordplay and chivalrous deeds. The first two books appear to be set in pre-Norman times (like Mary Stewart's series on the legend). This book is firmly in the middle ages, around 1200 to 1400 AD. Lancelot is frequently compared to Bradman and described as being at the top of the averages.

The last book is a sad and sorry tale of the downfall of the kingdom. Mordred leverages the love-affair between Gwenever, Arthur's queen, and Lancelot, to wreak vengeance for all the wrongs, real and imagined, done to him by Arthur and the rest. White, I think, deliberately uses the device of the Greek tragedies, to show the inevitability of the downfall.

White's writing is magnificent, and his construction of the tale is outstanding, as is his language. It is amazing that Hollywood has not made a series of movies (I see at least 5) based on this. I see great scope for wonderful battle scenes, fights, magic, all with a strong classical story line. I know there have been many version of the King Arthur and his knights out of Hollywood, including a couple I have seen, but none I think based entirely on White. Where White really goes out of my favour is in his politics when he appears to speak favourably of the feudal system, and in too laboured stress on the inevitability of it all, as well as the fact the Arthur was trying to create 'civilization' (in five years!). The last 25 or so pages are a great disappointment. You keep expecting a fresh retelling of the lady in the lake, and Gwenever going to the nunnery, etc. but the book ends with just a line mentioning all that.

A great read, anyway!!

Three quotes.

Say not therefore to the Lord "What doest thou?" But say in your heart, "Must not the Lord of all the earth do right?"

There is a thing called knowledge of the world, which people do not have till they are middle aged. It is something which cannot be taught to younger people because it is not logical and does not obey laws that are constant. It has no rules.

"The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something. That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn."

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Way of the Cell. By Franklin M. Harold

The Way of the Cell - Molecules, Organisms and the Order of Life

Franklin M. Harold, 2001

Oxford University Press.

This is the second time I am reading this book. At the first reading, a few years ago, I was terribly impressed not only with the writing style but also Harold's rational attitude to the scientific questions of origins and evolution of Life, which however does not advocate molecular fundamentalism. On this second reading, some 5 years later, I still like it a lot. But I can detect some overstatements and confusions.

In brief, Harold believes that we need to go beyond DNA and the genes they encode to understand Life. He talks about emergent behaviour, about how the chemiosmostic process that supplies energy to the cells is not specifically coded for in the genes, though the molecules that are involved are; he talks about what he calls 'morphogenetic fields' that are produced by chemical gradients within a cell and which map proteins and protein function to specific positions of the cell. Again these fields are not coded in the genes. He talks about how the very machinery of gene expression requires not only a host of genes, but also a bag, the lipid membrane, to localize all the players and give the cell some integrity. These membranes are also not specified in the genes but are directly inherited by the daughter cells from the parent. He states that evolution may also act on organisms as a whole (at least natural selection does) and not on the genes directly, though variation probably occurs mainly, if not solely in the genes. He describes epigenetic transfer of hereditary information, in which patterns of DNA methylation or protein phophorylation may be a vehicle to transfer this from one generation to the next. He also hints that protein folding is guided by some such morphogenetic field.

On the whole he make a convincing case for going beyond genes to understand Life. However he does appear to overstate the case at times. Richard Dawkins and others could probably interpret some of the above (including morphogenetic fields and protein folding, but may not epigenetic information) in terms of genes and variations in them being selected for fitness. Occasionally Harold appears to contradict himself, as for example when he says, towards the end of the book, that Life can finally be explained in terms of Physics and Chemistry, and maybe without any new 'biophysical' laws required.

Harold is a pleasure to read, with extremely lyrical writing. There were several sentences and phrases I wanted to memorize and maybe reproduce to my students. But unfortunately, I didn't and now I do not recall any of them. I wish I had written them down then and there. Maybe I should get a palmtop or some such device to do this. Or maybe I should just carry a slim notepad always. I will have the read the book once again, maybe a couple of years from now. But the book could age, and become somewhat out of date by then. I hope not though!