Sunday, 27 January 2013

A Christmas Carol. By Charles Dickens

A Christmas Carol

Charles Dickens e-book for Kindle. First published 1943.

A relatively short Dickens novel, with a linear story line and a small number of characters. The mean-minded, miserly Scrooge is turned into a generous benefactor of all around by being taken into the past, shown around the present, and given a vision of the future by three spirits, respectively those of Christmases past, present and future. In the past he is shown his own rather modest beginnings and the love he then shared with various people, and that he had now forgotten. In the present he sees people who have much less than him, nothing in fact, enjoying themselves with good Christmas cheer. The future is then revealed to him as it must be if he does not change, and if it could be if he does. 

This novel probably acts as the source, conscious or otherwise, of a great many Christmas stories since, including at least part of the first two 'Home Alone' movies. A nice book. 

A Prefect's Uncle. By P.G. Wodehouse

A Prefect's Uncle

P.G. Wodehouse

Jaico Publishing House. First published 1903.

A very early PGW story, maybe written when he was in the London bank just after he finished schooling at Dulwich. The public school atmosphere is fresh and innocent and sweet, and feeds a peculiar nostalgia for a life and experiences I have never actually had. The plot in this book ostensibly turns on the fact of one of the prefects (i.e. a near-God) of the school having an uncle who is much younger than him and joins the school in a junior class. But the comic events surrounding that fact are just one of the three or four story lines followed in the book, all of them, dealing with social interactions in the setting of a 'public' school, a large number of them involving sports. (There is lot of cricket, and some rugby football.) It's however the language that's so good, and there are several boys whose dialogue is like later PGW heroes. Compared to these stories, other popular school stories like the 'Billy Bunter' stuff or the Enid Blyton girls' school stories are positively puerile.

William - The Showman. By Richmal Crompton

William - The Showman

Richmal Crompton

Macmillan Children's Books. First published in 1937

Eminently readable by adults. In fact I think the William books would probably bore the children of today. The books describe the adventures of eleven-year old William Brown and his three friends, who form a rowdy group called 'The Outlaws' in a mid 20th century English village. William is an intelligent and imaginative boy with plenty pluck and initiative. His feet are always firmly placed on the ground, and he has no false airs. His schemes often end in disaster, but sometimes, almost magically, end up well for him and those around him, in the process puncturing inflated egos or exposing fraud. The stories are populated by delightful characters such as Violet Elizabeth Botts (who has a lisp, and always threatens to 'thrceam and thrceam' to get her own way), William's father Mr. Brown, who has an understated sense of humor, Ethel and Robert, William's teen-age siblings, who are always busy with their romantic entanglements, the vicar and his wife, the retired General Moult, formerly of India, and so on. Each of the more than 35 books present a set of about 10 short tales. There are many plots that are repeated, and it would not be advisable to read the entire series through continuously, or even many books one after another. But this a small matter, and compared to, say, the Enid Blyton books, these are more 'serious literature', and far less manipulative. They are better than the Jennings books, I think. The dialogue is especially lovely - William loves to talk, and his logic is terrific when he is defending his actions. Over fifty years these books have delighted me.

A Tale of Two Cities. By Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities

Charles Dickens free e-book on Kindle. First published 1859. 
(This is the first book I read on the new Kindle presented by Malli and Murugan)

The story must be familiar even to those who have not read the book or come across it in the many other forms and media it has been published. By sheer osmosis, I think, this tale of the supreme sacrifice made by a lover must have permeated the consciousness of many, many people, without their being actually aware when and where they first came to know of it. Anyway, as I said, the tale is familiar enough, and to me it is so especially from my reading the book many years ago - perhaps an abridged version, though I do not remember exactly when. Thus there are many scenes in the book which are firmly connected in my mind with the events in the book. The broken barrel of wine in the streets, and the reaction of the people around as they run to gather up the wine by whatever means they can, soaking it up in dirty cloths, for example; the name Faubourg Saint-Antoine, where many of the important events take place; the Bastille; the tumbrils in which the condemned prisoners of the revolution, mostly former aristocrats, were conveyed to the guillotine; the ghoulish glee with which each decapitation was greeted by the crowd, in particular the group of women who sat knitting just in front of the device; the name 'Madame Defarge' - I remember thinking in 1990 in Strasbourg that a friend there could perhaps trace her ancestry to this fearsome lady; the exchange of prisoners in prison; and the flight to England; and the final scenes at the execution.

But there are also many scenes that were new to me in this reading, making me suspect this is the first time I am reading the complete book.  For example, I became freshly acquainted with some of the lesser characters, such as the lawyer Lorry and his assistant Jerry, Lucie Manette's governess Miss Pross, and a few others. The description of Dr. Manette as a dazed shoemaker, 'not all there', brought to mind the character of 'The Keymaker' in 'Matrix Reloaded'. The thrilling and climactic confrontation between Miss Pross and Madame Defarge was again completely new to me. 

But whether familiar from a previous reading or new to me, the character descriptions, the narration, the plot, and all aspects are excellent, and the book is a terrific read, especially, if one is a Dickens fan, like I am. The historical setting of the book in the French revolution makes it an important contribution to understanding the zeitgeist of those times. I particularly liked it that Dickens is so even-handed in his comment. He condemns, mainly through sarcasm and irony, the excesses of the aristocracy as of the sans-culottes. He is as sympathetic to the tribulations of the poor as to those of innocent, kind-hearted and good members of the aristocracy, such as Charles Darnay. Though, in the case of this ostensible protagonist of the story (Carton is the actual hero), the character is weakly etched and Darnay comes across as well-meaning but stupid. Lucie Manette is also too pale and soft, but this a weakness shared by most of Dickens' heroines (Agnes in DC, for example).

A great book, but not involved or detailed enough to displace DC from the top of the list. 

Saturday, 5 January 2013

The Racketeer. By John Grisham

The Racketeer

John Grisham

Hodder. First published 2012.

A lawyer who is imprisoned for being marginally and innocently involved in a financial scam plots his revenge. Not specifically on those who sent him to jail, but on the FBI and on the gangsters. So that, like the protagonists in other Grisham thriller I read, 'The Firm', in the end he is on the run from both the law and the crooks. But, of course, he is way too smart for them, and manages to outwit both groups. The book is interesting enough, with 'insider' descriptions of things like the witness protection program. Ideally it should be purchased at an airport bookshop and read over the journey. And this is what Chitra did. I just borrowed it from her.

The Code of the Woosters. By P.G. Wodehouse

The Code of the Woosters

P.G. Wodehouse

Penguin Books. First published 1938.

Among the top 10% of PGW books, this is a brilliantly plotted novel about Wooster and Jeeves, the fearful imbroglio in which Wooster lands, and the magnificent work by Jeeves in hauling him out of it. It features Sir Watkyn Basset, the magistrate who builds up a fortune by 'sticking like glue' to the fines he levies on the offenders brought up before him; Roderick Spode, an aspiring dictator with a dark secret; the good and deserving Aunt Dahlia, who wants Bertie to steal a cow creamer; Madeline Basset, who is so sentimental and mushy, she thinks 'every time fairy blows it's nose, a wee baby is born'; Gussie Fink-Nottle, who is engaged to Madeline, and conducts scientific experiments on the love-life of newts; Stephanie Byng, a petite female who has a running battle with the village policeman, Constable Dobbs; and her fiance Harold 'Stinker' Pinker, a local curate, who is so clumsy he would trip and fall over something, even in the Gobi desert. The writing is superb, with almost every line a delight. I pick one at random - 'The eyes behind the spectacles were cold. He looked like an annoyed turbot'.

This book is also associated in my mind with the smell and taste of peanut butter. It was one of the the first PGW I read, in Project House, Devnar, Mumbai, in about 1968 or '69. I read it in the afternoon, after school, as I tasted peanut butter sandwiches for the first time. 

The Prague Cemetery. By Umberto Eco

The Prague Cemetery

Umberto Eco

Translated from Italian by Richard Dixon

Vintage Books. First published in English 2011

'Foucault's Pendulum' by Eco, published in 1989, dealt with a fake conspiracy set up by a group of bored Italian intellectuals to beguile a mediocre but vain poet to pay enormous sums of money to see his work in print. The conspiracy however goes wrong, becomes all too real with disastrous consequences for the perpetrators of the joke. 'The Prague Cemetery' also involves conspiracies, again most of them fake, with the narrator of the stories, one Captain Simonini, being the common thread that holds them together. 

The events occur in Paris and a few other European cities and towns in the late nineteenth/early twentieth centuries. Simonini is a talented forger. He is not only skilled at copying other's documents, but can also create, ab initio, treatises, letters, books or purported speeches that implicate a wide variety of people, sects, and groupings in many different maleficent acts. He repeatedly uses these talents, always for money - that's the way he makes his living - and is in this way involved in Garibaldi's 'Il Risorgimento' in Italy in 1860, and the Paris commune of 1871, during both which historical events he creates documents that lead to important turns in them. His culminating success is in creating the 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion', which is a document that actually exists and has been used by anti-Semites, including the 'greatest' of them all, Adolph Hitler, to justify their excesses against the Jewish people. Apart from the Jews, Simonini's forgeries also implicate other 'usual suspects', principally Jesuits and Freemasons, in global conspiracies to seize absolute power.           

Simonini has a split personality, and he often becomes Abbe Dalla Piccola, in which character he has adventures in other hermetic spaces. He witnesses spirit possession, flirts with Theosophy, has conversations with Freud and other practitioners of the nascent discipline of psychiatry. The book thus brings together descriptions, ostensibly from the 'inside', of various shady, pseudo-scientific and pseudo-historical practices that were prevalent then, and are prevalent now. The grandfather conspiracy theory of them all, the one about the Knights Templar, finds a passing mention, as does the one about the 'Illuminati', two theories so profitably mined recently by Dan Brown. 

'The Prague Cemetery' is an amusing, well-written, detailed novel that weaves in and around actual historical events, documents and personalities, but claiming its own protagonists as the heroes, the movers and the shakers. It is very like 'Foucault's Pendulum' in the general attitude it bears towards these idiotic but dangerous theories, and like that novel and unlike, for example, Dan Brown's books, always ensures that the reader does not turn a breathless believer of any of them.