Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Hunger Games. By Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins

Scholastic Books. First published 2008. I read the Kindle e-book, 'borrowed' using Chitra's 'Amazon Prime' account.

I had two motivations to read this book. First, Chitra, a couple of years ago, compared it to the first of the Harry Potter books, but meant rather for late teens. Second, I saw the movie based on the book in March 2012 in Montpellier, France and liked it. So now, as I read the book, I kept comparing it to HP1, and the descriptions of the heroine to Jennifer Lawrence. The book suffered in both comparisons. One major way in which the book was different from the movie was in that the film was more serious, and aimed not just at teenagers, but at older audiences as well. 

But let me stick to my reactions to the book, in so far as I can keep them uninformed by thoughts about the movie. Katniss Everdene is one of two chosen to represent her district in a gladiatorial contest, a fight to the finish, between similar reps chosen from twelve of the thirteen districts that make up North America in a dystopian future. The contest is set in a vast outdoor arena, where savage and elementary survival and combat skills are advantaged. The book is about the lead up to the gory contest, and then about what happens in the arena. There are shades of 'Lord of the Flies' here, but of course the writing is more superficial. The influence of reality TV is clearly there, perhaps deliberately so. The choice of 'thirteen districts' is an unsubtle reference to the thirteen colonies or states first established by the white man on the continent, and which united to declare independence from the British. Designating one of them as the 'capitol' district that holds the rest in an iron grip, is of course a reference to Washington DC. The novel pushes the libertarian ideal, with a mixture of the Wild West 'each man for himself' point of view, but maybe I am  once again over-interpreting a book written to entertain and make money, rather than to influence and 'change the world'. But even on those terms, i.e. 'mere' entertainment, the book is too superficial to compete even with the Harry Potter books, let alone the works of Golding. The movie was better, and Jennifer makes a better Katniss, than the one in the book, even though she appears to have just more or less reprised the role she played in 'Winter's Bone'. 

Chitra tells me the second and third books of the trilogy, in which, presumably, Katniss leads a revolt to overthrow the Capitol, are not as good as the first. That saves me the trouble of reading them. 

Persuasion. By Jane Austen


Jane Austen

A Public Domain Kindle E-book. First published 1818

All the complaints I have made previously about Austen's books apply to this one. One difference, though only a slight one, is her acknowledgement of the fortunes made by British Navy officers through 'prize money', an euphemism for piracy (though this is not described as such, or in any but admiring tones). This is a nod to the historical context, though a distant one, with no mention of the Napoleonic wars then raging. The female-centred story again talks about a heroine who is initially disfavoured by the neighbourhood society, in contrast to her smart and popular, but silly step-sisters. At the end, though, it is she who snares (or, rather, is snared by) the most eligible bachelor of the bunch, and the one with the most decent character. Before that happens, however, there are several parties, walks in the park and by the seaside, encounters with undesirable men and women, and so on. The characters, as usual, are well-etched, and realistic, I suppose, for those times. The feelings expressed by them are familiar, even from what I understand of people today. So I guess they are universal, though banal. The writing is as smooth as honey, and as pleasant. It's only the story that's a little boring, and deja vu inducing. 'Easy reading' is how I'd classify it.

The 'Persuasion' in the title is a rather lame reference to the heroine's being persuaded by her mentor (a lady in their neighbourhood who acts as kind of governess after the death of her mother) to give up her first love, because he was 'only' a clergyman's son, lacking prospects, or 'expectations'.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Far from the Madding Crowd. By Thomas Hardy

Far from the Madding Crowd

Thomas Hardy

First published 1874. E-book for Kindle.

The title refers to the fact that all the action is set far from any town or city, in rural England, in the fictional county of Wessex, as always with the novels of Hardy. Again, like the one other Wessex novel I remember to have read, the central plot concerns the trials and tribulations of a strong woman character, in this case Bathsheba Everdene. The story is told mainly from the viewpoint of Gabriel Oak, or Farmer Oak. As a prosperous farmer, he falls in love with, and proposes to Bathsheba, who has arrived in the neighbourhood to stay in the farm of her uncle. She however does not take him seriously and turns him down. Their respective fortunes then take opposite turns. Farmer Oak loses his all and becomes a shepherd, Bathsheba inherits her uncle's farm. Oak finds employment with Bathsheba, tolerating her cold and rather unfriendly initial treatment, before she comes to rely on him. At this point in the novel, the heroine's strong character weakens considerably. On a whimsy, she flirts with the well-to-do, middle-aged Boldwood. He loses his heart to her, she turns him down, he eventually loses his mind. She falls for a rake, a young handsome army man, without knowing that he has already loved and left another girl, and marries him. The rest of the story then proceeds in a fairly conventional way to a fairly conventional conclusion.

Hardy is easy to read, but except for his charming descriptions of life in the English countryside a hundred and fifty years ago, and his occasionally courageous and modern descriptions of strong feminine characters, there is nothing much to recommend him to me. Bathsheba starts off well, but halfway through the book turns into 'normal' simpering Victorian heroine. It was more or less the same with Tess of d'Ubervilles, though in that case the end was tragedy. 

Sunday, 19 January 2014

In Revere, in those days. By Roland Merullo

In Revere, in those days

Roland Merullo

Vintage Books. First published 2002.

The story follows the life of Anthony Benedetto from late childhood to early adulthood, through his adolescent school years and teenage years into college. Tonio, as he is called, is the only son of working-class Italian-American parents in a small, close-knit ethnic community in the small-town of Revere in Massachusetts, USA. His parents die in a plane crash, and then the two major influences in his life are his Uncle Peter and his grandfather Domenic, or Dom. Uncle Peter operates on the fringes of the law, making his money randomly, or not at all, by doing odd jobs, not all above board, or winning the occasional lottery. But he is a loving and lovable man, fiercely protective of Tonio, less so of his own daughter Rosie.  Grandpa Dom guides Tonio gently, but surely and certainly, away from the probable undistinguished working class life, into a good school, Exeter Academy, and then beyond into college and a career in art. Rosie is not so fortunate in her experience with adolescent complexes, and has to put up with a divorce in the family when her Norwegian mother deserts her father and the rest of the family. She drifts into aimless, unhappy existence, in the company of drugs and unsuitable boyfriends, until she finally drops away from Tonio and the family. The story ends with Grandpa Dom's funeral, just as Tonio graduates from Exeter.

The writing is superb, apparently deeply felt, and seemingly autobiographical. The story is conventional, and has many familiar elements, some more elaborately dealt with by other authors. The feel of the novel is also reminiscent of the novels of John Irving which are always set in New England. But its a well-crafted novel with the language evoking a melancholic sweetness and and gentleness. Here's a sample.

'Coincidence, Fate, Karma, Luck, the mood swings of a merciful God - it fascinates me now to listen to the ways we explain life to ourselves and to each other. This is how the Lord has made the world, some people say, and, reading from a simple list of rules, they pack the entire mystery of the universe into one cheek, and spit out to you through a syrupy smile. Or they insist, like petulant children, that nothing has any meaning, that everything from the angle at which sunlight strikes the earth to the chemical makeup of the blood running through the placenta is only the random careening of spiritless molecules'.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

A Perfect Spy. By John Le Carre

A Perfect Spy

John Le Carre

Coronet Books, Hodder and Stoughton. First published 1986.

I read it first in 1986, as soon as it was published. This is probably the third time I am reading it. I think it ranks as Le Carre's best, a little above a few others that occupy the next rung: 'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy', 'The Honourable Schoolboy', 'The Little Drummer Girl', all of which, of course, are excellent. 'A Perfect Spy' is a little more personal, written with more feeling than the rest. To use a term from carnatic music, it diplays more 'bhava' than his other books. It traces the search of Magnus Pym for love and friendship, to make up for their lack from his parents, especially his crooked father, Ricky Pym, who, as Le Carre has noted on more than one occasion, is faithfully based on his own father. 

Ricky is a heartless con artist, and though he goes to jail off and on, and though he is forever followed by his creditors, he is able to rise more often than fall, and design and carry off larger and larger cons. He floats fake companies, he blackmails people, and he uses his undeniably charming manners to swindle several vulnerable people out of their lifetime savings. And he almost immediately looses all the money in betting or in an over-lavish lifestyle. Through it all, he makes the odd payment, now and then, to the schools Magnus goes to. The son manages to survive, barely, his school years, and then, being sent on a fake 'business' trip to Vienna, finds that the 'business' contacts are even greater cheats than his father. They run off with all the money, and Magnus is thrown on to his own devices in the Austrian capital, warned by his father not to come back lest he face the same awful legal consequences the parent is having to deal with. Magnus strikes up some deep friendships and manages to go through University. One of these friends, a Czech illegal resident in Vienna, is particularly close. Another is a diplomat, actually intelligence officer, in the British embassy, who sees Magnus's potential, and recruits him as a kind of apprentice spy. Magnus now has two father figures, both of whom take a deep interest in 'educating' and mentoring him, and both of whom he grows to love. When asked however, he unhesitatingly betrays his Czech friend to his British one, exposing his illegal status. The Czech is deported. Magnus continues to rise in the ranks of British spydom, until a few years later, he suddenly meets up again with the Czech, who is himself now a spy for the Czech government, and who now persuades him to betray the other side. Thus begins Magnus's career as a double agent situated snugly deep within the British secret service. All this while he is still hiding and running from Ricky, who is now degenerating fast, and constantly putting his hands in Magnus's pockets, asking the son to give not only money, but also prestige and authority to his own mean and shady ends. Breathtakingly, Ricky Pym persuades himself that his son's success is entirely owing to the training, help and support all through their lives, that he, the father, has given him, the son. Magnus does what he can, when he can, torn between duty and some residual love for a parent on the one hand, and a refined distaste for the latter's ways, on the other. The son is like his father in his deceptions, but entirely unlike him in the purpose of those deceptions. While the father's double dealings serve wretched and mean minded ends, those of the son, serve a higher purpose than just self-promotion. But despite all his deceptions, he does not deceive his father. Magnus Pym has betrayed his country, his wife, and all his friends. But he is unable to betray Ricky Pym and throw him off. Magnus is liberated from his father only by the latter's death, and at that point the deceptions of both come to an end. 

Le Carre probably uses the format of the spy novel, with all the lovely jargon he has invented, to purge himself of at least some of his complexes. In the process he has written a terrific dissertation of a certain type of relationship, more common than one might imagine.