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“…our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but-mainly-to ourselves-” Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending.
So says the protagonist, Tony Webster,of the Man Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. In a nutshell, the novel is precisely just that-A man in his 60s looking back, retelling and re-examining his life’s story and certain events in them. However, it isn’t a Charles Dickenish kind of a novel where Copperfield will look at each and every event of his life and bore us to death. The story of his life that Tony tells us and perhaps to himself too is quite a succinct, precise one with frequent ramblings on the importance and unreliability of memory and passing of time and life in general. And that is how Barnes’ prose also works: clean and full of precision-a kind of no nonsense, no frills, not too overtly nostalgic look at one’s life.
The novel is divided into two parts. The first part is a quick look at the Tony’s life in school with his group of friends and how they meet the intellectual and seemingly serious Adrian Finn. He talks of his college life, his girlfriend Veronica and how things get complicated in that relationship. With a witty and engaging narration, Tony gives in a good, tongue-in-cheek manner all that there is to school and teenage life-friends, love, college, partying, being together and promising a sincere lifelong contact and a kind of innocent idealism about everything. But this not in a cliched style that will make you retch and cringe with the nostalgia usually associated with those times but will make you say, “yes even I had those very same thoughts when I was a kid.” In the second part, Tony looks at back at some of those events and when unexpectedly a will bequeaths Adrian’s diary to him, he is forced to look at his break up with Veronica and his relationship with Adrian in a fresh light and come to turns with what had happened then despite his memory’s unwillingness to do so. This quest turns the story into a quasi-suspense novel without letting go of its quasi-philosophical ramblings about re looking at life.
The narration is very conversational and Tony tells his story as if he were orally narrating it to some listeners which is exactly what makes the text engaging. The reader is constantly acknowledged and addresses to and thus we feel drawn into the story and relate to it easily-who doesn’t nostalgically look back at their good times in life, who doesn’t invent memories, who doesn’t read into the past and reasons it out-aren’t we all guilty of that, of pruning the bad parts and remembering only the good aspects, of inventing our life’s story for ourselves? There is therefore a kind of universalism in his pondering about life but without making it stereotypical and without imposing it on the reader.
With many quotable quotes and witty phrases and one liners that may or may not hit you with a profound realisation, The Sense of an Ending is a brisk, powerful and moving tale of the uncertainties of life. The end is completely surprising and revelation of a bitter truth does somehow communicate ‘the sense of an ending’ in a way. Cannot reveal more, would be quite a spoiler and would simply ruin the fun of finding out on your own. All I can say is highly recommended. But do not read it just because it won some fancy prize but because it can say a lot about the vagaries of life-more than those silly philosophical books anyhow and more importantly read it because well what could be more joyful than picking up a book and immersing yourself in it and falling in love with another author’s works?
Amidst the hullabaloo of Edward Snowden’s revelations of the US government snooping on its own citizens and those of foreign countries, George Orwell’s 1984 has been mentioned countless times and how he was right in predicting the government’s role of the Big Brother. Another author depicted a dystopian future wherein the government had a different sort of control over you-controlling your violent instincts. While the government spying on one’s phone calls, emails, social networking data is not a comforting feeling, the government actually controlling how you behave is even more disconcerting.
Clockwork Orange, a novel by Anthony Burgess, explores precisely this aspect of control. Alex, the anti-hero of the novel, is a the narrator and refers to himself as “Your Humble Narrator.” He narrates his and his pals’ violent escapades in a nameless town where such violence by teens is rampant. They engage in brutal violence-assaulting, stealing, beating and sexual violence during the night. On one such escapade, Alex and his gang decide to rob a single woman living with dozens of cats. However, the plan goes awry as Alex’s usual ruse of acting like a wounded boy and fooling the woman to open the door fails. He then goes through the window and threatens her but the old woman isn’t frightened so easily. She seems to get time to call the police and eventually in a fight, Alex gives a fatal blow. The police picks him up and he is shunted to the prison for a good 14 years. It is here Alex learns of a miraculous technique that will reform him quickly and let him get out of jail in no time. The prison chaplain, the only decent person around, warns of this so-called-miraculous Ludovico Technique and of its ethical ambiguity. Due to a turn of events, Alex is eventually subjected to this technique which is torturous in its own way and has terrible consequences for our Humble Narrator.
Written in the “Nadsat” language, which is the lingo used by the teens of that world, Clockwork Orange is a gruesome look at the politics of control and surveillance and raises questions about the need for an individual to have a choice in the way s/he behaves. Ludovico Technique essentially conditions Alex to have sickening feelings for anything related to violence. It ‘cures’ him of his bad behaviour by leaving him with no choice but to be good because being bad or even thinking of violence entails a rising of aversion in him. Burgess cleverly shows how the government’s method of reducing crime by relying on such ethically questionable techniques is not a foolproof method but only raises more problems rather than resolving them. For example, if Alex is faced with a situation where he has to defend himself he is absolutely helpless since he cannot resort to violence as he has been conditioned to be averse to it.
To complicate the plot further, Alex after being ‘cured’ is used by certain individuals for their own personal gains-namely to show that the present government is using such brutal techniques in the reduction of crime. Alex becomes a trophy prize over which politically motivated parties and individuals tussle, leaving behind the core of the problem-if the Ludovico Technique is not morally correct and the usual punishment of imprisonment also fails, then how exactly to reduce the rate of crime and violence in a world where youngsters are increasingly setting up sub cultures of crime and violence.
Clockwork Orange doesn’t answer those questions outright. Instead the story explores the ideas of the nature of evil and if it is really possible for the government to control the individual’s violent inclinations and urges through conditioning techniques. The book shows how the government treats people like machines, like ‘clockworks’ that can be tweaked to make a better, crime-free society. We have already seen in the 20th and 21st centuries how the media has been effectively used to tweak people’s way of thinking and getting their support on certain politically important matters (For eg, it is thanks to the relentless media proclamations of US’ war on terror that the entire globe sees the Middle East as merely a part of the world crawling with terrorists out to attack America while completely disregarding their own unique culture. Closer home, the media is often used in India to mobilise people’s opinion for the ambiguous notions of ”development” and “growth” while cleverly trying to put down all those who clash against these ideas). It is not just the media alone, mainstream culture-whether it is books, movies or art-all are effectively used by the government to mould people’s opinions for or against something. Therefore, it is perhaps not far away that the governments all over the world will be able to control its citzens’ behaviour. And that would indeed be a scary prospect.
Though small in size, Clockwork Orange may not be a breeze to read thanks to the “nadsat” words that Burgess uses which can be understood only by referring to the glossary every once in a while. It can be frustrating because while you want to get on with the story(which moves at a good pace), you have to pause and find out the meanings first but be patient and it will definitely be worth it. It will take time to accustom yourself to the language but once you are attuned to it, it will be an easy and enlightening read. Try and read this one-it is relevant and will always be because no government has come close to curbing violence among its people. So while you figure out what “droog”, “carmen”, “chasha,” malchick,” ‘mesto” etc mean, don’t forget to also ponder over the subtexts of the story.
Teenage years have been stereotyped and clichéd by the media so much so that being a teenager means to have a strict set of homogeneous experiences which completely undermines the capacity of teens to be so much more. Books have long fed into this fascinating stereotyped teenage experience-they have from time to time talked about teenage love, teenage angst, teenage rebellion etc. ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ by Stephen Chbosky cannot be classified as just another book about teens as it uniquely reinforces as well as breaks many teen related stereotypes.
The most striking part of ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is the epistolary style of the book. Who associates teens with letter writing any more? Or even diary entries for that matter! But in a not so distant past of the 1990s’ when internet revolution had not yet occurred, letters and diaries weren’t seen as abnormal.
Jumping now to the story, ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ is about Charlie-a shy introverted boy-who is entering high school with a lot of trepidation of being able to fit in and find the right friends along with other issues of his own. Charlie narrates his experiences through letters which he writes to an anonymous friend. He eventually is able to strike up a conversation with Patrick, a guy from his shop class, during a football game and Patrick introduces Charlie to the rest of his gang-Sam, Mary Elizabeth, Bob, Dave etc. Soon he is part of that gang and partying, doing drugs, dating-all the things the world thinks teens usually are up to all the time. Along with his good social circle, Charlie is also good in his English class and his teacher, Bill, gives him books to read outside of the syllabus. It becomes one mixed adventure for Charlie as he charts out his way through one year of high school with his friends and also comes to terms with the idiosyncrasies of his family and also his past. The story thoroughly relates the anguish of teens to meet the expectations of the experiences that they should necessarily have. The story talks of how those very experiences are good to have but there is so much more to a teenage life than that. It’s more about discovering who you are and the moments, no matter how fleeting they might be, that will be memorable and the friends and classmates that you would remember.
Charlie’s language in his letters is very simple and intimate. His statements are at times so facile yet so profound. They make you sit up and acknowledge the things you take for granted. There have been speculations that Charlie is an autistic in the novel which might explain his simplistic, emotional understanding of everything around him and his emotional responses as well. ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ also has this ability to touch upon the mundane and every day, daily activities in such a way as to show that it is these little things that make life worthwhile and meaningful. The time in which it is set is the 1990s’. It is thus refreshing to see teenagers who aren’t obsessed with their Facebook profiles or addicted to their cell phones. The 1990s’ was a time of cassettes, letters, typewriters and good music which is showcased brilliantly in the novel. The other characters particularly Patrick, Sam and Mary Elizabeth are well etched out and have their own quirks and unique personalities. The novel also highlights that it is perfectly normal to be different and to have different experiences in your teenage years.
A let down of the book is the one-dimensional aspect of Charlie and his limited responses to every situation of his life. For every good thing, he simple feels ‘happy’ never ‘joyous’, or ‘ecstatic’ or anything other than ‘happy’ and for every bad thing, he feels like crying. It is hard to reconcile with such neutral responses from such an apparently intelligent mind. Another negative aspect of the book is that it tries to cram in a lot of issues and concerns without any concrete resolutions for them. It talks about familial fragmentation, sibling rivalry, child sexual abuse, homosexual love, depression etc. all together. These are all floating around with nothing to tie them together with.
The film version of the same name which came out in 2011 is equally engaging and stays true to the plot and story perhaps because it is directed by the author himself. The actors have done a commendable job to bring the characters to life along with the book’s focus on the lasting impression the teenage years have on the self- discovery. The setting of the 1990s’ has also been wonderfully captured by the film.
The final verdict would definitely be to buy the book and catch the movie and perhaps it will make you rethink your teenage life or make you relive it.
You know about that saying-Don’t judge something by its size? Well, it’s true of books as well. Take, ‘The Little Prince’ for example. Anyone can be fooled easily into thinking that it is a mere children’s story by its small size (and even its title for that matter). But no other book can have so many profound yet seemingly simple truths packed into its story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not philosophical neither does it pretend to be so in the guise of a children’s tale. ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine De Saint Exupery is a simple tale of two children and their own ways of looking at the world. And within these different views of the world lie the most obvious truths which often are not visible to grown-ups. (Find out some history about the book if you can).
‘The Little Prince’ is narrated by an unnamed child who has apparently crashed into the Sahara Desert. There he meets the little prince and they converse with each other about each other’s planets and other things which reveal their thoughts and beliefs as well-like that the narrator likes to draw but was discouraged by grown-ups who never understood them, that the little prince liked to see sunsets and never let go of a question once he asked them or that he came from a very tiny planet etc. During these conversations, the narrator tries to fix his crashed air plane so that he can go back home. He narrates this story six years after this particular crash occurred.
Every page, every chapter will have some sort of wisdom embedded in it which somehow slips us grown-ups by. Most of these wisdoms are told simply and directly which is why they are so memorable. Quoting all of them is nigh impossible. So I will let you explore them on your own.
A unique aspect about ‘The Little Prince’ is that it is simple, direct and curt. The writing and the conversations imitate the simple, to the point behaviour of children. This directness is precisely why it’s refreshing and why it is easy to make one’s point and make the reader understand it well. It hits the reader directly as a result and that’s why these simple statements are so enlightening. There is no unnecessary beating around the bush.
I read a translation by Irene Testot-Ferry which I got from Flipkart for quite a good bargain The translation seemed good. Since I have nothing to compare it to, I can’t be a good judge of it. Do share if you have read a brilliant translation of ‘The Little Prince‘ or if you have read it originally in French
This book is a treasure which you can open just about at any page and then read it to elicit a new way of understanding and perhaps to lighten up your bad mood. It makes you look at things in an uncomplicated manner. You as a reader can find several layers of meaning lying hidden beneath the seemingly childish talks of the child protagonists of ‘The Little Prince.’ From them, I sincerely hope that you can take away something that can be useful in your life because this is one book that you cannot fail to learn something from-however simple or obvious it might be.
‘The Little Prince’ is a story one in a million which can carve a special place in your heart, a story all should read and learn from.
Rephrasing the famous opening line from, ‘Pride and Prejudice’, ‘it a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of
power, must be in want of more power.’ Power and money are often themes around which entire books or series revolve. Power and money are often motives around which detective stories revolve. But when Jeffrey Archer uses these two aspects in his best-seller, ‘Kane And Abel‘, he fuses other aspects as well such as a bildungsroman theme, ego, hatred, economic empires, economic clout and a concise history of America from the 1900s’ to the 1960s’. This curious fusion creates a thrilling page turner in the form of ‘Kane And Abel.’
The plot is as simple as can be. Two infants-William Kane and Wladek Koskiewicz- are born on the same day on two different continents: Kane with a silver spoon in America and Wladek to a nameless mother in Poland. While William’s life is set out for him by his father who is the chairman of Kane and Cabot bank, Wladek’s life is fraught with difficulties and struggles in the light of which he discovers his strengths and weaknesses as well as his father’s identity. Kane steadily rises to the positions of power in America while Wladek embarks on a life changing journey to America to make a name and a fortune. Kane becomes part of the board of directors in his own bank while Wladek runs a hotel in Chicago after a lot of struggling in low paying jobs. Gradually, these two rise in power and stature, get to know each other by quirks of fate which cements their relation of hate and turns both on to a path to destroy each other. Are they successful in their personal vendettas? Read up the novel to find out more.
Some say that ‘Kane And Abel‘ is Archer’s best work so far. Having read only 1 other book by him, ‘Prisoner Of Birth’, I can’t really affirm this particular claim. What I can vouch for is that the novel will keep you engrossed with its breakneck speed, compelling plot, grasping writing, the twists and turns and the clearly etched out characters and situations. Spanning 60 years, ‘Kane And Abel‘ not only narrates the story of the titular characters but intersperses them with the historic moments of American history- the sinking of the Titanic, World War 1 and 2, Great Depression etc.. This proffers the reader interesting nuggets of history and manifests how history shapes human lives to a large extent.
The downside of the novel is that Archer tries too hard to make the two characters collide. There are too many coincidences that are strewn throughout the story through which their paths cross. After a point, these get too hard to believe. The occurrences of so many coincidences in real life is next to impossible. Archer also has tried to create sympathy for the two characters which at times is at odds with their sole aim for power and destruction. Moreover, there is also an impossible paradox to believe: Both William and Wladek helped each other at some point or the other despite the fact they were hell bent to destroy each other financially and emotionally. This is rather hard to digest.
The worst drawback of the novel is that it is male centric. Women have hardly any role to play in the story other than being mothers,grandmothers, daughters and wives. The only exception is Wladek’s daughter who is assertive and a working woman and not just a rich man’s submissive daughter. Perhaps to make up for this male centric vision of the novel, Archer has extended the story of Wladek’s daughter in the sequel, ‘The Prodigal Daughter.’ This constant association of power with men reiterates the stereotype of empires and power and money being a man’s domain with women only playing arm candy to the men.
Barring the above downsides, ‘Kane And Abel‘ is a fine piece of fiction, one that you can breeze through in a couple of days and elicit oodles of excitement from it as well.
Satire is a style which helps us to reflect on the ills of our society. It makes us sit up and take notice of things that we might have otherwise taken for granted. Satire pokes fun while also eliciting an engaging response from the audience. It reveals a picture of things which we know exists but often ignore. It is undoubtedly a powerful tool to attack the system or simply the way things are or are taken for granted.
This is the style which Jane Austen also employs in her famous novel ‘Pride And Prejudice.’ Austen gives to her reader a delightful, detailed account of upper middle and middle class lives, their hypocrisy, artificiality and preoccupation with marriage. Simultaneously, she also lightly satirizes all these aspects, but unfortunately the satire is so subtle that it is invisible so that the novel appears nothing more than an interesting love story.
In a line, ‘Pride And Prejudice‘ is a story of the Bennetts’ rather mama Bennett’s measures to get her daughters married in good, respectable houses much like ‘Fiddler On The Roof’ or the plot lines of numerous of our own soap operas. However, the novel lacks the exuberance and comedy of the film/musical. The novel is really nothing more than that one line description. While numerous critics have upheld the novel as a good satire, lauded her writing style and attention to detail, I beg to differ. The critics are spot on about the last two aspects but the first one is laughable (no pun intended). The fact that Austen is mocking artificial pretensions of decorum and niceties is overshadowed by the marriage factor of the novel. It is the overriding theme of the plot and her satire or mocking tone just isn’t enough to gloss over that. Austen doesn’t do justice to her satirical technique. The book rather than making fun of marriage, endorses it grandly as being the sole aim if a girl’s life.
‘Pride And Prejudice‘ is an enjoyable read, nonetheless. But it really does not promote any revolutionary ideas about womanhood or marriage as many critics have diligently pointed out over the years. It is a light read, an ordinary love story with intricate detail and good writing but not good ideas. Enjoy the story, the characters, the relationships, the scandals but don’t expect ‘Pride And Prejudice‘ to change your ideas about marriage and other things that are stereotypically associated with it.
Written in 1949, Orwell’s last book, ‘1984‘ is a well known classic, featuring prominently in most, usually all 100-books-to read-lists. The novel is unquestionably Orwell’s masterpiece. A definite must read because of the brilliant ideas presented in the novel along with the lucid narrative and uncomplicated writing and plot.
‘1984‘ is set in well the year 1984 in London where the state brutally controls everything-from your relationships,language, thoughts and memories-literally everything! This bleak aspect is immediately impressed upon the reader when the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith is introduced. The government is the ubiquitous Party along with the founder, Big Brother, whose omnipresence is one of the tools with the Party to control the people through fear. Winston is a sort of a quiet rebel against the Party. He knows that the Party is controlling them and falsifying history yet he doesn’t know how to rise up against this subtle oppression and constant surveillance. His first step in a small rebellion is writing a diary, his second step is falling in love with a Party member, Julia-something which isn’t allowed. His last step of rebellion is meeting up with another Party member, O’Brien, who Winston thinks about rebelling too. What perhaps the readers think might actually become a one man showdown with the Party doesn’t come to pass as the Party with all its might suppresses Smith into complete submission and acceptance of its ideology.
A prominent dystopian novel, ‘1984‘ will shock us even today because those ideas of control and tweaking public opinion are relevant today too and are quite applicable in all forms of government till today. The ideas are unnerving and one shifts uneasily in one’s seat while reading the novel, but this does not take away from the fact that the ideology Orwell puts forward is bloody brilliant! Orwell was perhaps inspired by the totalitarian regimes of the 1940s’, the Stalin regime later on and even the British Labour Party’s policies during WWII. However, reading this novel as only an allegory of the Stalinist brutality or an anti-communist tirade or future-predicting sci-fi novel is a grave mistake. The reader must acknowledge that the ideas manifested are quite universal and relevant and that Orwell did not intend to solely malign Communism or predict the future but to provide its readers a sort of a warning about the direction the world societies were heading towards and therefore why it what important to not let such blatant control of humanity ever take place.Its so easy to say that ok, ‘Animal Farm’ was an allegory for the Russian Revolution, so ‘1984‘ is for Stalin but that is hardly the main purpose of the novel.
This marvellous novel of ideas is not a conventional one with a traditional plot, climax and perfect ending in place. It is a speculative novel wherein Orwell envisages the world of 1984 rather pessimistically, using his imagination to invent new technologies and languages. The whole novel more or less focuses on presenting an ideology and thus many dialogues are simply a way to exchange ideas of some ideology. This makes for a fascinating read and one just cannot resist when it comes to comparing Orwell’s fictional future with the real world as so many ideas are very much applicable even today.
No wonder this book figures in those silly 100-books-to-read lists!