Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Down and Out in Paris and London (Published in 1933) - Authored by George Orwell

Published in 1933, Down and Out in Paris and London is author George Orwell’s first full length work. A 2 part memoir on the after effects of financial crisis the world over, especially after the Wall Street crash of 1929, this book is very different from most in its genre. The reason being that Orwell did not spout about the hardships of poverty and financial difficulties from the sidelines; but was very much living the nightmare - first in Paris, as a teacher, and then in London, where he recorded his travels.
The first half of the book deals with Orwell’s experiences in Paris, especially when he finds that he has only 450 francs on him. After putting a down payment of 200 francs as rent, he tells himself that he will somehow manage on 250 francs till he finds a better job than his present work situation, which offered him only 36 francs a week for teaching students. However, disaster strikes in the life of Orwell, in the form of a robbery. His remaining measly 250 francs get stolen from his room, leaving him with 40 odd francs which he had on himself. To make matters worse his students quit, leaving him 36 francs a week short. He explains vividly how it felt to be poor and on the brink of starvation every day.
Orwell describes for the readers how there was an abundance of food everywhere, staring at him through windows, making him dream and plot of grabbing a hot loaf and running, maybe even putting some in his mouth before anyone could catch up to him. Poverty and hunger are almost always accompanied by idleness.




Orwell finally turned to a Russian friend by the name of Boris, for help. However Boris was in a far worse state than Orwell, surviving on 2 francs a day and sleeping on the floor. But, the two get together and start looking for jobs. They find some luck when they are both given jobs as “Plongeurs”, at Hotel X. Their job is basically to wash the dishes and help serve the patrons. Orwell describes with revolting clarity how the richer the patrons were, the more unhygienic and dirty their food would be. While everything looks clean on the outside, the kitchens and other areas which were not open to guests, remained filthy and pest ridden.
They barely scraped by on the money from Hotel X. Soon after, both Orwell and Boris went to work for a Russian hotel, which was even worse. From there, Orwell managed to score a job in London. However, he arrived in London only to find that his to be employer has changed his mind. Once again homeless and jobless, Orwell now provides detailed descriptions of what it means to be jobless in London.
London, where a jobless wanderer cannot even sit on the pavement to rest his heels for fear of being arrested, turned out to be much worse during unemployment and financial distress than Paris. Forced to wander the streets, Orwell provides a very constructive view of the homeless people in London, known as “Tramps”. He believes they should be given small plots of land to farm and grow their own food. He does not think them to be lazy but those who are stuck in unforgiving circumstances.
While all the events that occurred in the book are stated to be true at some point or the other, Orwell has definitely taken some creative liberty in the arrangement of the events. Though entirely factual, the sequence of events and their narration for a more dramatic effect does make the book part fiction. But, overall the book is an authentic read on poverty and hunger during the world’s financial crisis, especially since it is not a third persons point of view but written by someone who was surrounded by these challenges himself.
Except for a bit of racial slurring, particularly where he describes people, the book is a must read. But then again, Orwell has compiled his memoirs at a time when racial slurring was not looked down upon with the same hatred as it is today. A must read for anyone who wishes to understand what a majority of the world’s population went through after the Wall Street crash of 1929.

Down and Out in Paris and London (Published in 1933) - Authored by George Orwell

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Burmese Days (Published in 1934) - A book by George Orwell

A fictional novel based on the Imperial rule of Burma in the 1920’s, Burmese Days is yet another fine piece of work by author George Orwell. Having lived in Burma from 1922 to 1927, Orwell has created a fictional story based on his adventures, exploits and experiences of Burma under the British rule. This book took particularly long to get published. First on account of the many years it took Orwell to write it, and then on account of the fact that publishers, including Orwell’s usual publisher, shied away from publishing something which could be termed as libel. Eventually the book was published not in London or any part of Europe, but rather in the U.S in 1934.
The book was termed as inaccurate on many accounts especially by the Burmese people, who felt that Orwell’s account let their people down. Orwell had replied to this general outrage and feeling, by saying that it may have been harsh ad unfair, but most of it is him reporting things through the means of fictional characters, just the way he saw it.
The story begins with 3 central characters, a local corrupt Burmese magistrate by the name of U Po Kyin, who has been scheming for a place in the prestigious British club. However he knows that as long as Dr. Veraswami, a man of great reputation, stood in his way, he did not stand a chance. To make mattes more difficult, Dr. Veraswami is shown to be good friends with a pukka sahib, John Flory. And as long as the good doctor remains friends with this European man, U Po Kyin cannot be a member of the club.




He schemes to malign the name of the doctor, and even attempts to send a letter to John Flory subtly threatening him. He spreads rumors about how the doctor holds strong “anti-British” feelings and is disloyal to the British rulers. Meanwhile, John Flory’s story unfolds. He feels lost and alienated because of the many years he has spent in Burma. He feels the British are not there to be good administrators but to plunder and seek out their own vested interests. When he voices his concerns to Dr. Veraswami, the doctor is concerned and tries to steer him away from these negative thoughts.
Flory has also kept a Burmese mistress. However, his preconceived racial notions make him feel that it would be best to have a British wife. His dreams seem to be coming true when Elizabeth Lackersteen, the orphaned niece of a local timber firm manager arrives. He rescues her from a supposed attack of a water buffalo and the two of them instantaneously get along. They bond over the next few days and even go out shooting together, where he shoots a leopard and promises to give her the skin as a gift.
However, Flory does not know all that much about Elizabeth and how she secretly hates the foreign country and all its locals. She chooses to hide these facts from Flory when he is about to propose. However, the proposal gets cut short when Elizabeth’s aunt learns that a certain military police lieutenant by the name of Verall arrives. Her aunt feels that Verall would prove to be a better match for Elizabeth and throws a deliberate wrench in the “love” of Elizabeth and Flory by telling Elizabeth of Flory’s Burmese mistress.
Flory tries everything to get her back but to no avail. In the meantime some incidents spark up a riot in the small town. The anti-British riot is only gotten under control because of the work done by Dr. Veraswami and Flory. As a result Dr. Veraswami is given a seat in the prestigious club. Verall leaves unexpectedly and without informing anyone, leaving Elizabeth heartbroken. Seeing this as an opportunity, Flory swoops in and proposes to Elizabeth. She is thrilled and agrees to marry him.
However, U Po Kyin who had been seeking an opportunity to destroy Dr. Veraswami finds his chance at the wedding of Elizabeth and Flory. He sends Flory’s old mistress to create a scene at the wedding, which results in Elizabeth storming away and telling Flory she wants nothing to do with him. Heartbroken and miserable, Flory kills himself and his dog. Soon after, Dr. Veraswami is also released from his post in the British club, which he relinquishes to Kyin. But before Kyin plans on how he will atone for his sins now that he has been given this position of power, he dies of apoplexy. An interesting read which has a strong basis in reality. Many of the characters described in the book are said to be true. Orwell uses his experiences in Burma in the 1920’s, to create a story about the colonial life in a way which is as realistic and unsparing in its view of people, cultures and races. The book is a fine example of social metaphysics, which explains that what other people think will contribute and create reality.

Burmese Days (Published in 1934) - A book by George Orwell

Friday, May 15, 2015

Twelve Days of Terror: Shark Attacks in 1916 - Terror on the beach and in a creek

Shark attacks are one of the most scary horrors that people think of when they think of going into the water. The prospect of a perfect and unfeeling predator swimming silently to a person in the water, and biting large chunks of flesh, causing a death by horrific blood loss is bound to scare even the most courageous of people. The rattling off statistics that the number of deaths caused by shark attacks is mostly in the single digits worldwide and hence very unlikely to happen does not reduce the scare. Even now, the prospect of a shark in the waters can bring all the swimmers out of the water; although studies which show that sharks and people swimming side by side in the waters off Sydney show that sharks just don't attack people; there are some reasons why an attack would have happened.
But why this fear of sharks ? Why this unsettling feeling when there is even some news of a shark in the water ? A lot of people based it on a very popular movie called 'Jaws' (released in 1975, and based on a novel by Peter Benchley, published in 1974), which showed a small beach town terrorized by a great white shark and how people died in these attacks. The prospect of such a common pastime, going to the beach and swimming in the water, suddenly becoming so dangerous, stayed in the minds of people and caused the movie to become a major event (and a marked negative influence for the health of the many species of sharks). But the novel was not just fiction. It was based on attacks that took place in 1916, during the First World War, in the waters off New Jersey, where a great white shark not only killed people in the water off the coast, but even came inland in a creek and killed more people (for a total of 4 dead and one badly injured). These incidents have all been forgotten, if not for this book, whose author Richard Fernicola did extensive research on these attacks and describes these events in terrifying details.

Book: Twelve Days of TerrorMovie: 12 Days of TerrorMovie: Jaws

Doing research on these attacks was not easy. The attacks happened nearly a century back and recollection of these events was not easy. Further, the First World War was happening in that timeframe, which made research so much time later even more difficult, The book does not only describe the events which happened, but also provides a lot of information about sharks and why the attacks could have taken place. And how did the author get interested in this story ? He heard a conversation about these attacks, which caused him to get interested, and led to a lot of research and finally the emergence of this book.
The book also provides information about the nature of the attacks and describes the wounds caused on the dead and the survivor; something that most modern day attacks do not actually describe. What is most interesting is the research about why the attacks could have taken place, and if you see modern documentaries that research shark attacks, in a lot of cases, there are conclusions that it was some activity of man (or in some cases, natural causes) that in turn change the behavior of the shark and could cause these attacks.

Twelve Days of Terror: Shark Attacks in 1916 - Terror on the beach and in a creek

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Vintage stuff (Published in 1982) - Authored by Tom Sharpe - About a teenage boy

The confusions and shortfalls of public schooling, a headmaster with an unusual approach to learning and a dimwitted teenage boy who carries out each and every thing said to him, in the most literal manner- mix all this together with a journey through England and France and what you get is another explosive read from author Tom Sharpe. Vintage Stuff was published in 1982. One of Tom Sharpe’s last few novels before his death in 2013, the novel is in no way less than any of his prior books.
The story of Vintage Stuff is about a teenage boy by the name of Peregrine Roderick Clyde-Brown. He is not just naïve or dimwitted but also a sort of bumbling savage. While the same thing can be said of many other boys his age, what unfortunately makes him stand far apart from his fellow students is his proclivity towards following through on anything said to him. The most innocently said thing is always taken literally by our protagonist.
Obviously, no school wants anything to do with him, especially when he starts folding foliage when he is told to turn over a new leaf!! But after a lot of cajoling, coaxing and heavy amount of bribing his parents successfully manage to get him admission at Groxbourne. Where the faculty feels that Peregrine’s knack for taking the smallest order literally and not having a single individual thought, will make him a promising candidate for the British Army. At Groxbourne, Peregrine meets the unusual headmaster Gladstone, whose teaching methods include lashing among other things.




What follows is true to Tom Sharpe’s style of writing. Gladstone manages to take Peregrine on a mysterious journey which does start in England, but soon crosses borders into France, and lands up exploding with Peregrine storming a French castle. If that wasn’t enough Peregrine does manage some mischief, mayhem and above all a murder within the French castle.
Tom Sharpe out does himself with this novel, especially by displaying a wonderful command over the English language and allowing the readers to truly enjoy all its nuances and innuendos. A boy who takes every order and command, no matter how innocently said, literally. Together with a headmaster who is just a little beyond extreme, the duo manage to stir up enough trouble which results in car crashes, shootings and chaos.
Though the novel feels a bit dated, it is an enjoyable and entertaining read. As always, one can expect larger than life situations, unrealistic characters and a completely insane plot which creates a fast moving witty book full of twists and unexpected surprises. Do not expect it to make sense, but you can expect a delightful play on words, and typical wry British humor which is showcased beautifully through Peregrine’s actions.
Like all of Tom Sharpe’s other books, this one too, is a quick read which will leave you in splits from the word go. If you have read a Sharpe book before, then you know what you are in for; but if you haven’t, then buckle down for complete anarchy.

Vintage stuff (Published in 1982) - Authored by Tom Sharpe - About a teenage boy

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Midden (Published in 1996) - Authored by Tom Sharpe - Story of Timothy Bright

Published in 1996, The Midden is written by author Tom Sharpe a year after Grantchester Grind. This standalone novel was published after almost 11 years, since Sharpe’s last release. Like most of his books, Sharpe has focused on victimizing the British upper class in this book as well. There isn’t much sense made in the book, but none the less it is guaranteed to amaze the reader, with all the random twists in the plot.
The story begins with Timothy Bright, a stock broker by profession. But unlike his name, Tim is rather dimwitted. Problems arise when Timothy realizes that his wealthy family has cut him off, making him not so rich. Poor Timothy cannot fathom why he has been cut off, or why his friends no longer speak with him. He dreams about make it large financially. But unfortunately for him, he does not possess any real acumen to follow through on his dream.
He starts by gambling hoping to make some money. But when it fails (badly), he takes to embezzling. While such large crimes go unnoticed, it is his lesser known acts of notoriety which land him in deep trouble. Dumb as he is, he gets involved with some heavy-breathing thugs. His tiny act of sniffing a strangely aromatic tobacco leads to him getting drugged. But that isn’t surprising for a Sharpe novel. What is bizarre is how drugged Timothy lands up naked in the bed of Chief Constable (CC), Sir Arnold Gonders, with the CC’s wife! Sir Arnold is shown to be a rotten piece of work.
As bent as they come, Chief Constable, Sir Arnold has gotten away with charges of perjury and bribery. After finding a naked Timothy Bright in bed with his wife, Sir Arnold is not afraid to tackle Timothy by framing him for various crimes. Most of the novel revolves around his attempts to dispose of Timothy while also having to deal with his crazy wife and her eccentric lesbian lover, Auntie Bea!!




Where he successfully manages to bring up false charges against Timothy, he meets his match in his old adversary, Miss Marjorie Midden of Middenhall, which was popularly known as “The Midden”. When he tries to frame Miss Midden in a police raid of Middenhall, things start to go very wrong. Once the raid is conducted on the crazy residents of Middenhall, by the police who for some reason are dressed as sheep, things begin to blow up, literally. What follows is death and cremation of a dozen police officials and residents, when the entire Middenhall gets burnt to the ground.
As always Tom Sharpe is blunt and crass, and not afraid to create a plot which is not only unrealistic but completely outrageous. With slapstick situations and scathing humor Sharpe has proven to his audience that 3 decades on, and he still hasn’t lost his touch. But while the story was enjoyable, one can argue that there isn’t much need for the vulgar, depraved scenes or the abusive language towards the finale, especially considering it does nothing to aid the plot or characters in any way.
But crude language aside, one has to hand it to Sharpe for creating and introducing characters who have no real attributes, other than to keep the reader guessing as to whether said character is going to get his due or outsmart his creator. The book stays slow and steady until the last 100 odd pages, which is when the shit hits the roof! Ardent Sharpe fans will enjoy the book in spite of the set manner in which it is written. But to someone who has just picked up Sharpe, this book might not be the best way to get acquainted with his writings or his characters.

The Midden (Published in 1996) - Authored by Tom Sharpe - Story of Timothy Bright

Saturday, January 17, 2015

The Gropes (Published in 2009) - Written by Tom Sharpe - Not as good as some of his others

His second to last book before his death, The Gropes is not one of Tom Sharpe’s best works. Published in 2009, this book is a long way from Sharpe’s easy style of writing where he could effortlessly mash together characters to create insane outcomes. Remembered more for his dangerous mix of women, sexual tension, foreigners, class tension and the powers that be, Sharpe has lost his edge in his later writings, especially this book.
Set in Grope Hall, Northumberland, the ancestral property of a matriarchal family of women who seem to be descendants of a seasick Viking and Ursula, a nun who was said to be so ugly, that rapists and plunderers steered clear of her!! This matriarchal family comprised of women who went out to find themselves husbands. They did so by kidnapping the men and bringing them back to their estate, from where the men couldn’t escape on account of the Spanish fighting bulls guarding the farmlands.
In Grope Hall, the men are bullied and sulk about all day, while the women are strong willed and oversexed! The book follows the crazy life of Vera and Belinda. Vera, who is devoted to romantic novels, lives with her ordinary husband, Horace. But, when Horace stabs their son for being his doppelganger, Vera decides to send her son, Esmond to her brother, Albert. From here on the book begins to spiral out of control.




While Horace manages to escape from the clutches of his wife with the help of a fake passport and tramp steamer headed for Latvia, Esmond is kidnapped and dragged back to Grope Hal by none other than Albert’s wife, Belinda. Bullying aside, it isn’t fun being the Vaseline loving Vera or the Jacuzzi polishing Belinda, who is constantly plotting her husband’s downfall. The only way to establish any semblance of peace or sanity in Grope Hall is if someone attempts to restore the balance between the male and females living there.
Since all the men in Grope Hall believe that silence, fortitude and whisky are their only means of resistance, the mighty task of adjusting the scales is left on the shoulders of poor Esmond, who realizes that all he may need to rectify the situation is steady nerves and good old chauvinism. Like all Sharpe novels, The Gropes also dishes out dark sordid humor through farcical events abundantly.
Unlike the Wilt series and Porterhouse Blue, this book requires many more one-liners to keep the pages turning and the readers interested. While the characters may be unpleasant and the scenes filled with slapstick comedy, the humor in The Gropes feels forced, and the characters somehow feel hollow. Where Sharpe’s characters would seem calm and dignified on the surface only to later reveal a full blown tornado of inner turmoil, which came out because of the circumstances they were forced to face; the characters from this novel lie flat on the pages with no inner conflicts.
With some ridiculously hilarious books under his belt, Sharpe delivered a book which is good, but not absurd to the nth degree. The story builds up only to fizzle out in the end. But like most of his books, it is a short read and keeps the reader focused on the details till the finish. Even though it doesn’t reach a certain “Sharpe” standard the book is an extreme farce with whimsical characters. Not his best work, but none the less the book is definitely a comic, chaotic and wildly amusing read.

The Gropes (Published in 2009) - Written by Tom Sharpe - Not as good as some of his others

Monday, October 13, 2014

Riotous Assembly (Published in 1971) - Authored by Tom Sharpe - Satirical look at South Africa during apartheid

Published in 1971, Riotous Assembly is a novel by Tom Sharpe. A novel which showcases the Apartheid era of South Africa in a satirical and humorous way, Riotous Assembly is about a murder committed by a white woman of her Zulu cook. The murder that has taken place in South Africa at the time of apartheid and the local police who enforce it, is Tom Sharpe’s way of speaking out against the atrocities that were committed at the time. His knowledge on the subject was vast as a result of his staying in South Africa from 1951 until1961.
Tom Sharpe had shifted to South Africa and had worked as a social worker and teacher. The apartheid era inspired him to write 2 novels, and a play, one of the novels being Riotous Assembly. Like every phase of his life, this one too, resulted in the publication of a serious issue in the form of satire and mockery. However, it did not go down well, and he was arrested for sedition, and later deported to London in 1961.
The novel opens in a fictitious town by the name of Piemburg in South Africa. The police chief, Kommandant van Heerden, has risen to his current rank, only because of family connections. His work and merit leave much to be desired. So when this baboon of a Police Chief, who also happens to be pro-apartheid, is told to go an investigate a murder, involving a certain eccentric British lady by the name of Miss Hazlestone, there is bound to be some blow up.




It turns out that Miss Hazlestone has murdered or rather blown to smithereens her Zulu cook with an elephant gun. But since the murder was that of a Zulu and the one committing the crime was a British “white” woman, van Heerden seems it only fair to brush the entire matter under the carpet. However, when Miss Hazlestone divulges the fact that she and her cook were lovers, van Heerden panics. In his endeavors to try and contain the matter, he creates so much confusion that it all blows out of proportion on a nuclear scale.
He attempts to try and control the matter and also stop this news from spreading, by placing the lady, Miss Hazlestone under house arrest, and calls reinforcement to guard her, while he goes to try and make matters “better”. His assistants are stupider than him. When he posts the bloodthirsty but completely senseless Konstable Els as a guard outside Miss Hazlestone’s home with an elephant gun, Els manages to somehow kill over 20 police officers in his over exuberance to guard the house and its secret.
Not sure what to do, Els plants a wallet found nearby at the scene of the crime and then flees. The wallet turns out to be that of Bishop of Barotseland, Miss Hazlestone’s brother. He is then arrested and interrogated in a not so legal way, after which a trial is held and he is sentenced to death by hanging at the ancient gallows for a crime he did not commit.
Not a political novel, and a bit predictable, but yet, as always an entertaining read by Tom Sharpe. The book from the word go, puts light on everything that Sharpe found wrong in Apartheid South Africa. He uses all that and comes up with a story which is hilarious and yet a slap in the face of all racism, savagery, stupidities, juridical perversions and misunderstandings that took place in South Africa.

Riotous Assembly (Published in 1971) - Authored by Tom Sharpe - Satirical look at South Africa during apartheid