Saturday, December 20, 2008

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (1988)

This is a brilliant book, once you understand it. I must confess, I found it heavy reading, but then I read it again, and then again, and slowly realized what a brilliant book it is. Foucault's Pendulum is a book that delves into conspiracy theories, but the concept in the book is more about detailing how weird conspiracy theories can be, how they can drive people totally delusional, and so on. As a side note, the book is nothing like the much more popular 'The Da Vinci Code' by Dan Brown (that dealt with real life conspiracy theories while "Foucault' Pendulum" is more about how conspiracy theories are bunkum, but have enough adherents to provoke strange reactions in people, especially in people who have bought into such theories. Foucault's Pendulum by itself does not promote a conspiracy theory, but integrates many prevalent theories related to the Knight Templars, Freemasons, The Elders of Zion, The Cabalists, The Jesuits, The Bavarian Illuminati, and many others, and adds one more fictional cult of its own - a fictional secret society called the Tres (Templi Resurgentes Equites Synarchici, Latin for the nonsensical "Synarchic Knights of Templar Rebirth").

Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco (1988)

The name of the book is fascinating in itself, talking about the famous experiment by the French physicist Léon Foucault, in the year 1851, in the Meridian Room of the Paris Observatory. This experiment involved hanging a tall pendulum free to oscillate in any vertical plane; over a period of time, the paths taken by the pendulum will demonstrate the rotation of the earth (Wikipedia); this device forms an integral part of 'The Plan' described in the book.
The book is itself about these 3 characters, Belbo, Diotallevi and Casaubon (the narrator, describing the events in flashback), who get interested in conspiracy theories, the occult and decide to prepare their own theory called 'The Plan'. Their personal histories are described in detail, including their earlier review of a book on the 'Knights Templar' which describes how the holy warriors did not totally die out when they were suppressed by the French Emperor and the Pope, but instead the remnants of the order went underground, established cells throughout the world in order to eventually take over the world and avenge their destruction. Their are other experiences of interaction with occult ideas and other conspiracy theories.
Eventually, the 3 develop their own conspiracy theory that includes many elements, and weaves together an intricate web, taking the help of the personal computer of Belbo (called 'Abulafia'). Eventually, they start attracting the attention of a secret brotherhood that imagines itself to be secret society described in this plan, and which wants to capture these 3 authors for learning more about what they know, and capture Belbo in order to force him to reveal more. This eventually leads to his death at the hands of the gang when he is unable to provide them more information.
Casaubon escapes, and is left thinking about what they have created, and when he will be eventually captured by this society. He is clear that he will not let them believe that 'The Plan' is real.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926)

The concept of a narrator of a detective story has been prevalent for a long time. The most famous probably being the character of Dr. Watson from Sherlock Holmes who was the perfect foil to Sherlock Holmes. There are some expectations from the narrator of a good detective novel - the narrator can bring their own quirks to the story, but they are expected to layout the story in the way that it actually happened. You don't really expect the narrator to have a significant presence in the story; this was the concept that was used before the advent of this novel.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd turned this whole concept upside down. Here was a narrator who was going along normally like most narrators, and then at the end, there is a huge element of surprise. Hercule Poirot points out that the murder was committed by the character of the narrator, and the narrator admits this as the last element of the story before committing surprise.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926)

This twist in the novel was very controversial. After all, the concept of a good detective novel was that you provide the same clues to your reader as available to the detective, and if you hide a major element in the story (such as the narrator having done the killing), then it would almost seem like a break to that concept. Fortunately for this novel and Agatha Christie, except for some critics and reviewers, everybody else accepted this twist easily enough. In fact, many consider this to be among her best works.
The story is about the double murder in the small town of King's Abbott in England. The murder of Mrs. Ferrars happens first, and then the murder of Roger Ackroyd clears the lingering doubt about Mrs. Ferrars death was a murder. There are a variety of suspects with their different motives, with suspicion falling strongly on Ralph, the stepson of Roger Ackroyd backed by many pieces of evidence. And then Poirot steps in, having newly arrived there. What does Poirot do to absolve Ralph of the crime ? As usual, Agatha Christie has spun a great tale.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie (1938)

Agatha Christie created 2 fabulous characters - Hercule Poirot, and Miss Marple; each of them were brilliant at connecting clues, tying them in with human emotions and solving crimes that would baffle other people; in that respect, they were similar to Sherlock Holmes (created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle). Hercule Poirot was made as a lovable, and yet highly vain character. He knows that he is smart, he can solve cases that no one else can, and he is very vain about his moustache. He is also a perfect gentleman in terms of manners, although with a high ego, he can get easily offended. All these characteristics pale in front of the indisputable fact that he can use clues to evolve a story, change his thinking if the clues don't match, and explore all possible alternatives even if they seem extremely unlikely.

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie (1938)

This particular novel, 'An Appointment with death' was released after many other Hercule Poirot stories had been published, so the standard for Hercule Poirot in terms of character and success was already set. Here was a guy who read the same clues as the reader, and others in the story, and yet was able to solve the crime (in many cases, the actual murdered was a surprise to most people - read 'Murder on the Orient Express' as another great book with the same subject).
The novel deals with a family under great stress, the matriarch of the family is a tyrant of the highest degree, controlling the family (interactions, emotions, experiences, she controlled everything). This stifling was causing immense harm to the family members (including possibly breaking up the marriage of her son), and then, while on a trip to the Middle East, she is murdered. There is not much time to solve the crime, and since Hercule Poirot was at the same location, his services were requested. He needs to figure out the various movements, marshal the clues, and see which of the oppressed family members committed the crime.
The initial part of the story where the family is getting discussed between 2 outsiders, Sarah King and Dr. Gerard, is fascinating as you get to understand the family dynamics in fair detail. This is setting the ground to claim that most people in the family also had a reason to kill her, and then Poirot had heard something earlier that seemed like her children were plotting to kill her. In the 24 hours in which he was involved in the case, he works out that the family members had indeed found her dead, but suspected the other and hence tried to save them.
The name of the murderer, when finally revealed, is a major surprise, one which most readers would not have predicted.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus (1992)

This was a classic book, published in 1992. The book is supposed to cover the relationship between men and women, and it does do that to a large extent. However, as the book grew more successful, the criticism also grew. There was a lot of analysis of the antecedents of the author, John Gray, trying to prove that his credentials were incorrect (that his degree was false, that he was an associate of the cult leader Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and that association was his background). The book was also criticized for presenting generalities, for not having enough depth, that the book was sexist, that the book did not reference too many details and research.

Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus - by John Gray (1992)

The book title says it all - the book says that men and women are wired differently, so different in fact that it would seem that both of them are from separate planets and are on Earth together. The way they think, the way they deal with tension and stress situations, and the way that they communicate with each other, a lot of that is described in generic terms. Does this describe all males and females, does this have the required depth ? No. However, you could describe this book as the Idiot's Guide to the man - woman relationship, and it is a good starting point that will help in the understanding.
If you take 1 situation and how it is explained in the book, it illuminates the techniques used in the book. Suppose the man is worried over something, he expects that he will be left alone (sort of retreating into his cave) while he thinks it over, and maybe doing something else so that he can then approach the problem with a fresh mind. He is not looking for help to solve the issue, and expects that this will be understood by the woman. However, since they are wired up differently, she is unable to understand this entire thinking, and thinks that he is withdrawing from her. A similar situation would happen where a woman is not feeling good, and he will give her space so that she can work things out, while she expects that he will comfort her, and show that he is involved.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov (Published in 1986)

Foundation and Earth did not satisfy avid readers of Asimov (and fans of the Foundation series). After all, it was still only covering a period midway during the 1000 year period that was required to establish the second Galactic Empire, and neither covered the period after that, nor did it cover the period required for the establishment of Galaxia. Asimov's widow Janet revealed after his death that Asimov was unexpectedly somewhat of a loss after Foundation and Earth to write about what happened post that period. He ran out of ideas, and hence went back to detail the Foundation periods in more detail, with Prelude to Foundation, and Forward the Foundation. Further, Foundation and Earth did not have a very gripping continuous story line, almost with individual stories tending to a final end (that was supposed to establish the robotic theme that combined the Robot Series, the Foundation Series, and the Empire Series).

Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov (Published in 1986)

Foundation and Earth covers the time period immediately after the decision by Trevize in Foundation's Edge to use the basis of Gaia for building up a true Galaxia. However, he continues to have doubts, and is not sure whether he has made the right decision. He decides to continue searching for Earth, sure that the fact that Earth has tried to remove all traces of itself means that once he found Earth, there must be something there that would help him confirm his decision. So he sets out on an expedition along with Golan Trevize and and Bliss (a representative of Gaia) and travel to a number of planets, trying to get traces of the location of Earth.
They reach Comporellon, where they are imprisoned since the local inhabitants want to get control of the advanced gravity ship. In this case, Trevize literally manages to sleep his way out of this problem, and manage to get out of the planet. From Comporellon, they get the location of Spacer worlds (the first time Spacer worlds are mentioned in the Foundation series).
Next they reach Aurora, the most powerful Spacer world in its time, now a planet without humans and Spacers. They have an adventure here when wild dogs almost manage to pin Trevize down and only Bliss manages to save Trevize by using the power of Gaia.
They next land in Solaria, a world which was the most isolated of the Spacer worlds; with the inhabitants of that time even then refusing to meet each in person, instead meeting only through videographic depiction. The inhabitants have developed a great power called transducer lobes which allows them to channelize natural energy into great use, and live in big estates alone (and are now hermaphrodites, capable of handling reproduction alone). The 3 travelers land in the estate of one of them called Bander, who explains their history and eventually wants to kill them. They only manage to escape when Bliss reluctantly kills Bander (she blocks his energy use and that fries his brain since energy is still coming in but is blocked from going out). They also encounter the young child of Bander, Fallom, who will be killed since she is immature and cannot handle the estate. They manage to escape the robots sent to investigate the death of Bander and take Fallom with them.
They still have a Spacer world to go to, and reach Melpomenia, where they need to wear suits since the atmosphere has long vanished. They find a building with the coordinates of all the spacer world, and also encounter a moss that seems to grow on their suits and manage to kill it by using their blasters and then escape the planet without carrying the moss with them. These coordinates give them a way to find the likely location of Earth since they are able to possibly find the position of Earth at the center of these coordinates.
They next go to a Binary sun system from the above process, and reach a watery planet revolving around a star called Alpha Centauri. The inhabitants are friendly, but they soon discover (through a lady who has had sex with Trevize) that they are being poisoned. They also learn that there was an attempt to restore Earth's soil (as mentioned in Pebble in the Sky), but it was abandoned. There was also an attempt to terraform the planet of Alpha, but that was also left half way. They also escape from Alpha, but are pretty sure that they are close to Earth now.
And finally they reach the Solar System of Earth, first seeing huge gas giants including one that has large rings around it (just like the legend), and the third planet has a very large satellite. They have found Earth, but Earth is radioactive and does not support any life. They find themselves getting pulled to the Moon, where they eventually find R Daneel Olivaw, who explains that he called them here. He explains the whole history of how he has been guiding the human race for 20,000 years now, including the settling of Alpha Centauri, the creation of psychohistory, the setting up of Gaia. But he is out of time, his brain does not last long and creating a new one does not help. He wants to combine with Fallom, with her long life as a Spacer, it is enough to ensure that Galaxia is setup; Galaxia is the only way to safeguard the Galaxy against aliens from other Galaxies.

Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov (1982)

Imagine being in a position where you are begged by fans and forced by your publisher to write another book. This book is the sequel to a series that was voted as the Best All-Time Series (a one time award that was never repeated). And the book that you write becomes a bestseller for the first time in your career and wins awards from the industry. This is what happened to Isaac Asimov and the book - Foundation's Edge. The book was published in 1982 (and since the Second Foundation was published in 1953, this one was a long time in coming). It was much thicker than the first 3 books of the Foundation series and was also a bestseller on the New York times best-seller list (and given that Asimov was a prolific writer, it took a long time for him to reach the best-seller list).

Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov (1982)

Foundation's Edge takes the timeline of 500 years after the birth of the Foundation, half-way into the 1000 year period predicted by Hari Seldon for the formation of the next Galactic Empire. The Mule has long been gone, and the distortion introduced in the Seldon Plan by the emergence of the Mule has gone away (due to the careful attention of the Second Foundation). So too has the thought of the Second Foundation, ever since the First Foundation believed it destroyed the agents of the Second Foundation on Terminus.
However, not everyone believes this. The all powerful Mayor of Terminus (and consequently the ruler of the Foundation), Harla Branno, is not sure whether the Second Foundation is truly gone. Similarly, there is a young and impetuous Councilman, Golan Trevize also believes that the Second Foundation exists and is willing to ask this in open Council even though the Mayor is not willing. He has already confided his feelings to another young Councilman Munn Li Compor, who has however disclosed all this to the Mayor. The Mayor is all powerful right now, since there was a opening of the vault and an appearance by Hari Seldon that strengthened her position immensely; she is able to arrest Trevize and send him to exile. She wants him to search for the Second Foundation, while apparently searching for the obscure hidden planet Earth with a older researcher Janov Pelorat. He is given the most advanced ship that the Foundation has, a gravity ship that takes its energy from the gravity forces in space.
Simultaneously, there are more political battles happening in Trantor, the home of the Second Foundation, where 2 upstarts are competing to be the next one to take over as First Speaker, with Stor Gendibal trying to warn about the belief that there is some power stronger than the Second Foundation. In this he is opposed by an opponent Delora Delarmi, who wants to diminish him since that would leave the path clear for her to be the next First Speaker.
In the midst of all this, the entire sequence is actually being guided by the planet of Gaia (Wikipedia), an extraordinary planet where everything is conscious, and part of one. Everything on the planet has one thought, one consciousness, and together the planet wields immense power, even stronger than the Second Foundation. The Gaia concept is also non-threatening in the sense that there is no ambition, but there is a touch of vanity since Gaia believes that the entire Galaxy should be like Gaia, with all elements of the Galaxy being part of one. The reason why Gaia is manipulating everyone is that it wants to bring the situation to a head, and make Trevize decide the future of the Galaxy (he apparently has a very strong intuition, and Gaia wants to him decide whether the future of the Galaxy should be based on the physical power of the First Foundation, or the mental control of the Second Foundation, or the wholeness of Gaia). Whatever decision he makes will be implemented by Gaia.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Second Foundation (1953) - Author Isaac Asimov

The Second Foundation was the story that was the 3rd such published book in the Foundation Trilogy (although some later books were introduced that told the story before this book). The Second Foundation was published more than 50 years back (to be precise 55 years back, in 1953 by Gnome Press). The book was the sequel to the book - Foundation and Empire. I would not treat the book purely as science fiction, given that science is not the central theme of the book. The book weaves science in and out, but the book is all about human emotions, including the strongest ones, ambition. In the previous 2 books (Foundation & Foundation and Empire), Asimov had only given trace descriptions of the Second Foundation. It is this book which describes the Second Foundation in some detail, but not enough (more detail is revealed in the book, Foundation's Edge).

Second Foundation (1953) - Author Isaac Asimov

The actual novel is the combination of 2 separate stories separated by 55 years. Both are about searches for the Second Foundation, Search by the Mule, and Search by the Foundation. The Second Foundation was the Foundation set up by Hari Seldon to be composed of mentalists (people who can control and influence human thought) (although the initial novels never really clear as to how people came to develop these powers - it was only once you read the later novels such as 'Prelude to the Foundation' that reveal as to how all of this was a great plan).
The Mule had conquered everything that was visible, including the great Foundation itself (from its base on Terminus). He was searching for the Second Foundation, since they, the shadowy society of mentalists, were the only one who could break his plan (and he had started finding that some of his important people were getting modified, and could only be possible by the Second Foundation). It was important for him to find the Second Foundation, and it was this story that details his search, and how eventually, the First Speaker of the Second Foundation fulfills his duty by modifying the Mule to make him not care anymore about the Second Foundation (and eventually the Mule would die a natural death).
The Second Story, 55 years after the death of the Mule, was about the Foundation (the First one, the one that grew based on physical power) wanting to find the Second Foundation and destroy it. With the encounter with the Mule, it was clear that the Second Foundation existed. The Foundation and its leader could not stand to have the prospect of anybody but them being the center of the next Empire, and if the Second Foundation consisting of mentalics remained at large, the Foundation would never be the dominant power. And hence, driven by ambition, the search for the Second Foundation through the use of technology - this technology enables them to determine the way to disrupt the use of the telepathic powers of the Second Foundation and to cause harsh mental pain to any such agent of the Second Foundation. They eventually find agents on the same planet, Terminus (since the Second Foundation is at star's end, and circling the galaxy comes back to the original point).
However, have they really ended the Second Foundation ?

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (1952)

Foundation and Empire was the second book published in the Foundation series. The novel takes place in 2 parts (and were published as separate novellas), and form the 2 halves of the book. The 2 parts of the book follow on from the original 'Foundation' novel, and the story follows from the time when the First Foundation came up as a project of Hari Seldon on the planet Terminus way on the edge of the galaxy, and how the Foundation eventually reveals its true colors of setting up a power center that will start growing as the center of a new alternative to the Empire.
One of the attractions of the Foundation Series is a lot of societal information, and the turmoil and political activities inside a society, even if the society is way in the future. Both the stories of the book talk about societies under stress, and the actions of powerful people in these societies, in one case where the person finally lost the battle, and in the other case, managed to beat the problems.

Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (1952)

The book covers 2 separate stories, both around the Foundation, one is a success story for the Foundation, and the other is a story where a single person is able to use his mutant powers to break the stronghold of the Foundation and take over planets one by one. The 2 stories are:
1. The General: This is the story of a time when the Empire is decaying, still powerful, but the Foundation is growing on power. A direct confrontation with the Empire, which has forgotten about the setting of a group of scientists on a remote planet Terminus on the edge of the galaxy (and which has now grown into a seemingly obscure but powerful entity known as the Foundation) is on the cards. The story talks about a society on the powerful central planet Trantor run by Emperor Cleon II (with his advisors and courtiers). A powerful and young general, Bel Riose is exploring the edges of the galaxy and coming up against the Foundation, and has started attacking parts of the Foundation already. How can he stopped ? The story takes a non-violent view of this approach, whereby the Foundation uses the insecurity of the Emperor against a powerful General (who is already very popular); the Emperor will be suspicious of the motives of a General who already controls the loyalty of a huge section of the armed forces.
2. The second story is about the 'Mule'. A mutant, who is able to control the emotions of people and is looking to take control over the galaxy. The Empire no longer effectively exists, with the capital planet, Trantor having been sacked. The Foundation is now much more powerful, but is no longer the vibrant and strong self, with an earlier upstart having instituted hereditary rule. The Mule emerges in this scenario, latching onto a set of Foundation newly-weds, and moving along with them. While doing this, he also manages to sway the leaders of various planets and break their resistance. The Seldon plan also fails to predict the Mule, since the Seldon plan and psychohistory work on massed numbers, and cannot predict the impact of an individual.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

A Christmas Carol (By Charles Dickens - 1843)

Charles Dickens was one of the most prolific writers of his generation, having written a number of books. Most of his books were on the subject of the society of Great Britain of that time, and he wrote about the horrors, the deprivation, the class challenges, and the poor condition of the poorer classes of that time (Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and many others that contain some pretty grim descriptions of the conditions of most of England of that time). A Christmas Carol is different from many of those books - it also depicts the condition of society, especially the different conditions of the different social classes at that times, but it is also a novel that describes how a person can change himself if shown the right way. It is a book that is written for Christmas, a play on how the spirit of Christmas, of giving, can change even the most hard-nosed person and reform them.

A Christmas Carol (By Charles Dickens - 1843)

A Christmas Carol was an incredibly successful novel, selling many copies right after release, and being popular ever since. When one thinks of the Christmas Spirit and of reform, the story of Ebenezer Scrooge comes to mind. It is a popular tale, and the concept of the redemption of a person when shown his own faults, and the vision of a horrible future that forces the person to confront his own inner self is a popular tale from the beginning of man.
A Christmas tale is the story of a miserable old miser, unwilling to recognize the suffering around him, unwilling to show pity to those around him. On the Eve of Christmas, he starts seeing various things of a paranormal nature, including visions of his former business partner Jacob Marley (dead for 7 years now). Finally, after all the bells of the house start ringing, and the ghost of Marley enters through the door and warns Scrooge that he has one chance of redemption, else his fate will be horrible - he would be doomed to wander the world after death, unable to make any amends for what he has done. He will see 3 spirits over the next 3 days that will allow him to change his fate.
And thus starts the journey:
He first sees the Ghost of Christmas Past, who shows Scrooge visions from previous Christmas Days, including how Scrooge's sister saved him from boarding school, and Scrooge does not treat her son Fred properly. The spirit reminds him of how others treated him, and takes him down the painful path of how he lost his love, Belle, due to his love for money. Scrooge gets angry and dismisses the spirit.
Next, he sees the Ghost of Christmas Present in the adjoining room, who takes him through how others are enjoying Christmas. His apprentice Bob Cratchit, with his lame son Tiny Tim are enjoying even though their celebrations are meager. Scrooge's other friends don't talk too much good about him either, with only his nephew seeing any good. Overall, the Ghost shows Scrooge how people enjoy the spirit of Christmas, no matter their circumstances. He admonishes Scrooge about 2 major causes of suffering in the world, 'Ignorance' and 'Want'. With that, the spirit vanishes.
Finally, in the most horrific experience, Scrooge is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Future, a grim black spectre. The spectre does not speak, only shows Scrooge future suffering, including a death where no one is with him, and even his attendants rob him. Scrooge is shaken by this vision, and promises to turn a new leaf.
With the 3 spirits gone, it is now Christmas morning; and Scrooge changes himself totally, becoming a kind-hearted person who cares for everyone around him. He starts using his wealth to improve the lives of those he touches.

Monday, September 8, 2008

A tale of 2 cities by Charles Dickens

One of the most brutal revolutions in Europe in recent times has been the French Revolution; it had many phases and can be taken to mean the period between 1789 and 1799, when the army finally took over in the form of its leader, Napoleon Bonaparte. In the interim period, there were many struggles, many twists and turns. A new instrument of murder, the guillotine, was the main execution tool. People condemned to death for anti-revolution fervor, for their thoughts, and because getting them condemned to death removed them from the scene, all would be brought to the public squares where they would be executed with the guillotine.
'A tale of 2 cities' was published in 1859, and is set during the time period of the French Revolution. It shows the sheer terror of those times, where you could be condemned to death for even sympathizing with the fate of an earlier executed 'enemy' of the revolution, where a person could be condemned based on the written statement of a person (even if the person wants to take the statement back). The terror of the French Revolution evolved during a complex stage in which the excesses of the nobility and the church had crushed the poorer part of the population (Wikipedia), and this was almost pay-back time.

A tale of 2 cities by Charles Dickens

The book led to a very remembered opening statement, starting with these incredible words, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness". The book covers the conflicting story of many people, including arrogant aristocrats who were condemned, humble and good aristocrats who were also condemned, people taking revenge using the medium of the revolution, and how the revolution eventually also condemns those who were its proponents earlier. The book has been used as the base for a number of movies over the years, and was itself based on the book 'The French Revolution: A History' by Thomas Carlyle.
The novel covers the story of the following main characters:
- Dr Alexandre Manette: A prisoner in the Bastille for 18 years, and the father of the lady who is one of the main characters
- Lucie Manette: Young lady loved by both Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton, and also the daughter of Dr. Manette
- Charles Darnay: A young, and good-natured French nobel. He never liked the cruelty of his family towards the peasantry and abandons the family name (Evrémonde), and fled to England after assuming his mother's maiden name
- Sydney Carton: A complex, but depressed English barrister. Loves Lucie, and promises her that he will do whatever he can for her and her family. Eventually does so in the end with a supreme act of self-sacrifice.
- Monsieur Ernest Defarge: Took care of Dr. Manette, also a closet revolutionary
- Madame Therese Defarge: A dark-natured closet revolutionary and wife of Ernest. She is also bent of taking revenge for the extermination of her family at the hands of Darnay's uncle

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)

Oliver Twist was the second book by Charles Dickens, and was the first one to portray a child in the main role. The book tells of the struggles of this boy, Oliver Twist, having been born in poverty and suffering through large sections of his life. The book also portrays an England of that time as a time of suffering for the poor (something that typically does not come through many historical books of that period, which concentrate on the richer class of society). Charles Dickens is acknowledged as an all-time great writer, with his portrayal of a life more than ordinary. His characters typically go through great suffering, physical and emotional; sometimes they come out trumps, and many times their condition does not really improve that much. Books by Charles Dickens are a must read for most English literature courses, and once you read the book (and get through the emotions, you realize that these are great books).

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Many of Charles Dicken's books were serialized in magazines, with a chapter appearing in each issue of the magazine. Similarly, Oliver Twist was published in monthly installments in a magazine called 'Bentley's Miscellany' (starting in February 1837 and through to April 1839), with a steel etching by George Cruikshank for every installment. The book has 2 very famous phrases - 'Please, sir, I want some more', and 'The Law is a Ass'.
The story is about this poor orphan (his mother died in childbirth and father was absent) called Oliver Twist, who is forced to spend the first 9 years of his life at a 'baby farm' run by a lady called Mrs. Mann, done under the auspices of a law called the Poor Law. In reality, he is brought up in a life of few, with bad conditions and inadequate food. Around his 9th birthday, he is removed from the poorhouse and sent to work in a place with inadequate food. There, through a draw of lots, he utters a line that angers the folks running the establishment, 'Please, sir, I want some more'. They decided to send him off with anybody who is willing to pay 5 pounds; Oliver manages to avoid being sent off with a chimney sweep, instead he is sent off with Mr. Sowerberry (who is an undertaker for the local parish). Mr. Sowerberry treats Oliver well, and this angers his wife who treats Oliver badly. Similarly, another employee Noah Claypole and the maidservant Charlotte also mistreat Oliver.
Eventually, Oliver attacks Noah after one insult too many, and after being punished for this, Oliver runs away, wandering aimlessly for some time before heading towards London. in the journey, he encounters a gentleman by the name of Jack Dawkins, and this encounter is liable to cause him many problems; Jack Dawkins is not called the 'Artful Dodger' for no reasons, he lures Oliver to a lair called Saffron Hill that is the headquarters for the criminal called Fagin. He sets out with Dodger and another boy once for 'making handkerchiefs' and realizes too late that their mission is to do pick-pocketing. They are chased, and only Oliver gets arrested. He only escapes prison when a witness clears him. He is taken in by an elderly gentleman called Mr. Brownlow who cares for him.
However, this is shortlived as Fagin gets him back with the help of an accomplice called Nancy; and he is forced to take part in a burglary. The burglary goes bad and Oliver gets shot, however, he is again saved when the occupants of the house take him in and care for him. By this time, Nancy wants to save Oliver. Things start turning bad when a new person called Monks (who wants to destroy Oliver) joins Fagin's gang. Nancy manages to protect him till her secret of trying to protect Oliver is revealed and her lover Sykes kills her, and is himself killed while escaping.
And then the secret of Monks is revealed; he is Oliver's half-brother and is searching for Oliver in order to destroy him (not searching out of any love, but more to destroy him). Monks makes up with Oliver reluctantly, and moves to America where he eventually dies in prison after reverting to crime. Fagin is also arrested and sentenced to death. And then things turn out better for Oliver, with finding his mother's half-sister in the form of Rose. He eventually lives happily ever after with Mr. Brownlow.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

1984 by George Orwell

This is an epic novel published in 1949 by George Orwell (real name, Eric Arthur Blair). The book is seen as a landmark work, used extensively for teaching, and also as an example of a Government and society heading on the totalitarian path. The book has had a tremendous effect on the mass culture dealing with the rights of individuals versus the tyranny of a Government that believes in keeping an eye on all its citizens, governing their thoughts and actions. The novel led to the popularity of many terms such as 'Big Brother', and 'Orwellian'. It depicted the horror of a society where the Government controlled all aspects of life, and knew everything about every citizen. Soon after, a state came into being where this concept was very close to being achieved. It was in East Germany, a state that had an extensive network of internal spies, and for whom it was claimed that fully a third of the population informed on other people.

1984 by George Orwell

The year is 1984, the place is called "chief city of Airstrip One", a part of the large region known as 'Oceania' (the place where the protagonist works is actually London, but a London that has been wracked by civil war after World War 2 and was eventually made a part of Oceania). Oceania is one of the 3 totalitarian states, the other 2 being that which was formed by the USSR, and the third from East Asia. Oceania is a territory or a country that runs through terror and a deep desire to control every citizen. Photos of the leader called 'Big Brother' are everwhere with the caption 'BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU'. Every place has a two-way television (the telescreen) in order to make suer that nothing is secret, and there can be no voices raised against the state (people believed to be working against the state are first re-educated so that they start to love the Big Brother, and then they are executed). In addition, society is divided into 3 separate classes: (i) the Inner Party, (ii) the Outer Party, and (iii) the Proles (upper, middle and lower classes, respectively).
The members of the Inner Party and Outer Party were subjected to a thorough control (with the Proles being deemed to be the worker class, with not much worry being given to whether they needed to be indoctrinated). In the midst of all this, you had the protagonist, Winston Smith. Winston works in the aptly named Ministry of Truth where his job is to modify all records such that the Government is always shown to be true (and this includes removing people from photos once a person is deemed to be a unperson). Winston had lost his parents in the civil war, and the English Socialism Movement ("Ingsoc") had raised him up. However, he was beginning to have his doubts about the system (even while knowing that if these thoughts ever got out, he would be re-educated and then executed).
He meets Julie, a mechanic in the Ministry of Truth. He feels in her a partner in his feelings, and they start having a secret affair (hopefully away from the watchings of the Ministry, which would have believed this affair to be a betrayal and akin to treason). However, they are soon caught, and sent off to re-education in the dreaded Ministry of Love. There, Winston is subject to monologues from O'Brien, a functionary of the Ministry. There you come face to face with the true horror - the Party has only one aim; it has to keep itself in power, and the only way it can do that is by breaking the traditional friend and family bonds a person has. The person can only have a bond with the party and with Big Brother.
In the despairing end, both Winston and Julia are re-educated. You get to feel the absolute sense of despair when you read about when they meet again, with no feelings for each other (not even anger at each other's betrayal). They are well and truly successful citizens of Oceania now.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer

For those of you who have not read this novel, but the name sounds somewhat familiar, worry not. You are indeed correct, with the name being similar to the biblical 'Cain and Abel'. The novel was released in 1980, with was an international bestseller. It remains on the popular list, being among the more famous, if not the most famous, book of Jeffrey Archer. It has been made into a 1985 television mini-series as well. The book is essentially a life story of 2 men, born into 2 entirely different societies and circumstances, but sharing the same date of birth, April 18, 1906. This book is the story of William Lowell Kane, and Wladek Koskiewicz (later to be called Abel Rosnovski), and truth be told, is a great book.

Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer

These are 2 men with an entirely different start in life, with one thing in common; both are extremely confident and self-starters. They have built up whatever they currently own in life, and are willing to take a fight all the way to the end.
Kane is born in a rich family, but loses his wealth and inheritance after a series of misfortunes. His father dies in the Titanic disaster, and his mother marries a man who does nothing but squander his wealth and waste it away. Eventually, after his mother dies in a miscarriage, Kane throws his step-father out.
Abel, on the other hand, lives a life of poverty. He is born in a forest, and only gains some hope of a better life due to his intelligence; the local Baron recognizes his intelligence and seeking to get a good companion for his son, adopts Abel. However, soon after, with the First World War breaking out, the Russian Army kills the Baron and his son, rapes Abel's sister, and takes Abel to Siberia (However, Abel also discovers that the Baron was actually his father, since both of them have only one nipple each). Abel manages to escape from Siberia, and after almost getting his hand amputated in Turkey for stealing, he manages to reach the US.
And this is where the battle between the 2 starts to germinate. After Abel starts to rise by dint of ability, his benefactor suffers because Kane's bank refuses to lend funds during the depression, and actually commits suicide. Blaming Kane for this, Abel has two ambitions, how to become a successful and rich man, and how to defeat Kane. He has one option, if he can get enough shares of Kane's bank, he can get Kane kicked off the board (he does not know that Kane was the one who had actually helped him in the past and Kane cannot tell him also).
This rivalry takes a strange turn when the children of both of them meet, fall in love, and marry over the massive objections of both of them. What happens next ? Do these 2 bitter enemies forgive their children and each other, and reconcile with their grandchild ? Read the whole novel, it is a great work of fiction.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Book Review: Thug By Mike Dash

Thug, (ठग), a member of the murderous Indian cult
Thug, slang for a gangster, a petty thief, or a minor villain, deriving from the above cult

For nearly two centuries, this lethal murderous cult made the life of the highway travelers hell throughout the central India, Rajputana and South (to some extent as well). Thugs were normal native people - nothing different about them - they used to do farming at their homes and then due to certain problems (like famine, bad crops, loans, etc...) they get onto highway and murder people for as little as eight annas.

The Thuggee cult was suppressed by the British rulers of India in the 1830s, due largely to the efforts of the civil servant William Sleeman, who started an extensive campaign involving profiling and intelligence. A police organization known as the 'Thuggee and Dacoity Department' was established within the Government of India, with William Sleeman appointed Superintendent of the department in 1835. Thousands of men were either put in prison, executed, or expelled from British India.The campaign was heavily based on informants recruited from captured thugs who were offered protection on the condition that they told everything that they knew. By the 1870s, the Thug cult was extinct.

'Thug: The true story of India's murderous cult' by Mike Dash is the result of three years of research in the voluminous archives of the English East India Company, preserved in London, New Delhi and Bhopal. Mike Dash gives a competent historical account of Thug beliefs and practice, through to their extermination by Sleeman and his men. This book traces the history of Thugs, looks into their lives, their modus operandi, their victims, their leaders and their decline.

A wonderfully researched and written book, Thug by Mike Dash, is a honest attempt towards understanding this controversial subject.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Great Expectations is a great book, an all-time classic. The book is set in a period from 1812 to the winter of 1840, in the England of that time. The book was actually a series in the 'All the Year Round'. Charles Dickens has always been considered a writer who can write about a whole gamut of human relations, but there has always been a strong element of pathos, of pain, of despair, and totally shies away from portraying life as rosy. Charles Dickens has also been known to write elements from the story of his life in his novels, weaving his life and experiences through the medium of the story. When he wrote this magnificent novel in the form of a series, he had to ensure that each episode was gripping enough that people would wait for the next part of the series to arrive.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

The book is divided into 3 stages of the life of the orphan Pip, his young life when she stays with his sister and her husband. He is comfortable with his life, and has no great expectations from it, until the time he meets a very bitter elderly woman Mrs. Havisham (who was jilted on marriage and becomes very bitter towards men) and her adopted daughter Estella. Mrs. Havisham hates men, and has accordingly inculcated a strong feeling of coldness in Estella, something which is to stay with her in life. Pip continues his life, then becomes an apprentice to Joe (his sister's husband). However, his life is turned upside down when he is informed that he has been bequeathed a large sum of money by an unknown benefactor. Pip's expectations are now increasing, and his earlier contact with Mrs. Havisham had made him want to be a gentleman when he grows up, and this wealth will help him a lot.
In the second stage, Pip is now living the fine life in London. He is rich, and adopts the customs of the rich and the cultured, very different from his earlier life. In this life, he pursues Estella, who is now a very beautiful, but very cold person (not caring much about his feelings); he has a rival in the form of Bentley Drummle, whom Pip despises and cannot understand why Estella sees him. Pip has assumed that his provider is in fact Mrs. Havisham, and this also creates a lot of jealousy in her other relatives who are looking forward to her property. However, this Pip has now developed a class attitude, and is ashamed of the lower status of Joe, and is embarrassed when Joe visits. And then he learns that his benefactor is in fact a former convict (who Pip had helped many years back), Abel Magwitch.
In the third stage, this is when things start going downhill. Estella does not acknowledge his advances, and Pip is repulsed by the knowledge that his benefactor was a former convict, and he starts to acknowledge that the allowances will now stop coming. He plans a way to get Magwitch to leave the country, since if he is caught, he will be sentenced to a harsh term. He creates a great plan, but the plan eventually fails and Magwitch is caught and sent to jail, where he dies (but not before Pip visits him and has already warmed to him). In the end, all of Pip's Great Expectations come to naught, and he learns to live a life without such high expectations.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

War of the Worlds (1898) - By HG Wells

The world outside our planet has always fascinated us, even when we could not see what is out there. In addition to a quest with trying to finding out more of the mysteries of the Universe, there was always a few of the unknown. Suppose there is an alien race on other worlds, there is no reason to believe that they would be friendly towards humanity (in fact, given the ferocity with which humanity fights each other, it is very easy to assume that another race would find it easy to be hostile to us). And of course, if it is a race older than us, they would have a more advanced technology, more advanced weapons, and may be easily able to overcome us (and destroy humanity).
There has been a lot of movie and books coverage of the prospects of an alien invasion of earth, with movies such as Independence Day, Mars Attacks being the most recent. However, this book (by the futuristic science fiction writer HG Wells) is probable the earliest book that deals with this subject (leaving aside the tales of the pyramids and other such structures having been built by aliens), and also details a believable reason for why the attacks by a more technologically superior race would have stopped. In addition, Mars had already been believed to be the center of an advanced race when the Italian astronomer, Giovanni Virginio Schiaparelli (1835-1910), described some of the natural phenomenon existing on Mars, and these were wrongly translated into English as 'there are canals on Mars'.

The War of the Worlds by H G Wells

This novel had remained popular, but what made this novel extraordinarily popular, and at the same scared a large section of the population, was a radio broadcast on Halloween (October 30, 1938) by Orson Wells, where he made listeners panic, believing that the news stories of an actual invasion were true.
The book is about the proposed landing of a Martian ship (cylinder) in the town of Woking, England near the end of the 19th century. This is preceded by the observations of a series of explosions on Mars and the launching of a meteor towards Earth. This meteor lands on Earth, and strange looking Martians start emerging from the cylinder and start building up machinery. Approaching humans are killed by a death ray (a heat ray). The machine that the Martians have been building is a 3-legged fighting machine that uses the heat ray and also uses poison gas in the form of a black smoke.
Attacks on these army of attacking Martians are easily repelled, and they are soon taking control of vast sections of South England, with the populations of those areas evacuating. The narrator, the one who is explaining what is happening (and having been separated from his wife in one of the confusing moments during the attack) is able to watch the Martians from close quarters, including their use of human blood as food. And then suddenly the Martians vanish - they have been felled by the pathogens (bacteria / virus) found on Earth, and to which they are not immune.

War and Peace (by Leo Tolstoy)

'War and Peace' has been called as the best novel ever written, and while there would be other favorite novels and people might consider other novels as the greatest, there is no getting around the fact that this is a great novel. War and Peace is taught in many English literature courses as an alltime great book by a great author (his other work, 'Anna Karenina' was also very famous).
The story is set around the 1812 French-Russian war where the French emperor, Napolean had invaded Russia. This was eventually a great disaster for the French, since they first managed to take Moscow (which had been abandoned by the Russians as a part of this war), but this did not do them too much good. The Russian winter had already set in, the army had to eventually return back, and they were harassed by the Cossack attacks. They lost a majority of their force in this return, and at the same time, left most of the wooden structures of Moscow burning.

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

The novel was published through a period from 1865 to 1869 in the 'Russkii Vestnik', and went through 2 complete different forms. Tolstoy was not happy with the first published draft, and totally rewrote the novel to get another version, that was the final published version. This original version was also published again in the last 2 decades and is now available in many languages after translation. The writing of the book in its original also reflects some of the cultural norms of the society of that time - while most of the book was in Russian, there are many dialogues that were written in French since this was the language of the French aristocracy. There is apparently a small patriotic subtext in the book as well as regards language - French is used more to denote insincerity while Russian is increasingly used to show the more honest and better part.
The book takes characters from 3 main Russian families (The Rostovs, the Bolkonskys, and the Bezukovs, along with some more associated characters), including those who are part of the nobility and those on the edge of financial ruin, and takes the movements in their life, centered around the oncoming conflict with France, and moving onto the changes that happen due to this conflict, and the aftermath. An imposing historical figure such as Napoleon is a side part of this story, it is the impressive flesh and blood tale of these Russian characters, intersection with a description of the Russian society at that time that makes this a very impressive work of fiction.
The story presents some major characters such as Pierre Bezukhov (the main character, very honest, but not worldly wise - supposed to be a reflection of Tolstoy himeself), Prince Andrei Nikolayevich Bolkonsky (brave, a soldier looking forward to the war), Natasha Rostova (starting out as a young girl, she goes through many trials and tribulations, and eventually gets married to Pierre), Nikolai Rostov (another soldier, also responsible for trying to keep his family from financial ruin), Sonya Rostova (a poor cousin, she was engaged to Nikolai, but eventually releases him so that he can marry the rich Princess Maria), and many other such characters.

Space Odyssey 2010: Odyssey 2

Arthur C Clarke was a visionary story teller and science fiction writer. He will forever be remembered for his visionary writings, such as the conceptualization of the geo-stationary communications satellite; and for his great works of fiction such as the 'Space Odyssey 2001' (made into a excellent movie). In Space Odyssey 2010, he continues his work, moving ahead the story of the monolith around Jupiter (in a slight adjustment, while 2001 the book was about Saturn, while 2001 the movie was about Jupiter, and hence 2010 the book refers to Jupiter - so readers should not get confused that the first book talks about Saturn while the second book talks about Jupiter).
2001 was in the decade when the quest for the moon was at its peak, and the book was right before the Moon landings were planned, so there was a great more public enthusiasm for the book (more suspense). This book (Odyssey 2) was released in 1982, so it was not directly linked to anything happening in real life, and the space program was ongoing, but that initial romanticism was missing.

2010 Odyssey Two By Arthur C Clarke

This book was set in a period 9 years after the events of 2001, and a joint Soviet-American expedition on Soviet spaceship Alexei Leonov is planned to visit the abandoned Discovery spacecraft so that they can find out what really happened (after all, David Bowman vanished from the viewpoint of Earth (he turned into a starchild)), as well as to determine what happened with regard to the monolith. However, there is a surprise since a spacecraft leaps out of Earth orbit, and is revealed to be a Chinese inter-planetary spacecraft called Tsien, setting a course for Jupiter and expected to reach before the Leonov.
The Tsien lands on Europa to collect water for its propulsion, but runs into an accident when native life forms overwhelm the ship (attracted by the light from the ship) and given the loss of the ship, the crew are destined to die there (the final survivor radioing this information to the arriving Leonov). The Loenov eventually reaches the Discovery and Dr. Chandra manages to reactivate HAL. At the same time, we learn that the ethereal form of David Bowman visits his mother and girlfriend on Earth; he also does investigation of the life forms on Europa and in the cloud region of Jupiter. In the balance between these 2, the life forms on Europa are deemed to have a far greater potential for growth and evolution.
Bowman then appears before Floyd and warns that they must leave Jupiter within 15 days. Naturally, the crew hesitate to believe Floyd until they see the monoliths growing all over Jupiter, at which point an emergency mission is setup, using the Discovery as a booster for increasing speed. And in a scene designed to remind humans about the awesome capabilities of the intelligence behind the monoliths, the monoliths actually increase the density of Jupiter until the planet becomes a star (having achieved nuclear fusion). And there is a final warning that Bowman delivers via HAL, "ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE." HAL in turn is absorbed in the monolith just like David Bowman was.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)

In today's world, we take underground tunnels, trains, space travel, satellites, etc, as standard everyday things. However, there was a time when there was no concept of having long tunnels under the seabed, or massive bridges many kilometers long; and travel to space was difficult to visualize (astronomy existed, but to visualize precise details was difficult). It is to the credit of the science fiction writers of that time that they were able to visualize underwater, underground, and space travel adventures. One of the most famous science fiction writers of that time was Jules Verne, who wrote about locations and adventures that were unheard of in the 19th century, and many of which bear a good resemblance to what came into reality many many decades later. One of Jules Verne's novels that makes interesting reading is the tale of a journey underground - A Journey to the Center of the Earth.

A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864)

However, this novel should be looked upon as fiction. In this particular case, the novel is not very accurate. However, it is still a good work of fiction, and should be read for that reason alone.
The story is that of an eccentric professor, who is attempting to follow in the footsteps of an Icelandic adventurer who had made an epic journey to the center of the earth a long time back, and of which there are not many records. The professor gets his nephew to follow him (well, actually the nephew volunteers for this expedition), and along with a strong, silent, guide, they head off this to this incredible journey.
The professor finds a coded text in a book written by Snorri Sturluson, and is desperate to decode the parchment, going without food if necessary. It is the nephew, Axel who managed to decode the code, finding that it was just written backwards. He is concerned about what his uncle will do if he finds that the text has been decoded, but after 2 more days without food, gives up and tells his uncle about the decoding. The code is very simple: "Descend, bold traveler, into the crater of the jokul of Sneffels, which the shadow of Scartaris touches before the calendas of July, and you will attain the centre of the earth; I have done this, Arne Saknussemm" (the translation in English).
Inspite of the protestations of his nephew, the professor is eager to take this trip, and after arriving in Reykjavík, they hire an Icelandic hunter, Hans Bjelke, as their guide. After some delay due to clouds, they are able to find the starting point, and start a descent into a crater. And then start their adventures, with very sharp descents, almost running out of water once, another time when Axel separates from the others and is only able to find the others due to a strange acoustic phenomenon. They find strange creatures, and a massive underwater cavern with a huge water body; the water body contains many prehistoric creatures.
At a point however, they find that the path is blocked; they decide to blast their way through; however, the resultant upheaval pulls them through the blasted path at a high speed, and soon they find themselves in a close proximity to hot water and magma. Just when they are sure that they will soon boil, they find themselves rising fast, and soon get ejected from a volcano (in Stromboli, in Italy - very far away from their descent point in Iceland). They are all termed as heroes when their journey comes to public knowledge.

David Copperfield (1850)

David Copperfield is probably the book that is the most autobiographical of Charles Dickens novels, borrowing many sections from his life. Charles Dickens (1812-1870) lived in poverty during his childhood, being one of 8 children. He had little formal education, and yet grew out of his circumstances to become one of the most famous writers of all times. Many of his novels are prescribed reading in English literature courses in schools and colleges. Most of his books are based on human emotions, and contain a fair amount of poverty, human emotions, and so on. They present a vivid picture of human society.

David Copperfield

The novel was published in 1850, and like his other novels, appeared in serial form in monthly installments. Dickens also reckoned this book to be his favorite novel. The novel was written in the first person, with David Copperfield being the narrator of the novel. The book has one clear message: The disciplining of the life (emotional and moral) of the hero, presenting a number of characters who are either disciplined, and others who are not disciplined. The book portrays the various characters in terms of the discipline in their life, including Agnes Wickfield, Mr. Peggotty, Uriah Heep, James Steerforth, Betsy Trotwood, Dora Spenlow, etc. Many of these characters have become very famous.
The book is about the life of David Copperfield, who loses his father six months before he his born, and he gets a new stepfather (Mr Edward Murdstone) when David is around 7 years. David cannot stand him or his sister, Jane and gets sent to a boarding school soon after biting his stepfather. When David returns home in a break, he finds that his mother is going to have a baby. However, when his mother and her baby die, David has to return to the home, and gets sent to a factory in London, where David has a doleful and poor experience. Soon, the factory owner goes bankrupt, and David manages to make his way to Dover to be with his aunt, and finally free of his stepfather.
He comes across many more character as he moves to adulthood, some of them good, kind and caring; others were selfish. Eventually, they get some sort of desserts for their acts. David himself finally finds happiness with his second wife, Agnes.

Bonefire of the Vanities (1987) by Tom Wolfe

'Bonefire of the Vanities', published in 1987, a biting portrayal of the New York of the 1980's was a major commercial success. It was not author Tom Wolfe's first work (he had written journalistic articles and non-fiction books before this work), but the success of this book must have left him spell-bound. The book was eventually made into a motion picture of the same name, with some great credentials (movie 'Bonefire of the Vanities', released in 1990, was directed by Brian DePalma, and starred such name as Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman and Melanie Griffith). Part of the reason why the novel struck such a resounding chord could because the characters could be been as representing many of the character flaws of important public figures.

The Bonefire of the Vanities (1987)

The characters themselves represent the worst of the sins of greed, adultery, ambition, the preoccupation with status and wealth, the arrogance of the wealthy and the insurrection type violence of the deprived, the way in which you can actually depend on no one, and the special talents of wannabe and existing politicians. Imagine what happens when a highly arrogant and wealthy banker gets hit by about everything that he can be hit with and becomes the target for people wanting to use him to advance their own career. In addition, New York city seems like a perfect spot for such a novel to be set - it is probably the most melting point type of city in the world (with unprecedented riches and the most poor and deprived).
The book is about the powerful and WASP banker Sherman McCoy, arrogant in his status and wealth (he is atop the banking circles of New York). He is already distant from his wife, and is in the car with his mistress, Maria Ruskin - this is when his troubles start. He accidentally enters the Bronx, and in a confrontation with some muggers, his mistress takes over the wheel and hits one of them, young Henry Lamb.
This accident becomes the Saviour for a number of people, all of whom will use this incident and the powerful symbol of a white powerful man hitting a poor and powerless young black man. So, Peter Fallow, a drunk washed out reporter, gets a chance to take on this assignment, and uses this to powerful advantage, writing a series of articles based on this incident, and against McCoy when it becomes clear that it was his car that was involved. McCoy is also ditched by his mistress who soon makes it clear that she was not involved in the accident.
What makes matter worse is the involvement of a local religious leader with political aspirations, Reverend Bacon (seemingly styled on the real life Rev Al Sharpton), who wants to utilize this accident to further his career as the one who really cares for the African-American community. And to increase the forces against McCoy, he is also targeted by the district attorney, Abe Weiss, who is up for re-election and sees this trial as a way to consolidate votes behind him (and will do anything to get a conviction). With all these factors against him, McCoy is in for it, and is soon up for trial. What happens next ?

Monday, May 26, 2008

Desperately Seeking Paradise By Ziauddin Sardar

"Desperately Seeking Paradise" is a spiritual-cum-philosophical autobiography by British author and scholar, Ziauddin Sardar. In this book, the author is in search of the right approach for paradise (and please do not take it literally) - one notion which is termed as the prime objective for every Muslim. In his search, he joins one sect (or thought of school) and then gets dejected by its approach/thoughts/people etc... and then leaves it to join another and same thing happens there as well and then another and so on... His search takes him from Mecca to Bejing and all the other places, in between meeting with people like Zia-ul-Haq to Anwar Ibrahim, even attending a mujaheddin meeting with Osama Bin Laden in attendance, and him running into Iran's military police in times of Ayotollah. There is an entire chapter dedicated on 'The Satanic Verses' controversy - talking about how the author felt bad about 'The Satanic Verses' and the Ayotollah's fatwa as well. Here the author regrets that the core issue was buried under whatever political drama that took place around the controversy.

The book is filled with lots of information about various aspects of Islam, ranging from different terms associated with it to the current as well as traditional interpretation of different things associated. He also looks into different school of thoughts and poses a not-so-rosy picture of things. This book was written in pre-Iran, pre-Iraq, pre-Afghanistan era and with his descriptions one can relate to what is happening now and how its roots are related to those times only. The authors quest for a new initiative about "paradise-seeking" is not accepted in the traditionalist societies where the true meaning of Islam has been confined to having a beard sometimes. He also tries to understand what does Sharia means in actual terms and how it should be adapted in modern times - again he finds that societies just want Islam in totality but are never open to understand the totality itself.

I am not sure what to make out of this book - I am as confused about this book as the author is about his search. The main problem as seen by the author is that nobody is willing to listen to modernist Islamic views. Overall, a nice read for me at least - for understanding more about Islam and another face of it where there are modernist thoughts in plenty.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

If there are 2 things that Arthur C Clarke will be most famous for, my guess would be for his visionary work, including the concept of a geo-stationary satellite (most famously used to position communications satellites) and for his creation of the best seller 2001: A space Odyssey and its sequels (2010, 2061, and 3001). These were created for and along with an incredible movie of the same name by Stanley Kubrick. Together, this book, and the novel both captured the fascination with space (and its dangers), along with a fear of what an advanced computer (H.A.L) can do (somewhat similar to the fear of sharks that got positively entrenched with the movie Jaws).
Both the book and the screenplay for the movie went hand in hand, and were based on the short story 'The Sentinel' written by Arthur C Clarke in 1950. The novel was an important milestone in the history of science fiction, combining elements of man's historical development, delves into development of space travel and the problems of differential gravity, aliens and the thought that there is a master race that kick-started human development, and then how mankind may not have worked out all the issues related to intelligent computers.

2001 A Space Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

The book starts from an age long long ago (3 million years ago) when there were humanoid races in Africa. They managed to survive, only just, getting fruits and the like, and not knowing how to hunt. They had short life spans, and did not have either the feelings of attachment to each other, and would not have been able to do much either. They were at the mercy of wild beasts, with no instruments with which to defend themselves. And then arrives a rectangular black monolith that starts to delve into their minds, developing their minds. They learn how to develop tools from the natural materials at hand such as rocks and the sharp teeth of wild animals. And then they develop the thought of being able to even fight back against the wild animals that threaten them; and most important, get meat from the wild beasts roaming around them. Humanity gets kick-started, getting into a period of development that leads to us.
Cut to the present age. Humanity has started exploration on the moon, and there they discover something that astounds them. A sheer black monolith has been discovered underground in the moon, in a sector that the US controls, and the eminent Dr. Heywood Floyd is sent to the moon to do further investigations and help the scientists over there. He is told that they have discovered a magnetic disturbance in a site now called Tycho Magnetic Anomaly-One (TMA-1), and they discovered the monolith underground. It is clear that this is not a natural creation, and was actually created 3 million years ago, so this has to be aliens.
Soon, the lunar sunlight hits them, and the monolith, exposed to sunlight for the first time in 3 million years, sends a strong radio signal out that reaches the far extent of the solar system. Switch to the next episode in the book. A ship Discovery One carrying 5 astronauts and an advanced computer HAL 9000 is on its way to Saturn on an exploration mission. 3 of those astronauts are in a state of hibernation, and the remaining 2, Frank Poole and David Bowman, are the ones who are the ones who are supposed to be in charge of the ship (or more likely, be secondary advisors to HAL who can run the ship totally on its own).
The HAL 9000 is an advanced computer, but its designers had never thought about wondering about the impact of the orders it had been given to the intelligent brain. HAL had been given orders to conceal the real knowledge about its mission to both Poole and Bowman (to explore Japetus, the 3rd largest moon of Saturn, the destination of the radio signal from the monolith on the moon), and this was conflicting with its other orders to report all the information fully. This was causing a conflict, and in these strained times, when it felt threatened with termination, it actually decides to kill the astronauts.
So, first it kills Poole by reporting one of the critical AE35 units as malfunctioning twice, and then when Poole goes to investigate, killing him with his own space pod. Then when Bowman threatens it with shut-down, it opens the airlock of the spacecraft to the pressure of the vacuum. Eventually, Bowman gets to an emergency shelter, and then retakes control of the spacecraft by shutting down the circuits of the HAl 9000 computer. He also buries the 3 hibernating astronauts in space, and decides to complete the mission on his own control.
He reaches Japetus with a lot of help from mission control, and discovers a black monolith on the surface. While reporting all this to mission control, he decides to approach Japetus using his space pod, and when almost there, before the pod reaches the monolith, he sends out a final signal 'The thing's hollow — it goes on forever — and — oh my God! — it's full of stars!'
Bowman goes through an extra-ordinary journey, realizing that the monolith is a giant switching system, similar to a 'Grand Central Station' of the universe. He sees things that he never thought that he would see, while in a protective shield that saves him from the surrounding regions (including a very close red sun). As he finally sleeps, his mind and memories are drained from his body, becoming a new immortal entity that can travel through space, a Star Child. Bowman now returns to the Solar System and Earth, and is now a very powerful entity, but unsure of what to do - something that he will eventually figure out.

The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov

Isaac Asimov was one of the pioneers of the field of writing about robotics, and was most famous for his creation of the Three Laws of Robotics:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.
These seem simple enough, but as with laws for humans, there can be many interpretations and conflicts that can arise out of using these laws. 'The Rest of the Robots' is a set of 8 short stories that all deal with robots, and many of them also have references to these laws as well as situations arising out of problems with the use of these laws. I found the collection to be very readable and interesting, and considering that most of these stories are more than 50 years old, not dated in any way. We have not had the development of humanoid robotics to the extent that Asimov had written about, so many of these are stories that we will still need to worry about.

The Rest of the Robots by Isaac Asimov

The collection was released in 1964, and hence you can consider the book to be a very old book indeed, and yet when I was browsing through some Asimov books on an online bookshop, I found it easily available, which means there is a regular demand for it. The book starts out with a foreword by Asimov in which he explains about how books used to be about robots, they were seen as being part of the Frankenstein complex, where man created robots, and robots would destroy man, and this happened again and again. Asimov chose to move away from this concept, and wrote stories with far more complexity and depth.
The book has 8 short stories:
1. Robot AL-76 goes astray: A story in which a robot bound for the moon somehow manages to get loose on earth, and has to try and figure out its surroundings, especially when it has been fed only information about the moon. It creates a great new machine, but then destroys it when ordered to in mistake. A comedy.
2. Victory international: About projecting the power of robots, especially those constructed with a great deal of care to make extra-strong so that they can impress the ferocious inhabitants of Jupiter.
3. First law: About an exception when the power of the First Law cannot suppress the maternal instincts of a robot, and the robot is willing to let a human die.
4. Let's get together: A political story about robots being used as terrorists. Showcases one of the biggest fears of humanoid terrorists.
5. Satisfaction guaranteed: One of the most complex stories of this volume. Deals with human emotions such as jealousy, envy and a feeling of low confidence, and how this interfaces with the First law.
6. Risk: About how the human mind can still be a much better instrument to deal with uncertainty and complexity rather than even the most complex positronic brain.
7. Lenny: About the maternal instinct in even the most seemingly hard-boiled scientist can come about when dealing with an under-developed robot.
8. Galley slave: A story which deals with the fear in a human about the advent of robotics and how this could totally destroy human creativity in a slow and gradual way.
The last 4 stories also had the character of Dr. Susan Calvin, whom Asimov used as a representative of the robopshycologist, the head in that area for US Robotics, and a pioneer in the development of robots.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie (Wikipedia) was one of the most prolific writers in the detective genre and created two most unlikely characters in the form of detectives. Till then, the character of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes defined the character of the detective - a man who is exceedingly smart and knows it, but is not very vain, and who can be urged to great action when he needs to, also a man of great physical strength (even if his frame does not suggest it). Both the characters created by Agatha Christie were very different, with Miss Marple being a frail old lady, but with a terrific mind and ability to think through things (most of which occur in her village) even when she is engrossed in daily routine manners, and then the other character who is the central character of this novel, the egg shaped Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.
A vain man, who knows that he is very smart, and is not above telling other people about this. He is obsessed with things being proper, making sure that his mustache is well maintained and becomes uncomfortable when he finds out that people do not know about him. At the same time, he is very capable, like Sherlock Holmes, of putting facts together, and of being able to find the discrepancies that help him crack the crime. Hercule Poirot was introduced by Agatha Christie in 1920 in 'The Mysterious Affair at Styles' and appeared in 33 of Christie's novels and 54 short stories.

Murder on the Orient Express (1934)

The story has a twist in the end, when Hercule Poirot actually presents 2 different options as to who did the murder, and presents it in such a way that the decision will eventually go only one way. The novel is set on the Orient Express, near Belgrade. Poirot is returning from a case in Syria, and gets a berth on the Orient Express with difficult, due to the help of his friend Monsieur Bouc, a director of the company which operates the Express. He meets a number of people on the train (and is very surprised at the fact that it is full, something very unlikely at this time of the year). He also meets a man who exudes violence, Mr. Ratchett, who asks him to act as his defender from people out to get him and Poirot refuses.
On the second night, he hears a noise in the night from the neighboring compartment, occupied by Mr. Ratchett. After some time, the conductor is called by Mrs. Hubbard who is terrified that somebody is in her coach. There is some further commotion, but then he sleeps. When he gets back, he is notified that the train will not move further since it is stuck in a snowdrift, and also learns that Mr. Ratchett has been murdered during the night, struck multiple times with a knife; and Poirot is the one called on for help.
After some investigation, Poirot discovers that Mr. Ratchett was actually a leader of a criminal gang and his real name was Cassetti. He was the chief leader of the plot to abduct the rich heiress Daisy Armstrong, and she was then murdered inspite of the ransom having been paid by her parents. Both her parents died subsequently, her mother in grief which induced an early childbirth and she died, her father shooting himself. It also caused suspicion in other house members such as the maid who was suspected and who killed herself because of this suspicion.
Poirot finds that the clues and events of the night are set in such a manner that every person has an alibi, sometimes from unexpected resources; and eventually starts to think in a holistic sense, trying out a theory that the other members of the investigating party (the official and the doctor) are unable to think through. Finally, through some conjecture (and this was the weak link in the book - everything seemed to settle through easily), he is able to deduce the actual facts and the names of the murderer(s). He then presents this theory, as well as an alternative theory to the other members of the team, and asks them to pick the one that they prefer. What choice do they make of the theory to present to the Yugoslav police when they will reach there ?