Friday, December 25, 2009

The Old Curiosity Shop (released in 1841), written by Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop was a novel released in serial form between 1840, and 1841, in Dickens's weekly serial called "Master Humphrey's Clock". In this serial, Dickens had also published another novel, called "Barnaby Rudge", and in addition to these 2 novels, there were short stories also published in the serial. This compilation was however something that was later abandoned by Dickens and now the novels and stories are also published separately. The serial was constructed such that Master Humphrey was describing the stories to a group of friends; however, this did not really work and was abandoned after only a couple of versions of the serial.
Out of the various stories by Dickens, the plot of this story was said to be weaker than the plot of his other stories, however, the level of feelings that the reader had for the main character (the girl called Nell in the story was unprecedented) and people felt really bad when the ending was disclosed.

The story is essentially that of Nell, a 14 year old girl, very good, but who meets all sorts of good and bad people in life, and the way her life changes as a result of meeting these people. She stays with her grandfather, who runs a small shop, a curiosity shop. Her grandfather wants to make sure that he is going to leave something behind for Nell in terms of an inheritance, and hence goes off for gambling every night; but as you would expect, he loses money, and eventually has to hand his shop over to an evil deformed hunchback, Daniel Quilp. Daniel finally takes possession of the shop and evicts Nell and her grandfather. This delivers a severe shock to Nell's grandfather, and Nell takes her grandfather away from it all to the Midlands of England, to live as poor people, as beggars.
However, her brother refuses to believe that their grandfather has not kept an inheritance for Nell, and wants to locate them, and for this purpose, he takes the help of his friend, the simple but good Dick Swiveller, and also the help of Quilp (who gets involved just to do more evil). Nell, in the meantime has suffered badly in terms of health but managed to get her grandfather away. By the time the good people (Kit, a friend of Nell, along with a couple of others) manage to find Nell and her grandfather, Nell has dies as a result of the bad health she was suffering from.

The Old Curiosity Shop (released in 1841), written by Charles Dickens

Nicholas Nickleby (published in 1839), written by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens is more famous for the novels such as Oliver Twist, Great Expectations, David Copperfield, novels that deal with life, with despair, with happy endings after struggle, and so on. At the same time, Charles Dickens is less known for the comedies he wrote, and he wrote a fair number of them such as "The Pickwick Papers" (his first novel), and "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby". The book, like his other books, was presented in serial form through 1838 and 1839, in a total of 19 serial releases (the length of each serial release was 32 pages). This book, although not so widely know as his other books, has received a fair amount of praise, and has been used for different adaptations for film, the stage, and for television multiple times. As for criticism, the book has a large number of characters, and the criticism of the book develops from the opinion that not sufficient space has been given by Dickens to develop the story of these characters.
The novel was written during the time that Dickens was writing Oliver Twist, and showed that there was a reversion back to comedy in the form of this novel.

The novel carries on with Dickens quest against social injustice of the British society of that time, and shows specifically the injustice against boys at a all-boys boarding school run by Wackford Squeers (and as mentioned by Dickens, this behavior seemed so realistic that Dickens was threatened by legal action by many people running boarding schools who felt that Dickens was portraying their boarding schools).
The story is about Nicholas Nickleby, an impulsive and given to anger young man, whose father died leaving the family penniless and leaving Nicholas responsible for his mother and sister. He has a rich uncle, Ralph, but Ralph does not like Nicholas, although he has a soft corner for Kate, the sister of Nicholas. Given that Ralph feels some responsibility for the family, he gets employment for Nicholas and Kate in other that they can support the family; and Nicholas gets employment at a Yorkshire boarding school for poor boys called "Dotheboys Hall" run by Wackford Squeers where the boys are badly mistreated, and Nicholas retaliates against this treatment.

Nicholas Nickleby (published in 1839), written by Charles Dickens

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Pickwick Papers, By Charles Dickens (1837)

Charles Dickens is a very famous author of the Victorian era, being popular for his hard look at society, at the depths of human emotions; even his endings, good they may be, are bitter-sweet. He wrote a number of famous books such as "Great Expectations", "A tale of 2 cities", "Oliver Twist", "A Christmas Carol". Dickens started his career with the book - "The Pickwick Papers", published (like his many other books) as a serial.
Dickens was fairly young when he wrote the book, being all of 23 years old, and was invited to write a series, loosely connected stories which led to the creation of his first novel, "The Pickwick Papers", the full name being "The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club". After publication of the book, there was some controversy with the widow of the illustrator Robert Seymour claiming that the book was based on her husband's idea, but this was something that Dickens denied.

The Pickwick Papers is a collection of stories, about the adventures of Esquire Mr. Samuel Pickwick. He is old, kind, and also the perpetual president of the Pickwick Club, and wants to explore more about life. He sets the club members (3 additional gentlemen Mr. Nathaniel Winkle, Mr. Augustus Snodgrass, and Mr. Tracy Tupman, the additional members of the club) to travel to different areas of England and report on their findings. It is these adventures that provide the detail of the novel..
The meat of the novel is the additional characters that they meet, such as Joe (who eats a lot, and is always asleep), Job Trotter (who pretends to be sleep, but is very clever), Sam Weller (Mr. Pickwick's valet, who grew to be very popular), and Alfred Jingle (a actor, and also a cheat).

The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens

Dombey and Sons - by Charles Dickens (1848)

Charles Dickens is one of the most famous authors from the Victorian era, who wrote about the lives of the various sections of society, including the most oppressed, based on his own personal experiences as well. He wrote extensively on social reform, and some of his books such as 'Great Expectations', 'A tale of 2 cities', 'Oliver Twist' are all time favorites, and used in schools to teach students about English literature.
Dickens wrote a large number of books, with Dombey and Sons being a book that was published in monthly serial form, published between October 1846 and April 1848 (like many of his other books - the custom was to publish in a magazine monthly, and leave readers anticipating the next version). "Dombey and Sons" is the short form, the complete name of the book is "Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail and for Exportation". Dickens was by nature stuck in London, by this time, he had already become successful, and used to travel a lot, and this book was written for a fair amount of time in Lausanne, Switzerland. But he also traveled a fair amount during this time, and he was also writing another book called "The Battle of Life".

The story is about the life of a wealthy shipping merchant called Paul Dombey, who wants a son as a heir. He already has a daughter called Florence, whom he neglects; finally his wife gives birth to a son called Paul, but she dies in childbirth, and Paul remains sick throughout his very short life, dying when he is only six years old. There is no change in the attitude of Dombey towards his daughter, and he continues to neglect her even though she pines for the love from her father.
Things keep on moving, with Florence getting friendly to a young man called Walter Grey; however Water is sent off to the Barbados by the firm's manager called James Carker, since Carker believes that Walter can become a rival to him. Walter is soon presumed lost in a ship-wreck; Dombey also marries a widow called Edith Granger, but she really does not love him, and soon runs off with James Carker.
Like most other Dickens novel, the book runs through stages where some things go well such as the finding that Walter was alive, and his return; while Dombey realizes that Carker had caused the firm to go bankrupt. The book runs through things fast, with Walter marrying Florence, and they taking care of Dombey, and Dombey realizing the love for his daughter and his grandchildren.

Dombey and Sons - by Charles Dickens (1848)

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Tuesdays with Morrie - A true story (published in 1997)

How many times do you read a book that changes the way you think about life ? Well, welcome to a book that has changed the way of thinking of many people, got people to re-think about what is important in life. The book, through its focus on the inspiring words of a dying man, sends a message to people to focus back on what is important in life, to appreciate the good and simple aspects of life, as well as implicitly also about what your legacy will be like. How you are remembered depends on the way you treat others, not on your own set of riches or ambition. Treating other people with compassion and kindness, mindful of their dignity, giving love and joy, none of these are difficult to do, but we ignore these simple aspects so easily. This book is one of those books; it started out with a small beginning, having been refused by a couple of publishers, but the appeal of the book was such that it became a huge bestseller.

So what is the book about ? It is about the interaction between a well known sports writer named Mitch Albom (who was working with Detroit Free Press, and who saw an interview of his former teacher, Morrie Schwartz, a history professor at Brandeis University (the interview is with Ted Koppel on Nightline). Morrie has been diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's Disease) and is dying. Albom has not been in touch with his former teacher ever since college, sixteen years earlier, and decides to pay a visit, initially on Tuesdays, since his paper is on strike; soon these visits become regular visits.
Albom writes about several things, such as details about Morrie's declining health, which is quite depressing, about the final conversation between Albom and Morrie, and about what has happened in Albom's life between his college and visiting Morrie. However, as you progress in the book, you read more Morris' views, a sense of what the important things in life are from someone who has little left. Morrie is very eloquent and seems to carry an upbeat dignity to the end, and it is through his views on the need for a person to have his own set of beliefs, and not be driven by what is current culture; how you should strive to make a difference and be good. It is particularly through the wisdom of a terminally ill man to make us realize that human relationships and health are more important than all the gadgets, modern conveniences, pressures to get ahead professionally, and the need to advance monetarily.

Tuesdays with Morrie - A true story (published in 1997), describing the interactions of Mitch Albom with his former teacher, sociologist Morrie Schwartz

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

No Comebacks - by Frederick Forsyth (1982)

Writing gripping short stories is not easy. You do not have the time or the space in order to develop your characters or the story, and yet you are expected to write a story in which the characters are fleshed out to some degree, in which the story has developed enough that the reader does not feel cheated; the best short story is the one in which there is also a twist such that you get a sense of satisfaction after reading the story. There are not too many writers who are able to write effective short stories, and yet Frederick Forsyth has written multiple such compilations. No Comebacks is an interesting collection of 10 such short stories; most of these have twists, there are surprises in these stories, and the settings are also different for many of them. When you read the term, 'No Comebacks', it literally means that once you take an action, there is no way to get back to where you were.

The short stories that make up a part of this collection are:
"No Comebacks"
"There are no Snakes in Ireland"
"The Emperor"
"There are Some Days..."
"Money with Menaces"
"Used in Evidence"
"A Careful Man"
"Sharp Practice"
The stories are very different, such as the opening one, which is the story of a rich successful businessman who can have everything he wants; however he falls for a married woman who refuses to leave her husband. The rich man sends a hitman, and then you get the twist in the story. Similarly, other stories also have their own twists.

No Comebacks by Frederick Forsyth (published in 1982)

Dogs of War - by Frederick Forsyth (1974)

Suppose you are in the turbulent time period of the 1960's - 1970's when various colonial ruled countries in Africa were reaching their independence. There were many different influences working in the countries at that point of time, the Soviet Union was trying to get regimes to be in its favor. Many of these countries were mineral rich, and there was a fight to get the rulers of the country in favor of companies so that they could get advantages of the mineral rights that were being awarded by these countries. It was not unheard of that a country's Government could be deposed off in a coup, although using mercenaries was not unheard of. As is normal with Forsyth, his novel is based on a lot of detailed research, enough that people who were in this line of business were astounded by the accuracy of these details.

In fact, there is a lot of buzz that the country that Forsyth refers to as Zangaro was actually the country of Equatorial Guinea; the book is supposed to be atleast partly based upon Forsyth's time as a reported in the Biafran War between Biafra and Nigeria, and in fact, as a part of researching this story, Forsyth was researching how to attempt a coup against the Government of Equatorial Guinea, and it was supposed to cost a ridiculously small sum of a quarter of a million dollars. There is a lot of speculation that there was an actual coup attempt against the Government that was spoiled by Spain.
The book draws mixed reviews, with many people praising the depth of description of the details; however, there was also criticism that there were too many details or preparation and not enough action. The story is about a British mining tycoon learning of a hot discovery of the priceless metal, platinum, in the Central African republic of Zangaro. However, the ruler is leaning towards the Soviet Union, who in turn decide to give him a KGB guard and also send in their own survey team. At the same time, the British tycoon Sir James Manson hires a mercenary, Carlo Alfred Thomas “Cat” Shannon, who had left Zangaro earlier after the side he was supporting failed. They decide to plan an operation in which they will kill the current leader, Jean Kimba, and replace him with their own man. The rest of the story is about the execution of the plan, and how it meets with its challenges.

Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth, published in 1974

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1963

Kurt Vonnegut wrote a number of books that were satire, and were insightful comments into human behavior; he used to weave in the areas that caused the strongest of human emotions such as organized religion, different brands of politics, and the quest to run our daily lives. The name of the book, Cat's Cradle, is derived from a string game (played with strings manipulated by the fingers of both hands), and is used because the fictional character of one of the leading scientists, Felix Hoenikker (a fictional character, and a leading scientist, who played a key role in the creation of the atom bomb) was playing Cat's Cradle when the atom bomb was first used. Felix was a hard nosed scientist who did not care about what his inventions would do, and was indifferent on the uses of his invention. This attitude in the book was based on the real life experiences of Vonnegut, who used to interview scientists from GE as part of an effort to generate some good stories from the research work ongoing.

The primary character of the novel is a man called Jonah, who wants to write a book that details what some important Americans were doing on the day that a nuclear bomb was used, on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. During his research, he gets acquainted with the family of Felix Hoenikker, Nobel award winning physicist who was involved in the creation of the atom bomb. Jonah soon learns of another creation of the scientist, a chemical called ice-nine, a pretty dangerous material that freezes water even at room temperature, and can do so even if it is one crystal of the material coming into contact with a huge amount of water.
Soon, Jonah is on his way to a Carribean island of San Lorenzo, a very poor island that is ruled by a dictator, "Papa" Monzano. San Lorenzo has a religion called Bokononism, which is very popular in the island, and is a new type of religion, combining peaceful rituals with a nihilistic thoughts about humanity and God's role. Soon, a series of events occur in which Jonah is handed over the Presidency of the island, and ice-nine causes first the death of the ailing dictator, and then a freak accident causes the freezing of the entire water of the earth's oceans and seas, causing mass deaths. It is then revealed that the book is a memoir written by Jonah.

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1963

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Odessa File - Frederick Forsyth (1972)

After the Second World War, there was a quest to hunt for the Nazis to bring them to justice, and yet, a number of them were never caught. Some of them escaped to various countries in South America, others were co-opted by both the Western and Communist countries and some of them tried to stay underground in Germany itself. There has always been the belief that there was an organization called ODESSA (Wikipedia link) that sought to provide an environment in which former SS (the most feared and devoted Nazi) members would be supported and provided escape routes, and such an organization would seem logical as the war was ending, and former SS members knew that they would be persecuted by both the Soviet and Western forces. No less a Nazi hunter than Simon Wiesenthal believed that such an organization existed and accounted for how SS members managed to escape the manhunt.

Frederick Forsyth normally researches his novels in great detail, and you can see the results in this novel itself. The novel details the way in which ODESSA works, and how a reporter manages to get involved with the network. The story is set in 1963, and deals with Peter Miller, a freelance crime reporter who reaches the apartment of a suicide victim - the suicide is that of Salomon Tauber, a Jewish Holocaust-survivor from the Riga concentration camp, which was commanded by Eduard Roschmann, also known as "The Butcher of Riga" (wikipedia). He soon obtains a diary, which records that Tauber had witnessed Roschmann shooting a German Army captain.
After finding that there is not much resolve to convict ex-Nazis, he is approached by former concentration camp survivors and soon, he is determined to get into the ODESSA. After some training, he manages to get inside after meeting a lawyer who works for ODESSA. He slowly starts getting information on the entire system, but a chance mistake means that he is revealed, and now there is a hitman after him. It is now a quest to get away from the hitman while trying to get Roschmann. Will he succeed ?

The Odessa File - Frederick Forsyth (1972)

Mother Night, a book by Kurt Vonnegut (1961)

Mother Night is partly a war story, and a spy story (with the syping done during the war), but is more than that. It does not do much about fighting, or about combat, more about the life of a playwright who lives a double life as a spy, and ends up at the end of the war as a shell. The book is a depiction of the plight of the person who ends up with a double identity at the end of the war, a spy who survived the war (not something that a lot of spies did), who feels that he is nationless now, and cannot find anything worthwhile to have as a means of living (the one true love he had, his wife, died during a war battle). In the end, you end up with a person who has no will to live. Part of the message of the book is 'you end up being what you pretend to be', and and hence people should be very careful about whatever they try to become.

The story (written in first person) is about this guy called Howard W. Campbell Jr., an American citizen who moves to Germany after World War 1. He stays on in Germany after Hitler comes to power in 1933, and since he is a playwright, he continues to write plays. He associates with members of the Nazi Party, and cares for 2 people - his plays, and his wife Helga (also the actress of his plays). Soon, he has an encounter that sets the stage of the remainder of his life. He meets with a man called Frank Wirtanen, from the US War Department (the US Government did not have a separate spy agency at that point of time), who asks him to become a spy of the US. Campbell refuses, but Frank tells him to think it over.
As the war starts, Joseph Goebbels is the propaganda minister for the Nazis, the one who turned the art of propaganda into a convincing weapon; part of Goebbels assignment is to convert enemies to their cause, and Campbell becomes a part of that effort, rising in esteem and becoming more and more allied to the effort. He would be reviled for his role as a loyal supporter of the Nazis, and criticized as a war criminal. However, Campbell is also a spy for the US, working for the OSS (Office of Strategic Service - the agency that later became the foundation for the CIA), passing on messages through his speeches; however, Campbell does not know the content of the messages he is passing.
However, in the middle of the war, he gets a real shock, when his wife Helga is presumed dead when she was caught in a camp (where she was entertaining German troops) which was over-run by the Soviet Army. Later, near the end of the war, he has a slightly unpleasant conversation with his father-in-law, in which his father-in-law basically tells him that he always suspected that Campbell was a spy, but he was good at his propaganda work that it over-shadowed everything else he may have done. When he is captured by US forces, he gets released due to the efforts of Wirtanen.
Campbell moves to New York City, living a lonely life without any adventure, until there is a confluence of events. He is sought by a Soviet agent looking to re-build his career, by a white supremacist, by the FBI, by the sister of his wife, and by Nazi hunters. He however is almost beyond caring.
Eventually, there is a sequence in which he gets caught by Nazi Hunters, and taken to Israel. What happens to him, to a person who is beyond caring, but who was not a war criminal, but instead a spy who was very effective.

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1961

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut (1952)

The Player Piano was the first book by Kurt Vonnegut, and was published in 1952. The book was strongly drawn by the experiences of Vonnegut, in terms of his having seen the introduction of a large new milling machine to do a complicated cutting job, and how workers saw this as a trend whereby the dignity of workers deriving from their jobs would be destroyed. Vonnegut was working in General Electric at that time, and he visualized a world whereby there would be a large scale mechanization of society; and this automation of the world caused a huge disruption to the quality of life. The society is split into the upper classes (managers and engineers who keep society running), and who also keep a close watch on each other to ensure that they are dedicated to the faith and believe in this concept of society.

The second class in society is the dispossessed, the lower or working classes who job have been taken away and who suffer. Unless a person has graduated, there is no possibility of upward movement. If this entire concept seems familiar, then that is logical, since this was also the basis for the incredible 'Brave New World'.
Why name the novel as 'Piano Player'. It is possible that you would have seen this device, which is a scroll coded with the music to be played, and which replaces the human who would play the piano. The keys actually move up and down, and the sounds are produced by the piano, just that the keys are controlled by the unwinding scroll. This is a representation of how society is replacing human roles by automation. In the book, one of the friends of the main character, is seen playing a piano controlled by the piano player, representing the replacement of automation by humans.
The novel is about Doctor Paul Proteus, a rising member of the society, being made in charge of one of the largest such factories of the Ilium Works, but who has worries about what humans have become. Through a set of circumstances, he gets involved with the Ghost Shirt Society society (and even becomes its chief), who want to get back to a time when humans were in control.

Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1952

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Sirens of Titan by author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, (1959)

The Sirens of Titan was a novel that was nominated for a Hugo Award, published in 1959. It is acknowledged to be one of the best books by Kurt Vonnegut, even though he has several other famous books such as Slaughterhouse-Five, Cat's Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions. The book is not actually true science fiction in the mould of books by writers such as Asimov or Arthur C Clarke, more in the lines of satire, a satire on humanity. The book is especially critical of concepts such as religion, treating religion as a concept that can make its followers do weird acts, as well as how these concepts are used as a powerful weapon to influence people, and equally and weirdly, how people allow themselves to be influenced by such use of religion.

This novel was controversial, given its treatment of religion, and churches, and how the fervor of the book was seen to be almost similar to Marxist disdain for religion. At the same time, there are a huge set of fans of Vonnegut, who cannot understand the controversy about the book. The book should be seen as a funny and humorous look at overall society, and this book is indeed pretty funny.
The novel is supposed to be about the richest man on Earth (in the 22nd century), Malachi Constant, who is extremely rich, but whose life is mostly stagnant. In actuality, the novel seeks to portray the entire human existence, its civilization, its development, all this as something that was necessary only to help an inter-galactic traveller. This traveler, called Salo, from a place called Tralfamadorian, is a robot meant to carry a message to another galaxy. However, his ship breaks down, and needs a new part. And this is where the meaning of humanity takes on a different air, since the entire human existence and development was meant for the level of civilization to reach a point where this part can be manufactured and given to Salo.
Constant is actually manipulated by a strange set of events, manipulated by Winston Niles Rumfoord. Rumfoord is a person who knows the past, present and future, and can appear on different planets, primarily because his ship entered a strange phenomenon called 'chrono-synclastic infundibulum', something not defined, but which gives him strange powers.

The Sirens of Titan by the author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, published in 1959

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Avenger - Frederick Forsyth (2003)

If one were to describe the main hero of the novel (The Avenger), one would call him a superhero of sorts. This is a person who is able to plan superbly, fight easily, and fulfill missions. Frederick Forsyth writes thrillers (he ran into similar problems that others did when the Cold war ended, and numerous plots between the East and the West could not be spun). Forysth is famous for detailed descriptions of the elements of his stories, based on a lot of research. He writes about people and jobs that we do not know too much about in detail, such as big businessmen, spies, mercenaries, gangsters, politicians, senior government officials, etc. And of course, there is a twist always there in the tail, there will be something in the end that is surprising.

The Avenger is basically the story about this lawyer in his 50's, who runs triathlons to keep in shape. He is Colin Dexter, a Vietnam War veteran who was involved in one of the most dangerous missions. Described in great detail, the mission was part of a group called the 'Tunnel Rats' who climb into the massive underground tunnels dug by the VietCong (with many traps and chances of getting killed very high). He and his commanding officer survive the war, although a large number of their unit does not.
Colin now has a new mission, something that he got into once his family disintegrated after his daughter got involved with Latino gang members and was killed after being forced into prostitution. He tracked down the gang members and killed them one by one, although his wife died due to the pain. He is now a small and unknown lawyer, but is also contactable as a man called 'The Avenger'. He will, for a fee, find a person from anywhere and get him back to the US for trail.
He has been put onto a mission where a volunteer US young man served in the Bosnian war, and then went missing. The man's grandfather is an extremely rich man, and hires The Avenger to find out what went wrong, and if somebody was involved, to get him for justice. And then starts the hunt, the man leading the mission in Bosnia was a sociopath called Zoran Zilic, a hitman for the Serbs, who moved out of there when that war ended and became an asset for a faction within the CIA who want to use him to get an upcoming terrorist, Osama Bin Laden (this happened before the September 11, 2001, attack). Colin has to stay a step ahead of Zoran and the CIA team that wants to stop him. Can he do this in time ?

The Avenger - Frederick Forsyth (2003)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Vanity Fair(1847) - by William Makepeace Thackeray

Vanity Fair was a book published as a serial rather than in a single book form (this was done in 1847-1848, and was typical of that time, since Charles Dickens also published his classics in serialized form). Vanity Fear was written by William Makepeace Thackeray, and was based on the story of 2 different people in society - one who will do anything to get ahead in life, without morals; and the other, the exact opposite, one who believes in the goodness of life and is unwilling to believe that others could be dishonest. The title of the book, Vanity Fear, is taken from an earlier work, John Bunyan's allegorical story The Pilgrim's Progress, published long before in 1678, and supposed to represent a place called Vanity, where there is a ongoing fair that is meant to represent man's attachment to worldly things, and supposed to represent the sin of man. The book was seen as a bitter satire of society, as showcased in the quest of one of the anti-hero (or anti-heroine, to be more accurate), who is cunning, and uses all her qualities to work her way up in life.

The story takes the life of 2 opposite people, who are close friends early in life. These 2 women are:
Becky Sharp - She is apparently (on the face of it) what an ideal woman would be. She is smart, intelligent, sings well, plays the piano well; unfortunately, this is accompanied with a sense of morals that are absent, and no conscience. She wants to achieve higher things in life, and will do whatever it takes for this to happen, including playing with people.
In direct contrast to her is the other main character of the story, Amelia Sedley, who is not so outwardly smart, trusting of people even when it has been pointed out to her that others are not always to be trusted, and in some cases, unable to really appreciate those who care for her. This is a property that prevents her from taking the best that life gives to her, including the love of a person who is devoted to her, but whom she could-shoulders throughout the book.
The story is about the complete lives of these 2, with Becky trying to marry up (but failing to win her way around those women who see through her, and who played a part in dis-entitling her husband when he married her. In this case, it is the rich and elderly aunt of her husband (Pitt Crawley), Miss Crawley, who used to favor her nephew till the time that he married Becky Sharp. Becky is unable to use her charms and guile to get her husband back into favor, and lives with her husband a life devoid of riches, where they manage to live by manipulating money all around her.
On the other hand, George Osborne was always engaged to Amelia, but faced huge pressure to back down when her family lost their money. He finally married her, but in the face of opposition from her family, and consequently lost his money. And there was Dobbins, a friend of George who always admired Amelia, and who made it clear after George died, but who Amelia always ignored. It is a fascinating book, about the rise and rise, and then fall, or more accurately, about the just rewards.

Vanity Fair (1947-1948), a bitter satire about society written by William Makepeace Thackeray

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1993)

Isaac Asimov wrote a huge amount of science fiction over the years, and is known for many of his books such as the Empire Series, and most famously for the Foundation Series. The 3 main Foundation books were the 'Foundation', 'Foundation and Empire', and 'Second Foundation'. It was later, in order to try and fill more details, that Asimov wrote more books for the Foundation, that include books that were both prequels and sequels. The last such book that he wrote was called 'Forward the Foundation', and was released in 1993, a year after Asimov died. Forward the Foundation was a sequel to 'Prelude to Foundation', carrying on with the story of Seldon's search for how to develop the story of psycho-history.

In end of Prelude to the Foundation, Hari Seldon learns that Otto Demerzel, the powerful advisor to the Emperor 'Cleon 1' is actually a robot. He solicits Demerzel's help for continuing the research into psychohistory, and Forward the Foundation continues into that effort, and is meant to show 4 different time stages in Seldon's life. The novel starts 8 years from the end of Prelude to Foundation, as Seldon gets more involved in politics, helping Otto fight off attempts, and then moves a further 10 years down the line. Demerzel has vanished, and Seldon is now First Minister. However, after the assassination of Cleon 1, Seldon slowly starts losing his family members. His wife, Dors, is killed when trying to save him from an assassination attempt, his adopted son (the 12 year he met in Prelude to Foundation) dies elsewhere in another violent act, his assistant Yugo Amaryl dies of over-work, and it is left to Seldon and his grand-daughter Wanda to try and set a process in place to guide events when Seldon is no more. And so starts the story of 2 different Foundations, one of the physical base, and the other, a society of mentalics.

Forward the Foundation (1993) by Isaac Asimov

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Emma by Jane Austen (1815)

Jane Austen wrote many books, with her most famous books being Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), and Mansfield Park (1814). Emma came after these 3, and has taken its time to become famous. Further, since Jane Austen chose to write her books anonymously, her books started becoming famous long after her death, with a biography by her nephew, written more than 50 years after her death, that awoke more interest in her. It was only in the early half of the 20th century that she started being acknowledged as a classical writer, and now her works are very famous. Jane Austen remained unmarried, dying at the relatively young age of 42, from an affliction that was not particularly known at that time, but which is now suspected to be Addison's disease or Hodgkin's lymphoma.
Like her other works, Emma was also a critique of the society of that time, where a woman's standing was supposed to be based on marriage, and it would be this marriage that would decide her economic and social security; even though her works have a strong touch of comedy to them.

Emma is essentially a novel that describes the life of a 21 year old girl called 'Emma Woodhouse'. She is not worried about finances, being comfortably off; however, she starts to believe that she is good at match-making and guiding who should marry whom, something that causes a lot of temporary changes in the lives of people around her; in the end, however, everybody settles down happily, including her. There are a number of characters in the novel, and you will need to read carefully to ensure that you don't miss any of the turns and twists of the story.
Emma lives with her father, and has just returned from the marriage of her former governess Miss Taylor, and since she had introduced Miss Taylor to her husband, Emma feels that she has a gift for match-making. One of her closest friends is a person called George Knightley, who is from the neighboring estate, as well as the brother of her sister Isabelle's husband. He is perhaps the only one who is able to criticize actions taken by Emma when he feels that she is wrong. Who is the first person on whom Emma tries out this ability of hers ? It is her new friend, the 17 year old Harriet Smith, who is very sweet, but not very bright.
And here starts the main story. Harriet has got a proposal from a rich farmer called Mr. Martin, but Emma has decided that Mr. Martin is not good enough for Harriet, she would be more suited to the local vicar, Mr. Elton. And then, the unthinkable as per Emma happens - Mr. Elton realizes that Emma is a better catch, and proposes to Emma. Her friends had realized that this would happen, but not Emma. When Emma tries to direct Mr. Elton to Harriet, Mr. Elton makes it plain that he considers Harriet below him, and leaves the place for a while.
The story introduces more characters, and spins around the lives and marriages of these folks, and is fairly interesting.

Emma (1815), a book on England in the 19th century by Jane Austen

Friday, August 28, 2009

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (1847)

Wuthering Heights is a classic of the Victorian Era, written by Emily Bronte (and released in 1847). This was the only work of fiction by Emily, although her more famous sister, Charlotte Bronte wrote many more works of fiction (including the very famous Jane Eyre). Wuthering Heights was released not under the name of Emily, but under a pseudonym of Ellis Bell (because there was a prejudice in society that time directed at female writers, and Charlotte was also writing under a different name). Emily died the next year, in 1848, and a second edition was released later in 1850, edited by Charlotte. Emily had a relatively short life, and lived only from 1818 to 1848, dying after contracting tuberculosis.
Wuthering Heights was not a great hit when it came out, given that depiction of relationships and am over-riding sense of revenge and cruelty ran through the book. However, over the years, the book has come to become much more respected, and is now considered a literary classic, with many considering it superior to Jane Eyre.

Wuthering Heights, a classic novel by Emily Bronte, published in 1847

The narrative is essentially about how emotions can guide the behavior of a person, with feelings of rejection and hatred making a person spend his entire life in revenge, tormenting people, seeking to get revenge. It is also a tale of unrequited love, with the passionate love between Heathcliff and Catherine Earnshaw (a love that had a tragic ending) causing Heathcliff to spend his entire life in how to get revenge. The narrative jumps a bit between the present and past, and is presented by 2 characters - Mr. Lockwood and Ellen "Nelly" Dean, with the main setting of the novel starting in the year 1801.
The novel starts with Heathcliff, a young homeless orphan is brought to Wuthering Heights by Mr. Earnshaw, and raised like another son. Heathcliff makes very close friends with the daughter, Catherine, although her brother, Hindley, does not like Heathcliff and mistreats him. After the death of Earnshaw, Hindley takes over as owner of Wuthering Heights, and badly treats Heathcliff. In the meanwhile, Catherine becomes close to a neighbor, Edgar Linton, something that Heathcliff does not like. He dislikes Linton.
Hindley's wife dies, and Hindley is in despair, taking on heavy drinking; around this time, Catherine decides to marry Linton, something that will profoundly affect Heathcliff. When Heathcliff leaves after feeling that Catherine considers it degrading to marry him, Catherine is struck by a fever, and Edgar Linton takes care of her, and in a couple of years, they get married. And then Heathcliff returns, having suddenly turned very wealthy, and intent on taking revenge on all those who prevented him from being with his love. He lends to Hindley, and then takes over Wuthering Heights after Hindley dies; further, he elopes with Linton's sister, Isabella, all for revenge. However, soon after, Catherine dies, with her and Heathcliff being reconciled just before her death.
Heathcliff becomes more angry, and hate prone, carrying on his hate onto the various children, Hindley's son Hareton, his own son Linton, and Catherine's and Edgar's daughter, also called Catherine. What will happen next, since eventually Isabella and Edgar Linton also die, leaving the various children at Heathcliff's mercy.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan (1994)

The complete name of the book is called "Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space" and it was another non-fiction book released by Carl Sagan (the famous astronomer and scientist) who wrote a series of books on science and space, and is most famous for his works, Cosmos and Contact. The name of the book is based on a photograph taken by the space explorer spacecraft, Voyager 1. Carl Sagan had pushed for the spacecraft to take a photograph when it was at a huge distance from the earth, a distance of 3.7 billion miles. In this photograph, the Earth seems nothing more than a Pale Blue Dot in the midst of empty space, and this is all that mankind has got.
Carl Sagan also described this photo in a speech he was giving, with these starting words: "Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, by Carl Sagan (1994)

The book takes a look at previous theories of the geocentric Earth-centered universe, and how that was the idea that could not be challenged, with torture awaiting those who dissented. Slowly, that idea was overturned and we started learning about reality, about our true size in the enormity of the universe, starting with the scale of the solar system, and then continuing with the idea of how to explore the planets in the solar system. Carl Sagan also talks in detail about the Voyager program. The book also has some great photos of the Solar System, courtesy of NASA.


Wanderers: An Introduction
You Are Here
Aberrations of Light
The Great Demotions
A Universe Not Made for Us
Is There Intelligent Life on Earth?
The Triumph of Voyager
Among the Moons of Saturn
The First New Planet
An American Ship at the Frontiers of the Solar System
Sacred Black
Evening and Morning Star
The Ground Melts
The Gift of Apollo
Exploring Other Worlds and Protecting This One
The Gates of the Wonder World Open
Scaling Heaven
Routine Interplanetary Violence
The Marsh of Camarina
Remaking the Planets
To the Sky!
Tiptoeing Through the Milky Way

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan (1997)

Carl Sagan was a famous scientist, teacher, and writer of books and creator of the series Cosmos, creations that tried to popularize science and increase the concept of free and logical thinking. Carl Sagan died in 1996 of the disease myelodysplasia (Wikipedia), after a long medical treatment. This death was a great loss to science, given that Sagan died at the fairly young age of 62 (he probably had a number of books, lectures and television series still in him, something that would have done much more to popularize science). This book is composed of essays written by Carl Sagan on different subjects, and was published after his death by his widow Ann Druyan. The title of the book is a spoof on the term 'Billions and Billions', a term that was never uttered by Sagan, but which was used satirically in various ways including by TV standup comedians.

Billions and Billions (by Carl Sagan), published in 1997

Chapters of the book:

Part I: The Power and Beauty of Quantification
1. Billions and Billions
2. The Persian Chessboard
3. Monday Night Hunters
4. The Gaze of God and the Dripping Faucet
5. Four Cosmic Questions
6. So Many Suns, So Many Worlds

Part II: What Are Conservatives Conserving?
7. The World That Came In The Mail
8. The Environment: Where Does Prudence Lie?
9. Croesus and Cassandra
10. A Piece of the Sky Is Missing
11. Ambush: The Warming of the World
12. Escape from Ambush
13. Religion and Science: An Alliance

Part III: Where Hearts and Minds Collide
14. The Common Enemy
15. Abortion: Is It Possible to Be Both "Pro-Life" and "Pro-Choice"
16. The Rules of the Game
17. Gettysburg and Now
18. The Twentieth Century
19. In the Valley of the Shadow

The book is worth reading for the essays.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Contact, a science fiction book by Carl Sagan (1985)

Contact is famous as a science movie starring Jodie Foster, released in 1997. The movie was a great science fiction movie, earning more than $140 million worldwide, and won a Hugo Award. The movie was based on the novel by the same name, published in 1985. In fact, Carl Sagan had been working on a story for a film on the theme of Contact ever since 1979 along with his wife Ann Druyan, and had been working on the idea with Warner Bros., but the movie never got made in that timeline, and hence Carl Sagan started working on a book on the same idea, and released the book in 1985. Years after the book, the idea for a movie was again taken up, and after a change of directors and script-writers, the movie was finally released in 1997. There are differences between the book and the movie, with the number of travelers being different, the detail of the machine (the machine had to be detailed much more thoroughly in the movie version), as well as whether there is hope in the end.

Contact, a science fiction novel by Carl Sagan published in 1985, released as a movie starring Jodie Foster in 1997

The book takes up the story of contact from extra-terrestrials, but this is not the Independence Day or Encounters of the Third Kind kind of contact, this is more about the kind of contacts that scientists think will happen; through the twin model of mathematics (the only universal language in which people can communicate through), and through radio waves from outer space, which is what scientists are looking for through the SETI and other similar programs.
The book is about Eleanor "Ellie" Arroway, who is the director of "Project Argus," a project in a large number of radio telescopes in New Mexico have been dedicated to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Then suddenly, one day, they receive a signal that seems to confirm that there are indeed other intelligence sources in the galaxy. The signals contain a blueprint for building an advanced machine without disclosing what the machine will do. The design are in excess of current capabilities and require a huge effort.
Eventually, the machine is built, and it takes 5 passengers to the center of the Milky Way through a number of wormholes, where the passengers seemingly meet people who were part of their life such as close relatives (these are in fact the senders of the message who have taken this form). However, when the travelers return to earth, the journey of many hours seems to have been done in 20 minutes, video footage has been burned out, and they are faced with a skeptical Government machinery, suspected of fraud. The one possible ray of hope is mathematics, with a message encoded inside the further section of Pi.

The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence by Carl Sagan (1977)

To read a science book can be dreary or boring; or it can be enlightening, imparting a wonderful education. It all depends on the author, and Carl Sagan was a wonderful author in this regard. He explains the concepts and ideas thoroughly, dosing an imparting of humour into the whole explanation and making it actually fun to read. Evolution is a heavy topic, and is also a political hot potato in the United States, where many bible groups believe that God (or intelligent design) is the creator of all life in the world, and more detrimentally to science, evolution is just a theory with no proof, a postulation by atheist scientists who do not recognize the importance of a supreme being in the whole aspect of creation.

The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence by Carl Sagan (1977)

Carl Sagan does not go against religion, he is more for the use of common sense and logic, backed by a scientific bent of mind, which looks for proof and theories that can explain life and its mysteries. So, Carl Sagan takes the theory of evolution, from the primordial single cell creatures to the age of reptiles to the evolution of highly intelligent species such as humans. He also takes on the human fear of reptiles, suggesting this fear to be based on early human's struggle against predators. Sagan also does a lot of detailing on subjects such as the search for a quantitative way of measuring intelligence (using the brain to body mass ratio), the evolution and structure of the brain, why do humans dream, etc.
The book won a Pulitzer Prize, and was a continuation of the Jacob Bronowski Memorial Lecture in Natural Philosophy which Sagan gave at the University of Toronto. The chapters of the book are:

The Cosmic Calendar
Genes and Brains
The Brain and the Chariot
Eden as a Metaphor: The Evolution of Man
The Abstractions of Beasts
Tales of Dim Eden
Lovers and Madmen
The Future Evolution of the Brain
Knowledge is Our Destiny:Terrestrial and Extraterrestrial Intelligence

Broca's Brain by Carl Sagan (1979): Wonderful short essays

Carl Sagan is extremely famous for his books on science. These books take on various questions on science, and provide an education to people in such a way that the story-telling does not seem to be very high-brown, or above the head. If you read the book normally, by the end of the book, you will certainly have learned something. And that was the mission statement of Carl Sagan, who wrote a number of books seemingly to explain science to the masses. Broca's Brain (the full name of the book is "Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science"). It was one in a series of books written by Carl Sagan, having been written just after 'The Dragons of Eden'. After Broca's Brain, Sagan went onto one of his major creations, something he will be known for long (Cosmos).
The title of the book is one of the interesting questions that Carl Sagan poses for his readers. The book is named for the French physician, anatomist and anthropologist, Paul Broca (1824 – 1880). At a time when medical science had not progressed too much, Broca is best known for discovering the previously unsuspected fact that the brain is compartmentalized into functional regions. He used to save hundreds of human brains in jars of formalin, part of his belief that science could predict the behavior of humans through a process that comprises of a study of the physical structure of the brain, as well as the known behavior of the people whose brains were so studied.

Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science by Carl Sagan (1979)

So, when Carl Sagan visits this place, and sees Broca's brain similarly preserved, he asks a question that is more of a religious question; how much of Paul Broca can still be found in the contents of the jar. After all, if a person is known by their thoughts and actions (both of these controlled by the brain), then having the brain preserved would mean that you could still study the physical structure of the brain and make some conclusions.
The book is a fascinating study in which Sagan tries to combine the discussion of science with an interleaving of philosophy, at the same time never leaving the thorough logic and discussion that are necessary while coming to a conclusion. The book is a series of essays, based on articles published in various magazines such as Atlantic Monthly, New Republic, Physics Today, Playboy and Scientific American, published between the years 1974 and 1979.
The book discusses a number of subjects, including the petty rivalry between scientists, discusses science fiction, how the planets were named, frauds and charlatans, and so on. The book has a fascinating quote by Carl Sagan near the end: "My deeply held belief is that if a god of anything like the traditional sort exists, our curiosity and intelligence were provided by such a god...on the other hand if such a god does not exist then our curiosity and intelligence are the essential tools for survival. In either case the enterprise of knowledge is essential for the welfare of the human species."

Cosmos by Carl Sagan (1980): Great book about science

Carl Sagan (Wikipedia) died in 1996 of cancer, dying relatively young at the age of 62. Carl Sagan was one of the people who did a huge amount to popularize the concept of science, especially related to space travel. His most popular work to date remains Cosmos, which was also made into an incredible 13 part TV series in 1980 (Cosmos: A Personal Voyage), that has so far been seen by 600 million people (including a large number of children). I remember being fascinated by the series when it used to come on TV when I was a child; there is a certain fascination of the heavens that draws people to it, especially children. The series should be made essential watching for school going children all over.

Cosmos by Carl Edward Sagan (1980)

The book is based on the series, and is considered a companion to the TV series. It is one the best-selling books in the area of science, while typically science books do not sell as well. The book is divided into 13 chapters, and follows the TV series to a large extent, but there are certain variations (typically when Carl Sagan has already written about something in an earlier book, and it is explained in detail in the TV series). The various chapters are:

1. The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean
2. One Voice in the Cosmic Fugue
3. The Harmony of Worlds
4. Heaven and Hell
5. Blues for a Red Planet
6. Travelers' Tales
7. The Backbone of Night
8. Travels in Space and Time
9. The Lives of the Stars
10. The Edge of Forever
11. The Persistence of Memory
12. Encyclopaedia Galactica
13. Who Speaks for Earth?
Appendix 1: Reductio ad Absurdum and the Square Root of Two
Appendix 2: The Five Pythagorean Solids
For Further Reading

If you want to buy the series on video, click on this link.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Maneater: Gigi Levangie Grazer (2003) - Positively witty

To be honest, I had not heard of the author (Gigi Levangie Grazer - biography site) before this book. I am a sucker for book sales, and I saw a sale where this book was also there, and I don't know what made me pick this book as opposed to other books, but I don't regret it one bit. Once I had picked up the book, it was hard to put down. It is hard to easily describe the novel, but if I were to summarize the book, it would be in terms of calling it a 'hard to put down, biting witticism filled description of Los Angeles society. The book portrays a chilling portrayal of what a middle-aged (by her standards) lady needs to do in terms of her future, and how all her plans go haywire when she is fooled by somebody even more expert than her.

Maneater (a novel by Gigi Levangie Grazer) published in 2003

Clarissa is 28 (actually 31), somebody who has never worked for anything her whole life. She depends on her father and mother, and lives a life of parties, gossip, and the close company of her group of friends (called the Star Chamber - some of them are close friends, and with one of whom she has a relationship that is more enemy like than with friends). Clarissa is very clear on her priorities in life, such as food (good), sex (good), shopping (good), work (bad). She also realizes that since she is actually 31 years old, her biological clock is indicating that she needs to get a move onto finding a man for her (and obviously, it has to be a rich man since she needs to be supported in life as per her expectation). It is a biting satire of the lives of the rich and famous that Clarissa even has though through her future, including when to have children, when she will get divorced. Her relationship with her mother is also shown as pretty interesting, somebody on whom she depends at times of extreme stress, but not otherwise.
So, after crossing through a number of potential husbands and rejecting them (such as Bruce Springsteen, John F. Kennedy Jr. (who is a good potential, but dead), Ted Field, etc), she narrows her choice down to young Aaron Mason, a person rich enough that he can afford to be what he wants (he wants to make a movie about an old subject). Now starts the process of planning for the marriage (even though the groom does not know that he is the target, and that his marriage date has been decided). She finds out that Aaron is not as dumb as he would appear, and is wise to what she is trying, but he plays along and finally they get married.
And this is where the novel takes a twist, with Aaron having far more secrets than Clarissa would like, one of which leads her to living in a much smaller apartment than the swanky house and comfort that she had expected. Clarissa is shocked, but slowly starts to get used to it, and then she gets more shocks from Aaron. The end is different, but the novel starts to meander a bit, and loses the wit and bite soon after the marriage, and slowly starts to become more saccharine sweet. On the whole, it is still enjoyable.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

In High Places by Arthur Hailey (1960)

Arthur Hailey (April 5, 1920 – November 24, 2004) was a novelist very popular for some of his books such as Wheels, Airport, Hotel, Overload, etc. He was not that prolific, in the sense that he wrote in total around 10-12 books, but some of his books such as Wheels, Airport, and Hotel were very popular and remained on bestseller lists for quite some time.
Arthur Hailey books present detailed views of specific industries, such as Wheels about the automobile industry, Hotel about the hotel industry combined with the civil rights movement and racial discrimination, and so on. Some critics accuse him of covering up a lack of good literary skills by disguising it through providing a lot of detail.

In High Places by Arthur Hailey (1960)

In High Places was the third book by Arthur Hailey (following Runway Zero-Eight and The Final Diagnosis), and covered an area that is still not covered too well even now. There are numerous books and movies on the politics of the United States and Great Britain, but Canada has never been covered by major books or movies in terms of politics. In High Places was a book that took a look at the politics at the top level in Canada, including the Prime Minister.
The book covers the issues plaguing the Prime Minister of Canada, James McCallum Howden. The Prime Minister is a dedicated person, spending huge amounts of time for his work and not able to spend the required amount of time with his wife, Margaret who understands the situation. What adds to the tension in the book is the situation where there is a huge stand-off with the Soviet Union with the threat of nuclear war seeming almost inevitable. A nuclear war would mean that missile interception and destruction (with a nuclear fallout happening over Canadian territory and poisoning its land mass). There is the pressure of signing a pact with the US called the Act of Union, but that would reduce Canadian sovereignty by giving the US a much greater responsibility of Canada's defense and its armed forces, not a prospect that is easily acceptable.
And of course, there is the inevitable back-stabbing, intrigue, involvement with women at the highest levels, and so on, which make this a hugely interesting book.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Island of the Day Before - Umberto Eco

Books by Umberto Eco have been praised to an extreme degree, and have also evoked a huge amount of criticism. They can be difficult to read at times, and I have known many friends who shied away from his other books once they read any one of them. My opinion differs in the sense that I like his way of writing, and had previously read his 2 other works of fiction (The Name of the Rose, and Foucault's Pendulum). I will be honest, reading Pendulum .. was tough in parts, but once I read the book, I could not help admiring. And of course, 'The Name of the Rose' was simply superb, and my esteem for Umberto Eco went up pretty high after reading both of them. Next was 'The Island of the Day Before'. This is a book that has had many more mixed reviews, with many people outrightly condemning the book as too complicated and a lesser work. I do not share the same views; for me, the book was interesting and worth reading.

The Island of the Day Before by Umberto Eco (1994)

The tale is complex, being the tale of a person in a shipwreck, as revealed through letters and memoirs. It is not just the tale of the isolation of a ship-wreck, but the tale of the life of 17th century France, of the society, the politics, and through all this, the life of a young man. The book is the story of Roberto della Griva, born into a minor noble family. The story is devoid of many details, such as how the memoirs of Roberto got into the hands of the modern day editor who is writing the book.
Roberto is a complex personality, he believes that all the problems that he suffers is because he has an evil twin called Ferrante (an easy way to blame all the problems that a person suffers); Ferrante is a way out to ascribe the problems that a person may face. As Roberto is growing up, there is a sudden upheaval in his life, his father dies in a siege, in the Siege of Casale, the fortress guarding the frontier between Italy and France. Roberto makes his way to France where he suffers from one-way love (and that too with one of the great ladies of France); the novel also describes the colorful and complex situation in France of that time, this is the time when there is a transfer of power happening between Cardinal Richelieu and Cardinal Mazarin.
However, he is soon forced into booking his passage on a Dutch ship (the Amaryllis) that is on an expedition to find the problems of longitude, and unfortunately for him, he ends up in a shipwreck, and is washed up on another deserted ship, the Daphne. And this is where the title of the book is relevant, since Roberto believes that the ship sits on the International Date Line, and he can look at the previous day from one side of the ship.
The book may seem boring to some, but for others, it is a perfect example of the writings of Umberto Eco. Worth reading, and for many, worth treasuring.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1812)

By the time Manfield Park was written, Jane Austen had already released 2 of her earlier novels (Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice), and these were enough to make her famous. On the other hand, Mansfield Park was far more controversial. The principal character of Fanny Price has been acknowledged to be complex, a person of a good conscience. At the same time, the novel really does not reveal too much about her, since you don't really get to hear too much from her in the novel. Unlike's Jane Austen's characters from her earlier books, Fanny is far more straight in her thoughts and beliefs, and is not seen to be making any mistake. Jane Austen further seeks to strengthen the character of her heroine by making her childhood poverty be the reason for her strength, a point that is not likely to be something that modern audiences can understand.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1812)

Mansfield Park is the name of a house owned by the wealthy Sir Thomas Bertram. He is married to Fanny's aunt (Fanny's mother married a poor solider, and hence their life has always been distant from the rich world of Sir Thomas). However, Fanny has been sent to her aunt's house to take care of her aunt, but because of her poverty, 3 of her cousins, Tom, Maria and Julia, ignore her and do not consider her to be of the same level. It is only the second son, Edmund, who treats Fanny kindly; as a result, Fanny has always looked at Edmund with devotion, which turns to love as she grows (the novel depicts her in a majority of the story to be at age 18-19).
Sir Thomas is strict, and this seems to have a bearing on the behaviour of his 3 children, Tom, Maria and Julia, who all have their own weaknesses, whether that be Tom's weakness for gambling, or the vain and arrogant nature possessed by Maria or Julia. Soon, Sir Thomas leaves for 2 years to tend to his estates in Antigua, and then the entire drama starts soon after, with the arrival of Henry Crawford and his sister Mary. Henry charms both Maria and Julia (specially Maria), and to Fanny's distress, Mary and Edmund start getting closer (although Edmund is not sure about Mary's true nature). However, in the midst of rehearsing for a play, Sir Thomas returns, and is not happy to see the ongoing rehearsal, effectively ending all thoughts of having a play. Henry and Mary leave for some time.
Henry, after returning, wants to amuse himself by charming Fanny, but finds himself falling in love with her instead. When he proposes marriage, and for a poor girl such as Fanny, this is a very good proposal, she already knows about his affairs with her cousins, and she declines. The entire family gets shocked, and she leaves Mansfield Park for some time. Soon after, there is another scandal, where Maria (who had married the rich but boring Mr. Rushworth) has an affair with Henry in London, leading to a divorce from her husband. At around the same time, Tom also falls ill, and Fanny heads back to Mansfield Park to take care of Tom. Edmund also realizes that Mary's true nature is not acceptable to him, and he actually loves Fanny. Eventually, Edmund marries Fanny.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Doctors - by Erich Sehgal

Doctors was published by Erich Segal in 1988, and soon jumped onto the # 1 bestseller on the New York Times list. Erich Segal has been known for extensive research for his novels, and the same was true for this one. There was a lot of research done into the life of doctors, starting from the time that they enter medical school and covering their experiences, the type of training they go through, as well as the problems and challenges they face. Somebody reading this novel would get a good idea of what the life of medical students is like, and carry onto the emotions of adult doctors.
The book covers the life of some of the characters who are part of the 1962 Harvard Medical School batch, with a special emphasis on 2 of these.

Doctors by Erich Segal (1988)

The 2 main characters who are the focus of this book, include Barney Livingston and Laura Castellano. These are characters who have grown up as neighbors since they were children, have been very close, very good friends, attended medical school together, and start seeing the harsh elements of life. As medical students and doctors, they come to face an extremely tough education demanding huge amounts of study, face patients who have all kinds of illnesses, many of them tragic. They learn that apparently the medical profession demands that its practitioners should not get personally involved with the problems of their patients, because otherwise they will themselves start to get weak and affected.
The book also takes the lives of other students along with them, such as their brilliant but black colleague Bennett Landsmann, who faces the then huge issue of racism, and ultimately almost falls victim to it. They come face to face shocking problems in the medical fraternity such as misdiagnosis, colleagues who are not competent or indulge in conduct that offends them. The book traces their lives to the point where they have each had their relationships, but ultimately realize that eventually they are made for each other. The book is gripping, and is certainly worth reading.