The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle

The Man in the High Castle turned out to be one of those highly acclaimed books that do not impress. I am familiar with Philip K Dick through the movie adaptations of his works like Blade Runner and A Scanner Darkly. Let me not kid, he lays out an appetizing premise in this book: the Axis powers Germany and Japan have won and divvied up the world between themselves. USA has been split into three: the East Coast controlled by Germany, the West (Pacific States of America) by Japan, leaving the middle (Rocky Mountain States) is free. Hitler’s rule is over, but his other Nazi lackeys are running an efficient, technologically advanced but totalitarian state. Jews are still being hounded, whites are second class citizens to the Japanese in USA and blacks and Chinese are slaves.

In this compelling alternative history, we meet a puzzling choice of story arcs and characters. The PSA arc is beautifully written and somewhat interesting: the interplay between Childan, a white guy who deals in American artifacts and Tagomi, a high ranking official who is one of his unhappy customers. We slowly discover there is a plan by the Germans to create a disturbance in PSA and use that to defeat Japan and takeover the entire world. In addition to this weak arc, there is a further more boring arc happening in RMS, where folks are ga-ga-ing over an alternate history book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, in which the Allied powers have won the war. The female protagonist here is out to meet and save that book’s author, this is the dude in the high castle, from assassination.

The world Dick creates is amazing and his writing skills are top notch. However, I found it very hard to like most of his characters or empathize with their stories. The characters of the book are all devout users of a Chinese divining tool called the I Ching and use it excessively to guide them through the day. Too many pages are used in characters discussing the Grasshopper book and describing the details of how Allied powers lost the war. It all feels a bit heavy handed and forced. I guess that fans of the book will claim that I cannot yet see the “alternate history within an alternate history” that Dick creates or his hints that this Nazi world is not the reality, but maybe the hallucination of one mind. All very handy and dandy, but sadly not convincing. While its compelling setting will no doubt lead to many TV and movie adaptations, as a book it is a bit underwhelming.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 9780547572482

2010: Odyssey Two

2010: Odyssey Two

If what you liked most in 2001: A Space Odyssey was all the nitty-gritty of being aboard a space ship and the exploration, then you might love the second book 2010: Odyssey Two in Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series. It has been nine years since the fatal trip to Jupiter to explore the alien monolith when HAL 9000 killed the astronauts and David Bowman became a star child. The spaceship Discovery is still stranded around Jupiter near the monolith. So, the Americans and Soviets embark on a joint trip to explore the monolith again, check out Discovery and possibly also use the trip to examine some of Jupiter’s moons. While a lot of the story is the same as before, there is a lot more of crew dynamics on long space journeys, interesting space problems, more mysterious behavior of the monolith, life forms discovered in our Solar System, more analysis of HAL’s behavior, more hand-wavy star-child happenings and a final escape from catastrophe for our protagonists.

This book is an excellent sequel. If you liked the first one, you will most probably love this one. The weakest part is, yet again, the David Bowman star-child, who is used to transition some of the story, which he does by communicating with Floyd (the main character) and HAL. Also not quite satisfying, is the behavior of the alien monolith, which in the end gobbles up Jupiter, creating a new star. Clarke wants to push the idea that these monoliths are left as beacons by superior alien forms to discover intelligent life, test it and aid it to higher intelligence. If so, its behavior in the novel is quite a bit of hand waving. But as always, Clarke is on strong footing with actual space travel. It is engrossing to be a part of his spaceship and observe the daily life on it and the many personal, social and relationship problems that can occur. Whether he can keep the magic going for the third book or not, his masterful story telling made this second one a delightful read.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0345303059

Excerpts:

You think the Agile daily standup meeting is a new concept? Here it is, aboard the spaceship Leonov, on its journey to Jupiter:

Every day at 1800 GMT the crew of seven plus one passenger gathered in the tiny common room that separated the flight deck from the galley and sleeping quarters. The circular table at its centre was just big enough for eight people to squeeze around; when Chandra and Curnow were revived, it would be unable to accommodate everyone, and two extra seats would have to be fitted in somewhere else. Though the Six O’Clock Soviet, as the daily round-table conference was called, seldom lasted more than ten minutes, it played a vital role in maintaining morale. Complaints, suggestions, criticisms, progress reports – anything could be raised, subject only to the captain’s overriding veto, which was very seldom exercised.

An interesting note by Clarke, on how the book was written:

This book was written on an Archives III microcomputer with Word Star software and sent from Colombo to New York on one five-inch diskette. Last-minute corrections were transmitted through the Padukka Earth Station and the Indian Ocean Intelsat V.

Nectar in a Sieve

Nectar in a Sieve

The sad, hard and futile life of the rural poor in British Raj India pervades Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya. It begins with the marriage of the narrator Rukmani to a landless farmer named Nathan at age 12 and ends with his death by her side. What fills the in-between is a few years of happiness with good harvests and young children and many years of deprivation, starvation, disease and death due to drought and floods. Urbanization also rears its ugly head in their tiny village in the form of a smelly tannery and a British doctor named Kenny. Rukmani hates the sight of the polluting and crowded lifestyle brought about by these changes, but poverty drives her children to work at that very tannery and later sail off as labourers to British plantations in Ceylon. The middle-aged couple is hit hard when their landlord sells off his land to the tannery and they have to eke out a hard life in the nearest city.

Published in 1954, this novel is supposedly the first novel about India to get popular in USA and in its textbooks. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Markandaya was born in Mysore, studied in Madras and later settled in the UK. Though no places are named, the characters and settings are quite obviously of the Mysore-Madras region. The story is quite similar to The Good Earth, which I recently read, and the writing is similarly achingly beautiful, though the focus here remains on Rukmani and her family and not so much about the happenings in her country. The India here is somewhat unimaginable now in some its dimensions: an age before electricity, literacy and modern medicine. Caste is somehow absent, which is surprising. The onus is the plight of the rural (and later urban) poor and their hapless existence as mere pawns in a grand game played by nature, fate and the rich. The landless, illiterate, uneducated characters swallow whatever comes their way without a protest because neither do they have the means nor the social structure to do anything about it. This slim novel is laden with incredible prose and filled with many unforgettable characters like the Old Granny.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 9780451531728

Excerpts:

While the sun shines on you and the fields are green and beautiful to the eye, and your husband sees beauty in you which no one has seen before, and you have a good store of grain laid away for hard times, a roof over you and a sweet stirring in your body, what more can a woman ask for? My heart sang and my feet were light as I went about my work, getting up at sunrise and going to sleep content. Peace and quiet were ours. How well I recall it, how grateful I am that not all the clamour which invaded our lives later could subdue the memory or still the longing for it. Rather, it has strengthened it: had there not been what has been, I might never have known how blessed we were.


Nathan prepares the bier, I see him lifting the body on to it. Then he goes out, walking towards the town. At dawn the funeral drums begin, and soon after our friends and neighbours come. Granny first, though hardly able to walk; then Durgan; Kannan with his wife, bearing a few jasmine buds; and Kali, bringing with her a muslin cloth to cover the bier. They pay their respects in silence, and when the sun has risen, the men pick up the bier and depart; but the women stay behind, for this is the custom. All that morning the sound of the drums comes faintly to us, rising and falling, rising and falling with the wind; until at last a final beat comes quivering through the air and we strain our ears for the next, but this, this sound which has already gone, is the last. Now not even a heap of bones: only a few ashes to show that once a man has lived.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

One of the most memorable chapters from my childhood English textbooks was Tom Sawyer, fooling his friends to paint a fence. From then on, Tom Sawyer, his buddy Huckleberry Finn, that period of US history and author Mark Twain have continued to appear so many times in my readings that I simply had to pick up this classic when I saw it. On its surface, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is filled with fun stories centered around Tom, that happen in St. Petersburg, a fictional village along the Mississippi river. Tom seems to have lost his parents a long time ago and is being brought up by his Aunt Polly, a big hearted naive woman and her children Sid and Mary. Tom is a hyper-active clever rascal, who regularly creates trouble at school and gets switched by teachers on a daily basis. He always wants to be the alpha male at school and is always in love with the prettiest girl in school. He mostly hangs around with Huckleberry Finn, a homeless vagabond child of a drunk father. His idyllic world starts cracking bit by bit once he and Finn witness a murder and what follows after that.

First things first, this is not a moral and social work like To Kill A Mockingbird. This is an entertaining book for children that just happens to have enough elements to engage adults. To me it seemed like the characters and settings were a combination of the mysteries by Enid Blyton and the naughty William Brown series by Richmal Crompton. (Both these authors came after Twain, so his works might have heavily inspired them.) This is not an America I have visited or am familiar with. Here it is always hot and summery, flowers and trees are in bloom, kids are always frolicking in the river or fishing or picnicking and running around barefoot in the village, reluctantly wearing shoes only for Sunday church.

Childhood summer stories always fill my heart with joy, because I cherish that period of my life the most. But, there are lots of interesting hints and passing references to US society of early 1800s which are equally engaging in this book. For example, the servants are always black, referred to as nigger or Negro, as was prevalent at that time. It is seen to be beneath oneself to eat with a Black person, only the homeless Finn says that he has done that and does not mind it. The village does have people of mixed race, like mulattoes and people of Red Indian and white parents. But they are never seen in school or church and are mostly the shady characters. Finn comes from a broken home, where his parents used to fight and have now separated. Tom is parentless. There is no uncle in the house with Aunt Polly. Switching kids as punishment regularly, both at home and school, is the norm. 12-year olds like Tom can drink and smoke a pipe without creating a fuss among adults. The world was so idyllic that kids could roam around for an entire day in forests, miles away from home without parents being unduly worried. The list just goes on. Makes one wonder how much better civilized we are now, but also how much freedom we lost along the way. This American classic is a heartwarming read, full of that manic childhood zest and inquisitiveness and is sure to leave you wanting your carefree days back.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 9781847491954

Excerpts:

He had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it, namely, that, in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.

In the midst of the prayer a fly had lit on the back of the pew in front of him and tortured his spirit by calmly rubbing its hands together, embracing its head with its arms, and polishing it so vigorously that it seemed to almost part company with the body, and the slender thread of a neck was exposed to view; scraping its wings with its hind legs and smoothing them to its body as if they had been coat-tails; going through its whole toilet as tranquilly as if it knew it was perfectly safe. As indeed it was; for as sorely as Tom’s hands itched to grab for it they did not dare–he believed his soul would be instantly destroyed if he did such a thing while the prayer was going on. But with the closing sentence his hand began to curve and steal forward; and the instant the “Amen” was out the fly was a prisoner of war.

To promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover

Lady Chatterley's Lover

Would you be able to guess what is at the heart of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by looking at its cover or by knowing about the famous obscenity trial that it caused? D. H. Lawrence published this novel in 1928, both the story and its writing being set in the period after the first World War. The writer had to publish it himself since no one back then would print a book which had so much sex and vulgar language. The novel would be freely published only decades later in the 1960s after winning a court battle in England. A similar court trial ensued in India after that for the book.

The lady in question is Connie, a free-thinking woman married off to the Lord of a coal-mining region. The Lord returns injured from the war, unable to physically love or bear his wife any children. Years slowly grind by and the dark grimy coal town surroundings and her monotonous life take a toll on Connie. That is, until a romantic affair slowly takes hold with the gamekeeper of their estate. It seems like they both have similar liberal thinking and he is able to rouse a passion in Connie like she never had before. However, the prudish society they live in and the class divide between them threatens to pry apart their love.

Addressing the elephant in the room, yes, for a novel from before WW2 it is surprisingly free about descriptions of sex, language and reveals quite a lot about the upper class of that generation in England. Like a Merchant Ivory movie, the sensual descriptions and settings are actually pretty nicely done. The real heart of the novel though lies somewhere else. Connie’s love is between a upper class lady and a serving class guy, which was still uncommon for that era. Clifford, her wheelchair-bound husband rails all over the novel against the lower classes rising to be independent and threatening the order of the time. He is quite a bit afraid of the Bolshevist thoughts going around the working classes during that period in England. Mellors, the gamekeeper on the other hand has risen from a collier family through the British army ranks while stationed in India.

Another important actor in the novel is nature. Pages upon pages are devoted to the wooded and flowery beauty of the region that are threatened by the dirty polluting griminess of industry and coal mines. Mellors, living a quiet life in the woods in his cottage represents the face of nature. Clifford is the capitalist, who believes industry and machines are inevitable and that by creating work out of the earth, he is doing good to the working classes. Amidst all this is Connie who floats along like a butterfly, repulsed by the smoke belching buildings and the dreary air they create and loving the flowers and simple life of the countryside.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover might have created quite a sensation in the last century, and beyond its obvious physical lure, I felt that it has quite a bit to offer to the modern reader. Some sections, like Connie’s ride through the coal mining towns are quite an eye opener to the life and times of that period and the effect of bulldozing nature for industry. We witness several cogs in motion in England, with agriculture having given way to industry and industry already giving way to more automation. Many sections seem pertinent even today after a century, which is usually the mark of a good book. We also get a front seat on the divide among the classes and the coming struggle. The book is surprisingly liberal in many aspects that many books even today might hesitate to be. But, what let me down was that the novel is extremely rambling and verbose with the writer going all over the place many times. This is one of those few books where a carefully abridged edition might be a better read.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 9781840224887

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye

I had heard so much about The Catcher in the Rye being a classic that I had imagined it as an American version of a Dickens novel. Within the few opening lines, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was a story narrated by a teenager living in post-WW2 1950s USA! J. D. Salinger’s hero is a certain Holden Caulfield, a rich kid who has just been been kicked out for the umpteenth time from yet another private school. Other than English literature, he has no interest in any other school subject, so flunks causing schools to keep dropping him. His narration in the novel covers a few days of his life before Christmas that year in intimate detail as he struggles to find a direction in his rudderless life.

Holden is the stereotypical angsty US teenager whom I have watched in countless TV series and movies. Father is a corporate lawyer, home is a NYC penthouse and every luxury in life is at hand. However, money does not guarantee happiness. Our hero says goodbye to his dorm roommates and hitches on an unplanned train ride to NYC, checks into a hotel, runs around the city bars and clubs and even orders up a hooker. In the midst of all this pointless roundabout, hints are dropped as to why he might be a bit messed up. A literature-loving older brother who sold out to write for Hollywood. A younger brother lost to blood cancer. Witness to a mindless suicide in one of his private school dorms. And the all-pervading feeling that everyone is phony, except of course himself and his younger sister. In summary, every person’s teenage years vividly put down in print.

I do not remember reading any realistic fiction from the 1950s USA. So, it was quite a shocker to see a teenager travel around alone, checking into expensive hotels, ordering alcoholic drinks at bars, spending on a prostitute, using profanity, all without any adult around batting an eyelid. Was it really this easy back then?! The novel is set in the cigarette age, so another shocker is to witness teenagers smoke like chimneys at all hours freely, teachers, parents, everyone lighting up in every page and also 12-year olds telling their parents they had a puff to calm nerves! I would not be surprised if the tobacco lobby is handing out this book for free to all teenagers!

This book captures our rebellious moping teenage years perfectly. However, it was quite hard for me to sympathize with Holden’s plight. One reason is that throughout the novel he is basically a rich kid, living a rich life with wads of money to splurge. And even after the final pages of his angsty trip, we can see that he will probably end up at an Ivy League institution anyway. Another reason is that the story relies heavily on its 1940s US culture and norms, which are very different from our world today. There is also a sexist, racist and classist slant from that era that is unmistakable. All in all, I felt the book is a bit over-hyped considering all the greatest lists it is on. What it has going for it though is a genuine teen voice and might appeal strongly to that demographic or even myself, had I chanced upon it a decade or more earlier.

Rating: 3/4

ISBN: 0241950422

Palestine

Palestine

I can distinctly remember the time of my childhood from when I started to hear about the part of the world called Palestine. For many years, it was just the image of Yasser Arafat in his distinctive outfit and news about some peace talks and Nobel peace prizes. And when I started to be exposed to more US news channels like CNN and Hollywood movies, I started to hear about Israel and a succession of US presidents wanting to bring peace to the region. Essentially, it seemed to me that these folks were unluckily caught in a shitty situation and they were screwed, possibly forever. This weekend, as I turned the pages through Joe Sacco’s highly acclaimed comics about his journey in Palestine, I realized my guess was right.

Palestine cannot be called a graphic novel, cause it is not fiction. It is the journal of 2 months in 1991-92 that Joe Sacco spent in the region, presented as a comic. Sacco, a US journalist, did a whirlwind tour of Jerusalem and the two Occupied Territories of West Bank and the tiny Gaza Strip. He travels around a lot in the region and visits many of the conflicted regions we keep hearing in the news like Ramallah, Gaza town and Rafah. He visits the biggest refugee camps, talks to people affected by the occupying Israeli forces. The comics give us a visual journey, the depraved conditions of the Arabs, the squalor of the refugee camps and the constant presence of the Israeli forces.

As you read through the pitiful tales of the affected people, the depressing tales start to all sound familiar and repeated. It is always goes like this. Sacco shows up in a new town or refugee camp. He befriends a taxi driver or a seller at the market or an educated fellow. He asks around and says he wants to visit the family of someone who was recently affected by Israeli settlers or police. He is taken to one such home. He is surrounded by the male folks of the family and friends and over cups of extremely sweet tea, always tea and more tea, their pour out their story of suffering. A son, a brother, a father, someone gets into a skirmish with a settler or police. Or he is suspected of being aligned with one of the four Arab factions like Fateh and is picked up. He is imprisoned for weeks or months or years without seeing a court in one of the horrid prison camps. Or he is tortured, what Israelis called moderate pressure, and wounded or killed after that. One such torture killing led to the Intifada in 1987 and since then the Israelis have been careful to impose constant curfews and drop off the dead to their families in the middle of the night for a quick and quiet burial under the watch of their Uzis. And on and on it goes, these tales of woe. Young men having grown up under the constant glare of Israeli watch towers and barb wire see no future for themselves other than joining up one of the four Islamic factions that reap the youth for their own benefit. They spend their lives glaring down Israeili forces, throwing stones at their jeeps, an occasional killing of an Israeli settler, followed by retaliation by the Israelis, leading to more bile and on and on. Like I said before, I see no hope.

This book has a moving introduction by Edward Said that should not be missed. The comic itself is beautifully drawn. Especially the sad faces of the men, mothers and children will stick in my mind for a long time. We get to vividly experience what people in the West Bank and Gaza are or were enduring in 1991 on a daily basis. We get to hear the Israeli side of the argument in the last of the 8 chapters. Interspersed in between the stories of the Palestine victims we also get to learn small bits about the history of Israel and Palestine and how this land ended up in so much contention. While I have no doubt in saying this is a good book, it again falls victim to a crime I repeatedly witness US authors commit: giving the reader every last numbing bit of his or her experience in a foreign country. Instead of using a few representative refugee stories and experiences, Sacco hammers us with every single person and every single story and every single experience he had in 2 months. While this might have been digestible in the 8 separate volumes this was initially published as, it is unbearable in the combined book it is published now as. Other than this one nitpick, Palestine is a good book about the plight of a people under the longest military occupation in modern history.

Rating: 3

ISBN: 0224069829