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

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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