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.

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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

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Western literature and movies of the 20th century are obsessed with the Second World War and its fallout The Cold War. An unjustly large proportion of the works deal with these subjects and I intentionally avoid them. But even I could not avoid finally picking up a John le Carre novel. I had liked what I saw in the movie adaptation of his Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and I picked up The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

This slim novel is part of a George Smiley series and is centered around a burnt out British spy named Alec Leamas. All the spies under the command of Leamas in East Germany are methodically killed by a ruthless new Communist spy head named Mundt. Leamas is pulled back to England, loses his job in disgrace and ends up working at a library. Turns out that this is all a front by MI6 to make him an enticing defector for the East German side, a great chess game to take down Mundt.

I had not read a le Carre novel before and I can see that his high praise is well deserved. Since he was an actual spy during the Cold War, his writing is supposedly very real, and it seemed so to me. The plot in this one is quite an intriguing puzzle and kept me up on the edge. To his credit le Carre never lets go of the moral implications of the loss of life in this secret war. When Leamas defects, he is pulled deep inside East Germany, with not a single British or American spy to help him. Finding out if and how he succeeds is a thrill not to be missed.

Rating: 4/4

ISBN: 0143121421

Books I enjoyed in 2016

2016 was such a busy year that by the time I could clear some space in my personal schedule to read books, half the year was already up! I had set an overly optimistic target of 24 books for the year. I finished just 10 books. Listed below are the books that I enjoyed the most. As you might deduce, the books are mostly all light reads. The book titles are linked to my book reviews, in case you are thinking of picking them up.

For 2017, I want to get back to reading a book or two on history or non-fiction. Reading a classic fictional work or two would be nice too. As for targets, I think I can aim for 24 books again this year, that is, 2 books per month. Let me see how that goes! 🙂

Movies and TV series I enjoyed in 2016

2016 was a crazy busy year and I could not really relax with a movie or two every weekend. I mostly watched popular movies, and a good number of them were quite entertaining. TV series took a far bigger hit, and I could only manage a few this year. Popular series like Game of Thrones and House of Cards (US series) are great fun in the first few seasons, but to be frank they get quite boring pretty soon. Here is a list of what left an impression on me this year.

Charulata (চারুলতা)

I am slowly making my way through Satyajit Ray’s brilliant movies. This movie revolves around Madhubati Mukerjee (whom I last saw in Mahanagar) and the evolution of her relationships with her husband and her cousin. As usual with Ray, the movie is flawless: the plot displays the nuances and complexities of everyday relationships, every frame is oh-so perfectly shot, Madhubati is staggering in her acting and beauty and the movie actually ends on a happy note. A visual masterpiece made way back in 1964!

Black Coal, Thin Ice (白日焰火)

From China comes this dreamy snowy neo-noir movie. Everything is perfect: the disturbed hero, the angelic heroine and a mysterious murder to solve. The stark winter setting is gorgeous like a dream and the movie abounds in black humour. Pitch perfect!

House of Cards (UK Series)

This is the original series from 1990 which has been remade in the US now starring Kevin Spacey. The US series does not even come close to this original cause this is one of the best TV series I have ever watched! I would place it next to The Wire, at the supreme pedestal for TV series. Ian Richardson turns in a God-like performance of a scheming politician who rises to become Prime Minister. Pardon my abuse of adjectives, but the acting is quite simply fantastic and the plot superlative. In 3 seasons, you will learn everything you will ever need to understand politics in every damn nation of this world.

Fargo (Season 1)

Fargo is one of my favorite movies and I must admit I was a bit afraid they would ruin it with this TV series. Thankfully, the small town essence of the movie is perfectly captured in this series. The body count just keeps racking up in this peaceful-looking town. I kept rooting for Martin Freeman, wishing he got a happy life, but sadly it is not meant to be. The last 2 episodes are especially nerve-wracking. Seeing the loving family at the heart of the series cozy up in their nest amidst all the cold at the end is bliss.

Gone Girl

This is a fantastic nail-biting mystery by David Fincher. Who knew Ben Affleck could act?! He and Rosamund Pike give epic performances here creating a couple of unforgettable characters. The plot and its settings have a huge Fargo feel to it. The movie has the feel of reading a thrilling novel. Loved it!

Badlapur

What a beginning this movie has! Undoubtedly one of the best to come from Bollywood in 2015! This is a dark noir revenge drama where the villain turns out to be not so bad in the end and the hero turns into pure evil. This is the best I have seen of Varun Dhawan, but with Nawazuddin, Radhika Apte and Huma Qureshi at their peak here, he has too much competition. Minor quibbles in a visceral work.

Heaven’s Gate

Director Cimino’s vision to make the perfect Western shines through in this masterpiece. Camerawork is jaw droppingly awesome, the sets are grand and the acting is brilliant. It may have sunk the studio that produced it, but thanks to Cimino’s maniacal precision we get a gem. The movie is slow and takes its time, the war at the end is a bit heavy handed, but the rest is beautiful.

NH10

This movie is scary as hell and very visceral. The premise descends brilliantly from modern luxuries of New Delhi to the rural badlands of Haryana. The couple are chased like dogs for witnessing an honour killing. The surprises, like that of the police officer, are just brilliant! When justice is finally served, it feels so wrong, but also right. Anushka Sharma is all over this one and this is the best I have seen of her.

Dirty Harry

This is one Clint Eastwood essential. It is a classic cowboy Western transplanted nicely into a modern police setting. The city of San Francisco plays a major role in the movie and the city is great to watch here.

Nishabd

This is the best RGV movie I have seen yet. He makes the taboo love all seem so natural. The Munnar settings are gorgeous and Big B and Jiah Khan are both a treat to watch. If I have one complaint, then that is the abuse of the ridiculous crane shots used in the movie.

U Turn

This second Kannada movie from Pawan Kumar is a quaint urban thriller where a flyover comes to life and starts killing traffic rule breakers. Shraddha Srinath, her love interest and the cop have acted really well. The movie is as much about Bangalore city as it is about the characters. The movie is a tad long, but well scripted and beautifully shot.

Kapoor & Sons

A perfectly crafted Bollywood movie created to tear you up and leave you with some great memories. The dysfunctional parents Rathna Pathak and Rajat Kapoor are perfect depicting the kind of marital decay after living together for 35 years. The parents, the sons all discover secrets about each other on a trip home and it all goes to hell just when it could have been fixed together well. In between all this, Siddharth and Alia’s romance seemed a tad unnecessary and out of place.

Main Aur Charles

This movie is very engaging, thought it captures the enigmatic faker Charles Shobraj at the fag end of his career. Randeep Hooda pulls in his best performance and even the secondary characters remain etched in memory cause they are fleshed well. The story gets a bit lame towards the end, but that is a minor quibble in this beautiful noir.

Back to the Future

Finally got around to watching Marty McFly and Doc in this perfectly crafted pop movie. It is quite fun to watch the trouble that ensues when Marty travels back in time to his parents’ teenage years. But why oh why are there a zillion blatant product placements in this movie?!

That pretty much rounds up my list. Here’s hoping for more great watches in 2017! 🙂