Sunday, November 8, 2009

Animal Farm - George Orwell

Although written more than half a century ago, George Orwell’s stories have a remarkable ability of reflecting present day politics and culture, be it 'Animal Farm' or '1984'.

This is the story of Manor Farm – a farm consisting of numerous animals. The animals are overworked and the owner of the farm Mr. Manor is a drunkard who treats the animals cruelly. There is an old boar called Major who has a vision of a rebellion after which there would be no more humans on the farm and the animals would rule themselves.

The animals do manage to overthrow the humans, and have their farm to themselves. After Major’s demise the animals create their own constitution, and code of conduct for the farm. They make Major’s song ‘Beasts of England’ their anthem and define their own commandments. The farm is renamed Animal Farm, and all the animals take enormous pride in managing the affairs of the farm by themselves.

The pigs are the most intellectual of the animals and form the decision makers. Snowball and Napoleon are two most intelligent pigs, and they form the think-tank of the farm, but they have disagreements on every issue. Napoleon gets rid of Snowball from the farm and becomes the sole leader of the farm.

All the other animals are good workers, but not good when it comes to intellectual ability. They cannot differentiate between right and wrong, and are easily manipulated by the pigs for their gains. Napoleon uses violence, deceit and false propaganda in order to gradually transform Animal Farm into a new system of oppression. Old Major’s message is also distorted, and his commandment "All animals are equal" is replaced with "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others".

Orwell concludes the story with Napoleon’s coterie negotiating with humans on how to manage the affairs of the farm. The animals who are watching this argument realize that it is impossible to tell apart from the pigs and humans, and the rebellion to overthrow humans was in fact a futile effort.

There are several characters among the animals, which represent different sections of society:

Boxer: He is a horse who is loyal and dedicated to his work, and represents the working class of the society. He works hard all his life for the betterment of the farm, but when he is old and no longer useful, he is sent to a slaughterhouse by Napoleon.

Benjamin: He is an old donkey having a pessimistic view of life. His oft repeated words are: "Life will go on as it has always gone on - that is, badly".

Moses: A raven who tells tales of a place in the sky called Sugarcandy Mountain, where he says animals go when they die — but only if they work hard. Napoleon knows that the stories are false, but lets the raven stay on the farm so that the animals have their minds on a bright future and do not have thoughts of rebellion.

The sheep: They have no judgment of their own, and their minds are tuned by Napoleon according to his wishes.

The novel is essentially about the absolute power that Napoleon and the pigs command over the farm and how it corrupts them gradually. They deceive the animals on the farm by making amendments to the commandments in order to justify their actions. Finally, the commandments are abolished and the replaced with the classic line:

‘All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.’

Animal Farm was greatly inspired by real events that took place during the communist era in Russia, using animals as actual people. Whenever Orwell describes a vision of a society in which the conditions of life are characterized by poverty and oppression, it comes as a surprise to the reader that the situations described are so relevant even to this day. ‘Animal Farm’ is a classic, which tells us about the harsh realities of life and blends the narrative with satirical humor.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Breakfast At Tiffany's - Truman Capote

Breakfast at Tiffany's is a collection of short stories by Truman Capote, and the title story is widely regarded as a literary classic. The story is about the narrator's relationship with his neighbor Holly Golightly, initially beginning from fleeting glimpses on the stairs of their apartment building, to an acquaintance, to a volatile friendship, and finally to unreciprocated love and loss.

However, the real subject of the book is Holly's character, and how her past unfolds. She believes that she is a free spirit, and everyone around her is charmed by her unconventional lifestyle and outspoken personality. Holly is spontaneous and all about just having fun. She lives her life swindling older men of their money.

Her acquaintance with certain shady people lands her in trouble when she is falsely accused of helping a drug lord communicate instructions from jail, and with nothing going for her, she leaves for Brazil in search of a new life instead of staying and proving her innocence.

Holly believes that she cannot find a place where she is at complete peace, and can find contentment only at a store called Tiffany's, where she believes that nothing bad can happen to you there, which explains why the story is named such. Tiffany's makes her feel good; it is her safe haven when the world around her is going crazy.

The novella also contains three of Capote's other short stories:

House of Flowers: The story is about a young girl named Ottilie who is born into a brothel and turns into a respectable married woman by chance. She becomes a wife that never has the approval of her mother-in-law.

A Diamond Guitar: This is about a man named Mr. Schaeffer serving a lifetime sentence whose life changes with the arrival of a guitar-playing young inmate named Tico Feo. It is a tale of prison friendship.

A Christmas Memory: This is about the special bond between a young boy and an elderly distant female cousin, and the fun memories he has of the Christmas season. It symbolizes a friendship that ends far too premature for the characters.

The stories are vibrant and real, but I felt ‘In Cold Blood’, Capote’s other famous novel is a better book.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D.Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye is a glimpse into few days in the life of a rebellious American teenager, Holden Caulfield. The story is set in the 1950’s, and has been told as a monologue. The character of Holden can be identified with that of any typical teenager; he is at times confused, annoyed and turbulent of adolescent life as any teenager.

Holden goes to school in Pennsylvania. After being expelled from the school for poor performance, Holden lands in New York City and spends time indulging in impulsive spending, erratic behavior, hopping pubs and calling on friends from school.  He spends all the money that his grandmother sent him fiddling away aimlessly, and comes home when his parents are not around to meet his sister Phoebe, the only person with whom he thinks he can have a meaningful conversation.

He plans to travel west to find a job. He conveys his plans to Phoebe, who wants to travel with him but he relents. He finally ends up deciding to come back home and attend another school in fall. It is this period of time of which Holden narrates his experiences. The narration is riddled with sarcasm, and a certain carelessness and arrogance of youth. He might do certain things or act in a certain way for no apparent reason, but just for the 'fun' of it.

The situations in the novel are phrased simplistically, to the extent that one might read it as a lightweight story, but the message that the author tries to put across is not as simple. Holden is a complex character, a teenager driven to erratic behavior. Most of his thoughts, actions, and reactions to everyday issues give a glimpse into the confusing and turbulent times of adolescence.  He describes his habit of impulsive lying as follows:

“I'm the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life. It's awful. If I'm on my way to the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I'm going, I'm liable to say I'm going to the opera. It's terrible.”

One of the most pressing questions one faces while gearing up for adulthood is the dilemma of what to do with one’s life. Even though his manner exhibits carelessness of youth, Holden’s mind wanders deploring the possibilities:

“What I'd do, I figured, I'd go down to the Holland Tunnel and bum a ride, and then I'd bum another one, and another one, and another one, and in a few days I'd be somewhere out West where it was very pretty and sunny and where nobody'd know me and I'd get a job. I figured I could get a job at a filling station somewhere, putting gas and oil in people's cars. I didn't care what kind of job it was, though. Just so people didn't know me and I didn't know anybody.”

He wants to preserve the innocence of his childhood, and desists wading into the maze of adulthood where innocence and mirth are lost somewhere along the way. He tries to explain this to Phoebe in this passage:

"Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around--nobody big, I mean--except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff--I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be. I know it's crazy."

Holden essentially wants to save those children from the pains of coming to terms with adulthood by being the catcher in the rye.

At a casual first reading, Salinger’s writing appears to be just a story about a confused young man; but digging a little deeper reveals the coming to age story of the boy and dealing with adulthood. The author expects the reader to read between the lines to figure this out. The novel is part of many high school and college curricula, and is among the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005 as chosen by Time

Saturday, September 19, 2009

1984 – George Orwell

This intellectual and visionary book by George Orwell is about the dictatorial regime of Big Brother in Britain, set during the year 1984. It is never revealed in the novel if Big Brother is an actual person or a fictitious character. The repressing of dissent and of free thought forms the main theme of Big Brother’s totalitarian regime.

In the novel, the structure of the world had changed to something like this: the world has seen all countries merge into one of the three Superstates namely Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia. Britain belongs to Oceania where Big Brother reigns supreme; he controls everything from government policy to the people’s thoughts.

About 15 percent of the population is members of the Party, and the rest are common citizens called the Proletarians, or Proles. The Proles believe what Big Brother makes them believe and think what Big Brother makes them think through his continuous propaganda in print and electronic media. They merely exist as entities devoid of any free and independent thought. Every home had telescreens though which every citizen would be under complete surveillance. Any action or thought on behalf of an individual giving rise to suspicion led to investigation and torture.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part talks about the world the way protagonist Winston Smith sees it. Smith’s job involves proofreading old documents and falsifying them to suit the Party’s propaganda. In the second part, he has an illicit affair with a woman called Julia and he is in a state of intellectual rebellion against the party. He joins a brotherhood who are opponents of the party. The brotherhood exposes the truth behind the Party’s slogan:


In the final part, he is captured, imprisoned, tortured and finally brainwashed into believing the Party’s ideology. Orwell coined many words to describe the philosophy of Big Brother’s regime; some of these are:

Doublethink: The power of holding two contradicting thoughts in one’s mind and simultaneously believing in both of them.
Newspeak: A greatly simplified version of English devoid of any words indicating the concepts of freedom, rebellion, etc.
Thoughtcrime: The crime of thinking about ideas prohibited by the Party’s constitution.

Considered George Orwell’s magnum opus, the novel is visionary and tends to get philosophical. It is classic fiction with a fairly basic plot, but the ideology that the author presents is complex, and takes some contemplation and re-read of several passages in order to fully comprehend Orwell’s theories. If you like food for thought, this one is for you. Even though written in 1949, the book surprisingly relates strikingly well to the present times.

‘Big Brother is watching you’ is a term which people are always being reminded of in the novel. This term became popular in general usage as well.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote

This book is often defined as the original nonfiction novel on account of the true story, expansive research and outstanding narration on part of Truman Capote. The story is about the brutal murders of Herbert Clutter, a wealthy farmer, his wife and two children in the town of Holcomb in western Kansas. The killers, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Smith, were arrested and sentenced to death later.
The perpetrators of the crime were never a secret in the book, the reader knows all along that Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are the murderers. What is kept under wraps is the manner in which the executions were carried out. The story is pretty simple, but the real beauty of the novel is in its treatment.
How the book was conceived:
The New York Times On November 16, 1959 published an account of the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, a small town in western Kansas. This prompted Truman Capote to travel to Holcomb to investigate the murders. The case became such an obsession for him that he remained in Holcomb for six years until the case was finally closed. He interviewed the people of Holcomb, the investigator from Kansas Beurau of Investigation Al Dewey, and poured over police investigation reports and articles. After Dick and Perry were caught and sentenced, he even interviewed their handlers in prison. The result of all this painstaking work was what was known as the original nonfiction novel - In True Blood.
What strikes you as a reader is the superbly vivid and lively description of Holcomb that Capote gives you, considering the fact that none of this is the authors imagination as in a work of fiction. The accounts of every resident of the town, folksy tidbits from the lives of the Clutter family, accounts of prisoners, and every development in the case confirms to reality.
The novel also was amazing in capturing the mind of the criminal, what drives them to the extreme step of taking a life. Capote devotes extensive time defining the characters of Dick and Perry, as well as the human side of them. He describes Perry as being the more sensitive and guilt-ridden of the two on account of the murders. Unlike Dick, his turning reprobate was more a victim of circumstances and upbringing. He shared a complex relation with his family. He describes the murders as follows:
'Just remember: I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour. If I'd really known them, I guess I'd feel different. I don't think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking targets in a shooting gallery.'

In his own words, he  defined himself as follows in a diary he kept:
'My acquaintances are many, my friends are few; those who really know me fewer still.'

Overall, Truman Capote is a master of describing different emotions: He presents some beautiful images of rural Kansas, they can be identified with by anyone who has grown up in small towns; heartbreak suffered by Dick and Perry's families; and aboveall the horror of the murders.
Some trivia:
  • Truman Capote's assistant for this book was Harper Lee, the Pulitzer prize winning author of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'
  • The novel bought some renown to the Clutter family home and the town of Holcomb. People would visit the town just to experience the Holcomb that Capote had so vividly defined. Here is a link to some pictures I found from the time of the investigation to the present. In Cold Blood: A Legacy, in Photos

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Simple Truth - David Baldacci

The Simple Truth was my first David Baldacci book and I enjoyed it to the core. It had all the elements which one could hope for in a fiction - crime & investigation, suspense, chases & gun battles, compelling family drama, and of course, the law. It's a story revolving around the working of the US Supreme Court.

Rufus Harms is a prisoner who has been unjustly imprisoned in a Virginia millitary prison. He has endured the tough and cruel life of the millitary prison for a crime he did not commit. Micheal Fiske, a clerk (meaning a young lawyer) with the US Supreme Count is murdered when he happens to inquire into the appeal that came to the Supreme Court from Harms. Sara Evans is another Supreme Court clerk who used to work with Micheal and now teams up with his brother John Fiske to solve the mystery of Micheal's murder and also that of another clerk's.

Meanwhile Rufus with the help of his brother Josh escapes from prison and from there onwards the story moves at breakneck speed. There are people out to kill him for the fear of any information being leaked, but Rufus overrules his brother's idea of escaping to South America, instead opting to stay and get his case heard by someone. There is when John and Sara come in. There are several dangerous twists and surprises along the way for John and Sara in thier investigation. There happen to be several secrets in Harms appeal which some very powerful people do not want to be revealed.

Apart from the fast paced action, the book has good detailed information of the working of the Supreme Court. That important issues may appear or disappear due to personal influence, the power that the clerks and the barely-out-of-college lawyers weild; the way the Judges struggle to barter for votes on the cases they are working on; and some very interesting courtroom arguements are very well etched.

Many a time I found myself comparing the author to John Grisham, as they both intersperse thier writing with a liberal dose of legal verbiage, and an arresting story. So if you enjoy reading John Grisham, go for this page turner. It's the bookish equivalent of escapist cinema.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The English Patient - Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje has a writing style that is unique, poetic and lyrical. The story is set in Italy during the end of World War II. The narration moves back and forth in time, revealing bits and pieces from the lives of the characters.

The first half of the novel makes for some dry reading and the back-and-forth narration leaves one a bit confused. I felt it a bit hard getting into the book, but the book picks up pace from the second half and it is not until the end that everything makes sense.

The story revolves around four characters - Hana is a Canadian nurse who lives in the now-abandoned Villa San Girolamo in Italy. The scars of war are evident in her indifference to life; she has witnessed enough death and grief to become detached. She is very mature for her young age. Caravaggio is an Italian thief and used to be a friend of Hana's father. He was used as a spy by the allied forces during the war. The Germans get to know of him and torture him by cutting off his thumbs. He learns of Hana living in the abandoned Villa and arrives there in search of her.

Kip - Short for Kirpal Singh, an Indian Sikh. He is recruited by the British as a sapper, someone who clears minefields and disposes bombs. Kip stays on in the Villa, and disposes of the bombs in the vicinity of the Villa, which was full of unexploded bombs. He had joined the British army out of loyalty towards them, even though his brother does not trust the West and is strongly anti-British.

The English Patient - He is the title character and arrives under Hana's care at the Villa burnt beyond recognition. All that is known about him is that he is British and was in a plane crash and escaped alive but badly burnt. They just refer to him as 'The English Patient'. He and Kip are good friends and The English Patient's past is revealed later in parts.

Both Caravaggio, who is carrying physical and mental scars due to the war, and The English Patient who is badly burnt, are addicted to morphine, which Hana administers to them. Ondaatje describes four lives, each of them a world on its own, each containing their own fills of love & betrayal, all brought together by the circumstance of the war. The characters and situations are described incredibly well and there are certain passages & conversations which are poetic and one cannot help but appreciate the beauty in the lines.

"...Read him slowly, dear girl, you must read Kipling slowly. Watch carefully where the commas fall so you can discover the natural pauses. He is a writer who used pen and ink. He looked up from the page a lot, I believe, stared through his window and listened to birds, as most writers who are alone do. Some do not know the names of birds, though he did. Your eye is too quick and North American. Think about the speed of his pen. What an appalling, barnacled old first paragraph it is otherwise."

Pick this up if you like stories which move at a slow pace and have a leisurely afternoon to spare. It is a beautifully told story, but I must admit it drags at times.

Some trivia about the book:

  • The book won the Booker Prize for fiction and the Canadian Governor General’s award in 1992.
  • The book was adapted into a 1996 movie of the same name. The film was directed by Anthony Minghella and it won 9 Academy Awards.