24 in 48 readathon 

23-24th July is the 24 in 48 readathon weekend. The idea being that we get in 24 hours of reading over one weekend. I read about this on litsy and I was instantly on board. I love the idea. Not just because it lets me read all weekend, but because signing up for the readathon means that I have to carve out chunks of time for reading…so I get three to four hours of continuous reading at a time instead of the bits and pieces kind of reading that is my normal.

There is nothing better than settling down with a book and reading it in one or maybe two sittings. I used to do that often enough as a kid and a teen (staying up until three or four in the morning to finish my book was completely normal.) But it isn’t something I get to do now. The last book I read in one sitting was Alan Bennet’s The Uncommon Reader. But that is a novella and it only has around eighty pages, so it doesn’t really count.

The last decent sized book I read in one sitting was Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About my Neck. That was eight years ago. I still remember that afternoon. I was at my parent’s house. My kids were still toddlers back then. We’d just had lunch and my kids were busy with my dad and I had nothing pressing to do, so I picked up this book, streched on the couch and started reading. I read and read with no awareness of anything but my book and four hours later, I literally woke from the book to find my kids napping and my mum making tea. It was a wonderful afternoon, a rare indulgence, particularly at a time when I was stressed out and desperately tired from trying to keep up with two very young kids.

Anyway, I am hoping to indulge properly this weekend. I don’t think I can manage 24 hours of reading in two days. Right now, I’m aiming for twelve. Anything more than that is a bonus. The best part about this weekend, though, is that I have managed to get my kids involved in the readathon. They are both confirmed readers who ask for books as birthday gifts. But reading for hours on end is rare for them because they have so many distractions and neither of them has ever read a book in one sitting. I’m hoping they’ll find out what that’s like this weekend.

As for what I will be reading, I have two books going at the moment (being in India, my readathon started eight and a half hours ago,) Now Read On by Bernard Levin and My Grape Year by Laura Bradbury. I have plenty to say about both of these authors, particularly Levin, so I’ll save that for when I post reviews of these books. Now Read On is a collection of essays, drawn from newspaper columns that Levin used to write for The Times (London) and The Guardian back in the eighties and nineties. This particular collection was published in 1990. My Grape Year is a memoir. I’m thoroughly enjoying my reading, so I will go back to my books. I will post an update on my readathon tonight.

Happy reading.

The weekend is over. My readathon is done and it went very well. My daughter and I got in 16 hours of reading and my son managed 15. It was intense and truly wonderful to push everything aside and just read for a whole weekend. It was a great experience for the kids and we’re all looking forward to the next readathon which happens in January.

Book Review : A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

owen meany

“I am doomed to remember a boy with a wrecked voice. Not because of his voice, or because he was the smallest person I ever knew, or even because he was the instrument of my mother’s death, but because he is the reason I believe in God. I am a Christian because of Owen Meany.”

These are the words that A Prayer for Owen Meany begins with. It is a wonderful beginning…it made me want to dive right in and read the book. And I’m glad I did, because it is brilliant. It is one of the best books I have ever read and very likely, one of the best books ever written. It is a fantastic story, the kind that worms its way into your heart and settles there. It has characters that are beautifully drawn out and the writing is sublime.

This is a long book (over 700 pages) and it has plenty to say…about religion, Christianity in particular, about faith and what it means, about politics, what it means to be an American, about war and its consequences and about a country that seems to have lost its way. It is a book packed full of ideas and yet, it is a very human story.

At its heart, this is a story about friendship…between the narrator, John Wheelwright, who considers himself to be rather an ordinary guy and his best friend, Owen Meany who is the most remarkable person that the John has ever known. He is also the most remarkable person that I have met within the pages of a book. And I use the word, person, because Owen Meany is real to me.

The book is set in two places, New Hampshire and Toronto and it is goes back and forth between two points in time. The first is in the 60’s when John Wheelwright and Owen Meany are both eleven years old. They have already been friends for a several years. The second is the late eighties when John is living in Toronto, missing his friend, remembering him, struggling with his faith and trying to make sense of his life.

The first quarter of the book is focused almost entirely on the early part of John and Owen’s lives. It begins when they are eleven years old, when John loses his mother in a tragic accident. He doesn’t know his father because his mother never told him who he was. The story then goes a little further into the past when John was six years old and then goes on to talk about how his mother met his soon-to-be step dad, Dan Needham.

It explores the growing friendship between the two boys and the way Owen slowly becomes a big part of John’s family. John’s mother is particularly fond of the boy who is tiny for his age. He looks like a five year old when he’s actually eleven. His smallness is one of the most striking features about him.

And then there is his voice. The author tells you that it is a unique voice. Some of the characters in the book find it disturbing and at one point, a speech therapist describes it as a voice that is perpetually set to scream. And the reader is always aware of this voice because the writer has chosen to capitalise every word that comes out of Owen Meany’s mouth. This, I thought was a very useful device, because the voice is important.

Owen’s size and his voice are the most immediately noticeable things about him, but as you get to know the character, you realise that he’s extremely intelligent, opinionated, very sure of himself and very strong in his faith. He has no doubts about God, religion or his place in the world. I found myself envying his certainty. Faith is a tricky thing to write about. It can easily become preachy and just plain annoying, but John Irving never lets that happen. Owen’s faith is beautiful, it is touching and seeing him as we do, through the eyes of the narrator, it is impossible not to love him.

Owen has the most interesting ideas and opinionated though he is, he’s usually right. And this is brought out beautifully through the book. So the story begins when the two boys are eleven years old and then it goes back a bit to when they’re both six and just starting to play with each other and then John meets his step-father, Dan and a few years later his mother and Dan get married.

And then his mother dies in an accident and he has to deal with that. Owen is involved in this accident as mentioned in the opening sentences of the book, but how, I will leave for the author to tell you. What follows are the many years of growing up when John is adopted by his step-dad and he has to make his way through school which is a struggle for him because he’s dyslexic and no one has cottoned on to that…

Owen is with him all the way, lending his unique perspective to everything that happens to John and helping him in every way he can. He’s the one who figures out that John is dyslexic and he teaches him a few tricks to help him with his reading. He teaches John how to study, he helps him with his homework and he shows him how to write his papers. And John in turn is Owen’s biggest support. They go from the local high school to Gravesend Academy, they experience all the pangs of adolescence, all the trouble and confusion of growing up…

Through all this, we get glimpses of John all grown up and living in Toronto where he’s now a school teacher, teaching English. Reading is his life now as much as religion. We’re told that he thinks fondly of his friend and that he misses him a lot, though why, you won’t find out until the end of the novel. It is a long book, like I said, but it never feels tedious or drawn out. The pacing is perfect and the writing is incredible. Even when the characters are doing nothing more than watching Liberace on TV, it is all very engaging, somehow.

This is the story of two boys and their shared experiences, growing up and as such, it could’ve been very, very ordinary. What it is, is an extraordinary tale of courage, faith, love and friendship. And it is all due to the unique genius of John Irving. This book is an experience and it is impossible to read it and come out unchanged. It is a very special book and it will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Writer’s on Writing : Neil Gaiman

NEIL-GAIMAN

“We who make stories know that we tell lies for a living. But they are good lies that say true things, and we owe it to our readers to build them as best we can. Because somewhere out there is someone who needs that story. Someone who will grow up with a different landscape, who without that story will be a different person. And who with that story may have hope, or wisdom, or kindness, or comfort. And that is why we write.”

Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

Why our future depends on libraries, reading and day dreaming…

I came across this article in The Guardian. It is a (longish) excerpt from the Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries given by Neil Gaiman. 

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/15/neil-gaiman-future-libraries-reading-daydreaming?CMP=share_btn_tw

Film Review : Spotlight

I don’t usually review films on this blog, but sometimes, I come across a movie that I can’t help talking about. Spotlight is one such. This is a movie that comes highly recommended and it lives up to all the praise. It is a thoroughly well-made film. It is a true story and the subject matter is something that we have all seen before, unfortunately. But what makes this movie special is the way the story has been told. It engages you from the very first frame and it keeps you hooked until it is over. And then…it makes you think.

spotlight

The movie is set in Boston and at the Boston Globe in particular. ‘Spotlight’ is the name of the team of investigative journalists working at the Globe. And the story under the lens here is that of a few catholic priests in the city of Boston who have been accused of molesting children. The film begins with the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron, who is an outsider in many ways. He’s not from Boston and he’s a Jew. Not that a big deal is made of his Jewishness, but it is alluded to a couple of times.

Boston is a Catholic town and though incidents of molestation have been reported several times, the police have never filed cases against the offending priests and the victims have been too afraid to speak out. Even the newspapers have given the stories as well as the victims, very little attention. The new editor wants to change that. He believes that this is a story that needs to be told.

Considering how many of these incidents have been reported, he wants the Globe to do a proper story on it, complete with follow ups and details. Because it is clear that neither the accused priests not the Catholic Church will be tried in a court of law and stories like this will continue to be buried and children will continue to be at risk.

The Spotlight team is given this assignment and they find themselves wondering why they haven’t really pursued these stories so far. They just all got buried somehow.  As they start digging and finding out things, they are revolted, angered and looking for some semblance of justice. Soon they are all deeply invested and though they find themselves blocked again and again, they push on and in the end, they get the story with all of the sickening evidence. And they put it out there for the city to read.

This movie tackles a painful and uncomfortable subject, but it does it with grace and restraint. A story like this is always going to feel like a kick in the gut, but since the focus is on the journalistic aspect of it, it is a bit easier to handle. It makes you feel for the victims, but it does so with enviable gentleness and without ever getting preachy.  I’m not going to call it entertainment, but it is a story about people fighting for truth and justice and it is told in a riveting manner. It is a picture of what responsible journalism can be like and it is a must see for that reason alone.

Book Review : The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

The Clothes...

This is another novella, running into just over a hundred pages. Alan Bennett is quite the master of this form, I have to say.  This story, like The Uncommon Reader is just the right length. It wouldn’t have worked as a short story or as a novel. This is the story of a couple, Mr and Mrs Ransome who find their rather sedate and predictable lives disrupted by a completely unexpected event.

They go to the opera one evening and they come back home to find that they have been robbed, or so Mrs Ransome says. “Burgled,” Mr Ransome says, because people are robbed and homes are burgled and being a lawyer, he likes to be precise.

But neither of them is quite right, because burglars pick and choose, they don’t take everything. And whoever it was, took everything, every last thing including the drapes and the carpets. They took the casserole that was being kept warm in the oven…they even took the toilet paper rolls from the bathrooms.

At one go, the Ransomes lose everything. How does one cope with a situation like that?

The Ransomes are a wealthy, middle aged couple who are set in their ways and are perhaps a little bored of the endless routine of their lives. The burglary (for lack of a better word) shakes them up. All of their stuff is insured, so it’s not the shock of financial loss, it is the shock of losing all the things that they’ve built their lives around, even the things that they’ve never really used.

They begin to shop for a few necessary items while waiting for the insurance money and Mrs Ransome finds herself shopping in the local Indian store instead of the high street and discovering a lot of interesting things at her doorstep that she’d never thought to explore before. And as the days go on, she begins to find the loss of all her possessions strangely freeing.

Mr Ransome has one great love in his life and that is Mozart. He likes to listen to Mozart every evening. He bemoans the loss of his sound system until he realises that he can now buy a new, more state of the art system. So in their own way, they both come to terms with the sudden loss of all their possessions.

But losing all their stuff makes them rethink their lives a little bit. particularly Mrs Ransome who begins to realise that she’s been living in a box all these years, confined by stuff.She finds herself wanting to change her life, do something different with it.

As the novel goes on, Bennett explores the relationship between Mr and Mrs Ransome, the rut that it is stuck in, and he brings to light a whole lot of little lies that they’ve been telling themselves and each other for years. All long-term marriages have an element of deception in them, I guess. It’s rarely anything big, it’s just a lot of little things that couples hide from each other, or think they are hiding.

This book is an exploration of marriage, of long term relationships and of our unfortunate tendency to define ourselves by the things we own. The book is funny (I don’t think Alan Bennett can write without humour) and it is thoughtful and poignant. And Bennett brings to this book that unique blend of gentleness and irony that is so characteristic of him.

This is a very good book, a must read.

Book Review : The History Boys by Alan Bennett

history boys the

I just finished reading the book. It’s a week since I saw the movie and I was knocked off my feet. I’ve been knocked off my feet again. It’s a brilliant play, it is incredibly well written and it got under my skin in a way that little else has done in all my years of reading. It made me smile and it made me laugh, but it also broke my heart a little.

It’s a fairly lighthearted story on the surface. It raises important questions about education and what it’s for and so on, but it has lots of layers and characters who are charming while being all too human. The characters are flawed and they feel very real. You read the play and you can’t help but feel that yes, this could very well have happened somewhere, sometime.

The story is set in 1983 and it is set in a state school called Cuttler’s in Yorkshire. It is a story about eight boys who’ve just got their A level exam results. They’ve all done well and they’re getting ready to take their university entrance examinations. The headmaster is keen that they try to get into Oxford or Cambridge. They have one term left before they have to take the exams and they are all going in for history.

Their teachers are teaching them the way they always have. Mrs Lintott teaches History and Mr Hector teaches Literature and Language, or  General Studies as the headmaster calls it. These teachers don’t see the point of these kids trying for Oxford and Cambridge. They studied at Durham and Sheffield, universities that are less esteemed, but they got a good education nonetheless.

As far as they are concerned, which university the kids go to, has nothing to do with how well they learn or where they end up, in the future. But the headmaster is keen on Oxford and Cambridge, so he hires a new teacher, a Mr Irwin who is young and who, unlike the other teachers did actually study at Oxford.

His brief is to get these kids into Oxford or Cambridge by whatever means he can. He meets the boys and he realises that he doesn’t actually have to teach them anything. They know everything they need to know and more. Both Hector and Mrs Lintott have made sure of that.

But their approach, particularly Hector’s is the kind that believes in knowledge for knowledge’s sake or as he says in the beginning of the play, “All knowledge is precious whether or not it serves the slightest human use.” He’s quoting A E houseman here. Hector’s mission in life is to give the boys a love of literature and reading.

He makes them learn poems and songs by heart. There is a very interesting exchange about poetry in the play (between Hector and one of his students) that I will quote here:

Timms : Sir, I don’t always understand poetry.

Hector : You don’t always understand it? Timms, I never understand it. But learn it now, know it now and you’ll understand it whenever.”

Timms : I don’t see how we can understand it, sir. Most of the stuff that poetry’s about hasn’t happened to us yet.

Hector : But it will, Timms. It will. And when it does, you’ll have the antidote ready! Grief, Happiness. Even when you’re dying. We’re making your deathbeds here, boys.

He doesn’t care for exams, seeing them as the arbitrary things they are. He’s trying to equip his students for life, or so he believes anyway. Irwin, on the other hand is all about the exams. He goes about teaching the students short cuts and tricks to get the examiner’s attention.

He talks about Stalin in one scene and he says that everyone knows that Stalin was a monster, but if you want to stand out from the crowd then find something to say in his defense…dissent for dissent’s sake, not because you truly believe in it, but because taking a position that is different from the rest means that you will stand out, you will get noticed.

So the book is basically about these two teachers and their approach to teaching. Everybody wants a teacher like Hector, but Hector will not help you pass exams and you do need to pass exams. Examiners are not going to care how much literature, poetry and history you know. They care about the questions and the answers, do you have them or not.

The play doesn’t attempt to answer this question, it just puts it out there. It’s something for the audience to think about and mull over. If this was all, the play would be good. What makes it great is all the sub plots…the stories of the students and the teachers:

A Jewish boy who is small and who never feels like he quite fits in with the others because he matured late and because he’s gay. And he’s in love with another of the boys who of course, doesn’t care for him.

Another boy who is a devout Christian and holds fast to his faith while missing out on a lot of stuff that is normal for boys his age.

And another who has a girlfriend, but doesn’t let that stop him from hitting on Irwin who happens to be gay.

And of course Hector, who though a brilliant teacher, is a bit of a creep. He gives the boys rides on his motorcycle while reaching back every now and then to lay a hand on their knee or to grope them even. He never takes it any further and the boys just groan or roll their eyes at him. They are all eighteen years old and they are well able to take care of themselves, so he’s not a real threat to them and he knows it. They don’t like what he does, but they put up with him anyway.

The crux of the play, though, is that question about education, what it is and what it’s for.  The final scene is a round up of all the boys and what they’ve done with their lives. One of the boys gets into Cambridge, but it doesn’t work out for him because he put so much into getting there, that once he was there, he had nothing left.

They all went to Oxford or Cambridge, something that no one from their school had ever done before. They were all smart and full of life when they were at school, they were special, but none of them ended up doing anything extraordinary with their lives. So what was all that effort for really?

Like I said, the play raises a lot of interesting questions. It has a wonderful set of characters that you can’t help but love. It is funny, sarcastic, witty and poignant. It will stay with you long after you’ve read it because it is full of insights into life and literature, learning and being. It is full of quotations, songs, poems, dialogues from movies and other plays even…all of them interesting and all of them special.

But the words that will stay with me the longest are Bennett’s own. Here is my favourite dialogue in the play:

The best moments in reading are when you come across something – a thought, a feeling a way of looking at things – which you had thought special and peculiar to you. Now here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met, someone even who is long dead. and it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours…

 

I have been reading…Alan Bennett

I have been reading very much as usual, but I haven’t been writing about it. Don’t ask me why, it’s just one of those things that happens every now and then. I stop writing for a while. Anyway, I’m reading rather a special book at the moment, Untold Stories by Alan Bennett. I started this year by re-reading The Uncommon Reader (also by Alan Bennett) and I enjoyed it every bit as much I did the first time I had read it.

So I went looking for the rest of his books. I had put The History Boys on my TBR list, but I hadn’t bought it yet. So I did. I bought the physical book and it is still on its way. In the mean time I watched the movie with my husband and we both loved it. It is such a wonderful story and told so well. I wish I could have seen the play, but at least I got to see the movie.

The History Boys_movie_poster

This is one of those instances when I’m glad I saw the movie before I read the book because it is a play, not a novel and considering the number of characters and their somewhat complex motivations, it is good to have faces and personalities in my head already. It’ll make the reading go easier. I already love the characters and I know them, so I don’t have to build them up in my head from the text.

Now I usually prefer coming to a book knowing nothing more than its premise and I like to build the characters up in my head without having actors over-shadow them. And I’d rather not have a director’s point of view imposed on the book, but this is an exceptional instance, because the characters are all cast so well and they bring an interpretation to their roles and to the situations which enriches the movie. And it helps that the entire cast of the film is the cast of the original play.

According to Alan Bennett, the director, Nicholas Hytner was involved in the play when it was still being edited, so it owes its final form to both of them. And it shows in the movie. The director owns it just as much as the writer. But now I want to read the book because this play is about words, language, literature and history as much as it is about the story and the characters in it. And wonderful as the movie is, the acting as well as the visuals tend to overshadow the words. And now I want the words on the page as written.

The History Boys is one of those rare things, a book of ideas interwoven into what is rather a beautiful story. It is funny and poignant and thoughtful and so much more than I can possibly express here. I realise that I haven’t said anything much about the story, but that is only because I want to write a proper review once I’ve read the play. In the meantime, I will go back to Untold Stories which is a memoir and enjoy more of Mr Bennett’s peerless prose.

Book Review : Beaten, Seared and Sauced by Jonathan Dixon

Beaten...

The book comes with the tagline, “On Becoming a Chef at The Culinary Institute of America.” That should give you a fair idea of what the book is about. It is about one man’s experience, training to be a chef. It is a memoir and a surprisingly good one. I have read quite a few such memoirs, so I came to this book feeling a bit blasé.

I was between books and I wasn’t in the mood to pick up anything very heavy or very engrossing. So, a bit of light reading, I thought. And it was. But it was also a surprising amount of fun. This is a good book. The writing is not exceptional, but it is good. And it is written with an honesty that I found rather appealing.

Jonathan Dixon is a writer and a journalist who in his late thirties decided to make a career change. So he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America and he trained to become a chef. He had a lot of doubts and insecurities, obviously.  It is not easy to go back to school when you’re pushing forty. It takes a fair bit of courage and faith in yourself.

Some of the book is about that…the joy and the fear involved in throwing everything up and going off to follow your dream when you’re at an age where you’re supposed to be settled into a career, married, starting a family and so on. It is a difficult choice to make and it is even harder to stick to it once you’ve made it, particularly when you are having money troubles and you’re surrounded by people half your age.

The bigger part of the book is an account of his experience learning to cook. He writes about the CIA, the teachers, his fellow students, all of the things he learns, both small and big and you get a real sense of what it is like to be in culinary school and how difficult and how rewarding the entire experience can be, for someone who loves to cook.

I like to cook and I love memoirs, so of course, I enjoyed the book. But I don’t think you have to be interested in food to enjoy this book. It is a well written memoir, full of interesting characters and it is at its core an account of someone trying to follow a dream.

Movie Review : The Martian

The Martian Launch One Sheet

I have never done a movie review here on this blog (it is meant to be a book blog, after all), but this is a movie based on a book, The Martian by Andy Weir, which is one of the best science fiction books that I have ever read. I have been raving about the book and waiting for the movie for months, so now that I have finally seen it, I can’t not talk about it. I’m not going to go into any detail about the story because I have already done that in my review of the book which you can find here.

Was the movie worth the wait? Not quite, but I’m glad I saw it. The book was excellent and very visual. The descriptions and the the settings were so vivid, that I could see it all playing out in my head as I read the book. So the movie had to be spectacular to impress. And it was, it was quite a visual spectacle and the huge Martian vistas were a joy to see as were the scenes shot inside the space-ship and the final scenes shot in space, just above Mars.

But the best feature of the book, was the science in it. The entire story is a problem solving exercise…one situation after another that the protagonist (and the other characters, to some extent) have to face and find a way through, using their knowledge of science and combining it with a fair bit of ingenuity, courage and recklessness. The recklessness comes through in the movie, but the science doesn’t.

Nearly half of the book is written in the form of a log, a diary if you will, in which Mark Watney (the protagonist) talks about each new situation that he finds himself in. Then he explains exactly what he’s going to do to get out of that situation and why. That adds a certain immediacy to the book which the movie tries to mimic, with Watney doing a video log and talking to the camera.

This works, but the dialogue in the movie, perhaps inevitably, lacks the amount of detail you get in the book. This detail is what makes the book so realistic. It shows you the sheer scale of the problems that Watney faces and the extent of ingenuity, courage and almost pigheaded determination that he displays and this is what has you cheering for him.

Everything in the movie looked a little too easy, to be honest. You don’t see or feel the struggle and the frustration that Watney has to go through to solve each problem. The book and the movie span a period of nearly 600 days. The passage of time is gradual in the book, but it is a bit rushed through in the movie. Also the movie is missing a couple of major sequences from the book, which is a feature of most movies made from books so I won’t complain about that.

The movie does not do justice to the book, but that does not make it a bad movie. The Martian is a good movie and you can enjoy it by itself, though I suspect there are things you simply won’t understand if you haven’t read the book. But not understanding a few things here and there won’t keep you from enjoying the movie. The visuals alone are entirely worth a trip to the theatre.

And then there’s the cast…the casting is spot on. Every actor suits the character that they have been chosen to play and they all do justice to their roles, particularly Matt Damon who plays the lead. I was sceptical about Matt Damon when I first heard about the casting. I couldn’t see him as Mark Watney, but he made me change my mind. He had to carry quite a bit of the movie all by himself and I think he did it very well.

So, go see the movie.  If you like a good story, you will enjoy it. But read the book as well, because it is vastly better than the movie.

Trivia : The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published in America in 1885. Most people consider it a classic. Ernest Hemingway went so far as to say that it was the “one book” from which “all modern American literature” came, and that “there was nothing before and nothing as good ever since”.

While this statement ignores great works like Moby-Dick and The Scarlet Letter, Huckleberry Finn was notable because it was the first novel to be written in the American vernacular. Huck speaks in dialect, using phrases like “it ain’t no matter” or “it warn’t no time to be sentimentering.”

Since most writers of the time were still imitating European literature, writing the way Americans actually talked seemed revolutionary. It was a language that was clear, crisp, and vivid, and it changed the way Americans wrote.

The book sold very well when it was first published, but it was also criticized by many of Mark Twain’s contemporaries who thought it was coarse and uncouth.

Huckleberry Finn first appeared as Tom Sawyer’s friend in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Huck is the “juvenile pariah of the village” and “son of the town drunkard,” Pap Finn. He wears cast off adult clothes and sleeps in doorways and empty barrels. Despite this, the other children “wished they dared to be like him.”

Though Twain saw Huck’s story as a kind of sequel to his earlier book, the new novel was far more serious, focusing on the institution of slavery and other aspects of life in the American South.

At the heart of the book is a journey… Huck and his friend Jim, a runaway slave, escape down the Mississippi River on a raft. Huck is running away from his abusive father while Jim runs away because he is about to be sold and separated from his wife and children. Huck narrates the story in his distinctive voice, offering colourful descriptions of the people and places they encounter along the way.

The book takes a satirical look at racism, religion and other social attitudes of the time. While Jim is strong, brave, generous and wise, many of the white characters are portrayed as violent, stupid or simply selfish.

Huck, who grows up in South before the Civil War, not only accepts slavery, but believes that helping Jim run away is a sin. The moral climax of the novel is when Huck debates whether or not to send Jim’s owner a letter detailing Jim’s whereabouts. Finally, Huck says, “All right, then, I’ll go to hell,” and tears the letter up.

Even in 1885, two decades after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn landed with a splash. A month after its publication, a library in Concord, Massachusetts, banned the book, calling its subject matter “tawdry” and its narrative voice “coarse” and “ignorant.” Other libraries followed suit, beginning a controversy that continued long after Twain’s death in 1910.

In the 1950s, the book came under fire from African-American groups for being racist in its portrayal of black characters, despite the fact that it was seen by many as a strong criticism of racism and slavery. As recently as 1998, an Arizona parent sued her school district, claiming that making Twain’s novel required high school reading made already existing racial tensions even worse.

A major criticism of  Huckleberry Finn is that the book begins to fail when Tom Sawyer enters the novel. Up until that point, Huck and Jim have developed a friendship bound by their mutual plight as runaways. We believe Huck cares about Jim and has learned to see his humanity. But when Tom Sawyer comes into the novel, Huck changes. He becomes passive and doesn’t even seem to care when Jim is captured.

To make matters worse, it turns out that Jim’s owner has already set him free, and that Huck’s abusive dad is dead. Essentially, Huck and Jim have been running away from nothing. Many, including American novelist Jane Smiley , believe that by slapping on a happy ending, Twain was ignoring the complex questions his book raises.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn continues to be one of the most-challenged books in American literature. It is still frequently in the news, as various schools and school systems across America either ban it from or restore it to their classrooms.

The objections are usually over n-word, which occurs over 200 times in the book. That is certainly derogatory, but I don’t think the author intended it to be. He was merely portraying society as it was and writing the way people spoke. But I wish he had worked a little harder on the resolution of the book.

Sources:

Writer’s almanac

mentalfloss.com

twain.lib.virginia.edu.com

literature.org

Book Review : A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C Clarke

I have been on a bit of a science fiction trip ever since I read The Martian. I read 3001 The Final Odyssey soon after and then I went back to read 2001…and 2010…, the first two books in the Space Odyssey series and I have discovered once again the genius of Arthur C Clarke.

He is a wonderful writer with the ability to create interesting characters and to write engrossing stories with intricate plots and the kind of plot twists that keep you reading. But his great strength as a writer of science fiction is his ability to imagine believable futures.

A lot of fantastic things happen in his stories, but the situation of the characters and the kind of world that they live in is nearly always the kind of world that ours might very easily evolve into. He is often idealistic in his assumptions that humans will finally put aside their petty grievances and attempt peace rather than war, but I don’t think idealism is a bad thing in a writer. The way I see it, if we are going to imagine a future, why not imagine a good one, why not imagine that humanity will make sensible choices instead of stupid ones?

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So this book, A Fall of Moondust, is set on the Moon, in a future in which humans have gone beyond the Earth and have settlements on most of the planets and sattelites in the solar system. They have in fact, been living on the moon long enough to have had people born there.

But most people still live on Earth and the Moon is a popular travel destination. And one of the tourist attractions on the Moon is a trip on the Selene, a hovercraft, the moon’s equivalent of a tourist bus. One of the attractions on the tour is the ‘Sea of Thirst’.

This is a fictitious location on the Moon. It is supposed to be a flat plane covered with fine dust which flows almost like water. The Selene and it’s crew have crossed the ‘Sea of Thirst’ many, many times. But on this particular trip, there is a moonquake that occurs, causing an underground cavern to collapse. The Selene goes under the dust and is trapped. It has to be rescued.

The entire book is about this rescue mission. It is a classic premise and it plays out like any good thriller. There are interesting characters, difficult situations, a whole lot of problems and a great deal of intelligent problem solving…all of it based on real science.

This is hard science fiction (a term that I learnt recently.) It just means science fiction with an emphasis on scientific accuracy and technical detail or science fiction with a good deal of real science in it (which is what I used to call it in my head until I learnt that there was an actual term for this.)

The book begins with the moonquake and the ship getting trapped under all that dust. We see the passengers and the crew on the ship and their attempts to cope with the situation. On the other side are the scientists and the crew involved in the rescue and the problems they face in dealing with the peculiar nature of the Moon.

When the Selene goes underground, for example, the dust covers it right up and goes back to being as smooth and undisturbed as before…something that would never happen on Earth. And the dust itself is so weird. It is not solid, like mud and not liquid like water. And there’s tons of it that has to be moved somehow and twenty-two people on the Selene who have to be dug out of there.

Arthur C Clarke begins with an interesting premise and he delivers a book that is interesting and engaging. It feels real enough that after a while you start to think that ‘Calvius base’ is a real place and that there are real people living and working on the moon…it is not a brilliant book, but it is a good one and it is definitely worth reading.

Book Review : Paris Letters by Janice Macleod

Paris-Letter-Front-Cover-Advance-Copy

The blurb for this book is as follows:

“How much money does it take to quit your job?”

Exhausted and on the verge of burnout, Janice poses this question to herself as she doodles on a notepad at her desk. Surprisingly, the answer isn’t as daunting as she expected. With a little math and a lot of determination, Janice cuts back, saves up and buys herself two years of freedom in Europe.

A few days into her stop in Paris, Janice meets Christophe, the cute butcher down the street—who doesn’t speak English. Through a combination of sign language and franglais, they embark on a whirlwind Paris romance.

She soon realizes that she can’t ever return to the world of twelve-hour workdays and greasy corporate lingo. But her dwindling savings force her to find a way to fund her dreams again. So Janice turns to her three loves—words, art, and Christophe—to figure out a way to make her happily-ever-after in Paris last forever.

It sounds like a novel, doesn’t it? It’s a memoir and it could have been cheesy given the well worn, oft-repeated theme, but it isn’t. It is an honest, funny, self-deprecating account of the author’s attempts to turn her life around, to get out of the corporate rut and create a life that is happy and meaningful.

And the way she goes about it is so unusual. She writes letters to people, painted letters. Each letter is set in a particular spot in Paris. She paints the scene, leaving some room for text and writes about that place and that moment in time.

Then she makes copies of that letter and sells them on etsy.com. The letters are beautiful and she has subscribers who get twelve letters a year. Some of them write back and there is this wonderful correspondence in the book between Janice and her grandmother and this other lady, a Canadian called Mary.

The book is written well and it holds your interest all through. The reason for this, apart from the writing is the author herself. She’s funny and quirky and she’s engagingly honest. And Christophe, her husband by the end of the book, is very charming.

She writes lovingly about him and her account of their wordless romance (you can’t talk much when you don’t know each other’s language) is well worth reading about.

Book Review : 3001 The Final Odyssey by Arthur C Clarke

3001

This the fourth and final part of Arthur C Clarke’s Space Odyssey series and in my opinion, it is the most disappointing.  I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book. I loved the premise and I found the first half of the book very engaging, but then it completely lost it’s way and towards the end, I was reading just to find out how it would all be explained.

This review will probably not make any sense to someone who hasn’t read the first two books in the series. I apologise for that, but it is a complicated story and a bit too long to go into here. I will say though, that 2001 A Space Odyssey and 2010 Odyssey Two are utterly brilliant and a must read for anyone who likes science fiction.

So, Back to 3001 The Final Odyssey. The book begins with a space ship finding Frank Poole (one of the astronauts to go on the original discovery mission in 2001.) He was presumed to be dead, but it turns out that he was frozen and therefore still alive. He’s rescued and revived. The year is 3001 and Frank wakes up to find himself living in a world that is a 1,000 years after his time.

The first part of the book deals with him learning about this new world and trying to find his place in it. This part of the book is very interesting. I like the way Arthur C Clarke has imagined and presented the beginning of the 30th century. It is all very plausible and yet it is intriguing and the reader finds himself discovering all the new and wonderful (and sometimes not quite wonderful) changes along with the protagonist.

Then the focus turns to Europa. Poole makes a trip to Europa and contacts his old ship mate Dave Bowman who was turned into a creature of pure energy by the end of the first book. Poole talks to him and tries to make some sort of contact with the Europans….

The story is quite interesting up to this point and then it jumps ahead 15 years in which time Poole apparently gets married, has kids and then gets divorced. And one fine day he gets a strange message from David Bowman saying that humanity might be in danger. The how and the why are never explained. We’re just told that the monolith on Europa which has been inactive for a thousand years is suddenly receiving a lot of messages and instructions and that Bowman can only guess that it is threat and humanity has to somehow find a way to save itself.

I won’t go into any more detail because I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone. All I will say is that I wish this book had lived up to all the potential that it promised in the first few chapters.

 

 

Trivia : Tom Clancy and The Hunt for Red October

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Even as a kid, Tom Clancy was obsessed with naval history, reading books written for engineers and officers. He went to Loyola University in Baltimore where he studied English and dreamed of being a novelist. He graduated in 1969, but he didn’t pursue a career in writing. Instead, he went to work for an insurance agency.

By 1980, he was making a good living in the insurance business, but he hadn’t lost the desire to write a book. One day he was puttering around in the archives of the Naval Academy when he found a master’s thesis by a U.S. Navy officer named Greg Young. The thesis was about the Storozhevoy, a Soviet destroyer whose crew had mutinied and attempted to set sail to Sweden to seek political asylum. They were discovered, the leader of the mutiny was executed, and the others were harshly punished. The ordeal was covered up by the Russians, and it didn’t make the news, but Young had done some investigative journalism and spent two years piecing together the story into his thesis.

Clancy wrote to Young and asked if he could use some of the material to write a novel. Young was excited that someone had actually read his thesis, and he agreed, and suggested some additional sources for Clancy to use. Tom Clancy began working on the novel in all his spare time. Although he based his plot on the Storozhevoy incident, his version of the story had a happy ending: the mutinous Soviet submarine crew is welcomed to the United States.

red october

When Clancy finished the manuscript, he called up the Naval Institute and told them that he had written a novel called The Hunt for Red October. They had never published a piece of fiction, but the acquisitions editor there was convinced that it had promise, and they agreed to publish it, offering Clancy $5,000. Fact-checkers spent eight months going through Clancy’s manuscript, and were shocked at how accurate it was, considering that the author had never even been on a submarine.

Sales for The Hunt for Red October were good, but not particularly impressive. Then the publisher managed to get a copy to a friend of Nancy Reagan, and it made its way to the president, who loved it, announcing that it was “unputdown-able” and “a perfect yarn.” Suddenly, The Hunt for Red October became a huge best-seller. When it was published, Clancy had hoped that it would sell 5,000 copies. Instead it sold 45,000 copies in its first six months, and has since sold more than 3 million.

Clancy went on to write many best-selling books. More than 50 million copies of Tom Clancy’s books have been printed, and four have been adapted into major films.

John Steinbeck and The Grapes of Wrath

JohnSteinbeck_TheGrapesOfWrath

It was on this day in 1939 that John Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath. It is a novel that chronicles the Dust Bowl migration of the 1930s and tells the story of one Oklahoma farm family, the Joads, driven from their homestead and forced to travel west to the promised land of California.

It is a portrait of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, of one man’s fierce reaction to injustice, and of one woman’s stoical strength. The novel captures the horrors of the Great Depression and probes the very nature of equality and justice in America.

John Steinbeck

Steinbeck wrote the novel at an incredible rate — about two thousand words a day — in a tiny outhouse that had just enough room for a bed, a desk, a gun rack, and a bookshelf. He finished it in about five months.

When he was done, he wasn’t very satisfied with it: He wrote in his journal, “It’s just a run-of-the-mill book, and the awful thing is that it is absolutely the best I can do.” And he warned his publisher that it wouldn’t be very popular.

The Grapes of Wrath became one of the most beloved novels of American literature. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940 and has since been translated into nearly every language. Over 14 million copies of the book have been sold and it is estimated that around 100,000 copies of the book continue to sell every year.

When it was first published, Americans both embraced and scorned the novel. Some applauded Steinbeck for capturing so honestly the lives of migrant farm workers during the Depression. Others accused him of being a socialist and of championing communist beliefs.

Californian farmers loathed Steinbeck’s unsavory depiction of, well, Californian farmers. In short, this novel sent America into a bit of a frenzy. Eleanor Roosevelt took note, and, as a result, she called for congressional hearings on migrant worker camp conditions and labour laws were changed.

The Grapes of Wrath has been banned, burned, and bought over and over again.Steinbeck’s publishers lauded the book as one of the, if not the, greatest work of American Literature. Time Magazine disagreed in its 1939 review of the novel, saying, “It is not [the greatest work of American literature]. But it is Steinbeck’s best novel, i.e., his toughest and tenderest, his roughest written and most mellifluous, his most realistic and, in its ending, his most melodramatic, his angriest and most idyllic.”

The Grapes of Wrath has firmly lodged itself within American culture, and references to the novel continue to be made in movies, music, art, and TV. Allusions to this epic tale have surfaced in both  South Park and The Simpsons. Many songs have been written and sung about Tom Joad, most notably by Woody Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen. The Joads are a fictional family, and yet they (and what they represent) have become a part of the American story.

Sources:

Writer’s Almanac

Shmoop.com

Goodreads

Book Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

9780007586356 This is a book that might be described as experimental fiction. It is a novel written entirely in letters. That is hardly new, but these are all recommendation letters.

The main character is Professor Jason Fitger. He teaches creative writing at Payne University. He has been teaching for many, many years now and a good part of his work life is taken up with these letters, recommending students for jobs or fellowships, recommending colleagues for promotions and so on.

As any academic knows (I used to be one, so I can definitely relate) writing recommendation letters is a somewhat tedious part of your work. And it seems that Professor Fitger has just about had it. He is so sick of the whole business that he starts adding his own touches to what are essentially form letters.

There is humour, irony and sarcasm as he pokes fun at his students, their prospective employers, the university and the system. But there is sadness here too and genuine warmth as he tries to help a deserving student. As the letters go on, you start to see glimpses of the Professor’s own life, his hopes and ambitions, his mistakes and his regrets.

It is a beautiful book. It is touching and thought provoking. It makes you wonder about students and education and the what and the why of it all. How can you possibly tell a coherent story in recommendation letters? I thought when I first heard about this book. Well it seems you can. It is incredibly hard to do, but Julie Schumacher has definitely pulled it off.

Terry Pratchett is one of the most brilliant writers that I have ever read…

Terry Pratchett

It was sad to hear of his death. He was a wonderful, wonderful writer, one of those rare people who could write a story that had brilliant characters and an engrossing plot. He wrote books that were outrageously funny, but not frivolous in the least. And he would make you think even as he was making you laugh.

I was introduced to Terry Pratchett by a friend when I was maybe nineteen years old. I hadn’t read any fantasy fiction at that point and I had no idea what to expect. The book I took home from the library that day was Interesting times. 

Intersting times

I was completely taken by the cover. It was so weird and interesting. There just has to be a good book in there, I thought. The book was unlike anything I had ever read before and it completely blew my mind. It is by no means Terry Pratchett’s best book, but it is a very good book. I had no idea until then that  a book could be so clever.

I went back to the library and picked up another of his books, Wyrd Sisters. And this is without a doubt one of his best books. It is a parody of Shakespeare and the Globe theater and Macbeth and conniving dukes who kill kings for the throne, but are caught in the end.

A lot of his books are a parody or satire on something in the real world like opera and rock and roll, fairy tales, news papers, film making and so on. And they are so well done. What gets me every time is just how smart the books are.

Most of Terry Pratchett’s books are set in the Discworld, a magical world that is balanced on the backs of four elephants which are in turn standing on the back of a giant tortoise called The Great A’Tuin. In Pratchett’s words,

“The world rides through space on the back of a turtle. This is one of the great ancient world myths, found wherever men and turtles were gathered together; the four elephants were an Indo-European sophistication. The idea has been lying in the lumber rooms of legend for centuries. All I had to do was grab it and run away before the alarms went off.”

Terry Pratchett was just thirteen years old when he sold his first story. He used the money he made from that to buy his first typewriter. Ten years later, his first novel, The Carpet people was published. The Colour of Magic was the first Discworld novel to be published. It came out in 1983.

There have since been more than forty books in this series. His books have been translated into 36 different languages and have sold over 60 million copies. Terry Pratchett was awarded the OBE in 1998 and he was made a knight in the New Year Honours list of 2008. He received the honour for services to literature.

In addition to Fantasy, Terry Pratchett has written science fiction and horror as well.  But fantasy was his preferred genre. According to him,  “Fantasy…is about seeing the world from new directions”. His writing certainly lived up to that belief.

 

 

 

Trivia : Douglas Adams and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

Douglas Adams

Today is the birthday of Douglas Adams. He was born in Cambridge, England in 1952. He studied literature and spent many years struggling to make his mark as a writer.

He had nearly given up hope when in 1978 BBC radio accepted an outline of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for a radio comedy. He wrote 12 episodes for the radio series, which was a big hit.

It was nominated for a Hugo award and it is the only radio show ever to make it to the shortlist. It was nominated in the category “Best Dramatic Presentation” and it lost to Superman, the movie.

The success of the radio show resulted in an offer from a publisher and the show turned into a book. When the book came out, it went straight to number one in the UK Bestseller List and in 1984 Douglas Adams became the youngest author to be awarded a Golden Pen. He won a further two (a rare feat), and was nominated – though not selected – for the first Best of Young British Novelists awards.

Hitchhiker

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is the first in a series of comic science fiction novels that have sold over 15 million copies and have been translated into more than 30 languages.

The idea for the book came to Adams when he was backpacking through Europe at the age of 19, lying drunk in a field with his tour book called the Hitchhikers Guide to Europe. He said it occurred to him then that somebody ought to write a hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy.

The book is about an Englishman named Arthur Dent and his alien friend Ford Prefect who has been posing as a human (and an out of work actor) for nearly 15 years.

He comes to find Arthur seconds before the Earth is demolished to make way for a galactic freeway. Arthur is plucked off the planet by Ford who is in fact, a researcher for the revised edition of
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Together this dynamic pair begin a journey through space aided by advice from The Hitchhiker’s Guide (“A towel is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have”) and a galaxy-full of fellow travelers:

Zaphod Beeblebrox–the two-headed, three-armed ex-hippie, Trillian, Zaphod’s girlfriend (formally Tricia McMillan), whom Arthur had tried to pick up at a cocktail party once upon a time zone; Marvin, a paranoid, brilliant, and chronically depressed robot and Veet Voojagig, a former graduate student who is obsessed with the disappearance of all the ballpoint pens he bought over the years.

The book was followed by four others, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and EverythingSo Long and Thanks for all the Fish and Mostly Harmless.