Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Big Clock [1946]

The Big Clock was a rare moment of literary and commercial success for the self-destructive poet and writer, Kenneth Fearing. A taut, suspenseful, innovatively structured and ingeniously plotted crime thriller, the book can be noted as not just a fine example of noir literature, but also a sly commentary on big business and the manipulative nature of media. The chief protagonist of the novel is a man named George Stroud, a successful executive in a large media corporation. He is smart, intelligent, and has a nice family; he’s also a serial womanizer, has a strong penchant for alcohol, and is flexible with his scruples. In keeping with his nature, he ends up having an affair with the strikingly attractive mistress of his megalomaniac boss who in turn ends up murdering her in a fit of rage. And, in an delightful ironic plot development, George is assigned the task of finding out, well, himself, and with carte blanche in terms of resources. The majority of the storyline, therefore, deals with the engaging game of one-upmanship that he needs to play in order stay a step ahead of those around him. In another smart, albeit tad flawed, creative decision, the first-person narrative kept shifting from one character to another, which helped in providing voyeuristic peeks into how various characters, both primary and secondary, react to the incident and how they view one another. For most parts, though, the story is told from George’s wry, jaded and cynical point of view, and those were the parts I found most captivating. Though it never reached the kind of explosiveness as exemplified by the best of hardboiled crime fiction, it had a distinctive character of its own, making it an important work of the genre. The book was memorably adapted into a marvelous film noir by John Farrow in 1948, where, among other changes, the book’s deadpan finale was replaced with a far more climactic one.

Author: Kenneth Fearing
Genre: Crime Thriller/Roman Noir
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, November 19, 2012

Herzog [1964]

Rarely has art imitated life as brilliantly, memorably, or as tragically, as in Herzog, possibly the greatest masterpiece of Saul Bellow, Nobel laureate and one of the most decorated American authors. This epistolary, postmodernist novel was a disturbingly semi-autobiographical account of Moses E. Herzog, a twice divorced middle-aged Jewish professor, whose life is falling apart at an incredible pace. His second wife Madeleine, a vicious and beautiful lady he is still in love with, has not just left him with his best friend, but has shunned his very existence. Meanwhile, his once promising academic career is on a freefall, as the eccentric, self-destructive man has turned into a carefree vagabond, and spends his time writing letters – ranging from deeply passionate personal statements to esoteric critiques – to people from his life as well as famous personalities (Nietzsche, Freud, Martin Luther King, T.S. Eliot et al), both alive and dead. The narrative, which swung regularly from the present to flashbacks and back, tell us the bittersweet and ironic story of this fascinating protagonist whose life, on hindsight, is a series of tragicomic incidents beyond his ability to control – be it his troubled relation with his father or with his vindictive second wife. Though a sufferer and a comedian with pungent self-deprecatory humour, and forever at the receiving end of cosmic jokes, he’s also heartbreakingly an optimist with an inexplicable zest for life. Bellow’s intoxicating, stream-of-consciousness writing style, that frequently shifted from narrative to first-person monologues, imbued the book with searing wit, dark humour, erudite commentaries, pathos, poignancy, a deep sense of humanism, and unforgettable observations on life, love, people and everything under the sun. This was, therefore, as much a story of his or Herzog’s lives as it was the existentialist crisis of a generation. This towering work won the National Book Award for Fiction, and was justifiably named by TIME magazine as one 100 best novels in English language of 20th century.

Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Drama/Psychological Drama/Social Satire/Modernist Literature/Stream of Consciousness/Epistolary Novel/Existentialist Drama
Language: English
Country: US

Friday, October 26, 2012

Starship Troopers [1959]

Starship Troopers was arguably the most controversial book by Robert Heinlein, one of the ‘Big Three’ of Science Fiction (along with Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke). The book earned severe notoriety for its deification of militarism – it was a classic elucidation of the saying, “If you wish for peace, prepare for war” – and for its ultra-right wing tone and theme (some have even called the book and its author “fascist”, but that was too far-fetched methinks). The story is set in an unspecified future when the right to citizenship (and consequently, vote and hold public offices) can only be earned through voluntary federal service, and the world is in constant inter-stellar battles with an extra-terrestrial species referred to as the “bugs”. Narrated in first person, the story is about a young lad called Juan “Johnnie” Rico who joins the Mobile Infantry against his father’s wishes. Over the course of the story, he goes through a grueling boot camp, and then rises through the ranks while the war with the Bugs takes the form of a catastrophe of galactic proportions. The book was a very easy read on account of the breezy pace, simple style and smooth plot progression. But it was also tad underwhelming on account of the lack of any significant character developments or any emotional buildups. It is filled with polarizing political and social commentaries, delivered in the form of monologues by military officers, who, quite obviously, were mouthpieces for Heinlein – though foods for thought and potent trigger points for debates, they transformed the book into an ideological essay at times. The book won the prestigious Hugo Award in 1960 (interestingly, Heinlein wrote this by taking a break from Stranger in a Strange Land, which too won that award), and continues to remain a pop-culture milestone. Paul Verhoeven adapted it into an engaging, hyper-violent and an equally controversial movie in 1997.

Author: Robert A. Heinlein
Genre: Science-Fiction/Military Adventure/War/Philosophical Fiction
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, October 8, 2012

All the King's Men [1946]

Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning All the Kings Men, included by both Time magazine and Modern Library in their lists of 100 best novels of 20th century, is widely regarded as a milestone in political fiction. Such is its resonating influence that is has become a cultural icon as well. The book, the title of which was borrowed from the famous nursery rhyme Humpty Dumpty, remains a powerful commentary on the corruptible nature of power, as also a scathing look at the realpolitik philosophy of ends justifying means. Alternating between past and present, it tells the cautionary tale of Willie Stark, a powerful, cynical and impossibly ambitious Governor, with a gift for the gab, in a Southern state during the 1930s, and his spectacular rise from an idealistic, na├»ve and a petty nobody. The story’s narrator is Jack Burden, a former history student and political journalist who is now the de facto right hand man for Stark. In the weaving yarn comprising of a multitude of characters, Burden takes a journey – which is as much spiritual and personal as it is political – of getting to know the various shades of Stark, and in turn, finding out who he really is. They remain two of the most complex, multi-layered and fascinating characters in American literature. The novel in fact abounds in various other memorable characters as well who play significant roles in shaping and/or defining the two incredible protagonists. The book wasn’t flawless – some of the subplots, especially the Cass Mastern episode and Jack’s oedipal relationship with her mother, could perhaps have been done without, the epilogue ought to have been briefer, and the plot developments, at times, bordered on the implausible. Nonetheless, Warren’s poetic yet gripping writing style, and the moral choices that shape the two central characters, made it a memorable read.

Author: Robert Penn Warren
Genre: Drama/Political Drama/Roman a Clef/Classic
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Rajkahini [1905]

Abindranath Tagore’s greatest contribution remains his founding of the pioneering Bengal School of Art movement, which led him to be recognized as, ‘Father of Modern Indian Art’. However, he also had a near magical way with words, and, propelled by his legendary uncle Rabindranath Tagore, he went on to write a number of books that have come to be recognized as landmarks in Bengali children’s literature, with Rajkahini being a glowing and an immensely popular example of that. Revisiting a book that one read and loved as a kid, can provide a strangely nostalgic sense of homecoming and a throwback at the good old days lost in space, and such was the case here. The novel comprises of an interconnected set of short stories, with each focused on one or more famous characters belong to Rajput myth-oral history revolving around the then Rajput nerve-centre of Chittor in Rajasthan. The highly romanticized tales of the various kings and queens, who either rose from the ashes or went down in blazes of glory, are gripping accounts of courage, valour, honour and duty, against a rich and dynamic socio-political tapestry. However, given that it was written during the Swadeshi movement, of which he was an active part of, in British-ruled India, the stories served the added purpose of rousing the Hindu nationalist spirit against colonial forces, which formed a distinctive theme and tone that cut across the novel. Revisiting the book at my current state of maturity and experience, it was obvious that it was never aimed at adults in the first place, and consequently, the continual emphasis on the above-mentioned themes appeared a tad jingoistic at times, while some of the contents bordered on glorification of chauvinism and brawns. But, the smooth style and fecundity of the author’s imaginations, laced with his quintessential and marvelous pen-sketched artwork, didn't fail to impress me this time around as well.

Author: Abanindranath Tagore
Genre: Adventure/War/Historical/Children's Literature/Historical Novel
Language: Bengali
Country: India