Saturday, November 30, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird [1960]

There aren’t many books in the Western canon that are as universally loved and admired as the Pulitzer Prize winning classic To Kill A Mockingbird – it is one of those rare books that everyone has either read or has at least heard of; yet, quite incredibly, this was the 1st and only completed novel of its author Harper Lee. Filled with warmth, humour, belief in the fundamental equality of every person, and autobiographical touches, it dealt with the themes of racial and class discrimination and bigotry, ghettoization of the marginalized, and the importance of empathy in the deeply divisive societies we live in. Lee, in an inspired choice, distilled the proceedings through the eyes of a child, which made it all the more affecting, accentuated its profound simplicity, and added the themes of lost innocence and coming-of-age to it. Set in a fictitious Southern town during Great Depression, it is narrated by Scout, a perceptive 6-year old girl whose father Atticus Finch, a polite, level-headed, rational and middle-aged lawyer with a rare sense of right and wrong, decides to defend an impoverished black guy accused of raping a white girl, against the town’s sentiments. Interestingly, the trial covered an important but only a small portion of the book, as Lee spent significant time and love portraying the minds of children through Scout, her older brother Jem, their friend Dill, their fascination with their reclusive neighbor who they name “Boo”, and the way the trial so deeply affects them. And in Atticus we have a legendary character who has become a symbol for justice, compassion, fairness and the courage to stand by one’s convictions. Even though the narration, at times, seemed too matured to be emanating from a 6-year old, that was just a minor blip in this novel which has been recognized by Time magazine as one of 100 Greatest Novels of 20th Century, and continues to remain relevant even today.

Author: Harper Lee
Genre: Drama/Legal Drama/Social Drama/Family Drama/Coming of Age
Language: English
Country: US

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Maltese Falcon [1930]

Sam Spade was to Dashiell Hammett what Philip Marlowe was to Raymond Chandler or Sherlock Holmes to Arthur Conan Doyle; further, along with Marlowe, Spade easily remains the most influential and enduring character of hardboiled American fiction. Yet, most interestingly, this iconic literary character appeared in just one full-length novel, which in turn has been voted by Modern Library as one of 100 Best English-Language Novels of 20th Century, viz. The Maltese Falcon. First serialized in the defunct pulp magazine Black Mask, the novel, with its staccato narrative style, racy dialogues, tar-drenched cynicism, an underlying romantic spirit, labyrinthine and lurid tale of greed, betrayals, double crosses, violence and murder, pungent sense of ironies and humour, and crime-ridden underbelly of a thoroughly corrupt city – in this case 1920s San Francisco, flexible moral codes, tough male characters, and duplicitous femme fatales, literally set the tone for this distinctive school of literature. Spade, a tough-as-nails, chain-smoking and hard drinking gumshoe who believes in ends justifying means, gets the case of a lifetime when Brigid O'Shaughnessy, an enigmatic and coquettish lady who knows how to play men by their balls, hires him to follow a man. However, what starts as just another job quickly escalates into something far more complex and twisted than Spade had ever imagined. Before long, more shady characters and facets start getting introduced in the form of the unctuous and effeminate Joel Cairo, the obese and sweet-talking but dangerous Casper Gutman, and the invaluable "black bird" that everyone is after. Hammett created an incredibly arresting and sordid atmosphere through the kind of typewriter prose that grabs one by the collar, thus elevating this far beyond standard genre writing, and in Spade we had a fascinatingly etched character who takes to sex and violence like a duck takes to water, yet with a strong but barely perceptible moral code. Among its 3 movie adaptations, the the 1941 film noir by John Huston with Humphrey Bogart as Spade remains a towering classic.

Author: Dashiell Hammett
Genre: Thriller/Roman Noir/Mystery/Crime Thriller/Detective Novel/Hardboiled
Language: English
Country: US