Sunday, May 24, 2015

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland [1865]

C.S. Lewis once remarked, “A children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is bad children’s story.” Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Lewis Carroll, pseudonym for the celebrated English writer, mathematician and Oxford don Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, is a classic example of a children’s text that, even 150 years after it was written, works magnificently and at different levels for both kids and adults. A pioneering work in nonsense literature and a rare instance of a book that has become an inextricable part of popular culture around the globe, it made fascinating use of humour, wit, ironies, riddles, playfulness, logic, fantasies, parody, private jokes, satire, word plays and more in its tale of a bored but curious child’s psychedelic journey through a bizarre landscape; interestingly, the book was expanded out of a story that Carroll narrated to Lorina, Alice (on whom the protagonist was based) and Edith, the young daughters of Oxford Vice-Chancellor Henry Liddell, over a boat trip. During a picnic on a hot summer’s day, Alice’s interest is piqued by a rabbit with a pocket watch scurrying across the fields – she follows it down a rabbit hole and enters a netherworld where all notions of logic, common sense and normalcy are turned upside down. In this surreal world she meets a plethora of ingeniously conceived characters – the crazy Hatter, the tyrannical Queen of Hearts, the sycophantic Duchess, the philosophical Mock Turtle, the perennially grinning Cheshire Cat et al, and experiences ludicrous scenarios – defying gravity, swimming in a pool of tears, a baby turning into a pig, a perpetual tea party on account of time having stopped, increase and decrease in size at will, etc. Using this absurdist premise, Carroll concocted a marvelous commentary on identity crisis, satire on Victorian mores and English history, a nightmarish universe bordering on drug-induced hallucinations, anti-establishmentarian stance against dogmas, rules and structures, and questions on what is normal and what isn’t, among others. Carroll wrote an equally nonsensical sequel, Through the Looking Glass, which bibliophiles have placed at an even higher pedestal.

Author: Lewis Carroll
Genre: Comedy/Social Satire/NonSense Literature
Language: English
Country: UK

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Bleak House [1852]

Bleak House, one of Dickens’ finest achievements and nearly at par with his greatest masterpiece Great Expectations, is often considered as the most Dickensian of all his works, on account of the richness of its characterizations, ingenuity of its narrative form, complexity of its plot and bravura critique of Victorian Era English society with all its discriminative class structures, institutional idiosyncrasies and rigid social mores. Running at over 1000 pages, this monster of a novel – at once a tragic human drama, romantic melodrama, mystery, social commentary and satire, and black comedy – was partly based on his experiences as a legal clerk, and traversed a diverse range of thematic strands, symbols and intertwining sub-plots in its stern indictment of English judiciary system that helped spark legal reforms in the country. Given the sheer volume and vastness of the novel, it would be futile to delve in detail on its labyrinthine, multi-pronged storyline or its plethora of characters cutting across socio-economic classes. The book’s central narrative strand concerned with Jarndyce v Jarndyce, a long-running Chancery litigation revolving around a property dispute which, owing to its breadth and complexity, has far-reaching consequences & implications, while its secondary strand dealt with a family secret that eventually touches everyone from the aristocracy to the downtrodden, and lawmakers and policemen on the way. The tale is alternately narrated by an omniscient narrator, who chronicles in present and has a sharp, cynical and satirical tone, and Esther Summerson, the story’s soft-natured, affectionate and perceptive orphaned heroine, who speaks in the past tense with modesty. The array of memorably etched characters, among others, includes, the wealthy and kind-hearted John Jarndyce, the haughty and beautiful Lady Dedlock, the impudent and self-destructive Richard Carstone, the conveniently childish Harold Skimpole, the gregarious Lawrence Boythorn, the naïve and lovely Ada Clare, the sinister and scheming Tulkinghorn, the eccentric and tragic Miss Flyte, the impoverished and hounded Jo, the clinically self-serving Vholes, the imposing Inspector Bucket, the “telescopic philanthropist” Mrs. Jellyby, the epitome of “Deportment” Old Mr. Turveydrop, the unctuous Guppy et al.

Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Drama/Social Satire/Classic
Language: English
Country: UK

Friday, May 1, 2015

Casino Royale [1953]

Casino Royale, penned by former British Naval Intelligence bureaucrat Ian Fleming, was the first of 12 novels belonging to the incredibly popular franchise that introduced the world to “Bond… James Bond”. Culmination of a long-time desire to write a “spy novel to end all spy novels” making prolific use of his war-time experiences, as much as his desire to enter the literary circle frequented by Ann, the wife of the owner of Daily Mail, with whom he had been having a torrid affair for long. Setting the franchise’s genesis and context in the Cold War era paranoia surrounding the West’s political stand-off with Soviet Union, it featured MI6 Agent Bond – code-named 007 in a sly reference to the ISD Code of USSR – being assigned play a high-stakes game of baccarat at a plush French casino in order to discredit and destroy Le Chiffre, a key SMERSH operative, and have him eliminated in the process. He takes the cover of a wealthy Jamaican playboy, and takes assistances of CIA and Deuxième Bureau in this intense cat-and-mouse confrontation.  Over the course of the game at an exclusive gambling table, where fortunes change fast and unpredictably, and the violent repercussions that the results create, Bond meets and starts falling for his beautiful and enigmatic companion Vesper Lynd, whose motives might not be straightforward. Surprisingly, the last third of the novel took a dramatic shift from being spy thriller to romantic drama – making that an interesting as well as the weakest section of the story. Though the Cold War scenario of distrust and one-upmanship was aptly used, the precedence of pace and action over mood and atmosphere made this an entertaining read rather than, unlike, say, The Spy Who Came inFrom the Cold, a brooding exploration of the dirty business of espionage with its associated political and existential aspects. Though Fleming did imbue Bond with distinctive traits, gray shades and internal conflicts, the 2006 revisionist twist to the Broccoli franchise starring Daniel Craig was a more synthesized projection of the same essence while retaining the high octane proceedings and brutal punches.

Author: Ian Fleming
Genre: Thriller/Spy Thriller
Language: English
Country: UK