Sunday, May 28, 2017

The Dean's December [1982]

Saul Bellow loved placing his protagonists at the cusp of existential meltdown, and exploring the ensuing despair, dilemmas, conflicts and resolutions through a mix of vitality and reflectiveness, and always laced with urban poetry, wry humour and a drop of absurdism. In The Dean’s December, his first novel after being conferred with the Nobel Prize in Literature, mortality was a predominant theme, and like the devastating Mr. Sammler’s Planet a decade back, he delved it with the kind of detached irony, befuddling wit and streak of melancholia, which are quintessentially Bellow, even if this was him at possibly his most somber and understated (the comparison is especially stark vis-à-vis the incredible exuberance of his previous novel, Humboldt’s Gift). And, this, like all his works, was understated yet charged, and quite defiant too, politically. Albert Corde, formerly a journalist of considerable repute based out of Paris, took the unlikely decision of returning to his native Chicago and, surprising all his peers, moving into academia as the Dean of a university – perhaps to settle down with his lovely astrophysicist wife of Romanian origin, or perhaps, contrapuntally, to rediscover America as evidenced by a couple of searing articles he’s written about Chicago’s subaltern underbelly which has ruffled feathers among many. The unfortunate death of a student in his institute gets him drawn into the murky affair – more so with the involvement of his radicalized nephew and his publicity-seeking cousin; and his gyroscope is thrown into the dumpster upon his unplanned trip, in the middle of the above complications, to the grey and stifling Bucharest with his wife, as his aged mother-in-law – an out-of-favour Communist and a remarkable woman who Corde reveres – is dying at a stifling government hospital. The two disparate worlds, with their idiosyncrasies, tragi-comedies and dissonances, coupled with an incidental catch-up with a former pal who’s now a smug big-shot, throws Corde into a chaotic personal drama filled with dry comedy, bleak and meditative moodiness, and grand conversations on the human condition.

Author: Saul Bellow
Genre: Drama/Black Comedy/Existentialist Drama/Social Satire
Language: English
Country: US

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Cold War [2005]

Being a prominent Cold War academic and historian – he’s a Professor of Military & Naval History at the Yale University, a member of the Wilson Centre’s Cold War International History Project, and author of a number of influential books and articles on this field – writing yet another book on this might have been just another day in the park for John Lewis Gaddis. However, what made the succinctly titled The Cold War truly different from anything he’d written on this yet, is that he had to traverse a fine line between the rigour of an academician, on the one hand, and the ability to captivate non-academic readers, on the other. In other words, it had to be commensurate with his stature, while also having the appeal, lucidity and brevity of a paperback. Right from the foreword, where he began with George Orwell composing his ominous final novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four – the 1948 masterpiece which would provide a near-surreal mirror to the post-War years ahead – one gets an immediate confirmation that this is going to be a compulsive read on a subject that couldn’t be more gripping and fascinating than this. The book covers nearly every key facet that either defined or was borne out of the Cold War – nuclear arms race and multiple crises averted between two superpowers at political and ideological loggerheads; the spread of overt and covert influence (forced occupations, regime changes, etc.) across East Europe, the Middle-East, Far East, Africa and Latin America; the devastating wars where the superpowers were brought to their knees (Korean War, Vietnam War, Afghanistan War, etc.); the personalities who shaped history (Truman, Stalin, Mao, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Honecker, de Gaulle, Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan, Deng Xiaoping, Pope John Paul II, Lech Wałęsa, Gorbachev et al), the defining events of the era (Berlin Wall, Cuban Missile Crisis, the Suez Crisis, the Revolutions of 1989, etc.). However, instead of being just a text on history, it was more of an op-ed, a critique and a discourse on geo-politics, and, oftentimes, also a diatribe, given that far more pages have been devoted to Soviet atrocities vis-à-vis the American ones.

Author: John Lewis Gaddis
Genre: Non-Fiction/Political History/War
Language: English
Country: US

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Rosie Project [2013]

The basic premise for The Rosie Project, the immensely successfully debut of Aussie IT Consultant-turned-novelist, is a romantic-comedy at its most archetypal, viz. “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl”. Fortunately, what prevented this book from becoming just another rom-com, which are a dime a dozen to start with, was its highly unconventional protagonist. Don Tillman has a staggering IQ and memory, is very well established as a genetics professor, and has a passing physical resemblance to Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird; yet, on the verge of hitting 40, he’s still single (and alone too). Don is afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome, and the downsides of that have made him “weird” – his EQ is close to nil, he follows a highly standardized form of existence, he has an aversion to physical contact, and his literal-mindedness and extreme rationality and geekiness have ensured that he has no friends – except for Gene, a middle-aged womanizing colleague, and his psychiatrist wife Claudia. Deciding that he wants to get married despite his acute social ineptness, he concocts the ludicrous Wife Project – an elaborate questionnaire for identifying a compatible partner. All his well laid-out plans, however, get thrown out of the window with the arrival on the scene of Rosie – unpredictable, irrational, disorganized, emotionally vulnerable, and yes, ravishingly beautiful too. She couldn’t be any more incompatible than what Don could have ever conceived, and yet, over the course of the book’s length, he starts developing, over the course of the arduous task of identifying who her biological father is, the kind of bond and proximity with her which he’s never experienced before. Despite its generic conventionality, straightforward narrative structure straight out of Hollywood, sentimental core, and the despairing arc of its protagonist conforming into what the society wants him to be, among others, the book’s irreverence, zany humour, entertaining escapades, and most notably, a narrator as amusing and out-of-the-ordinary as Don, are certain to make this a hilarious read, if not a particularly profound one.

Author: Graeme Simsion
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Language: English
Country: Australia