Thursday, April 03, 2014

Books read in 2014: 10-14

10. The Dharma Bums - Jack Kerouac
      This is Jack Kerouac's book about trying to follow the teachings of Buddha while living as a beatnik. Kerouac was the original beatnik - his book On the Road is considered the Beatnik Bible. This book is a mellowed down Kerouac in West Coast in the company of his poet friend and trying to live simple. There is no story, it is just a recording of his time spent as a wandering Buddhist. Behind the simpleness lies well honed craft, it isn't easy to hold the reader's attention while nothing happens in the story. The Matterhorn mountain hype is easily the best part of the book. Inf you have midlife blues, avoid this book. As the truck driver who gives him a ride says 
" there's sumpthin so darned sensible about 'em. Here I am killing myself drivin this rig back and forth from Ohio to L.A. and I make more money than you ever had in your whole life as a hobo, but you're the one who enjoys life and not only that but you do it without workin or a whole lot of money. Now who's smart, you or me?"

11. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

      This is one of the classics I have heard about for a long time, but read it only now. I wasn't prepared for the shock that this book gave me. It is set in a future where the fire department's sole job is to get rid of the books in the world by burning them. The novel starts with a bang, "It was a pleasure to burn". One of the firemen, Guy Montag, starts secreting books that he is supposed to burn, because he is intrigued by people who prefer to burn with the books rather than part with them. It is a scary world, that Bradbury portrays - people enamored with wall to wall televisions in which serials run 24 hours a day. He wrote this is 1950s. Burning the books isn't the scary part. The real scary part is stuffing people with peace and happines so that they don't want to read the books and think. As the fire chief Beatty explains to Montag 
 "Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of the state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of "facts" they feel stuffed, but absolutely "brilliant" with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy"

Montag escapes the city and joins up with a rebel group each of whom has memorized some part of a book so that they are the last ones in the world to know that book. It is a scary book, and an absolute must read.

12. Sophie's Choice - William Styron
      I picked this book up at random (also because it was listed in the best sellers and available for Rs. 6.00 in Kindle). Only later did I know that this was made into a movie with Meryl Streep winning an Oscar for her performance as Sophie. This book brings together three disparate characters -Stingo, a twenty two year old struggling writer from South; Nathan, a brilliant New York Jew who claims to be a researcher with Pfizer and is a tinder box of emotions; Sophie, a Polish Auschwitz survivor - in post war New York. Stingo is attracted to Sophie, but suppresses it when he find Nathan and Sophie in a passionate relationship. There are two parts to the novel - the roller coaster relationship of Sophie and Nathan and the Auschwitz portions. These are interspersed with each other so the reader has to make mental adjustments regularly. 

Styron doesn't get into the sickening details of the horrors of Auschwitz, but the evil of the choice Sophie is presented is far more sickening than any other torture. It is a riveting story. The narrator learns Sophie's story in small bits and pieces, so there is a shock value when the earlier assumptions are shown to be wrong because Sophie held back some crucial information. The drawback is the meandering writing style of Styron. The first 10% of the book is about Stingo's time in McGrawHill publishing house as manuscript reader and his getting fired. This is interesting but has no relevance to the story at all. Then there is another 30 pages of Stingo trying to get into bed with Lesley Lapidus, a friend of Nathan, which ends up in an unexpected climax (pun intended). However this portion does give us a great phrase "unearned unhappiness" about hipster angst.

13. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: Vol 1 - Edward Gibbon
      It was a pleasant surprise to find  this a easy read. Written in 1776, about the decline of the Romain empire from the period of Augustus onwards, I expected this to be a dreary book. But Gibbon's style is sharp and witty. It might be hard to believe, but this is a page turner. The sentences are long, but that is something you can bear with. This volume ends with the famous chapter on the growth of early Christian religion and Church. Gibbon writes some unpalatable truths as a historian and not as a Christian and no wonder he was pilloried by the Church for it. Reading through the list of Roman emperors was a little bit tricky as one had to remember varius 'us'es Tiberius, Commodus, Claudius and so on. I had to go back and forth a lot. Having read Robert Graves' "I Claudius" some time back helped in getting a grasp of the chronology. There are 6 Volumes, hope to finish them by this year end.

14. கலிங்கத்துப் பரணி - ஜெயங்கொண்டார் (முனைவர் ப.சரவணன் உரை)

      Kalingathu p Parani is a classic of Tamil literature, written in 12th Century AD. Parani is a genre in Tamil literature celebrating the heroic deeds of a King or a warrior. Kalingathu p Parani is written praising Kulothunga Chola I's victory over the Kalinga King in the Kalinga War. The book is sensual and gory in equal parts. The poet calls the women who are asleep after a night of carnal pleasure to open their doors and hear about the valor of the Chola army under Kulothunga I's general Karunakara Thondaiman. Then he details about the history of the Chola dynasty, the success of Kulothunga I, circumstances leading to the Kalinga war and gory details of the war field. It ends with demons partaking a great feast in the war field eating the dead bodies of the warriors, horses and elephants after submitting it to Goddess Kali(கூழ் அடுதல்). 

Dr. Saravanan's Tamil commentary is easy to read. He gives meaning of individual words, then the explanation of the stanza and relevant information. I have read his commentary on Silapathikaram and was impressed. He continues that rich form in this too. This book is a must read for Tamils who have an interest in their history.

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