Book Review, Fiction, Thriller

The lost symbol written by Dan Brown

the-lost-symbol If a writer reaches his apogee  with a book that creates unimaginable fame for him, he or she is perhaps compelled to forever write in the same vein, in the same style unless he is bold or iconoclastic enough to change direction. Some like Rowling can manage it, both because she was writing a series and also because she had the courage to finish off something that has already made her the modern Enid Blyton (and much more than that).

However for some like Dan Brown, who ploughed magnificently  into the need for people to believe in mysteries and controversies with his ‘Da Vinci code’, the end of the road may have already been a few years back. Telling the same story by a different name may seem an easy way to continue sales but the lack of freshness may well trigger the literary equivalent of diminishing marginal utility. Which is something I felt strongly with his latest book “The Last symbol”

After you finish the book, you realize that the author still has a very potent touch when it comes to marrying action on the pages with deep mysteries and conspiracies that the characters are trying to solve before the time runs out. Which is what made Da Vinci code so engrossingly addictive. This book too is a furious page turner right from the first page.

But we soon run into problems. You get a powerful sense of Déjà-vu. The same sense of Langdon rushing headlong into a conspiracy that only he can decipher before everything goes awry. There is an intelligent good looking woman neck deep into everything who he has to accompany and occasionally save,  (you wonder what happened to the other two!!!). There is a powerful secret organization (in this case the Freemasons) whose secret is about to be unveiled for the better or worse. And there are clues strewn around (in this case in Washington DC) that Langdon has to put together, while being on the run from, well, virtually everyone!!! and there is the villain, some twisted, misunderstood, self mutilating outcaste who believes in miracles – rings a bell anyone?

But Washington is not Paris and the secret of the Freemasons does not exactly set your pulses racing as a secret about Jesus might. And a story twice told loses it zing. You feel you are watching a cover version of a book after some time. You know that something is going to be revealed at the end and its going to end happily. And well, it does…and though a good amount of research has gone into the book but the symbology jigsaw puzzle is not that exciting anymore as it was in Da Vinci.

Another problem is that I found the book to be exceedingly preachy. dan_brown You begin to feel that you are being told to believe than make up your own mind. The vision of noble founding fathers of America building the nation in the image of a utopian society, seeing themselves as helping humans attain god-like status by spreading knowledge begins to really jar on on you after a while. I mean hey, they kept slaves in the backyard and committed a few merry genocides on the way. If they were really following Masonic principles (Atom bomb dropping, Harry Truman was a mason, no less), the world would have had a few hours of quiet sleep today. The preaching becomes screechingly preachy towards the end when the characters talk of universal consciousness and Bible being a repository of deep knowledge (instead of being a political book). You almost feel you are in some New Age healing centre where you pay a small fortune to sit in groups to chant (and go back to the punishing work grind the next day!!)…

A book to read if you have nothing else to do and if you are immune to preachy writing that stops making too much real sense after a while. If you enjoyed Da Vinci code, give this a miss. It would be too painful to see an author trying to make money by piggybank on his fame by churning out a Xerox copy…

Book Review, Fiction, Historical, Satire

Brigadier Etienne Gerard series written by Arthur Conan Doyle

“Gerard is the hero of a series of comic short stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The hero, Etienne Gerard, is a Hussar in the French Army during the Napoleonic Wars. Gerard’s most notable attribute is his vanity – he is utterly convinced that he is the bravest soldier, greatest swordsman, accomplished horseman and gallant lover in all France. Gerard is not entirely wrong since he displays notable bravery on many occasions, but his self-satisfaction undercuts this quite often. Obsessed with honour and glory, he is always ready with a stirring speech or a gallant remark to a lady.

Conan Doyle, in making his hero a vain, and often rather uncomprehending Frenchman, was able to satirize both the stereotypical English view of the French, and – by presenting them from Gerard’s baffled point of view – English manners and attitudes.”

– Taken from Wikipedia

Complete_Brigadier_Gerard I could not have found a better explanation for the book and the character therein that I just finished and enjoyed immensely (I thank Saurabh Singh for giving me the first book I ever read about Gerard – this is my re-reading of the books).

If you are fond of books laden with nice old world adventures (gallant adventures as Gerard would have said) where the hero comes through, no matter what the situation, you would like this book. On top of this, if you like your stories to have a touch of irony, a dash of satire and dollops of humour, you simply got to read the book (and the other in the series – the Adventures of Gerard). These will not leave you hee-hawing with laughter but will leave you feeling better than that – this book has the touch of humour that you can readily associate with Don Quixote. The man retelling these stories as an old man is so damn full of himself and yet feels he is being humble at times when he is at his height of boasting; but this quality instantly endears you to him as he takes you on his extraordinary adventures.

It is also a world of romance and of war, the era when whole nations mobilized to fight, yet Etienne Gerard makes both of them seem the same. The stories account for historical facts but these are no historical journals. The hero of the story is present in almost all the theatres of the Napoleonic wars and he always seems to play a significant part in it, atleast by his reckoning. His mannerism and his style of thinking is very catchy and soon you begin to feel that you would really like to talk to this Frenchman. What is most entertaining in the stories are his opinions and his proclamations, whether with reference to a beautiful woman, to the Emperor, to France, the British or to Hussars. All of them serve to bring up the stereotypical Frenchman but you don’t mind that because you fall in the love with Etienne Gerard before long and you like him just the way he is.


Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Historical

Johnny got his Gun written by Dalton Trumbo


Very few books can make everything around you irrelevant except the words that you read. This for me, is one of them.

I sincerely believe that this is one of the most important books of our times and the surprising thing is that so few people seem to have heard of it, let alone read it. I believe that this book tells us more about the tragedies of the last century in particular and of the way we live in general. I also believe that this book is a terrifying reminder of all that we keep conveniently forgetting.

The general perception among the lay reader is that the best and most important anti-war novel to come out of world war I is “All quiet on the western front” by Erich Maria Remarque. I believed that until I read this. It has a terrifying and a savage power that almost gets you by the throat at times, when its words probe deep into the reader’s mind and psychology. Its words tear at you and embed themselves deep and wakes you up completely from whatever sort of slumber you have been in.

This book is about Joe Bonham, who is the narrator of this novel. A foot soldier in World War I, he wakes up in a hospital bed and realizes that he is deaf. He is miserable but then realizes that he could have been worse. Slowly however, he begins to realize, to his terror, that he has become a living dead (which becomes for him an unique platform to have his ‘say’). He has not only lost his hearing ability, he has lost his arms, his legs, and his face has become a hole without a nose, mouth, eyes – just a forehead. An impossible case, as he himself admits but which has become true nevertheless…

And therein begins the story. Completely helpless and unable to communicate at all to the outside world, Joe begins to try and resurrect himself, try and find ways to cope. For example, he is unable to do something that we are take as an implicit – keep track of time, which he realizes is the backbone of keeping one’s sanity. After multiple failed attempts, he finally dawns upon an ingenious solution to keep time – with the only sense he has left, through his skin.

As he begins to create his own universe, we also begin to discover Joe, as we go along with him as he remembers the events of his short life – his father, mother, siblings, friends and some of the women in his life especially Kareen – the woman he loved and whom he left behind when he went to fight the great war. Each part and member of his life is remembered in different episodes and across time – from his childhood to late adolescent. We go through his ups and downs as he grapples with his world just like anyone else – with heartbreaks, joys, sorrows and finding love. Which brings into contrast the cruelty with which his life was brought to a crashing halt – all the more cruel since due to his condition, he could not be identified and so it was unlikely that his family, friends or Kareen ever knew he was alive.

While he thinks about his life, he also begins to think (which by his own admission is all that he can do really) and slowly develops a philosophy (which he wants, at the end, unsuccessfully, to share with the world) about what is most important to an individual (the part which more than anything makes it an important anti-war book). He also becomes aware of his unique position – he is one who has, in many ways, come back from the dead and he realizes that he can tell the world a thing or two of truth that no-one can tell.

The book ends with him making a superhuman effort in coming up with a way in which he can communicate to the outside world only to be thwarted in his attempt to get his message across to the world (and what he wants to say to the world makes for some chilling reading and for me, was the best part of the book). He is thwarted, he realizes, by a world that is afraid of what he can say and the truth of what he wants to say. Its a world that needs to lie for things to go on….

The book is extraordinary in that it combines the personal and political beautifully. The passages about his life are poignant, especially his parting with Kareen and when he remembers the rituals at home at Christmas. The passages about his developing philosophy is one of the most stirring cries for sanity that I have read in a long long time.

The whole book hammers through you as you read it. And when you have read it through, the book’s words simmer long after you have closed the covers. For me, it is one of the rare category of books that change a part of your life’s philosophy and something that becomes a part of you; one of those books whose words come back to you when you are doing something completely different…


Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Horror

Therese Raquin by Emile Zola

14565283 This was one hell of a controversial book when it came out in 1867. Of course with reading banned books of almost 150 years past, you wonder at all the fuss. But the fact that the book has the power to move us even today, is a testimony to the power that its words must have wielded when society was much more prudish – about themselves and their own nature.

This book can be read as a tale of human psychology under circumstances of passion and crime resulting from passion and can be read by some as a morality tale which speaks of the adage “Crime does not pay”. I prefer to read it in the former category, which was the original intent of Zola.

The story is about Therese Raquin, a woman who has been deprived of fulfilling her natural instincts due to circumstances of her birth which has led her to live under the protection of her aunt who is well-meaning but stifling with her care and who is married off to her cousin Camille (the aunt’s son), a sickly complaining man who cannot match upto Therese’s expectations – physically or otherwise. She puts on a mask of dumbness to get through her monotonous life. A ripe case for adultery.

Enter Laurent – a friend of Camille into their life and the inevitable  game of adultery begins but they have to remove their obstacle – Camille first. The story then picks up as the act is done but peace eludes the murderers as they grapple with their own terrors which ultimately prove to be their undoing.

The power of the story is in its simple worded passages. There is no melodrama. The horror of the situation is stated as is and as we move on in the story, the horror deepens because Zola skilfully uses words which conjure up a dreary, dark and soulless world which seems haunted by the living as well as the dead. As Therese and Laurent descend into madness, the story brings out every detail of their torment till you actually see it happening in front of your eyes. The aunt’s sudden paralysis and the consequences only serves to increase the dark terror.

In the end its a good study of how human nature is so unpredictable – in love and in crime. Its also a testimony to the fact that we know so little of ourselves and we would act and react under life changing decisions especially when one is acting under passions.

It was a landmark novel when it came out in 1867 and its surprising how much power the words still have when similar stories and indeed Emile_Zolamovies have been churned out by scores over the years. Though better psychological horror stories have been written by later authors – Stephen King for example, this work stands out for the starkness of baring how human nature works.

I ended up sympathizing with Therese by the end of the book, even though Zola tries his hardest to try and make us not to. Though she suffered for what she did and almost went out of her mind, she did something that was built in her character and could not succeed only because of some hidden repulsion in her which she was unaware of before.

All in all, its a good book to read – if for nothing else as a pioneer in the genre.

Book Review, Classics, Fiction, Historical

One day in the life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitsyn


This book’s greatness lies not because of any complexity but because of its seeming utter simplicity, which when taken in context of the subject matter leaves the reader with a sense of horror.

The crime of Soviet Russia under Stalin against its own people is today a well documented fact and it is Solzhenitsyn, a victim himself, who was one of the first to start the movement. Even though the facts are well known, they in no way prepare you for a personal journey through the mind and eyes of someone who has been directly a part of it.

The book is a chronicle of one day of a prisoner called Ivan Denisovich, a carpenter, who is numbered S-854, in an unnamed Siberian camp. What makes this book so believable in the first place is that Ivan Denisovich (or Sukhov as he is called in the book usually) is an absolutely ordinary person who would normally be living a quiet unobtrusive life somewhere. He does not have an ‘education’ and has lived the life of a craftsman – a carpenter. For this reason, he does not have an ideological or political underpinning to his condition and this is what make the book and its account an account of the ordinary men and women. Because the book then becomes one of survival – while trying best to maintain a modicum of dignity and self respect. It also becomes an account of compromise, in many strange ways.

Sukhov makes the reader go through his day with its difficulties and small joys and peppers it with his observation. Any person who has read prison accounts would know that prison changes priority of things and small things become things of great importance. We understand that in theory. What Sukhov does is that he makes the importance of those small things so obvious that you would find yourself believing in it and agreeing even before you know it – like the spoon that has been with him for eight years or a piece of steel that he risked punishment to smuggle in to the camp. He makes these things seem so much like everyday life and of so high importance that you are forced to jolt yourself out of the book at times to realize that what is being described is a part of history that is shameful, a part in which the prisoners were treated as mere commodity and worse and that this was a life that was utterly brutal and inhuman. Then you realize that the perspectives are different – you would be looking at the experience from a distance in time and would be taking a mere historical overview. Sukhov, on the other hand is trying to get by each day and things that would not strike us as essential to us becomes a matter of life and death in the camp – something that an old hand like Sukhov understood implicitly without dwelling too much on them.

For example, the need to keeping some bread on the side (hidden, sewn away in his mattress)for emergency or the cunning needed to get a second helping of a bowl of mess food which was more water than food is given the importance that it had in their lives. The importance of the work gang in their lives and the small things necessary to keep their body warm while working in freezing cold on things which seem unnecessary is shown starkly.

The slow and unconscious dehumanization or should we call it de-civilization is shown brilliantly . He lives only in the present out of sheer necessity and out of habit. At one time he dwells on the fact that he does not have any responsibility except for himself – the higher ups make all the decisions for him and it suited him just fine. He makes references to the casual and often unnecessary brutality of the guards but not out of any real anger – they are just doing what they are supposed to do and you did your best to do things without getting caught. His personal references are scant – we are told he has a family in his village. He had told his wife not to write letters anymore since there was nothing that he could write and he could not relate anymore to the ‘outside’ world. We are left to judge for ourselves whether this is escapism or realism or both working in tandem. His family is his work gang and his father is the gang boss who takes care and looks out for them. He wonders whether he actually wants to go back to his village if the authorities ever let him go. He realizes he does not know whether he can fit back. The things which we hold to be so self-evidently important and feel so emotional about have become a world which exist only in the abstract for him.

It is a Kafkaesque world which is a truth in itself. There are higher-ups who are mysterious and the only point of contact for the prisoners to this mystery are the wardens and guards – victims of different sorts themselves.

There are two parts of the book that I found particularly terrifying. The first one is that when the prisoners are hurrying to get back to their own camp from the work camp before its gets cold and before the other work gangs come and fill up the places they want to go – mess, barber etc. We understand that this is one time of the day that they get for themselves and they want to get there as soon as they can. When one of the members is missing because he had fallen asleep, the prisoners howl at him like animals and are literally ready to kill him with their bare hands because by being late, he had ended up making everyone lose time. Even a normally sane Sukhov is ready to tear out the late prisoner’s limbs. The guards count again and again and then they set off. On the way they see that another work gang was coming late. On seeing this, Sukhov’s gang start running inspite of exhaustion just so that they get ahead of this gang and save some time. The race is shown as vitally important to their survival. This almost necessary anger born out of lack of anything else to direct it to is one of the chilling passages.

By far the most terrifying part comes at the end when Ivan Denisovich looks back at his day and feels that it has been a ‘great day’ – he could preserve the extra bread he had saved, he was able to get two extra helping of the food, he managed to smuggle a piece of steel that he could use for making a knife, he had felt good making a wall as prison work, he had bought off some tobacco and he had not been put in the cooler (punishment cell). He felt good and he felt at home…

Book Review, Fiction

The English Patient – Michael Ondaatje

English patient A Booker Prize winner. I don’t know if I am the only one who finds most of the Booker prize winners a tad boring and also a tad undeserving. But this has happened more than once now and I am beginning to wonder. But whatever it may be, the fact is that I found this ‘famous’ book wanting.

The premise is brilliant though seems slightly overused now – the story is set on four diverse characters scarred by war (in this case WWII) who come together by chance in an abandoned hospital in Italy. The story follows every character’s story from its origins and how the war changed everything – personal to ideological. How an impersonal war became all too personal.

The characters are the ‘English Patient’ – a completely burnt patient whose very identity is not known and apparently he does not remember, Hana – the nurse who chose to nurse him alone after the other nurses moved away to a safer location, Caravaggio – a thief who is also an uncle of Hana and Kim (Kirpal Singh), an Indian sapper with the British Army.

All four have lost too many things in the war, beyond repair and it would seem, beyond any scope of understanding. The story is about how they collide with each other in the hospital and how they begin to understand each other’s life even though everything falls apart at the end – as is painfully obvious from the start.

So far so good. The first problem I have is that I like the characters in a book to speak for themselves and not have the writer say it and make it obvious. Secondly, the characters left me cold except on certain occasions. There was just not much flesh on them to make them close to you. Everything was being felt in the abstract. Maybe that was the whole intention of the book – of having a to be hazy and dreamy feel to the narrative. But atleast for me, it didn’t work out.

You saw the ending before it came. The narrative was disjointed and beginning-ending was rambling at time. The account of the desert and its explorations by the mysterious ‘English Patient’ was a redeeming part of the book but it went on for too long and somehow made you lose the link with the rest of the book. Too much attention was there on the patient and the others were given hurried characteristics that made them seem slightly two dimensional.

The book picked up only at the very end when the true identity of the English Patient was revealed and the situation that develops when Kim confronts the English patient with the news of the bombing of Hiroshima which shook his belief underpinnings was memorable, but it was too late for me at any rate.

I don’t know whether I would watch the movie anytime soon. I hope it is better than its source…

Book Review, Fiction, Historical

A Sultan in Palermo by Tariq Ali

n230287 This book is Part IV of the Islamic Quintet by Tariq Ali and continues with the series’ promise of bringing forth a rich tapestry of the Islamic world as it existed at its height of power and when it is about to fall from the dizzying heights that it attained in its first century of conquest.

This book is about Sicily (known as Siquilliya) during the time of the celebrated cartologist Muhammed al-Idrisi. Palermo is one of the most cultured city in the world vying with Baghdad and Cairo. The island is ruled by a Norman ruler, King Roger (though he is more popularly known as Sultan Rujari in the island and among his subjects) who has adopted the Arab culture and in whose kingdom Muslims, Christians and Jews have co-existed though the orthodox Christians are understandably unhappy about the influence that the Muslim culture has over King Rujari.

The book is set at a time when the tension in the island becomes high as the King becomes slowly incapable of asserting his authority due to old age and due to lack of a proper succession alternative, the Christian monks and Bishops (who have been shown as rapacious and small minded – a characterisation of which there is a dearth of in western literature) begin to grab power with the ultimate aim of converting Sicily into a ‘pure’ Christian country.

Al-Idrisi is drawn into this maelstrom of secret plots and counter-plots quite against his will. But every man is a product of their times and his life is shaped by the events around him.

We are also shown his family life, complete with scheming daughters, grandchildren who he begins to mentor, son-in-laws plotting to rise up in rebellion against the Christians. Central to the story also is Idrisi’s love for Mayaa with whom he had the affair of his life at an young age and who had been taken by the Sultan as concubine, who comes back into his life along with a daughter that has been fathered by Idrisi’s.

The pages are filled with fascinating characters including ‘The Trusted One’ – a wandering ascetic formenting rebellion, Philip-al-Mahdi, the wisest court advisor, who is sacrificed by the King to preserve his throne, the Emir of Syracuse and so on…

Most importantly, it gives the view of the world from the ‘other’ side,a side which is often callously disregarded in a media that mainly draws its inspiration from the western viewpoint.

As with his other novels in the Quintet, this novel gives us an endearing glimpse into the lives and customs of the people who lived nearly a thousand years back with whom we seem to relate as if we met them on a street.

And it is a fascinating journey right down to the fall.

Its a history lesson which doubles up as a damn good story.