Book of the Week

 

 

Title: Peony

Author: Pearl S. Buck

Published: 1948

 

Peony is a novel set in Kaifeng, China, in the 1850s. It is my favorite among Pearl S Buck novels because it propounds tolerance and looks beyond the borders of religion, culture and nationality. It gives a clear portrayal of how creating walls in the name of culture and communities can only bring them tumbling down.

The other thing that I liked was how Peony, the protagonist, develops into a wise and respected woman, an advisor to her former employers, revered by the people who she served as a child.

Peony, named after a flower that has mythological significance in both Greek and Chinese lore, starts her life at eight years of age as a bond maid in a rich foreigner’s family that had emigrated from Palestine a few generations earlier to avoid harassment. She was bought as a companion to the only son of the house. She learnt writing and reading while her young master studied. Peony, as expected, fell in love with her young master, David. However, knowing that she would never be accepted as a daughter-in-law by the family, she overcame her desires and helped her young master marry a bride who would bring him happiness in the long run.

Her mistress, an upholder of the Judaism in China, was keen that her son marries a Rabbi’s daughter. Both the Jewish women (David’s mother and future fiancée) loved what they believed to be Judaism as it was interpreted by their Rabbi. They believed that they were the chosen ones and superior to the ‘ heathens‘. Their religion drew borders and created only rifts with the local population. In the middle of the book, there is an interesting dialogue between the Rabbi and a liberal Chinese trader, Kung Chen.

“There is only one true God, and Jehovah is His name,” the Rabbi declared, trembling all over as he spoke.

“So the followers of Mohammed in our city declare,” Kung Chen said gravely, “but they call his name as Allah. Is he the same as your Jehovah?”

“There is no god beside our God,” the Rabbi said in a loud high voice. “He is the One True God!”

Kung Chen, a buddhist and an open thinker, is appalled by the Rabbi’s intolerance and tells David, Peony’s young master, “None can love those who declare that they alone are the sons of God.”

Perhaps, with this one statement Pearl S Buck has summed up the issue faced by many in the current day world, intolerance towards others’ beliefs.

I have not looked into the authenticity of the historical fact or the religious belief of those times. But what struck me was that this is an age-old truth. Intolerance only breeds hatred and violence, as it does in the book.

Earlier the Jews who came for refuge to Kaifeng were not intolerant. Over a period of time, the group grew smaller and became more rigid.

In the past, a liberal minded follower of the same Judaism had engraved on a plaque in the same temple where the Rabbi propounded his intolerance: “Worship is to honor Heaven, and righteousness is to follow the ancestors. But the human mind has always existed before worship and righteousness.”

It is the human mind, which helps us make choices. When we stop thinking, we lose touch with reality and become fanciful, as had the Rabbi and his daughter. After all, the human mind has been made by God who, probably, wanted us to think and take responsibility for our thoughts and action.

Peony by her actions generates the positive feelings of calmness, peace, harmony and tolerance whereas the Rabbi’s daughter generates passion, violence, intolerance and fear. She is so passionate and intolerant in her outlook that she comes to a sad end.

Peony, on the other hand, gains in social and spiritual stature.

I also love what the book does with Peony, a woman who might have become a concubine in the royal court of China. She defines her own position by her selflessness and opts for a more meaningful existence. She rejects power and glory for love and kindness, values that would make for a happier world.

Her role in the latter part of the book reminds me of a few lines that are often quoted and were written by Julia Abigail Fletcher Carney in Illinois around the same period as when this story was set…

 

Little deeds of kindness,

Little words of love,

Help to make earth happy

Like the Heaven above.

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Book Review

Title: Me and I

(ISBN 978-93-5195-188-9)

Author: Nabendu Ghosh (written in Bengali in 2003)

Translator: Devottam Sengupta ( translated in 2017)

 

Me and I is a science fiction set in Calcutta, exploring the concept of Earth’s twin in the universe. It was written by Nabendu Ghosh for his two grandsons in Bengali, and then translated by one of them as part of his centenary celebrations. The translator, Devottam Ghosh, is a lawyer by profession.

I enjoyed the book. It is an ideal read from eight to eighty, a story well told. The protagonist Mukul has a twin in the planet that is Earth’s mirror image. His parallel is known as Lukum and Earth is spelt as Threa.

The explanation is given by an eccentric gentleman, Professor Noni Gopal Sinha,who is Mukul’s friend and mentor on Earth.

“They’re both, opposite yet identical. Mirror images, really. Just as there are a couple of hundred twins among a million people, similarly I’m sure you can find a twin — identical yet opposite — planets among the billions that exist out there.”

So, it is an inverse parallel universe which is dwelt on briefly as the story unfolds.

The story has multiple layers. On the surface, it is a story for children… a nineteen-year-old boy’s adventure with an alien in outer space. It has been woven very well into the fabric of Indian life. Perspectives on religion, science, society, countries and cultures are layered into the folds of the story. It explores the environment that leads to creativity and the environment that does not. An ideal needs to be somewhere in the middle… perhaps… a point for the reader to ponder…

The book has well-researched scientific facts… on different theories of the universe. Though the author, Nabendu Ghosh, says that he would like “to classify this flight of imagination as a ‘modern(or contemporary) fairy tale’”, it touches upon Einstien’s ideas on gravitational waves and theory of relativity. It dwells upon travel at the speed of light and it’s impact on humans.

A surprising novel from a writer of stories linked to social reforms…but then, one wonders at the end that has the author not made you think again of larger issues that are relevant even in the twenty first century…

Perhaps, because Nabendu Ghosh was into writing for films, this book is very visual and would make for an excellent movie. I can visualise the whole scenario as I read the book…

May we then expect a Tollywood(Bengali movie) version of Me and I in the near future?

Book Review

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Title: The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge

Author: Charlie Lovett

Published in 2016, The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge by Charlie Lovett is the story of the changes wrought in and wrought by Scrooge two decades after his ghostly adventures. It shows how the protagonist of A Christmas Carol (by Charles Dickens, published in 1843) creates a kind of butterfly effect to ripple social reforms in the world around him. The supernatural story is set in Dickensian England, twenty years after three ghosts paid a visit to Scrooge on Christmas eve to help make him a kind, humane, helpful man and to instill good values in him.

Lovett has made the spirit of giving the theme of the whole book, just like Dickens did. At the start of the book you have a quote by filmmaker Valentine Davies, “Christmas isn’t just a day; it’s a frame of mind”. And, it is in that spirit of giving that you have the altered Scrooge wishing everybody “Merry Christmas” in the middle of June. Lovett says he started by parodying the first paragraph of Dickens, which starts “Marley was dead to begin with”. Lovett starts with “Scrooge was alive to begin with”. Lovett starts with a sense of hope and continues bringing hope through the book. Dickens starts with a bleak picture and through darkness, he brings light and hope.

In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge fears the ghost of his former partner Marley and the three spirits. In Lovett’s book, Scrooge looks forward to seeing them. It is to help free Marley from his ghostly and shackled existence, Scrooge embarks on his second adventure with ethereal beings. Again in A Christmas Carol, Marley had helped Scrooge and in The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge, Scrooge helps Marley, Bob Cratchit, his former clerk and current partner, his nephew, bankers, the rich, the poor and the world. He helps bring out the need and to help mankind in others and make this world a better place.

The sequence of the ghosts is pretty much the same as in A Christmas Carol. I will say one thing of this book that one has to be familiar with Dickens’ creation to really appreciate Lovett’s sequel. First the spirit of Bob Marley initiates Scrooge in what he is to expect and then come the spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future… except in Lovett’s book, Scrooge directs and accompanies the spirits to the persons who need to be awakened to make the changes. Unlike in Dickens where Scrooge went alone with the spirit, two men and the ghost embark on an adventure together.

The two books can be regarded as a set. Lovett has actually taken the sense of social reform a step further than Dickens and said how the reforms were being started and continued. Both the books end with a note of hope. They are good if you read them together or present them as a set to someone for Christmas.

Lovett has actually captured the Dickensian spirit of reform to make the world a better place more effectively than the Hollywood movie Scrooged (1988), for which again you need to have read Dickens’s Christmas Carol. Scrooged is set in a more modern world context but the dialogues are weak and I would give it an adult rating for some of the dialogues, violence and disturbing content.

Lovett’s book is not only in the spirit of Christmas, reform and Dickens but it also is one which the whole family can read together… from age eight to eighty, a rare occurrence in present day literature. Perhaps, they can even make a movie of The Further Adventures of Ebenezer Scrooge one Christmas!

Book Review

 

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Title: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Author: J.K. Rowling

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the script of the movie of the same name,  written by JK Rowling. It was released on 18th November, 2016. Rowling’s style is distinctive, racy and clear. I enjoyed it while it lasted.

The book takes you on a journey to 1920s New York, where witch-hunts are still common. The dark wizard, Gellert Grindewald, is supposed to be on the loose and has wreaked havoc in Europe.

Newt Scamander, the protagonist of the story, is on a mission to free a magnificent thunderbird, an enormous magical creature somewhat like an albatross. He found it chained and wounded in an Egyptian black market. Being an animal lover, he rescued the magical creature and was trying to return it to its habitat in Arizona at the start of the story. He has a magical suitcase in which he conceals his astounding zoo with many wonderful magical creatures with the help of an extendable charm.

Scamander travels incognito to America and holds a muggle ( non-magical person), in MACUSA terminology, a no-maj, passport. MACUSA is an organization called the Magical Congress of the United States of America, which is more or less a parallel to Ministry of Magic in the UK. You have an interesting angle brought in with Salem witch hunters trying to hunt out witches and a new dark energy called obscurial found in children who are forced to repress their magical energy.

Grindewald, under the guise of a MACUSA official, tries to harness the energy of obscurials for his own intent. Scamander, with his kind heart, tries to help prevent the destruction of an obscurial. However, at the end the obscurial is destroyed and Grindewald is exposed. The MACUSA, which had put a ban on all magical creatures that Scamander carried with him in his case, viewed him as an offender initially. When Scamander helps expose Grindewald, they become very positively inclined towards him. He also uses the thunderbird to erase muggle memory off these events, thus helping the MACUSA continue it’s secret existence.

There is a romantic angle brought in by the Goldestein sisters, Tina and Queenie. They grew up in USA and studied in Ilvermorny, the counterpart of Hogwarts.

The story is interesting but too short. The script is exactly like the movie. However, It would have been nice to have a little more, both of the movie and the book. More could have been shown of the fantastic creatures created by JK Rowling. There is a whole lot available on Pottermore in the internet if you want to know. Perhaps, it would be nicer if some more of the Pottermore stories had been incorporated into the script.

You could have stories on how Scamander found each beast, on Tina and Queenie, on Grindewald and his ultimate battle with Voldemort, on how all this led to Harry Potter and his gang. You could do a whole series of books based on the lore started in The Fantastic Beasts and Where to find them.

Fantastic Beasts, is definitely a better read than The Cursed Child, but both these books have left readers thirsting for more books before and after the advent of Harry Potter. The book was fun. It would have been better as a proper book instead of a movie script. The earlier book, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them  Newt Scamander, published in 2001, has just got descriptions of magical creatures but not Scamander’s adventures. It would be good to have his adventures told.

Like The Cursed Child and unlike the earlier Harry Potter novels, one would have to be familiar with  Potter lore to appreciate this book fully.

I would like to look forward to a Harry Potter series that stretches out like the Star Wars adventures, making for a good read and written by JK Rowling herself…

 

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Book Review

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Title: Harry Potter And The Cursed Child

Author: Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling

                  John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

                   A new play by Jack Thorn

The earlier Harry Potter books make me happy. They bring sunshine into my mind, hope and happiness. But does the new book do this for me?

Perhaps, to an extent it does, though I do feel sorry for Harry’s sons, especially his teenager, Albus Severus Potter. At his age Harry, Hermione and Ron were having adventures of their own, whereas he needs a father to rescue him from the villain, who is really not as powerful as Voldemort.

This eighth story set nineteen years after Voldemort’s death spans a period of about three years, starts where the last Harry Potter, the Deathly Hallows, ended … at the King’s Cross Station.

It has been conceptualized by three persons; J. K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne. Thorne wrote it down as a play, much less detailed, much more focused on inter-personal relationships (father/son).

Perhaps, that is why, to some Harry Potter fans, it was a disappointment. While familiarity with the earlier stories is necessary to the understanding of the play, it is not as detailed as JK Rowling’s earlier books. Each Harry Potter novel could have been treated independently as a separate story. They were detailed enough to make them independent of each other as a lone book.

There is a new villain, Augurey, Voldemort’s daughter from Bellatrix Lestrange! She battles to bring her father back to life. Augurey is thwarted by Harry Potter’s younger son, Albus Severus Potter and his best friend, Draco Malfoy’s son, Scorpius, who is as bookish as Hermione was in her schooldays. The boys are helped by their parents to overthrow her. There are lots of surprises when it comes to characters. Hermione is the minister of magic. Ron, her husband, runs the Weasley joke shop, which was Fred and George’s baby. So, what happened to George and Percy (who returns to the folds of his family in the last book)? Harry is the Head of Magical Law Enforcement. Ginny, his wife, is a homemaker, a mother of three. What happened to Luna and Neville? We are vaguely told Neville is a professor of herbology in Hogwarts. I was disappointed. I thought Neville would have done better than that, especially after his fabulous performance in the Battle of Hogwarts. The Headmistress of Hogwarts is Professor McGonagall. She is constantly ordered around by Harry, who seems to be rather bossy in the play. He was  humbler and kinder in the earlier books.

Also Voldemort having a daughter seems to be a bit out of character. He had been portrayed as wanting to be an immortal without competition. He would never have let anybody near him neither would he have loved or lusted for anyone. As a villain, he was inhuman in that he had no bodily existence till the fourth book and even after that he was not whole. Remember, there were eight horcruxes made from his soul.

However, despite the inconsistencies, the play is very well written. Independently, it would have been interesting if not for the inconsistencies and the dependence on having readers who are familiar with the earlier books. Perhaps, the next generation could have been given more free play and Harry’s generation should have taken a backseat graciously.

Though it is Albus Potter and Scorpius Malfoy who travel back in time to try and rescue Cedric and make changes to the future, the situation has to be eventually rectified by the intervention of Harry, Ginny, Hermione, Ron and Draco Malfoy, who in keeping with his earlier tendencies has moved away from dark magic completely. Cedric is not brought back to life as he would have turned into a death eater.

Rowling claimed that the play would explore the previously untold story of Harry’s early years as an orphan and outcast ( Matilda Battersby, 26 June 2015,  The Independent, London) but all we get to see are some of Harry’s dreams involving Aunt Petunia, a few of which Harry says never happened. We do get to see how Harry’s parents died, thanks to the travel in time with a time turner, but the magic spun by Rowling in the earlier books seems to have diminished.

The details are much lesser. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels are very detailed in their descriptions. The play skims over the details. A play format would not allow for the kind of details Harry Potter fans expect of her storytelling. But then, we need to remember that the book is not by  Rowling alone. The concept could be hers but the story is by three authors together. Therefore, it is bound to be different from the earlier books. The villain is less powerful than Voldemort. The protagonist Albus, is more a troubled teen than the hero Harry was. Ron’s and Hermione’s children are only in the peripheries. Many characters, like Tonk’s son, Luna, Bill, the adult Weaseleys, Kingsley Amis, Xenophilus Lovegood, Professors Flitwick, Trelawny, Slughorn etc have been totally left out…not even mentioned…The plot at best seems to be a bit weak.

Perhaps, the Harry Potter series should best have ended with a bang, the death of Voldemort, rather than a whimper, the imprisonment of Augurey. We should have had, rather, a new series about the sons of Harry Potter and Draco Malfoy.

 

Book of the week

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Title : Pebble in the Sky
Author: Isaac Asimov

Published in 1950, Pebble in the Sky by Isaac Asimov makes for racy reading! It has an optimistic projection of the future.

Most of the story is set in a galactic empire, where Earth is but a pebble in the sky. Mankind has spread through the galaxy as Earth has become radioactive. A small population lives in the unaffected part of the contaminated Earth, which has become a part of a large galactic federation ruled by a representative of the galactic government, the procurator.

Joseph Schwartz, a sixty-two year old tailor from 1949 Chicago, is transported in time through eleven millenia into the radioactive Earth by some mysterious force.The people from the future initially regarded Schwartz as an imbecile as he did not comprehend or speak the common language. They used him as a guinea pig in an experiment to enhance brain powers. After the experiment, he not only picked up their language, but could read others thoughts and even kill without touching a person. His intellect was enhanced to a point that he uncovers and prevents a plot to destroy all the planets except Earth. The brotherhood that rules the earth, the Ancients, had developed a biological weapon to destroy mankind that living in the extra terrestrial world.

The Ancients were power brokers who sought to be exclusive.They had even installed euthanasia as a practice for majority of people over sixty, arguing that as most resources on Earth were contaminated and radioactive, they could at any point support only twenty million people. To make space for the younger population, at sixty, people were sent to die. However, some people, like the rulers themselves, were exempt of euthanasia.

Schwartz, with his enhanced intellect that he christens  Mind Touch , towers above the normal Earthmen and brings peace and sanity back to Earth. At the end, the new forces that govern the Earth set to rebuild the planet by replacing it’s radioactive top layer with healthy soil so that it could support more people and become self-sufficient.

The book starts and ends with a refrain from Robert Browning’s Rabbi Ben Ezra(1864). Shwartz is reciting these lines as he walks, ruminating on the hope for a happy retired life with his wife at the start of the book before he travels into the future.  At the end of the book, as he walks the new Earth that is being rebuild he again recalls,

Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made…

The Ancients had taken away this privilege of growing old from Earthmen. In a way, Schwatrz, an old man from the past, returns it to them and the future that the best is yet to be. There is hope again for a wonderful future.

Interestingly, a year before Asimov published this book, Goerge Orwell published 1984. In 1984, Earth post world war is painted as bleak and hopeless. To love or live outside the box created by the Big Brother is hopeless and leads to death and desolation. There is no hope for the future. It is frightening in it’s depiction. In Pebble in the Sky, Asimov has started with a depiction of a bleak Earth but has ended his book giving hope for a fantastic future among the stars where mankind can flourish with his dreams and visions and look forward to an infinite of space and time… suggesting the best is yet to be.

Book of the Week

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Title: Heart of Darkness
Author : Joseph Conrad

Heart of Darkness was first published in 1899 as a three part serial in Blackwood Magazine. It is the story of a journey of exploration on the river Congo into the heart of Africa. Though the book has been condemned by some as a misrepresentation of the country, I would see it more as a journey of the protagonist, Marlow, into his own inner psyche, which is critical of the colonial culture among other things.

In the beginning of the story, Marlow states,

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

Marlow continues to have this stance through out the book as he journeys into the heart of Congo in quest of the elusive Mr Kurtz, who was not just an ivory trader but also  a remarkable man. When he finds Kurtz , the legendary figure is sick and on his deathbed. He gives Marlow a bunch of letters from his fiancee. Finally, when he died, he cried out  the horror, the horror. Was he denouncing a horrible vision he had, or the horrible life he had lead, or the horror of dying in the way he did? Just before he uttered these words, Marlow, who was with him  on the journey back , describes his last facial expression.

 I saw on the ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror — of an intense and hopeless despair.

Kurtz had been also doing a report on Suppression of Savage Customs. Just as the conquistadors in South America had exterminated the local population for gold, glory and God with advanced weaponry, the ivory traders were intent on conquering the local population for ivory, glory and God. Anything unfamiliar was seen as savage and, therefore, bad. It had to be replaced by customs acceptable to the ivory traders and invaders. To me, through this story, Conrad has successfully exposed how invaders not only loot the invaded country off it’s wealth but also destroy the local colour and culture.

Kurtz ‘s was an impenetrable darkness. The darkness highlighted in the book, I would say, refers to the blackness of the ivory trader’s  psyche which sees anything different as negative. It also refers to the intent of the invaders who defeats the local population to harvest their resources, in this case ivory, and drain the conquered country of their wealth. Darkness refers to the ignorance and obtuseness of the invader to the needs of the invaded, who living in harmony with the nature around them, have evolved a culture and lifestyle best suited to mankind in that environment. What goes on in the the name of development is a cultural imposition and not a harmonious cultural intermingling. And this is something that Conrad has critiqued repeatedly in this book.

Marlow himself fell sick. So, all the perceptions he has about the locals are from the perspective of a semi-conscious sick man. He had to be nursed back before he could return the letters to Kurtz’s fiancee, who is absolutely in the dark about Kurtz’s cruelty and viciousness( Kurtz had shrunken heads of natives on poles at a certain distance from his post in Congo). She only sees Kurtz as the penniless lover who went into Africa to make money and, thus, be accepted by her family. She says, Men looked up to him( Kurtz)–his goodness shone in every act.

Marlow keeps her in the darkness about his last words too and says he died with her name on his lips because she wants something– something–to–to live with. She is also the opposite of darkness and her hair glows with a golden light.

This is a book that makes me think. It makes me wonder if development means the same thing to all the people of the world, if what we judge to be good for ourselves would be good for others. To me, it is a cry for tolerance of things unfamiliar and new. It is a call to be positive and open to all cultures, religions, races and life.