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.

Book of the Week

 

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Title: Vanity Fair
Author: W.M. Thackeray

First published in 1847-48, Vanity Fair was given described as a novel without a hero by the author, William Makepeace Thackeray. Though it is supposed to be a satirisation of society in 19th century Britain, I feel it is relevant in today’s context too.

Thackeray has given us a glimpse of  human nature was through the lives of two friends and classmates, Amelia Sedley(Emmy) and Rebecca Sharp(Becky). Emmy and Becky are two contrasting characters whose interactions with the outside world bring out the differences in their outlook and, therefore, futures. In the beginning, Emmy is the rich good and popular girl whereas Becky is the poor, clever and scheming girl leaving a finishing school. Becky had to teach music and french as well as study. Her father had died, leaving her penniless. He requested the school to help her out. Becky resented the fact that she had to tolerate the younger pupils and put up with the snobbery of the girls and teachers.

Both Emmy and Becky are given a dictionary when they are leaving as are all students at the academy. Becky throws her dictionary at the sentimental teacher who had to persuade the school to give her one as she was a charity student.The teacher fainted at the affront.  Instead of seeing what the institution could do for her (it did get her her job, and hence, her husband), Becky clung to what the institution didnot do for her. For, the rest of her life, she strove to become a socialite, forgot to be a mother, a wife or a friend. She seduced Emmy’s husband though Emmy had been nothing but kind to her. Emmy gave her a home when they left school.

When Emmy’s family lost their fortune, she proved herself to be an excellent mother, wife, daughter and friend. She lived for love and was a kind person who would never hurt anyone. Emmy’s character seems to be insipid and boring as do the lives of many upright women of conviction. Becky’s climb up the social ladder makes for more racy reading. But Emmy lived for others and Becky lived for herself.

If one were to contextualise the actions of these two ladies in terms of human nature, perhaps one should draw from a speech given by Hyperides in the 3 rd-4 th century BC. This speech has been recently translated by William Noel’s institution as a part of the Archimedes Palimpsest. I heard it in a TED talk by Noel. The translation as given by Noel says,

Best of all is to win. But if you can’t win, then you should fight for a noble cause, because then you will be remembered.

Becky’s sole cause was herself. She could not even love her son more than herself. She only wants to be the most powerful, the most sought after and the most popular. She is a character devoid of love or of appreciation of love. Only material things and fame matter to her. How she arrives at these things is unimportant. She can rob the poor to conceal her own poverty. Emmy, on the other hand, does nothing for herself, doesnot care for what people say. She lives for love and not for social recognition. She is an excellent mother. Though Thackeray uses the word  weak to describe her, I would rate her as a strong woman because she acts with conviction. Becky, in my opinion is a weak woman, because she is caught up in proving herself to a world that is perhaps not even interested in acknowledging her existence.

In the end, Thackeray gives Amelia a happy future with a loving husband and son and Becky is left destitute by her husband, son and family, eking out a living by gambling and by her wits in Europe. She seems to come into wealth by engineering the death of Jos Sedley ( Emmy’s brother) who leaves her half his fortune. So, has she stooped to murder?

Thackeray in the course of the story makes a number of astute observations on life, living and love. One of his observations on human nature says

One of the great conditions of anger and hatred is that you must tell and believe the lies against the hated object, in order, as we said, to be consistent.

I find this very relevant in today’s context of violence and hatred that is tearing our world apart. He had made this comment in context of Emmy’s father, whose closest friend (Osborne) turned against him and condemned him when he lost his fortune. I think this statement also holds against all kinds of sectarian violence and hatred.

I enjoyed Vanity Fair because Thackeray is an excellent storyteller. I like the way he relates the story and brings out the contrasts, making statements that are relevant in today’s world too. The Emmys of the world will always be regarded as insipid and the Beckys as the glamour girls that are written about in magazines and appear in newsreels. The social relevance of the book makes it a classic.

Book of the Week

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Title: The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan

Author: John Man

Published in 2009, The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Khan, combines history and leadership theory. I truly enjoy all of John Man’s books. He writes on history with a passion and makes it come to life for me.

I found this book very easy to read and could fully visualise the young Genghis Khan creating history riding through the grasslands of Mongolia to Bulgaria and Korea. Genghis Khan by Man’s description was not only a man of integrity but also charismatic. He is a leader with a vision and a mission, the vision being to have Mongols rule the world and his mission was to attain it at all costs. Man does point out that though his vision was a little  insane , we have to understand that in his times, there were no cartographers and Genghis Khan had no idea how big the world was. Given that context, he went as far as he could go.

Man has used translations of what has been passed down of Genghis Khan’s words to bring out what a great leader Genghis Khan was. This is what the grand Khan wrote with the wealth of China at his feet in a letter to inviting his Daoist spiritual guide to his court.

Heaven has abandoned China owing to its haughtiness and extravagant luxury. But I, living in the northern wilderness, have not inordinate passions. I hate luxury and exercise moderation. I have only one coat and one food. I eat the same food and am dressed in the same tatters as my humble herdsmen. I consider people my children, and take an interest in talented men as if they were my brothers…

Man shows us how Genghis Khan actually bears out the truth of what he expressed in this letter. A sable coat was gifted to his mother by his in-laws when he married at sixteen. He or his mother never wore it. Instead, he used it as an asset to negotiate with another tribal leader. He lived frugally in tents with his herdsmen and raged through the grasslands to create an empire which lasted for almost a century as opposed to the legendary Qin Shi Huang Di whose dynasty lasted only from 221 to 206 BC and who bequeathed the world a grand mausoleum for himself in the guise of Terracotta warriors.

Genghis Khan wanted to be buried in secret for the sake of his dreams. He was in the process of subjugating the Tanguts. His team moved on to build on his vision and create the Yuan Dynasty, which lasted from 1234 AD to 1368 AD. Genghis himself died in 1227AD. His vision was fulfilled by others in his clan who regarded him as someone who had divine rights to unite them and lead them. He was an influential leader who cared for his people and unified those under him.  Man sums it up by writing Genghis Khan had

Humility and tolerance together: two surprising traits in a world conquerer notorious for his power and brutality. 

Genghis was brutal, Man explains, not because he found pleasure in senseless violence but to create an empire. The Tangut culture,among others, and its script were wiped out only because they stood in the way of his dream of unified world empire under the Mongols. His vision was more important to him than lives of evanescent humankind.

Man also highlights how Genghis Khan always valued talent beyond race. He was a multi national in his outlook as was his grandson Kublai, in whose reign Marco Polo thrived. Many talented foreigners did join the Mongols as they slashed through the steppes, unstoppable, unbeatable. He tried to integrate the nomadic tribes around the Mongols and to create a unified script by borrowing from the Uighurs. Genghis Khan lent an ear not only to good advise from his companions but also from the women of his family, mother and wives. He is said to be a visionary leader who towers above his times, an extraordinary leader. But is he a good one?

Is a good leader allowed to kill to attain his vision? Then we would have to justify Mustafa Mond (Brave New World) and Big Brother( 1984).

Where does the quest for power lead us? Does the end ever justify the means? Isn’t how you do the thing more important than the end in itself? Should good leadership not have to do with that?