Monday, April 30, 2012

Libraries of India Series #2

University Library of North Bengal

In November 2011, I started the Libraries of India series with the over a century old National Library of Kolkata in the East Indian state of West Bengal. For some inexplicable reason, I didn't continue the series. I have now decided to revive it with a brief look at the University Library of the University of North Bengal located near Siliguri in the picturesque district of Darjeeling in West Bengal. Darjeeling is famous for its tea.

Founded in 1962, the University Library has a vast and an impressive collection of books, reports and periodicals from all branches of Science, Arts, Commerce, and Management. The 2.35-lakh odd literary works include more than 1.80-lakh academic books, 36,000 bound periodicals, and over 600 rare books apart from reference books, theses, census, manuscripts, and gazettes.

Most university libraries in India owe their existence to the British who were mainly responsible for introducing and imparting English education as well as building grand edifices of learning that are heritage structures today.

Photos: University of North Bengal

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Arnie writes his autobiography

Poor immigrant, bodybuilder, Mister Universe, mega film star, millionaire businessman, Governor of California… You can actually picture Arnold Schwarzenegger climbing the rags-to-riches ladder. The “Austrian Oak” would probably have climbed all the way into the Oval Office if the American constitution allowed him to.

But Schwarzenegger has achieved more than enough in his 64 years and he doesn’t have to run for US president to write his autobiography which Simon & Schuster will publish globally in October this year.

The book jacket art for Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story was unveiled by the big man himself a fortnight ago, via Twitter and Facebook, so that his legion of fans could have a say in plans for the book — in terms of their choice of
favourite photographs from different stages of his life. The book's back cover will showcase his years as an athlete, movie star, and governor.

“One of the most anticipated autobiographies of this generation, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Total Recall is the candid story by one of the world’s most remarkable actors, businessmen, and world leaders,” Simon & Schuster said in a media release.

Total Recall covers Schwarzenegger’s high stakes journey to the United States, from creating the international bodybuilding industry out of the sands of Venice Beach, to breathing life into cinema’s most iconic characters, and becoming one of the leading political figures of our time. Proud of his accomplishments and honest about his regrets, Schwarzenegger spares nothing in sharing his amazing story,” the release noted. 

Yet, a lot of people believe Arnie won't reveal much in his widely-awaited literary self-flagellation. He is expected to leave the juicier portions of his private life out of the public domain.

Good thing, too. I, for one, would like a Schwarzenegger autobiography to focus entirely on his movies starting with his first film Hercules in New York (1969) to the nearly fifty movies in his forty-three year acting career. He is one of the most entertaining and successful actors of our time and I’d like to know how he got there.

A post on Arnold “one liner” Schwarzenegger can never be complete without a list of sorts.

Which are your 5 favourite Arnie movies? Mine are: Conan the Barbarian (or Destroyer if you like), The Terminator, Commando, Raw Deal, and Predator.

Schwarzenegger may not be the ‘last action hero’ but he is the ultimate action a comic role.

Thursday, April 26, 2012


Beyond the Black Stump by Nevil Shute

This book review is offered as part of Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at noted writer Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase. Don’t forget to check out the wide range of reviews at her blog.

“You don't mean that your uncle swapped your mother for an old Mauser pistol?”

That is exactly what Stanton Laird, the young American geologist, asks red-haired Mollie Regan incredulously.

Stanton, who comes from the small quiet town of Hazel, Oregon, in distant America, has been sent by his company to the Australian outback — known as the Black Stump — to hunt for oil.

The “black stump” is an Australian term that refers to “an imaginary point beyond which the country is considered remote or uncivilised.”

He gets a huge culture shock no sooner he meets up with Mollie’s family, the Regans, a large and wealthy Irish family of farmers whose ranch, Laragh Station, is spread over a million acres in a remote and inhospitable part of Western Australia, known as the Lunatic.

As Stanton grows close to the Regans, he falls in love with Mollie and discovers she is illegitimate, one of a dozen-odd children who consist of real and half-caste brothers and sisters, sired by her father Pat and his younger brother, Tom, and two women, her own white mother and an aborigine. There are no divorces and remarriages in the legal sense as the men have never really been married to the women. They live together as one big family, the many siblings close to each other. 

The absence of social mores is more than made up for by the Regans healthy view of life and generous attitude toward others. They are a helpful and friendly clan and in spite of the initial apprehension of having Stanton and his gentlemanly crew explore oil on their land (on lease from the government), they welcome him and his men into their midst. The Regans, in turn, are fascinated by the professional manner in which the Americans set up camp and rig as well as the many gadgets and machinery, precision instruments, electric ice cream freezer, and glossy magazines they bring with them and share with the Regans.

The glossies provide Mollie with her first exposure to America, a modern and civilised world she dreams about and starts to yearn for.

Over a period of time, when the oil exploration attempt fails to yield results, Stanton's company tells him to pack up and return home. By now, he and Mollie are very much in love and the two decide to marry but the girl's mother, the wise and formidable Mrs. Regan, advises her daughter to put of marriage till she has lived with the Lairds in Hazel and adjusted to the American way of life. In the end it proves to be a very wise suggestion.

This is where the real story, tragic in many ways, begins. Mollie accompanies Stanton to Hazel, Oregon, where she is welcomed warmly by his parents, a kindly couple. She lives with the Lairds, helps with the chores around the house, goes about town, and grows fond of her prospective in-laws who are proud of their values and integrity. Mollie finds this a trifle unsettling considering her own upbringing.

One day, Mollie, who is portrayed as sensitive and intelligent, decides to come clean: she confronts Mrs. Laird, affectionately called "Mom" by all, and discloses everything about her past and where she comes from. The revelation sends shock waves through the Laird household, especially Mom’s sister Aunt Claudia who has a loose tongue. 

"If we get married, Stan, your people must know everything about me," a determined Mollie tells Stanton, who has long accepted her for what she is.

Mollie wants his parents and the small and conservative Frontier town of Hazel to accept her past and present as well but she is also aware that, in their hearts, the god-fearing and church-going townspeople won't, even if they pretend to; not when her own father and brother were prominent members of the IRA who fought against the British government before fleeing to Australia — it's just one of many instances of the non-conformist Regan clan that Hazel may find unpalatable.

"It'ld hurt your mother much more to learn I'm illegitimate after we're married than if she learns it now," she tells Stanton.

"It wouldn't work," Mollie concludes. "There's too much between us..."

In the end Mollie Regan, who dreamt of a new life in America, breaks her engagement and returns to the Lunatic, hopefully to David Cope, a struggling English immigrant who rears sheep on his three-hundred-thousand acre farm called Lucinda Station, not far from the Regans spread. He has been hopelessly in love with her much before Stanton arrived.

The story behind the story
Beyond the Black Stump, written in Nevil Shute’s trademark easy and laidback style, is primarily about race relations though the author handles the subject of racism with utmost sensitivity. In his opinion, people are the same wherever you go, only their lives vary according to greater or lesser degree. For instance, Mollie Regan, who is unashamed of her background, yearns to be accepted for who she is, especially when those who might not have accepted her in Hazel had ancestors who did exactly what her folks in the Lunatic did.

She compares the Lunatic to the Frontier town of Hazel a hundred years ago when “your people married Indian girls when there weren’t any white women, just like us… If you could meet one of those people now, if one of them could come to Hazel, you wouldn’t want to have him in your house, or introduce him to your friends. And if it was a girl you wouldn’t want to marry her.” So why is my family being singled out, she wants to know.

I particularly liked the part where young Mollie Regan says, “I’m a kind of Rip van Winkle, Stan, that’s come here from the Hazel of a hundred years ago, out of the past.”

Mollie comes across as more liberal and broadminded than the Lairds, for instance, when she learns of Stanton’s secret past: as a reckless youth he and best friend Chuck Sheraton had raced with their girls resulting in an accident that killed one of them. The other was found to be pregnant with either Stanton’s or Chuck’s baby. The local community ordered Chuck to marry the girl and all was forgotten and forgiven but the boy grew up to look like Stanton. When the geologist confides his bitter past to Mollie, she laughs out loud and takes it in her stride, because she, herself, is illegitimate as nearly all her siblings are. His own mother is in denial.

The author
Beyond the Black Stump (1956) is one of ten novels about Australia written by prolific British writer Nevil Shute Norway (1899-1960). In fact, he wrote this book while carrying out research for another novel, On the Beach (1957), which is also about Australia. 

© Nevil Shute Norway Foundation
Shute, who was an aeronautical engineer and took part in both the world wars, spent weeks in Western Australia and lived with a family in Oregon to research material for both these novels.

“For the first time in my life I saw how people live in an English-speaking country outside England,” he is believed to have said at the time. The overseas trips firmed up his resolve to migrate to Australia with his family.

Nevil Shute wrote 24 novels and an autobiography.

Next Friday's Forgotten Book: The Payoff by Don Smith

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Stamp of a Writer: Edgar Allan Poe

The cost of publishing the work, in a style equal to any of our American publications, will at the extent be $100. This then, of course, must be the limit of any loss supposing not a single copy of the work to be sold. It is more than probable that the work will be profitable and that I may gain instead of lose, even in a pecuniary way.
— To John Allan, his foster father, May 29, 1829

At the request of Mr. T.W. White, I take the liberty of addressing you and of soliciting some little contribution to our Southern Literary Messenger. I am aware that you are continually pestered with such applications, and am ready to believe that I have very little chance of success in this attempt to engage you in our interest, yet I owe it to the magazine to make the effort.
— To James Fenimore Cooper, June 7, 1836

Could I obtain the most unimportant Clerkship in your gift — any thing, by sea or land — to relieve me from the miserable life of literary drudgery to which I now, with a breaking heart, submit, and for which neither my temper nor my abilities have fitted me, I would never again repine at any dispensation of God. I feel that I could then, (having something beyond mere literature as a profession) quickly elevate myself to the station in society which is my due. It is needless to say how fervent, how unbounded would be my gratitude to the one who should thus rescue me from ruin, and put me in possession of happiness. I leave my fate in your hands.
— To James Paulding, American writer and US Secretary of the Navy, July 19, 1838.

I feel, however, that I am, in regard to yourself an utter stranger — and that I have no claim whatever upon your good offices. Yet I could not feel that I had done all which could be justly done, towards ensuring success, until I had made this request of you. I have a strong hope that you will be inclined to grant it, for you will reflect that what will be an act of little moment in respect to yourself — will be life itself to me.

My request now, therefore, is that, if you approve of William Wilson, you will express so much in your own terms in a letter to myself and permit Mess: Lea & Blanchard to publish it, as I mentioned.
— To Washington Irving, October 12, 1839 

I wish to publish a new collection of my prose tales with some such title as this — “The Prose Tales of Edgar A. Poe including “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, the “Descent into The Maelstrom”, and all later pieces, with a second edition of the “Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque”.

The “later pieces” will be eight in number, making the entire collection thirty-three — which would occupy two thick novel volumes.

I am anxious that your firm should continue to be my publishers, and, if you would be willing to bring out the book, I should be glad to accept the terms which you allowed me before — that is — you receive all profits, and allow me twenty copies for distribution to friends.

— To Lea and Blanchard, August 13, 1841

I need not call your attention to the signs of the times in respect to magazine literature. You will admit that the tendency of the age lies in this way — so far at least as regards the lighter lepers. The brief, the terse, the condensed, and the easily circulated will take place of the diffuse, the ponderous, and the inaccessible. Even our reviews (lucus a non lucendo) are found too massive for the taste of the day: I do not mean for the taste of the tasteless, but for that of the few. In the meantime the finest minds of Europe are beginning to lend their spirit to magazines. 
— To H.W. Longfellow, June 22, 1841

Depend upon it, after all, Thomas, Literature is the most noble of professions. In fact, it is about the only one fit for a man. For my own part, there is no seducing me from the path. I shall be a litterateur, at least, all my life.
— To Frederick W. Thomas, an old friend, February 14, 1849 

Material Source: © The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore

First Day Cover: © Postal History Store

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Vintage Weekend

War Cartoons by John Francis Knott

Title: War Cartoons
Author: Knott, John Francis, 1878-1963
Subject: World War I, 1914-1918
Publisher: South Western Printing Co., Dallas
Book contributor: The Library of Congress

John Francis Knott (1878-1963), artist and illustrator, drew more than 15,000 cartoons in his 52-year long artistic career spent almost entirely at Dallas Morning News in Texas.

Born in Pilsen, Austria (now Plzen, Czech Republic), in 1878, Knott came to America with his widowed mother at the age of five. Mother and son settled in Sioux City, Iowa, where he gained admission to the public school. When he was sixteen years old, Knott published his first drawing, in the Sioux City Journal. After a brief, albeit a not too successful, stint in Chicago, Knott went to Dallas where he illustrated harness and saddle catalogs for an engraving company.

But, Dallas changed Knott’s life completely for it was in this city, the third largest in Texas, that he found work at Dallas Morning News as a full-time cartoonist. Knott started by drawing general illustrations and satirical cartoons on the American way of life, and soon made it to the front page. His work, however, received universal acclaim with his daily cartoons during Woodrow Wilson’s first presidential campaign and during World War I.

Knott soon became famous and his cartoons were reprinted in other publications. In 1918, he published his most acclaimed work, War Cartoons, a series of telling black-and-white illustrations that dealt with a wide range of issues and nearly every aspect of World War I — the stark and the sensitive — that are too many to mention here.

Take a look at some of his cartoons below…

Note: The material for this photo essay has been sourced from Texas State Historical Association and the University of Texas at Austin.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

William Boyd to write new James Bond novel

© Michael Fennell/Creative Commons
William Boyd, the award-winning and bestselling author of Restless, Any Human Heart and the latest Waiting for Sunrise, is to write the next James Bond novel, HarperCollins Publishers announced in a press release.

The novel, which is yet to be titled, will be published in autumn 2013 by HarperCollins Publishers in the US and Canada and simultaneously in the UK and Commonwealth by Jonathan Cape — Ian Fleming’s original publisher and an imprint of Vintage Publishing.

According to the release, William Boyd is the third author in recent years to be invited by the Ian Fleming estate to write an official Bond novel, following in the footsteps of the American thriller writer Jeffery Deaver, who wrote Carte Blanche in 2011, and Sebastian Faulks, whose Devil May Care was published to mark Ian Fleming’s centenary in 2008.

The first James Bond novel
Boyd is a writer of international acclaim whose 11 novels and short-story collections have been translated into over 30 languages with many of them adapted for film and television. While the details and title of the next 007 adventure naturally remain secret, the author has revealed that next year’s publication will mark a return to "classic Bond" and will be set in the late 1960s, the statement said.

"When the Ian Fleming estate invited me to write the new James Bond novel I accepted at once. For me the prospect appeared incredibly exciting and stimulating — a once-in-a-lifetime challenge. In fact, my father introduced me to the James Bond novels in the 1960s and I read them all then — From Russia with Love being my favourite," Boyd commented.

Corinne Turner, Managing Director, Ian Fleming Publications Ltd, confirmed the development: "William Boyd is a contemporary English writer whose classic novels combine literary elements with a broad appeal. His thrillers occupy the niche that Ian Fleming would fill were he writing today and with similar style and flair. This alongside his fascination with Fleming himself makes him the perfect choice to take Bond back to his 1960s world."

Boyd's favourite 007 novel
In addition to the publication of the new novel, 2013 is a significant year for Bond, marking 60 years since Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel, Casino Royale, was published by Jonathan Cape in 1953. Cape was also the publisher of the first ever official Bond novel following Fleming’s death in 1964, when Kingsley Amis took up the mantle writing Colonel Sun as Robert Markham in 1968, the release stated.

Iris Tupholme, Vice President, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief, HarperCollins Canada, remarked: "William Boyd, whose mastery of plot and character has won him readers all over the world, is the right person to take the beloved James Bond in a new, fresh direction. We are delighted to be publishing the new Bond novel in Canada."

William Boyd said further, "The fascination (for Ian Fleming) went so far that I placed him as a character in my novel Any Human Heart where he’s responsible for recruiting the novel’s protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, into the Naval Intelligence Division in World War II.

"One other coincidence should be mentioned. It turns out that I’ve worked with three of the actors who have played James Bond over the years. They’ve all starred in films that I’ve written: Sean Connery in A Good Man in Africa, Pierce Brosnan in Mr Johnson, and Daniel Craig in The Trench. The idea that these somewhat random connections with Fleming and Bond should culminate in my writing a new James Bond novel is irresistibly appealing. The only thing I’m prepared to say at this stage about the novel that I will write is that it will be set in 1969." 

Boyd's Bibliography

01. A Good Man in Africa, 1981
02. On the Yankee Station and Other Stories, 1981
03. An Ice-Cream War, 1982
04. Stars and Bars, 1984
05. School Ties, 1985
06. The New Confessions, 1987
07. Brazzaville Beach, 1990
08. The Blue Afternoon, 1993
09. The Destiny of Natalie 'X' and Other Stories, 1995
10. Armadillo, 1998
11. Nat Tate: An American Artist 1928-1960, 1998
12. Any Human Heart, 2002
13. Fascination (collection of short stories) 2004
14. Bamboo, 2005 (non-fiction)
15. Restless, 2006
16. The Dreams of Bethany Mellmoth (short story) Notes from the Underground, 2007
17. Ordinary Thunderstorms, 2009
18. Waiting for Sunrise, 2012

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Gods Must Be Crazy (1980)

This delightful film is my contribution to Tuesday’s Overlooked/Forgotten films and television meme over at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom. Don't forget to check out the other fascinating entries over there.

Narrator: They must be the most contented people in the world. They have no crime, no punishment, no violence, no laws, no police, judges, rulers or bosses. They believe that the gods put only good and useful things on the earth for them to use.

The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa are the most contented people in the world, at least in the movie, till one hot savannah afternoon a Coke bottle carelessly tossed out of a passing airplane falls in the peaceful village of the San tribe with a gentle thud. Nothing is the same thereafter.

The villagers, especially the little children, begin to fight over the strange object — their first exposure to a world outside of their own primitive existence — to the extent that it proves injurious to their health, as one kid conks another kid on the head with the glass bottle. Ouch, that hurt!

Peace is shattered, egos clash, tempers flare, and fights break out as nearly every curious villager claims the bottle as his or her own. The innocent tribe has never seen disharmony among their people. Xi, a wise young Bushman played by Namibian San farmer N!xau, sees it too and realises what is happening. He confers with the village elders and decides to return the offending object to the gods — who must have sent it to spread discord among his people.

Narrator: The one characteristic which really makes the Bushmen different from all the other races on earth is that they have no sense of ownership at all. Where they live, there's really nothing you CAN own: only trees and grass and animals. In fact, these Bushmen have never seen a stone or a rock in their lives. The hardest things they know are wood and bone. They live in a gentle world, where nothing is as hard as rock, steel or concrete.

The gods must be crazy or else why would they rain down glass bottles instead of stuff the Bushmen can use, share among themselves, and live in peace like before. Xi has no answers but he is determined to return the bottle to its divine owner. So, the next morning he sets out with the bottle in one hand and his bow and quiver in the other, but not before consoling his weeping son who doesn't want him to go, or probably doesn't want to see the mysterious object taken away.

Narrator: One day, something fell from the sky. Xi had never seen anything like this in his life. It looked like water, but it was harder than anything else in the world. He wondered why the gods had sent this thing down to the earth… It was the strangest and most beautiful thing they had ever seen, and they wondered why the gods had sent it. Pabo (a small boy) got his finger stuck in the thing, and the children thought he was very funny.

The Gods Must Be Crazy, directed by South African director Jamie Uys who gave us the documentary, Beautiful People, ranks in my list of funniest movies ever. The film is peppered with slapstick humour from the time the Coke bottle lands in the unsuspecting village till Xi finally manages to fling it over a cliff — his version of the edge of the world — and returns to his village.

Although the film revolves around Xi and his quest, it has at least two other sub-plots in the form of Andrew Steyn (Marius Weyers), a bumbling but well-meaning biologist who does a soft “yay, yay, yay, yay, yay, yay…” every time he fumbles and stumbles in the presence of Kate Thompson (Sandra Prinsloo), a school teacher who has newly arrived in the area, and a band of guerrillas straight out of a comic strip. On his way to the edge of the world, Xi crosses paths with Steyn and his assistant M'pudi (Michael Thys), an old and grizzled mechanic, and helps them rescue Thompson and her pupils from the clutches of the 
guerrillas led by fat slob Sam Boga (Louw Verwey). 

Released in 1980, The Gods Must Be Crazy has many comic moments…

Like the time when Xi picks up the bottle and flings it high into the air, pleading with the gods to take it back, but the bottle falls right back down and the Bushman takes evasive action just in time.

Or when Xi meets Steyn and M’pudi for the first time and insists they take back their bottle because it has caused enough strife in his village.

M'pudi: He talks about an evil thing (the evil thing being the Coke bottle).

Narrator: The hairy one (M'pudi) said, “We don't want the thing. You have to throw it away yourself.” Xi was very disappointed. He thought it was unfair of the gods to make him throw the thing off the Earth. In fact, he began to doubt if they really were gods.

Or, when Steyn, stranded in the forest with Thompson one night, runs for cover as a rhino, as is its wont, suddenly looms out of nowhere and stamps out the fire. Steyn, his pants down at the moment, makes a mad dash only to collide into Thompson who suspects the poor man of an ulterior motive.

Narrator: The rhino is the self appointed fire prevention officer. When he sees a fire, he rushes in and stamps it out.

Or when Xi tries to drive Steyn’s jeep standing on the bonnet of the vehicle, his back to the road, so to say, as the clumsy biologist chases it, hops in, and brings it to a halt.

M'pudi: I'm teaching him how to drive, just for the hell of it. There's nothing else to do around here.

Or the time when Xi innocently picks up a rifle and points it at its real owner, a tribesman he meets on his way, and the latter runs for his life, prompting our Bushman to jump in the air and run for his own life as well. Xi runs for a while, stops, turns around, and wonders what scared the fellow off!

Or when Steyn roars past in his jeep and Xi sits bolt upright and looks around frantically.

Narrator: One day, a very noisy animal rushed past where Xi was sleeping. It left very peculiar tracks, as if two enormous snakes had slithered past.

Or when the driver of the jeep carrying the guerrilla chief and his men brakes suddenly and one of the insurgents riding in the back is thrown clear from the vehicle.

Nearly every scene in The Gods Must Be Crazy is funny and evokes instant laughter and where it doesn’t, Xi livens it up with his innocent smile and candour. He is a cute little fellow whose life has turned upside-down because of modern man’s disregard for him and his people and their way of life — simple yet fulfilling. The clash of civilisations is obvious: Xi wants his happy little world to be left alone and he wants no part of yours — you can keep it as long as you dump your Coke bottles elsewhere.

Note: The quotes from the film have been sourced from IMDb.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Adolf Hitler in comic-books

You look for one thing, you find something else. I was surfing the internet for some out-of-print books when I came across a comic-book I had never seen before — Daredevil Battles Hitler. Daredevil? Why not Superman? Or Captain America? They would be first choice. Then, I thought, if the Fuhrer can fight The Man Without Fear, he might have also fought the other superheroes. Of course, he has! And that includes The Man of Steel and The First Avenger. So imagine my delight when I found as many as sixteen comic-books featuring Hitler on the covers. Naturally, Adolf is at the receiving end in all the comics. Heel Hitler!

I am sure there are more Hitler comics in cyberspace but these will do for now.