Thursday, June 26, 2014

Musings on a fourth Thursday

I'm going to be awfully busy over the next ten days as I rush to “close” the anniversary edition of my fortnightly tabloid-size newspaper which completed thirteen years in May. In my case and probably in the case of every other journalist on the news desk in India, the term “closing” is associated with sending a paper or magazine to print which means writing and editing stories, overseeing production, and meeting deadlines. It has become a sort of a joke in the family. If someone invites me over for a function around the due date of my paper, the word out is, “Oh no, he can’t make it. He has his closing this week” which is met with the predictable response “Not again!” I'm secretly happy, for genuine as the reason is, it has allowed me to skip many a social gathering.

The immediate casualty of my workload is a Forgotten Books review over at Patti Abbott’s blog, Friday, and a second quarter roundup of books and short stories I read during April to June. The summary will have to wait until next weekend.

These days I’m reading more books, watching more films, and reviewing less, because I’m afflicted with what I’d like to call review fatigue.

I finished reading three nice books recently—Stallion Gate by Martin Cruz Smith and The Hell Raisers (or Saddle Pals) by Lee Floren—both of which I started over a month ago, and The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. I’m undecided on which of these to review; most likely it’ll be the first-edition western paperback by Lee Floren. It has a couple of unusual cowboy characters who get involved in a range war between simple farmers and a devious cattleman in Wyoming, and some interesting elements with regard to life in the plains and the badlands.

NetGalley has sent me Rachman’s The Rise & Fall of Great Powers which I intend to read and review in July.

The six western movies I saw and wrote about in the third week of this month have had a few more companions since, in the form of The Avengers, The Towering Inferno, and The Dirty Dozen.

I’d forgotten that Fred Astaire had a part in The Towering Inferno, his last major picture, I think, or that O.J. Simpson played a young security officer in the ill-fated building. It was one of many disaster movies to come out of the seventies alongside The Poseidon Adventure, Earthquake, Hurricane, Avalanche, and the Airport series.

I'm now looking for The Cassandra Crossing, Black Sunday, Rollercoaster, and Damnation Alley.

As you can see I have a predilection for blockbusters with lots of famous actors commonly seen in war, western, action, and disaster flicks.

The death of Eli Wallach, June 24, had me watching The Magnificent Seven and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly all over again, and each time it seems like the first time.

There are a lot of memorable scenes in both the films and many of those involve Wallach. The Magnificent Seven opens with a fine musical score by Elmer Bernstein which plays in the background as Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his bandits ride into the farming village. In fact, the orchestral score plays throughout in the background. In the Sergio Leone classic, his ‘Ugly’ character, Tuco, is transformed into an ecstatic ten-year old as he runs circles around the gravestones literally in step with Ennio Morricone’s lilting score that has become a popular mobile ringtone.

How would you rate his performance in the two movies where he is said to have overshadowed both Yul Brynner and Clint Eastwood and the others? I don’t think he stole the limelight from Brynner, Buchholz and company as much as he did from Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in their respective films.

I’ll end this post by recommending one of Eli Wallach’s last films, The Holiday (2006), a nice little romantic comedy. Born in the second year of World War I, Wallach was 91 when he made this film. How is that for a perspective?

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Superman, 1978, and Superman II, 1980

A different take on the mother of all superhero films for this Tuesday’s edition of Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

This is not a review of Superman or its sequel directed by Richard Donner and Richard Lester, respectively. Rather, this post looks at two specific scenes in both the films which invited ridicule from a lot of viewers in India, including me and my friends. I saw the films in my teens and I recall emerging from the theatre absolutely spellbound—Hollywood had made a real man fly not just through earth's atmosphere but through infinite space without any strings attached.

Everything is spot-on about Superman I & II (though the plot in the sequel was too weak as to be really convincing), except for a couple of scenes that took some of the shine off the films. Both scenes take place in the end.

In Superman, the Man of Steel is distraught with grief when he finds Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) buried alive in her car, the result of an earthquake triggered by a nuclear explosion set off by the villainous Lex Luthor (Gene Hackman). What happens next is almost unbelievable: Superman flies and flies around earth at hundreds of times of the speed of light and turns the world, or time, back to pre-quake. He returns to earth in time to see Lane alive and out of her car and Jimmy Olsen (Marc McClure), his best friend at The Daily Planet, making his way towards them. Superman had saved Olsen earlier. All's well again.

That one scene, turning the time back, is the stuff of science fiction, but it defies logic in the movie even though it can be argued that Superman is a product of that genre. It raises so many questions that you don't know where to begin. For instance, Lane remembers the earthquake and going under ground and while she is visibly flustered she seems okay with it, and since there has been no nuclear triggered earthquake, why does Superman hand Luthor and his sidekick Otis (Ned Beatty) over to the police? Superman knows Luthor is a criminal, in fact, “The greatest criminal mind of our time!” as Luthor brags, but what’s the charge. Am I missing something here?

I thought the scene was silly and Richard Donner lost his way. I'm sure Donner must have toyed with several endings. Sadly, he settled for one that didn't work in what was otherwise a technically brilliant film with excellent music by John Williams. 

In Superman II, Lois Lane is hyper when she finally discovers, over Niagara Falls, that Superman is actually Clark Kent, her bespectacled and bumbling colleague at the paper. Superman, ever the magnanimous and self-sacrificing hero, decides to put his girlfriend out of her misery: he kisses her and erases her memory of him as Superman. When she opens her eyes, she sees Clark Kent and not Superman before her and, I think, she straightaway orders the poor fellow to fetch coffee or something. Again, all’s well that ends well.

With that one scene, Superman proves that he is also Supergod. Although there can be no limit to his superpowers, I can stretch disbelief only so much.

Thirty-six years on Christopher Reeve remains the ultimate Superman/Clark Kent as I've known the kryptonian of the comic books. In 2006, Brandon Routh bravely stepped into those famous red boots, in Superman Returns, but there can be no comparison with Reeve—in coat or cloak, Routh looked the same as Clark Kent and Superman. I'm surprised Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) didn't see the close resemblance.

While we’re on Superman, it’s one of three movies whose catchy soundtrack has stayed with me since my teens, the other two being Jaws and The Omen. Turn off the sound and you’ll see what I mean.

Friday, June 20, 2014

99 Novels by Anthony Burgess, 1984

This anthology by the English writer is considered “neglected” by some which makes it a suitable entry for Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

As a rule, I don’t publish lists of novels or short stories I read or come across in an anthology or collection. However, I'm making an exception in the case of 99 Novels: The Best in English since 1939 by Anthony Burgess.

Neither do I have the book and nor have I read it, but I'm excited enough to share it with those who didn’t know about it until now. I read about it online and I'm ashamed to admit that I've read less than half of the ninety-nine novels which, according to the late English writer and composer, were the best since 1939. Worse still, I have not read anything by Burgess himself, not even A Clockwork Orange.

The anthology covers a forty-four year period between 1939 and 1983. Fiction of the fifties and sixties finds pride of place in the author’s personal choice of books.

Burgess, who was a prolific writer, reader, and reviewer of books, was comfortable with all types of authors including “practitioners of well-wrought sensational fiction” like Irving Wallace, Arthur Hailey, Frederick Forsyth, and Ken Follett.

© Simon & Schuster
He once revealed in an interview that the book was originally commissioned by a Nigerian publishing company and that he wrote it in two weeks. You can listen to the interview at Wired for Books.

I'm tempted to reproduce passages from his introduction to 99 Novels but that would be neither here nor there. Instead, you can read it at The New York Times where Anthony Burgess gives his reasons for choosing the books he did. It makes interesting reading. The book is available at Amazon.

The 99 novels, sorted by year, are given below, courtesy Wikipedia. The author has kept himself out of his own list.


1939 – Henry Green – Party Going (1939)
1939 – Aldous Huxley – After Many a Summer (1939)
1939 – James Joyce – Finnegans Wake (1939)
1939 – Flann O'Brien – At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)


1940 – Graham Greene – The Power and the Glory (1940)
1940 – Ernest Hemingway – For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
1940 – C.P. Snow – Strangers and Brothers (1940)
1941 – Rex Warner – The Aerodrome (1941)
1944 – Joyce Cary – The Horse's Mouth (1944)
1944 – W. Somerset Maugham – The Razor's Edge (1944)
1945 – Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited (1945)
1946 – Mervyn Peake – Titus Groan (1946)
1947 – Saul Bellow – The Victim (1947)
1947 – Malcolm Lowry – Under the Volcano (1947)
1949 – Elizabeth Bowen – The Heat of the Day (1949)
1948 – Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter (1948)
1948 – Aldous Huxley – Ape and Essence (1948)
1948 – Nevil Shute – No Highway (1948)
1948 – Norman Mailer – The Naked and the Dead (1948)
1949 – George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949)
1949 – William Sansom – The Body (1949)


1950 – William Cooper – Scenes from Provincial Life (1950)
1950 – Budd Schulberg – The Disenchanted (1950)
1951 – Anthony Powell – A Dance to the Music of Time (1951)
1951 – J.D. Salinger – The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
1951 – Henry Williamson – A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight (1951)
1951 – Herman Wouk – The Caine Mutiny (1951)
1952 – Ralph Ellison – Invisible Man (1952)
1952 – Ernest Hemingway – The Old Man and the Sea (1952)
1952 – Mary McCarthy – The Groves of Academe (1952)
1952 – Flannery O'Connor – Wise Blood (1952)
1952 – Evelyn Waugh – Sword of Honour (1952)
1953 – Raymond Chandler – The Long Goodbye (1953)
1954 – Kingsley Amis – Lucky Jim (1954)
1957 – John Braine – Room at the Top (1957)
1957 – Lawrence Durrell – The Alexandria Quartet (1957)
1957 – Colin MacInnes – The London Novels (1957)
1957 – Bernard Malamud – The Assistant (1957)
1958 – Iris Murdoch – The Bell (1958)
1958 – Alan Sillitoe – Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958)
1958 – T.H. White – The Once and Future King (1958)
1959 – William Faulkner – The Mansion (1959)
1959 – Ian Fleming – Goldfinger (1959)


1960 – L.P. Hartley – Facial Justice (1960)
1960 – Olivia Manning – The Balkan Trilogy (1960)
1961 – Ivy Compton-Burnett – The Mighty and Their Fall (1961)
1961 – Joseph Heller – Catch-22 (1961)
1961 – Richard Hughes – The Fox in the Attic (1961)
1961 – Patrick White – Riders in the Chariot (1961)
1961 – Angus Wilson – The Old Men at the Zoo (1961)
1962 – James Baldwin – Another Country (1962)
1962 – Aldous Huxley – Island (1962)
1962 – Pamela Hansford Johnson – An Error of Judgement (1962)
1962 – Doris Lessing – The Golden Notebook (1962)
1962 – Vladimir Nabokov – Pale Fire (1962)
1963 – Muriel Spark – The Girls of Slender Means (1963)
1964 – William Golding – The Spire (1964)
1964 – Wilson Harris – Heartland (1964)
1964 – Christopher Isherwood – A Single Man (1964)
1964 – Vladimir Nabokov – The Defense (1964)
1964 – Angus Wilson – Late Call (1964)
1965 – John O'Hara – The Lockwood Concern (1965)
1965 – Muriel Spark – The Mandelbaum Gate (1965)
1966 – Chinua Achebe – A Man of the People (1966)
1966 – Kingsley Amis – The Anti-Death League (1966)
1966 – John Barth – Giles Goat-Boy (1966)
1966 – Nadine Gordimer – The Late Bourgeois World (1966)
1966 – Walker Percy – The Last Gentleman (1966)
1967 – R.K. Narayan – The Vendor of Sweets (1967)
1968 – J.B. Priestley – The Image Men (1968)
1968 – Mordecai Richler – Cocksure (1968)
1968 – Keith Roberts – Pavane (1968)
1969 – John Fowles – The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)
1969 – Philip Roth – Portnoy's Complaint (1969)


1970 – Len Deighton – Bomber (1970)
1973 – Michael Frayn – Sweet Dreams (1973)
1973 – Thomas Pynchon – Gravity's Rainbow (1973)
1975 – Saul Bellow – Humboldt's Gift (1975)
1975 – Malcolm Bradbury – The History Man (1975)
1976 – Robert Nye – Falstaff (1976)
1977 – Erica Jong – How to Save Your Own Life (1977)
1977 – James Plunkett – Farewell Companions (1977)
1977 – Paul Mark Scott – Staying On (1977)
1978 – John Updike – The Coup (1978)
1979 – J.G. Ballard – The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)
1979 – Bernard Malamud – Dubin's Lives (1979)
1979 – Brian Moore – The Doctor's Wife (1976)
1979 – V.S. Naipaul – A Bend in the River (1979)
1979 – William Styron – Sophie's Choice (1979)


1980 – Brian Aldiss – Life in the West (1980)
1980 – Russell Hoban – Riddley Walker (1980)
1980 – David Lodge – How Far Can You Go? (1980)
1980 – John Kennedy Toole – A Confederacy of Dunces (1980)
1981 – Alasdair Gray – Lanark (1981)
1981 – Alexander Theroux – Darconville's Cat (1981)
1981 – Paul Theroux – The Mosquito Coast (1981)
1981 – Gore Vidal – Creation (1981)
1982 – Robertson Davies – The Rebel Angels (1982)
1983 – Norman Mailer – Ancient Evenings (1983)

This list goes on my tackboard.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

A week of western films

This Tuesday, a festival of western movies for Overlooked Films, Audio & Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

With my home computers giving trouble I was pretty much off blogging last week. The break gave me a chance to do what I rarely do nowadays—watch western films. I saw six in all, one for each day of the week, well almost. These were Hour of the Gun (1967), Three Men from Texas (1940), The Five Man Army (1969), The Hills Run Red (1966), The Magnificent Seven (1998), and Unforgiven (1992).

The Magnificent Seven is actually a television series that ran from 1998 through 2000. It starred Michael Biehn, Ron Perlman, and Eric Close. I saw the first episode of the first season the theme of which was the same as the 1960 John Sturges classic. It’s worth a look.

For now, I’ll give you my impressions of the initial three movies.

Hour of the Gun is a very well made film about Wyatt Earp (James Garner) and Doc Holliday (Jason Robards) who take on crooked rancher Ike Clanton (Robert Ryan) and his hired guns. In spite of his stature, Ryan doesn't have much of a role, somewhat like his cameo in The Dirty Dozen. It's Garner and Robards all the way.

After Tombstone (1993) this was only the second Wyatt Earp movie I saw. Garner and Robards are vengeful but milder versions of Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer although the end result is the same. One of the things that struck me about Hour of the Gun was the differences between Garner and Robards over how to fight Clanton. It’s all very quiet and never heated. But Robards, in spite of his alcohol-induced ill-health, stays close to his friend often at risk to his life.

While the gunfights in Hour of the Gun are nowhere as loud and violent as in Tombstone, the two versions made by John Sturges and George P. Cosmatos respectively are mirror images in many ways. Garner, 86, is quiet and unsmiling and rather daunting on screen. In my opinion both films are a classic.

Next up was Three Men from Texas directed by Lesley Selander. Renamed as Ranger Guns West, the film is one of many adaptations of stories based on Hopalong Cassidy, the fictional cowboy created by American author Clarence E. Mulford.

Cassidy, once again played by William Boyd, is a clean-shaven and mild-mannered Texas Ranger who refuses to take up an assignment to rid a California town of a bunch of outlaws because he is nearing retirement. Instead, his partner, the impulsive Lucky Jenkins (Russell Hayden), goes in his place and soon finds out that he has bitten more than he can chew. Fortunately, a crooked trail that Cassidy is following takes him to the lawless town where he finally teams up with Lucky and the cowardly buffoon California Carlson (Andy Clyde), and some bandits led by Pico Serrano (Thornton Edwards), to restore law and order.

Andy Clyde stands out with his noisy act in this limited action western film.

I saw The Five Man Army in my school days and haven’t forgotten it since. Big man Bud Spencer (born Carlo Pedersoli) remains a favourite comedian along with his Italian compatriot Terence Hill (Mario Girotti). Together, Bud Spencer and Terence Hill made several comedy films including spaghetti westerns—one used his fist, the other his brain, and all hell broke loose.

Terence Hill does not star in this Italian production made by Don Taylor and Italo Zingarelli. Instead, with Mesito (Bud Spencer) are Dutchman (Peter Graves) who hires him and three other men he knows equally well—Capt. Nicolas Augustus (James Daly), Samurai (Tetsurô Tanba), and Luis Dominguez (Nino Castelnuovo)—to rob a train.

Each of the men has a specialised skill: Graves (planning and plotting), Spencer (fists), Daly (dynamites), Samurai (knives and swords), and Luis (guns).

The Five Man Army is set during the Mexican Revolution. Dutchman leads his ragtag team on an ambush of a heavily-armed train carrying $500,000 in gold that belongs to the Mexican army. In return, he promises his men $1,000 each as reward. Once the gold-laden coach is successfully diverted, the men want more than their promised share, but Dutchman turns the tables and says the gold is to be used to buy arms and ammunition for the revolutionaries. The four men are taken aback and accuse him of betrayal. Dutchman then reveals that although he is a white man he supports the cause because his wife, a Mexican peasant, was killed by soldiers.

The Five Man Army may not hold up today because it lacks the technical superiority of latter-day westerns and the plot is so weak as to seem implausible. The armed soldiers fall like nine pins and the men take over the canon-secured train quite effortlessly. That said, there is a lot of action and comic moment in this spaghetti western that many consider a cult film. For me the key highlights are the music by Ennio Morricone (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) and, of course, the irrepressible Bud Spencer. 

However, watching Bud Spencer without his lifelong friend and co-star Terence Hill beside him is like watching Oliver Hardy without Stan Laurel, or vice versa.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Common Room by K.B. Rao, 2014

‘The Common Room’ is a novel of atmosphere and seeks to evoke the ambience of a small town college. The old Principal is retiring, and a few contenders and pretenders flex their muscles before jumping into the fray. The members of the common room look on with some curiosity, and not a little anxiety. Everyone has a big question: who is going to replace the old bandicoot? — Back of the book

The Common Room, the debut novel by K.B. Rao, a retired college teacher in Goa, India, chronicles the lives of a motley group of professors who teach at a college in the town of Akadamipur. However, as the eponymous title suggests, the story does not play out in the classroom but in the common room where the teachers discuss in not so hushed tones who among them will replace Old Man Joshi as principal of the Chairman Bhulanath Shet College, known as ‘The College’ to some and as ‘Bullshit College’ to others.

Although The Common Room has a theme, it is actually a collection of interconnected stories narrated by one of the professors who, while choosing to remain anonymous, sees his colleagues for what they are and hears what they have to say about this, that, and the other. Balding and not far from retirement, Prof., as he is known to all, has a “curious disposition with an overactive imagination and an inclination towards the gentle art of gossip.” He does not act, he only reacts, he says, and in spite of being in the thick of it, he doesn't have much of a role to play.

Prof. is an insider who prefers to know what’s going on from the outside. He is like a sounding board against which his peers bounce off their thoughts, their ideas, their theories, their dreams, their fears, their inhibitions, and their resentments. They engage him with intermittent gossip and juicy tales. Through all this Prof. is an amused witness to all that is said and left unsaid. His is a quiet and mature influence on his colleagues both within and outside the common room.

As you read about the everyday lives of a rather idiosyncratic bunch of teachers, through the eyes and ears of the narrator, you wonder why Prof., who is not even a remote contender in the scheme of things, ought not to be the next principal of the Chairman Bhulanath Shet College. After all, he is a veteran of the common room, he is popular among his colleagues who seek out his modest company, and he has a good head on his shoulders.

So who replaces the old bandicoot finally? Just as you narrow down the contenders to one or two of the teachers, K.B. Rao pulls a rabbit out of his hat and ends the story on an unexpected note, much to the chagrin of the more formidable of the contestants.

There is no plot and no intrigue in The Common Room, but there is plenty of atmosphere in this lighthearted and humourous story about a place that most of us, either as academicians or as students, are familiar with. As K.B. Rao told this writer, “The Common Room is supposed to be a novel of atmosphere, a gentle satire on academia.” Well-written and engaging, I found this 247-page debut novel a nostalgic read in many ways as it took me back to my own college days. Recommended.

The Common Room is published by Frog Books, an imprint of Leadstart Publishing Pvt. Ltd, Mumbai, and is available at Leadstart and Amazon. My review copy was sent by the author.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Carved in Sand by Erle Stanley Gardner, 1933

Bob Zane takes a leaf out of Perry Mason’s case file and solves a desert mystery in this quasi-western. For other Forgotten Books, head over to Patti Abbott’s blog Pattinase.

Bob Zane was certain that somewhere the desert held the evidence—carved in sand—to bring a murderer to justice.

Argosy Weekly,
June 17, 1933
Carved in Sand is one of eighteen ‘Whispering Sands’ novelettes Erle Stanley Gardner wrote for Argosy, one of many pulp magazines he contributed to in the middle of the last century. Sixteen of those stories featured Bob Zane, a desert prospector, an intrepid adventurer, and an informal detective.

The novellas were never published as books. Decades later, they were compiled into two volumes—Whispering Sands: Stories of Gold Fever and the Western Desert, 1981, and Pay Dirt and Other Whispering Sands Stories of Gold Fever and the Western Desert, 1983—by writer Charles G. Waugh and anthologist Martin H. Greenberg.

Carved in Sand is the only story featuring Bob Zane I have read so far. It appeared in the June 17, 1933, issue of Argosy Weekly.

The story featuring the desert prospector, in first person, is not a conventional western. It is a semi-western that has elements of a traditional western like holstered cowboys and gunfights and cacti-studded desert and greed for gold. The other half of the story is a detective mystery with police officers and a police dog and automobiles and airplanes involved in the hunt for Sam Blake who is suspected of killing a crooked prospector named Bob Skinner in Sidewinder Canon. Sam’s pretty daughter, Margaret, is wanted as an accomplice because she helped her father escape. 

Bob Zane doesn't believe the police theory that Sam killed Bob over gold. He sets out to prove that Sam and his daughter are innocent. What really impels him to get involved is the arrest of his friend Pete Ayers, for shielding Margaret. Pete was born and bred in the desert whose shifting sands is in his blood. It is the drifting sand in the cold desert that “whispers” the truth to Sam. Armed with evidence, Sam enters the crowded courtroom where the trial is taking place and, in Perry Mason-like fashion, exposes the real killer in the nick of time.

“It was whispers,” he said. “The whispers at night.”

“You mean the sand whispers?” I asked.

He nodded. “There was something reassuring about them,” he said. “At first they frightened me. It seemed as though voices were whispering at me; and then, gradually, I began to see that this was the desert, trying to talk; that it was whispering words of reassurance.”

Erle Stanley Gardner reveals his poetic side in his description of the desert—the swirling sands and the mysterious messages they carry—the central theme of Carved in Sand. The desert is everywhere in the story. Gardner, apparently, had a passion for the American southwest where he spent many years of his writing career. This included the Perry Mason novels and articles on travel and western history. He was especially fond of the desert which seems to have given him the idea for the ‘Whispering Sands’ series.

In Bob Zane, he has created a skilled and spirited adventurer who is a combination of a small-town western hero and a city-bred lawyer, a man who likes to solve crime and bring those behind it to justice. To me, Carved in Sand is more western than Perry Mason. The comparison is mine. Either way it is a very well-written and readable story. I'm off to the desert where the whispering sands will hopefully reveal more Bob Zane stories that swirl around in the dust cloud.

Zane backs Pete's play.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Photo Essay: State Libraries

Do you wonder what state libraries would be like with their enormous, and envious, collections of rare and historical books, manuscripts, and maps accessible mainly to incumbent presidents and prime ministers, kings and queens, parliamentarians and senators, and popes? Here's a virtual look at some of them. I couldn't get a handle on any of the British royal libraries.

President of India Pranab Mukherjee in the newly renovated
Rashtrapati Bhavan Library, New Delhi. 

US President Barack Obama during an interview
in the White House Library.
© Pete Souza/

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff with
Pope Francis in the Vatican Library.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife Laureen visit the Parliamentary Library with Felipe Calderón, President of United Mexican States, and his wife Margarita Zavala,
in Ottawa.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Reading Habits #11: Who did you read in school?

A few days ago, I visited ‘Landmark’ in my suburb. It's a leading chain of bookstores owned by one of India’s largest business houses. I was browsing through the books, with no intention of buying any, when I saw Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw in the Classics section. I’ve had an affinity for Shaw and his writing ever since I studied an abridged essay in high school. I don’t recall the title but I remember being highly impressed by his prose.

Many years later, Autobiography of Anthony Trollope by the English author had the same effect on me. This is how Trollope opens up on his life in the first chapter…

“In writing these pages, which, for the want of a better name, I shall be fain to call the autobiography of so insignificant a person as myself, it will not be so much my intention to speak of the little details of my private life, as of what I, and perhaps others round me, have done in literature; of my failures and successes such as they have been, and their causes; and of the opening which a literary career offers to men and women for the earning of their bread. And yet the garrulity of old age, and the aptitude of a man's mind to recur to the passages of his own life, will, I know, tempt me to say something of myself...”
The only way to enjoy reading the above passage, and the rest of the book, is to read it very slowly, pausing at just the right moment and then reading again, all along feeling and absorbing the rich texture of each word and sentence. Rapid reading simply won’t do with Trollope here.

The sighting of Pygmalion, which I also had in school, brought back memories of some of the finest essays, stories, and poems I’d the privilege of studying from my English textbooks. Until the late eighties, I think, English as a school subject was influenced by English literature based on a pattern of British curriculum. The textbooks have since been Indianised, in terms of both writer and content, and while they have retained some of the English and American literary heritage, they’re not the same anymore.

Who else did I read back in school? As far as I can recollect, besides Shaw, there was Chekhov, Kipling, Buck, Dickens, Maupassant, Shelley, Blackmore, Wilde, Sewell, Melville, Hugo, Bunyan, Swift, Doyle, Shakespeare, Twain, Verne, Carroll, and Dumas.

The best I can recall from my school days are the poems—Death Be Not Proud by John Donne, O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman, Paradise Lost by John Milton, Daffodils (or ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’) by William Wordsworth, and The Lord of the Isles by Sir Walter Scott. I loved them but don’t ask me to recite from by heart.

A word about Charles Dickens and Mark Twain: for some inexplicable reason, I want to re-read Pickwick Papers and A Tale of Two Cities, and Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I delight in the mere thought of being able to read these books again.

Are there books that do this to you? Who did you enjoy reading in school?

For previous Reading Habits, see under 'Labels'