Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Hound of the Baskervilles [1902]

If there’s one book which comfortably overrides every other output, and not just from those belonging to the Sherlock Holmes Canon, in Conan Doyle’s prolific bibliography, it would clearly be The Hound of the Baskervilles. Its enormous and enduring popularity has turned it into a pop-cultural icon; that it’s also a darn fine work has further cemented its legacy. Ironically, this would never have come into being had he not decided to resuscitate Holmes 8 long years after having got the legendary sleuth killed in The Final Problem. The tale revolves around the so-called curse of a spectral hound that has possibly led to the death of Sir Charles Baskervilles; Holmes, being a rabid believer in logic and rationale, refuses to fall into the supernatural trap and takes up the case of protecting the successor to the Baskerville estate, and, more importantly, unearthing the gruesome quagmire. The gradual revelation of the central mystery, in the mould of a classic whodunit, is bound to keep one engaged; but what made this even more captivating lay in the extraordinary moodiness, the constant sense of fatalism, and the haunting atmosphere that Doyle imbued the tale with. The enormous Bakerville mansion, the harsh and bleak wastelands of the Devonshire moor, the incessant air of melancholic doom that perpetuates the brilliantly paced proceedings, and the ambience of terror that seems to lurk from the hazy backgrounds, elevated this beyond the confines of a regular detective story into the domains of Gothic horror. The best parts of the novel for me, in fact, was the middle section in which Holmes was physically absent from the scene, with Watson trying to make a sense of the eerie unknown, including the carefully etched characters part of the sparsely populated setting. The roaring success that the novel turned out to be when it was serialized in The Strand Magazine, ensured that Doyle would never again bump off Holmes like the way he did when the super-sleuth fell off Reichenbach Falls with his arch-nemesis Moriarty.

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: Detective Novel/Crime Thriller/Mystery/Gothic Horror
Language: English
Country: UK

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Study in Scarlet [1887]

A Study is Scarlet was the novel through which Arthur Conan Doyle, then a struggling 28-year old doctor dabbling in writing while waiting for patients, introduced the world to the arresting and compulsive world of Sherlock Holmes and his amiable companion Dr. Watson; this had served as my introduction as well to this iconic sleuth back in my school days. Consequently, revisiting it – and Holmes in general – after over 15 years, was an interesting experience. This story – one of only 4 full-length novels in the Holmes canon – therefore, served the dual purpose of providing a prologue to the two lonely men who would form the perfect foil to each another, including a bitingly funny and ingenious initial summation of Holmes by Watson shortly after they move in to 221B Baker Street, and Watson’s first chronicling of Holmes’ brilliant, self-assured prowess in solving grisly and befuddling crimes. Doyle made use of a multi-linear strand while narrating the tale – in the present, narrated by Watson, a violent double murder sends the battling and self-important Scotland Yard detectives running to Holmes for his advice, who, to Watson’s bafflement, deciphers the seemingly difficult problem through his singular mix of uncanny intelligence, precise logic, smug confidence and a bit of deprecating humour; in the past, which takes place in the American West and narrated in 3rd person, revealed the motive behind the vicious crime and the various players are revealed in what was a story in itself. The distinctively cinematic, if tad far-fetched “past”, with its harsh and unforgiving tale of tragic romance, religious fundamentalism, patriarchy and an inter-continental odyssey in search of vengeance, and set against the savage frontiers of human civilization, made for a dramatic shift, both tonally and stylistically, from the cheeky wit and Victorian charm of the “present”. Though my reaction to this novella wasn’t as high this time around as it had been many years back, one would still do well to begin one’s Sherlock Holmes journey with this.

Author: Arthur Conan Doyle
Genre: Detective Novel/Crime Thriller/Western
Language: English
Country: UK

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Lonesome Traveler [1960]

Beat iconoclast and serial wanderlust Jack Kerouac’s books, the monumental expression of which was his seminal masterpiece On the Road, were breezy chronicles of his dizzying, chaotic and liberating road trips crisscrossing the American landscape in search of experiences. Lonesome Traveler, a lovely collection of 8 sketches written in his distinctively fragmented style of spontaneous verse – a manic burst of sensory experiences flowing directly onto the pages, thus doing away with grammatical sanctity and narrative restrictions – provided a peek into his actual road trips which he fictionalized in his novels. Meeting up with a crazy old friend at San Pedro in ‘Piers of the Homeless Night’; sauntering into an opium den and watching a bull-flight, in company of Mexican drifters, in ‘Mexico Fellaheen’; working as a brakeman in San Francisco, missing his first train despite a mad dash on the rail-tracks, and nights spent on dirty sofas, in ‘The Railroad Earth’; his messy but short-lived employment in a dank ship, with the anarchy among the workers juxtaposed against the orderliness demanded by officers, in ‘Slobs of the Kitchen Sea’; an intoxicating tour through the numerous jazz joints, Village cafes, Time Square bars and other Beat hangouts, in the city he clearly loves most, in ‘New York Scenes’; an intricately reflective tryst with solitude while deployed for 63 nights on Desolation Peak to lookout for forest fires, in ‘Alone on a Mountaintop’; long-walks and drug-fueled sessions with William Burroughs in the North African town of Tangiers, savoring Cezanne’s Aix-en-Provence, falling in love with Montmartre, Sacré-Cœur, Louvre (in particular, Rembrandt and Van Gogh) and the Parisian streets, and earning the Scotland Yard’s suspicions for arriving in London with just 35 Shillings, in ‘The Big Trip to Europe’; and finally, like Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, ruminating, with nostalgia and pathos, ‘The Vanishing American Hobo’. Kerouac, like Henry Miller, was a poet of the urban grunge, and this lively, uninhibited, freewheeling travel memoir is an elucidation of that.

Author: Jack Kerouac
Genre: Non-Fiction/Travelougue/Memoir/Road Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Book of Daniel [1971]

At the blistering height of McCarthy’s anti-Communist purges, the Jewish-American couple Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union and executed on charges of espionage and treason – their death remains a devastating illustration of what paranoia, mass hysteria and rabid nationalism can lead to, even in a nation built on political and personal freedom. This incident formed the primal hinge on which E.L. Doctorow conceived the semi-historical novel The Book of Daniel, which immediately elevated him to the ranks of Bellow and Roth. Through a facile mix of documentary realism and bitter humour, the book attempted a bold, candid and powerful meditation on Old Left vis-à-vis New Left and revolutionary impulses on the backdrop of Cold War-era American social and political landscape. Narrated, alternately in first and third person, by Daniel, the son of Paul and Rochelle Isaacson (fictionalization of the Rosenbergs), the post-graduate student, who’s enmeshed in anti-Vietnam War protest movements, is trying to cope with the suicide attempt of his volatile sister, while striving in futility, through a combination of clinical autobiographical re-creation, historical analysis, self-delusion and cold rage on the verge of psychotic meltdown, to get closure on the memory of his parents’ deaths. Two events in particular were brilliantly juxtaposed – an attack by manic fascists on the bus in which the Isaacssons and their comrades were traveling after attending a Paul Robeson concert; and the brutal assault by cops on anti-draft demonstrators, of which Daniel is a part, at Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1967 (which was immortalized by Norman Mailer in the non-fiction novel The Armies of the Night). When Daniel gets to meet the man who was the principal witness for the Prosecution despite being a friend of the Isaacssons, and is now a senile old man having spent over a decade in jail, in the near-surrealist set-up of Disneyland – the most in-your-face expression of vacuous consumerism – this angry, vitriolic, metafictional work was taken to a deeply poignant climax.

Author: E.L. Doctorow
Genre: Drama/Roman a Clef/Political Drama/Semi-Historical Novel
Language: English
Country: US

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Love and Garbage [1986]

Czech author Ivan Klima’s life provides for a striking summation of the turbulent times he lived in – persecution of Jews by Nazi Germany, deportation to the Terezin concentration camp during WWII, the brief window of freedom during Prague Spring, suppression of artistic and political voice under the totalitarian regime of Soviet Union 1969 onwards, a throbbing underground movement of dissidence, and ultimately liberation brought forth by the Velvet Revolution. When one reads his intensely semi-autobiographical novel Love and Garbage, one therefore finds all these facets and developments that shaped and defined Klima’s life. No wonder it was banned, as most of his works were, upon publication, and had to rely on samizdat until 1989 for it to come into print; interestingly, it ended up selling over 100,000 copies. This deeply melancholic, exquisitely layered and hauntingly beautiful book was filled with meditations on themes and topics as diverse as life, extra-marital love, fidelity, scarring memories, inevitability of death, loneliness, the disorienting world of Kafka, indestructibility of garbage, and above all the incessant desire for political and personal freedom, and was chronicled through a mix of deadpan cynicism, bitter irony and brooding reflections, with the narrative constantly switching between the past and the present. The novel’s nameless narrator – clearly the author himself – is a banned writer who has taken up the job of a sweeper on the streets of Prague along with a motley group of eccentric colleagues, including an ageing man obsessed with irrelevant inventions and a young man whose failing health put an end to a promising career in jazz music. Meanwhile, as he’s torn apart between his staid marriage to a psychotherapist and tumultuous affair with a sculptress, he must also reconcile to the mortality of his ailing father, come to terms with an Orwellian world of “jerkish” literature, and make sense of the bleak and brutal world in which he exists through his recurrent musings on The Trial, in particular, and Kafka’s life and works, in general.

Author: Ivan Klima
Genre: Semi-Autobiographical Novel/Philosophical Fiction/Black Comedy/Existentialist Drama/Political Drama/Romance
Language: Czech
Country: Czech Republic (erstwhile Czechoslovakia)