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I got ‘The Art of Stillness : Adventures in Going Nowhere‘ by Pico Iyer as a birthday present from one of my favourite friends. It is a short book at around seventy pages and so I finished reading it soon.

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In ‘The Art of Stillness‘, Pico Iyer, who is a traveller and a travel writer, looks at our life today, the busy schedule we have, the multi-tasking we do, how we are always connected and plugged in through the convergence of communication systems and social media, and asks the question, whether we can switch off, whether we can unplug ourselves, whether we can get away from it all, whether it is beneficial, whether it is possible.

This book has a freshness to it, because the theme it addresses is very relevant to our twenty-first century way of life. When Pico Iyer says,

“With machines coming to seem part of our nervous systems, while increasing their speed every season, we’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off – our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk”

we feel that he is talking about us and our lives.

The book divides itself naturally into two parts, though the division is not a sharp line in the sand – it is more like the way one colour fades away into another. In the first part, Pico Iyer contrasts all the noise, action, distraction, interruption which are part of our everyday lives with stillness and describes how stillness looks like, when it is present and when it is practised. In the second part, he describes how unplugging ourselves from this noise for even a short period of time everyday is reinvigorating and helps us see things from a fresh perspective and helps make our day more productive. The first part is more contemplative while the second part is more practical. Depending on your inclinations you might like one part or the other more. I have always been a useless person who avoided practical stuff and I always loved contemplation more and so I liked the first part of the book more.

We live in a world where action is valued and contemplation is not. As the William Henry Davies poem ‘Leisure‘ says, our life is so busy and full of care, that we don’t have time to stand and stare. This book tells us how contemplation, and standing and staring is valuable too.

There is a TED talk on this topic by Pico Iyer and this book is an extension of that talk. I haven’t heard that talk yet, but I presume it will be a good accompaniment to the book.

The book has beautiful photographs of the stunning Icelandic landscape. The photographic artist Eydis Eynarsdottir who is Icelandic, describes her artistic vision and journey in her one page essay. I have included a couple of the stunning photographs here to give you a feel.

Icelandic Landscape 1

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Icelandic Landscape 2

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Here are some of my favourite passages from the book to give a feel of how it looks like.

As Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius reminded us more than two millennia ago, it’s not our experiences that form us but the ways in which we respond to them; a hurricane sweeps through town, reducing everything to rubble, and one man sees it as a liberation, a chance to start anew, while another, perhaps even his brother, is traumatized for life. “There is nothing either good or bad,” as Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet, “but thinking makes it do.”

…at some point all the horizontal trips in the world can’t compensate for the need to go deep into somewhere challenging and unexpected. Movement makes richest sense when set within a frame of stillness.

We glimpse a stranger in the street, and the exchange lasts barely a moment. But then we go home and think on it and think on it and try to understand what the glance meant and inspect it from this angle and that one, spinning futures and fantasies around it. The experience that lasted an instant plays out for a lifetime inside us. It becomes, in fact, the story of our lives.

I loved ‘The Art of Stillness‘. It is not a young person’s book though. If you are young, or young at heart, you can and you probably should read this book. But you should also be trekking, climbing mountains, doing bungee jumping and parasailing, skiing in the Swiss Alps, seeing the pyramids and the great Wall and the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu and falling in love and having romantic dinners in London and Paris and Venice and St.Petersburg and Shanghai and taking cruises on rivers and oceans. When you have been there and done that, you should take this book down from the shelf and read it again. But if you have already done these (or are not interested in doing these) and have already had rich life experience (don’t worry, even a punk like me who is an introvert and a couch potato has had rich life experience. You probably have handled some amazing, challenging situations), then this book is written exactly for you and will make lot of sense.

Have you read ‘The Art of Stillness‘? What do you think about it?

Ever since ‘Centre Court‘ by Sriram Subramanian came out, I have wanted to read it. But the distractions of life and Wimbledon got in the way. Finally I put aside everything yesterday and read the book in one sitting. Here is what I think.

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Centre Court‘ tells the story of Shankar Mahadevan, who is a twenty five year old tennis player. Currently he is ranked 41 in the world. He is, at present, at Wimbledon on the eve of the championships. As his ranking is high enough, he gets a direct entry into the main draw. But as he is not seeded, life is unpredictable, as he could face a higher player in the first round and get knocked out. What happens next? Is he knocked out in the first round? Does he progress deep into the competition? I can’t tell you more about the story, because you should read the book and discover it yourself. 

Centre Court‘ is a rare bird, because it is a tennis novel. There are no tennis novels out there. I remember Monica Seles tried writing one which was supposed to be a part of a series aimed at young adult readers – a romantic novel series with a tennis backdrop. I don’t think it took off. The only kind of tennis books out there are ghosted biographies and table top books filled with beautiful photographs. There might be an occasional book about a famous match like the Federer – Nadal Final or the Borg – McEnroe final. Otherwise that shelf is really thin. Sport novels, in general, are very rare. I have read a couple of cricket novels, and loved them, but even in cricket, which is rich in literature, novels are rare. In tennis, novels are nonexistent. So ‘Centre Court‘ is unique. It breaks new ground. It is wonderful when a new literary experiment is attempted and it succeeds gloriously and we are there at close quarters to experience it. I loved that.

The second thing I loved about the book is this. ‘Centre Court‘ is a pure tennis novel. It has, of course, its share of drama, because sport is about drama after all. It has the inspiring story of an underdog we all love backing. It is about parents and children and family. It also has a whiff of romance. But, in the end, it is a tennis novel, a tennis novel of the finest kind. Does it mean that you need to know and understand tennis to follow the story and enjoy the drama? Not really. You can follow the story, enjoy the drama, emotionally invest in the main characters and go through an emotional rollercoaster with them, even if you are not a sports fan. But if you are a tennis fan, a tennis player or have been related to the game in any way, your experience will be richer. Because the book takes you on a tour of contemporary tennis history, talks about some of the great matches and players, tennis strategy and tactics, the politics in tennis, the administrators, and the evolution of equipment and technique. Sometimes it digresses into other sports like cricket and chess and draws parallels between them and tennis. It discusses many legendary sporting events in brief but sufficient detail. There is even a discussion on whether sport is art. So beautiful! When I saw that famous quote on being under pressure by my favourite Keith Miller, I couldn’t stop smiling! It was like the author took all the beautiful things about sport, put it in a novel and gift-wrapped it and presented it to his readers. All these beautiful things blend seamlessly with the story. How the author managed to do that, I have no idea.

If you are a tennis player or a passionate tennis fan, this book will embrace you, make you a part of the story and make you relive your own life. There is a description of the movie ‘Almost Famous‘ by music critic Tom Moon, which I love so much. It goes like this.

“There’s a scene in Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s semiautobiographical film about his unlikely rise as a teenage rock critic, that illustrates the kinetic thrill of discovering music. The Cameron character’s big sister has just left home, and he’s checking out her record collection – gazing meaningfully at Cream’s Wheel of Fire and Led Zeppelin II as though trying to decipher sacred texts. When he opens the gatefold of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, he finds a note : “Listen to Tommy with a candle burning and you will see your entire future.”

He follows the instructions, drops the needle on the hi-fi, and hears those galvanizing guitar chords, a call-to-arms across generations. Even though maybe he’s ten years old, he promptly gets the glassy look in his eyes which says, “Please don’t disturb this cosmic moment.” With this one scene, which has no dialogue, Crowe makes manifest something music lovers know in their bones. That if you listen intently, you will encounter more than just constellations of cool sounds – that lurking within them is information worth having, perhaps even a signpost pointing you toward the next key step on your journey.”

If you are a tennis fan and you read this book, you will feel something like that, about your past. I did. The past just came back instantaneously and I could see my whole life as a tennis fan unfolding before my eyes – Becker, Edberg, Lendl, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Jana Novotna, Monica Seles, McEnroe, Connors – the film reel moved on and on with beautiful vivid images. It was like being in the middle of ‘Cinema Paradiso‘.

So, that’s it. Read this book. You will love it. If you are a tennis fan, you will love it more.

I have just one regret. I wish Nirmal Shekhar, who was one of India’s finest tennis correspondents, was still around. If he was, he would have read this book and written a poetic essay about it. It would have been beautiful.

Have you read ‘Centre Court‘? What do you think about it?

One of the books I was eagerly looking forward to, this year, was Faiqa Mansab’sThis House of Clay and Water‘. It was launched late last month and I got a copy and finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

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The Story

The first thing I want to say about the book is that I love that gorgeous cover! It is so beautiful! Now about the book itself. The story is set in Lahore and it starts with the story of Nida. Nida is married and her husband and in-laws are well off. On the surface, life seems to be comfortable and nice, but there seems to be an emptiness in Nida’s life. The story goes back and forth in time, as we find out more about Nida’s past and try to discover clues to find out why she feels the way she does. Nida goes to the Daata Sahib Dargah sometimes, to calm her spirit, and there, one day, she meets Sasha. Sasha is a free spirit and though she is married and has two young daughters, she rebels against the confines of marriage and goes out with different men who make her feel special. Nida and Sasha meet Bhanggi, in the dargah. Bhanggi is a hijra, a hermaphrodite. His life in the past has been hard, but these days he sits under the banyan tree and plays the flute. People assemble to listen to him and they also come to pray for and receive his blessings, because he is regarded as a qalandar, a Sufi saint. A beautiful friendship blossoms between Nida and Bhanggi and it looks like it would flower into something more. The rest of the story is about how the friendship between Nida and Bhanggi and Nida and Sasha evolve and what happens between them and their families. Well, I am not going to tell you more. You should read the book for yourself and find out what happens next. 

Thoughts

I loved many of the characters in the story, especially Nida, Bhanggi and Zoya, Sasha’s daughter. Sasha was also quite fascinating – flawed and imperfect and complex. The story is mostly told from the point of view of Nida, Bhanggi and Sasha, but occasionally others join in – Zoya and for a brief while, Saqib, Nida’s husband. The novel’s depiction of contemporary Pakistani families – the relationship between men and women, parents and children, women and their in-laws – is very beautifully done. I also loved the novel’s depiction of contemporary Pakistani society – the contradictory pictures of the city, the elegance and the poverty, the position of the haves and the have-nots. The life of a hijra and a hijra’s role in culture and society is also depicted very insightfully. I also loved the novel’s depiction of the city of Lahore – the sights, the smells, the noise, the dust, the traffic, the monuments, the beautiful architecture, the history, the contradictions, the poverty, the elegance, the music, the food, the celebrations – the novel takes the reader into the middle of this beautiful city and leaves them there.

Quotes

I loved Faiqa Mansab’s beautiful, gorgeous prose – there were many beautiful lines and insightful passages throughout the book. Here are some of my favourites.

“I was an utterance in absentia. I was a forgotten word, uttered and mislaid long ago. I was the word that existed because there was another word that was my opposite, and without it I was nothing. I gained meaning only by acknowledging that possible other.”

“It is not often that I have two options to choose from. It is nice to be compelled towards something, otherwise one drifts through life unimpeded.”

“I’d morphed, altered, nipped and tucked away bits of my personality for so long, I no longer recognized myself. I feared that one day, even if I wanted to, I wouldn’t be able to identify myself. I’d be forever trapped in an image of another’s making, and there would be no escape because I would have forgotten to want to escape.”

“When death becomes an escape, when it becomes attractive, the purpose of life is fulfilled. To teach one it’s futility, it’s worthlessness, that is the purpose of life. Incongruously, its value lies in having imparted that lesson.”

“In the nights though, I couldn’t help but weave the golden cloth of my dreams. Each stitch from heart to thought, and thought to heart, was painful to bear, even if it was joyous at times. Because each thread was fraught with the fears of being broken midway, lost and never found again.”

“I had never said those words because there were no words left. My beloved and I were both exiles from language. Our love couldn’t be expressed in words. Our love had been woven into the melodies rendered by his flute, and it was subsumed in the atoms of the air we breathed. It had been consecrated in this shrine. It had never been named. It was an unnamed thing that had remained unspoken, unuttered, unsaid. I did not need to name it when he could already hear it.”

Final Thoughts

I loved ‘This House of Clay and Water‘. It is a beautiful, unconventional, unique love story, a spiritual love story. It is also a story about families and human relationships.  It is a brilliant, debut novel and Faiqa Mansab is a fresh, new, exciting voice in Pakistani literary fiction. It is one of my favourite books of the year and I can’t wait to find out what she comes up with next.

Have you read ‘This House of Clay and Water‘? What do you think about it?

Melissa, from ‘The Book Binder’s Daughter’ wrote about her personal canon, her list of alltime favourite books, recently. I saw Aeschylus‘ ‘Agamemnon‘ on the list and I was excited. ‘Agamemnon‘ is the first part of the tragedy ‘The Oresteia‘. I have wanted to read ‘The Oresteia‘ for a long time, and though I knew the story through other sources, I wanted to experience it through the original. But a copy of the book was hard to get. I was excited when I was finally able to get the book, but then I put it in my shelf to be read later. I decided that, that ‘later’ has arrived and it was now and took it down and read it.

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I must be the last person to read ‘The Oresteia‘, but if you haven’t, here is the story. It is filled with spoilers – I am not leaving anything out – and so please be forewarned.

The Oresteia‘ has three parts – Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides. In the first part, Agamemnon who is Menelaus’ brother, returns home after the Trojan war. His wife Klytaimestra (or Clytemnestra as her name is popularly spelt) receives him warmly, but behind his back gets together with one of his enemies and plots to kill him. Her reason for doing that is that Agamemnon sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia at the start of the Trojan war, because the priests told him to. (Clearly George RR Martin borrowed that in ‘Game of Thrones‘!) Klytaimestra could never forgive him for that. Klytaimestra does her dark deed and Agamemnon is dead at the end of part one.

In part two, ‘Libation Bearers‘, Orestes the exiled son of Agamemnon, returns home in disguise to visit his father’s grave. There he bumps into his sister Elektra, who has come there to perform a formal ceremony, pouring libations on her father’s grave. Brother and sister get together and plot against their mother and decide to punish her and avenge their father’s murder. Orestes gets into Agamemnon’s home in disguise as a messenger, is able to get his mother Klytaimestra and her new partner together and kills them both. The second part ends here.

In the third part, ‘Eumenides‘, the Furies, which are dark, really bad creatures which live in dark places, are chasing Orestes. The Furies have a special place in the world of that time – they chase murderers who have killed someone of their own blood and torment them and kill them and continue tormenting them in the after-life. No human, whether king or pauper, who has committed this grievous act is safe from them. Orestes flees from them and asks for help from the god Apollo. Apollo asks him to go to the temple of Athena and pray to her. The Furies chase him down there. Athena arrives too. She hears both sides. Orestes says that he killed his mother because she killed his father. The Furies say that anyone who kills his mother should face the consequences as meted out by the Furies, which was the ancient law. Athena constitutes a court of wise people from Athens, asks both sides to present their case, and asks the jury to vote. They get a hung verdict. Athena has the casting vote and she decides in favour of Orestes. The Furies are enraged. They swear to destroy the city of Athens. But Athena mollifies them, provides them a place of residence there, and elevates them to the status of gods. Everyone lives happily everafter. Except  for Agamemnon and Klytaimestra, of course. Because they are dead.

I loved ‘The Oresteia‘. Though I knew the story through other sources, it was wonderful to experience it through Aeschylus’ original. There are beautiful lines throughout the book and the poetic beauty and elegance of Aeschylus’ lines glows through every page. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be in the original Greek. In one place there was this sentence – “I am bereft of thought’s resourceful care“. It was almost like reading Shakespeare. Then I realized that the Bard had probably borrowed his style from the ancients. In addition to lifting all plots of his plays and eighty percent of his lines from elsewhere, it looks like he also borrowed the style. Thank you, Will, I learn new things about you, everyday 🙂

In a revenge story, we all take sides, and traditionally, Klytaimestra has been regarded as the bad person, atleast from what I know. But when I read the play, it was hard for me to not like her. She was avenging her daughter’s unnecessary death and we could feel the deep pain of her heart, the heart of a mother in mourning. And because of that I was cheering for the Furies in the end. I have never liked the Furies before, and I have always found them scary, but when I read this, I could see their point of view. I loved most of ‘Eumenides‘ because the Furies have a huge part to play in that and they speak some powerful lines.

The end of the play is interesting, because it has always been regarded as the dawn of a new world, with the old giving way to the new, and custom and tradition giving way to the rule of law. But the translator, Michael Ewans puts paid to all such thoughts when he quotes another scholar in his introduction – “the cliché we have heard repeated all our lives, that the Eumenides depicts the transition from the vendetta to the rule of law, is utterly misleading…This trilogy is not an allegory of the evolution of civilization, or of divinity.” That is depressing. But I am a firm believer in Mark Twain’s advice – “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” So, I am going to ignore Ewans’ advice and stick to the popular interpretation, that the end of the Eumenides signifies the dawn of a new era.

I don’t know how Michael Ewans’ translation compares with the others – especially Richmond Lattimore’s and Robert Fagles’ – because I haven’t read the others and I don’t know Ancient Greek, but as a general reader, I liked it. Ewans, in his introduction, talks about how plays were staged in Ancient Greece, how Greek theatre is different from today’s theatre and on the challenges of translating Aeschylus into English. He is an academic in classics who has spent many decades teaching and staging ‘The Oresteia‘ (he says it all started with his doing his PhD in it) and so he must know one or two things about it. I will take that. The edition I read also had notes in the end stretching to more than one hundred pages – nearly half of the book – and it had detailed commentary on the scenes and on how they were probably staged originally and how performers can stage them today. A very useful resource for theatre artists.

I discovered that there are two other plays which cover the same story, but probably from a different perspective. Both of them are called ‘Electra‘. One is by Sophocles and the other is by Euripides. I can’t wait to read them and compare them with ‘The Oresteia‘.

Have you read Aeschylus‘ ‘The Oresteia‘? What do you think about it?

While discussing books recently, one of my friends highly recommended Somerset Maugham’s ‘The Painted Veil‘. I haven’t read a Maugham book in years and I wanted to read ‘The Painted Veil‘ when the movie came out, but couldn’t at that time. Now after my friend gushed about it, I thought I will read it now.

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The story told in the book goes like this. Kitty is married to Walter, a bacteriologist, who is stationed in Hong Kong. They are very different – Walter is the bookish, nerdy type who likes being left alone while Kitty is the social butterfly and likes being with people. Before long Kitty starts having an affair with Charlie, who is the one of the top ranked diplomats there, and is like Walter’s boss. But one day Walter discovers this. Kitty knows he knows. And there is a deathly silence at home. Before long, Walter tells Kitty that he has to go deep inside mainland China to help out, as there is a cholera epidemic there. He hopes Kitty will come with him. When she refuses, he tells her that he knows about her affair and if she doesn’t come with him he will file a case against Charlie. Kitty says that it doesn’t matter and she wants a divorce as she and Charlie are planning to get married. Walter says that he will agree to the divorce if Charlie’s wife agrees to the divorce with Charlie and Charlie promises to marry Kitty within a week of the divorce. Kitty thinks that should be easy. But when she talks to Charlie, she realizes that that is not what Charlie wants. All the sweet nothings he had whispered in her ear were just that – nothings. Now Kitty is caught between the devil and the deep sea – Charlie has abandoned her and Walter is punishing her. She opts for the punishment and goes with Walter to the place deep inside China. And there she meets some fascinating people has some interesting experiences and she undergoes a deep awakening which hasn’t happened to her before. You should read the book to find out what happens to her.

I liked ‘The Painted Veil’ very much. Kitty Fane was not a very likeable character in the beginning, but to be fair to her, in the era she lived, it was hard for a woman to do what she wanted, and Kitty did what she had to, to find love and happiness. She made me think of Scarlett O’Hara, Emma Bovary and Kristin Lavransdatter. I liked the transformation Kitty undergoes in the second part of the book – it is beautifully depicted and we can’t resist falling in love with her. She is still imperfect and flawed as evidenced towards the end of the book, but she knows that now, and it is hard not to love her. In one place she says –

“I think you do me an injustice. It’s not fair to blame me because I was silly and frivolous and vulgar. I was brought up like that. All the girls I know are like that…It’s like reproaching someone who has no ear for music because he’s bored at a symphony concert. Is it fair to blame me because you ascribed to me qualities that I hadn’t got? I never tried to deceive you by pretending I was anything I wasn’t. I was just pretty and gay. You don’t ask for a pearl necklace or a sable coat at a booth in a fair; you ask for a tin trumpet and a toy balloon.”

Such powerful, thought-provoking lines.

I loved many of the other characters too – Walter and the Mother Superior, Sister St Joseph and Waddington who come in the second part of the book. Even Charlie, who is not exactly likeable, has his part to play.

I was expecting a Victorian type happy ending – Kitty and her husband will get back together and live happily ever after – but that was not to be. The actual ending is complex. I won’t tell you what it is – you should read the book to find out. The blurb says that the book was published to a storm of protest and it is not hard to see why. It was published in 1925, and it feels very contemporary today, with respect to the themes it addresses and the way it describes the relationship between women and men. If something feels contemporary today, it must have been in the banned books list or close to that during its time 🙂 Maugham was famous for talking to people, taking detailed notes and fictionalizing actual events and developing them into a novel. He seems to have done that here too and that might be another reason for the storm of protest. Maugham himself says in the preface to the book that he and the publishers were sued when the story was first published and they had to settle and change some of the names to keep the story in print. I wonder what happened to the real world Kitty Fane – I hope she found happiness.

I have read four Maugham novels before – Of Human Bondage, The Moon and Six Pence, The Razor’s Edge and Cakes and Ale. The Painted Veil is my fifth one. I loved all of them. That is 5-0 for Maugham. He must be doing something right.

If you love Maugham’s work and you haven’t read this one, you should. If you have never read a Maugham book or even heard of him, but you don’t mind dipping your toes into the water, you can start with ‘The Painted Veil‘.

Here are some of my favourite passages to give you a feel of the book.

“Beauty is also a gift of God, one of the most rare and precious, and we should be thankful if we are happy enough to possess it and thankful, if we are not, that other possess it for our pleasure.”

“I have an idea that the only thing which makes it possible to regard this world we live in without disgust is the beauty which now and then men create out of the chaos. The pictures they paint, the music they compose, the books they write and the lives they lead. Of all these the richest in beauty is the beautiful life. That is the perfect work of art.”

“But the river, though it flowed so slowly, had still a sense of movement and it gave one a melancholy feeling of the transitoriness of things. Everything passed, and what trace of its passage remained? It seemed to Kitty that they were all, the human race, like the drops of water in the river and they flowed on, each so close to the other and yet so far apart, a nameless flood, to the sea. When all things lasted so short a time and nothing mattered very much, it seemed pitiful that men, attaching an absurd importance to trivial objects, should make themselves and one another so unhappy.”

Have you read ‘The Painted Veil‘? What do you think about it?

I discovered Thomas Savage’sThe Power of the Dog‘ by accident while browsing at the bookshop sometime back. Something pulled me and I got the book. Then it lay on my bookshelf for a few months. Then last week it started calling me and I had to take it out and read it.

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The story told in the book goes like this. Phil and George are two brothers. They own a ranch together, are rich, but lead a simple life. They have been sharing a room since they were kids. Phil is forty, George is two years younger. Both of them are single. Phil is smart, reads sophisticated stuff, can quote Greek and Latin poetry. He is also great at being a rancher, handles the animals well and is nice to the ranch-hands. George is a bit shy, not good with people, but is kind, works hard. So Phil is the cool brother, while George is the nice, but not-so-cool brother. Their lives are nice and comfortable. Then George meets a widow called Rose in the next town. And falls in love with her. She has a teenage son, Peter, whom George likes too. One day George tells Phil that he has married Rose and she will be moving in soon. And that is the end of life as Phil knows it. When Rose moves in, Phil does everything in his power to undermine her. Before long she is into a deep depression and starts drinking. And then Rose’s son Peter comes for summer. After showing him contempt initially, Phil decides that he will take Peter under his wing and turn him against his mother.

What happens? Does Phil succeed in his diabolical plans? How does Rose handle the situation? Which side does George lean on – Phil’s or Rose’s? And what does Peter, who is caught in the middle of all this, do? For answers to these, you have to read the book.

The Power of the Dog‘ is a study of family, on what happens when big changes arrive in unexpected ways. It is also a novel about ranches. Its description of life and work in a ranch feels quite realistic and authentic. It also made me think of David Wroblewski’s ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle‘ which has a similar structure in some ways – two men, a woman and a boy live in a big ranch / farm and there is a lot tension in the air. But the details are different though. There is an interesting afterword to the book by Annie Proulx. One of the things that Proulx says that I found interesting was this – that the book is also about repressed homosexuality. I didn’t find evidence of that when I read the book though – Phil talks a few times about someone he admired called Bronco Henry and later in the story he takes Peter under his wing and shows him a few things. By no stretch of imagination was this evidence of homosexuality. But maybe I am wrong. Maybe when the book came out Thomas Savage gave an interview on what the story was about and maybe he said that it was about repressed homosexuality. Who knows.

I liked ‘The Power of the Dog‘ though I wouldn’t call it one of my favourite books of the year. It was out of print for many years and it was rediscovered in the early 2000s. I am glad it came back in print and I am glad I read it.

Here are some of my favourite passages from the book, so that you can get a feel of what the book looks like.

“George never blamed anybody, a virtue so remote and inhuman it probably accounted for the discomfort people felt in his presence; his silence they took for disapproval and it allowed them no chink to get at him and quarrel with him. His silence left people guilty and they had no chance to dilute their guilt with anger.”

“But what was art if not the arrangement of trivia? What was Cezanne but line and color, Chopin but sound, perfume but calculated orders, crackle of linen but flax? The arrangement, like her piano playing, her careful dressing for dinner each night and the foolish picnic beside the road, was meant to please George.”

Have you read ‘The Power of the Dog‘ What do you think about it?

After watching the James Bond movie ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ last week, I thought I will read the book and compare. Finished reading it today. The basic story goes like this – Bond is driving through some exotic mountain road in Europe. A beautiful woman driving a fast car passes him. Bond tries to catch up with her but he can’t. Later he discovers that she is trying to commit suicide. He saves her. But she doesn’t thank him. She seems to be a troubled soul. Then Bond is kidnapped by some bad guys. It turns out that the kidnapper is a godfather style head of mafia. He is also the beautiful woman Tracy’s father. He asks Bond to marry her. Bond says he will think about it. Meanwhile Bond is in search of his nemesis, the villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, who wants world domination. Bond ends up in the Alps in a research clinic, where Blofeld seems to be the research doctor. There are many beautiful young women in the clinic. They are all attracted to Bond. And then blah, blah, blah. You have read the book or watch the movie to find out more.

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So how does the book compare to the movie? One of my friends says that Bond movies are better than the books. I had mixed opinions on that, but with the evidence of this book, I have to agree. The movie stays faithful to the book mostly, but in many cases the scenes are rearranged in the movie to create a better dramatic effect. For example, in the first scene, the movie improves upon the book. Also, I loved the movie Tracy more than the book Tracy. It helped that Diana Rigg delivered a charming, brilliant performance as Tracy. Also the skiing scenes are breathtaking and spectacular in the movie. And so is the avalanche scene – amazingly spectacular. To be fair to the book, the skiing scenes are pretty well described there – they are very informative. The things where the book scores over the movie are these – in the book, Bond feels like a real person. He is not the cool, stylish Bond of the movie. For example, in the book, when Bond tries to escape from the bad guys by skiing down the Alpine slope, he is not sure whether it is going to work, because he hasn’t done skiing in a long time and he is not great at it. In the movie, Bond just puts on his skis and starts skiing down the Alpine slope like he owns the place and it feels like we are watching  a gold medallist in the winter Olympics in action here. The movie also has other flaws – Blofeld starts as an interesting villain and ends up being like a cartoon villain. Inspite of its flaws, I liked the movie more – the scenes are more dramatic and the scriptwriters have taken liberty with the book in mostly the right ways.

I thought Ian Fleming’s prose was good, but it is passable at best. If I compare Fleming with his Scottish contemporary Alistair MacLean, I feel MacLean was better. MacLean wrote better first pages – his first pages were literary, humorous and spectacular – his prose was gorgeous, he told better stories and the drama and suspense and surprises in his books were better. MacLean’s ‘When Eight Bells Toll’ is better than any Bond novel. I have read it atleast ten times. If you like spy novels, I will recommend highly that you read that. Fleming’s Bond novels are predictable with passable prose. His formula of the handsome British spy who drives fast cars, drinks martinis,  gambles in casinos, charms beautiful women, gets chased by bad guys by cars and boats and planes through exotic locales like Europe and Florida and the Bahamas and how he always wins in the end with the beautiful woman in tow – this must have been irresistible to the readers and movie makers of his time. It is formulaic, predictable, escapist, but it is the kind of reading you might enjoy on the beach on a hot summer day.

Some of the things (mostly useless) that I learnt from the book :

(1) “worry is a dividend paid to disaster before it is due”
(2) Bond uses Pinaud Elixir, the prince among shampoos
(3) “since Victorian days it has been assumed that ladies do not gamble”
(4) “It was true that this Blofeld had held up Britain and America to ransom by his illegal possession of atomic weapons. But this could not be considered a crime under the laws of Switzerland, and particularly not having regard to Article 47B of the banking laws.”
(5) Bond’s father was Scot and his mother was Swiss! (Take that, English folks!)
(6) ‘The World is Not Enough‘ is the motto engraved in the Bond family’s coat of arms. This Bond family might be related to our James Bond, Spy.
(7) Types of British accents – “the broad vowels of Lancashire, the lilt of Wales, the burr of Scotland, the adenoids of refined Cockney”
(8) There are three kinds of peaks in Switzerland – the piz, the alp and the berg. Piz is the smallest, alp is the middle one, berg is the tallest. Sometimes alp and berg are used interchangeably.
(9) Ursula Andress, who played Honey Rider in the first Bond movie ‘Dr.No’, makes an appearance in this story.
(10) “What did one do when the avalanche hit? There was only one rule. Get your hands to your boots and grip your ankles. Then, if you were buried, there was some hope of undoing your skis, being able, perhaps, to burrow your way to the surface…”
(11) Bond’s boss M is an amateur painter as this passage shows – “M had one of the stock bachelor’s hobbies. He painted in water-colour. He painted only the wild orchids of England, in the meticulous and uninspired fashion of the naturalists of the nineteenth century.”
(12) “there is plenty of evidence for the medical efficacy of hypnosis. There are well-authenticated cases of the successful treatment by these means of such stubborn disabilities as…homosexual tendencies.” Well, if you are a gender scholar or activist, you can start kicking Ian Fleming now. Ian, you might be dead for fifty years, but you are in trouble now, buddy 🙂
(13) Bond’s words of wisdom – “Too much money is the worst curse you can lay on anyone’s head. I have enough. Tracy has enough. It will be fun saving up to buy something we want but can’t quite afford. That is the only kind of money to have – not quite enough.”

Well, it is time for me to take a break from escapist summer reading. When the sun gets hotter in May, and nearly melts my brain, I might get back to my next Bond novel. For now, it is time to get back to ‘The Power of the Dog‘ by Thomas Savage, the dark, bleak, depressing kind of book that I read on a normal day. Normal service resumed 🙂

Have you read ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service‘ or watched the movie version? What do you think about it?