Archive for December, 2009

I haven’t read any of Dickens’ shorter works before and I thought this was a good time to try reading one of them. I got inspired by some of my friends’ suggestions and decided to read ‘A Christmas Carol’. I read it in one sitting today. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below a summary of the story as given in the back cover.

Scrooge is a mean old man with no friends or family to love him – he’s just so miserable and bitter! One freezing cold Christmas Eve, Marley’s Ghost pays Scrooge a visit and an eerie night-time journey begins. The Christmas spirits are here to show Scrooge the error of his nasty ways. By visiting his past, present and future, will Scrooge learn to love Christmas and the others around him?

What I think

I had seen a movie version of ‘A Christmas Carol’ before called ‘Scrooged’ and it was nice to read the story in the original. I liked it very much. I first came across the name of Scrooge in Disney comics, which I used to read when I was in school, in which Uncle Scrooge is a famous character, who is rich and miserly, and who is also the uncle of Donald Duck. It was interesting to discover that Uncle Scrooge was based on the main character of ‘A Christmas Carol’. The book also made me remember some of the real-world Scrooges whom I have met – who kept their money in the bank and didn’t like spending a penny, who didn’t know how to enjoy life and refused to let others enjoy their lives. But, when we read the book, we sympathize with Scrooge. The story also made me remember a quote from a movie I saw sometime back called ‘The Peaceful Warrior’ in which one of the lead characters says : “The ones that are hardest to love are the ones that need it the most.” It was also interesting to know from the book that Charles Dickens made the phrase, ‘dead as a doornail’‘, popular, through this book. (It is also the title of one of Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels in the Sookie Stackhouse series).

In his introduction to this book, Anthony Horowitz, who writes children books, says this about Dickens, which I found quite interesting :

I didn’t always love Charles Dickens. The first book of his that I read – it was Hard Times – landed on my desk with a dull thud and a small cloud of dust when I was at school, aged about sixteen, and I’m afraid I found it very heavy-going. The industrial setting was grim and depressing. The author seemed to use an awful lot of words to tell his story, and quite a lot of those words had far too many syllables for my liking. There were too many pages. It all felt too much like hard work.

That’s the trouble with Dickens. People think of him as a ‘great’ writer, which can be a little off-putting. He has a nasty habit of turning up in English Literature exams…definitely not an enjoyable experience. And the honest truth is that if you read him too early, you can be turned off him for life – which is a great pity.

Because what is really great about Dickens is that he was a wonderful storyteller with ghosts, murderers, lunatics, lovers, revolting villains, dashing heroes, eccentric aunts and lovable rogues across the pages. He created a huge cast of unforgettable characters, many of whom are still famous all over the world.

Favourite Lines

I am giving below some of my favourite lines from the book.

And yet I should have clearly liked, I own, to have touched her lips; to have questioned her, that she might have opened them; to have looked upon the lashes of her downcast eyes, and never raised a blush; to have let loose waves of hair, an inch of which would be a keepsake beyond price: in short, I should have liked, I do confess, to have had the lightest licence of a child, and yet been man enough to know its value.

It is a fair, even-handed, noble adjustment of things, that while there is infection in disease and sorrow, there is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good-humour.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘A Christmas Carol’. As Horowitz says in his introduction : “it’s a perfect book to dip into, to get a first taste of Dickens. It’s short. It’s easy to read. And although you may think you know the story, it may still surprise you.”

If you haven’t read Dickens before and would like to start with one of his smaller works, this well-loved beautiful story is a good place to start.

You can also read a review of this book by fellow book-blogger Kelly here.

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Whenever I start reading a book, the first thing I do is read the blurb – on the back cover, the inside flap and the praises showered on the book and the writer by different reviewers and writers. I do it out of a force of habit. Most of the time the praise is glowing and exaggerated and not interesting. But once in a while, I stumble upon a comment which is beautiful – because of the language the reviewer has used – or which makes me nostalgic or makes me smile. Most of these praises are sung in honour of the author or the book or in the case of biographies, the personality on whom the book is based on. Whenever I have discovered these delightful gems, I have felt that these short lines offer an education in the art of praise in its most refined form.

I thought I will share the pleasure I get from these delightful gems which showcase the art of praise. So, here are some of the best ones that I saw recently. Hope you enjoy reading them.

“Everything that has been said about Le Guin – that she is a lush prose stylist, that she is a poet in every line, that her books make readers think and thinkers read – is here on display in her newest Hainish novel. It is elegant, elegaic, enormously compressed…and simply pulls the readers along. Not in the hobbledehoy pace of major page-turners but in the graceful elliptical manner of one of the Old Tellers.”

– Jane Yolen, author of Briar Rose
(on Ursula Le Guin’s novel ‘The Telling’ as quoted in the first page of Le Guin’s ‘The Left Hand of Darkness’)

“Critics have variously likened him to Raymond Carver, Raymond Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke, Don DeLillo, Philip K. Dick, Bret Easton Ellis and Thomas Pynchon – a roster so ill assorted as to suggest Murakami is in fact an original.”
– New York Times
(as given in the back cover of Haruki Murakami‘s ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’)

“There were many rumours about Keith, and they were all true…”
– Richie Benaud on Keith Miller
(as given in the back cover of ‘Keith Miller : The Life of a great all-rounder’ by Roland Perry)

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My Favourite Economist

I normally don’t write a post like this – which has got nothing to do with books, literature or sport, but I thought I will make an exception today. I read in the newspaper today that Paul Samuelson, the revered American economist passed away during the weekend. It was sad news, because Samuelson was one of the academics and economists my friends and I admired the most, when we were students. Economics is not a good profession to be in today because leading economists are ridiculed for not having been able to predict the big economic depression that descended last year. Many people probably question what is the use of a field, which calls itself a science, but which is not able to do what a scientific field should – predict what happens when a particular set of conditions exist. But in those starry-eyed student days, some of the economists were our heroes and Paul Samuelson was the superstar who towered above all of them.

Paul Samuelson was a genius and an allrounder – he was to Economics what Gary Sobers was to Cricket. (Pardon me for the cricket analogy – if you are not a cricket fan, you can replace Gary Sobers with Roger Federer, Rod Laver, Steffi Graf, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens, Michael Johnson, Daley Thompson or Jackie Joyner Kersee). Or a different way of saying that would be that he was the Newton of Economics. He did important work in multiple areas of economics and sometimes created new branches of economics because of his innovative work and left his stamp in each of them – something which is extremely difficult to do in these days of specialization. He was also the first to use rigorous mathematics in economics to showcase a particular idea. Before Samuelson, most economists wrote verbal descriptions of theories, and mathematical models were frowned upon. Samuelson changed all that.

Samuelson also headed the newly setup Economics department of MIT and built it into an institution which produced a succession of Nobel Laureates. He led the trend by becoming the first American Nobel prize winner of Economics, and many of his students went on to emulate their teacher. Samuelson’s pioneering textbook on economics for college students, which was published more than 60 years back, continues to be the most important economic textbook for students and the textbook most used by teachers. I have a few editions of it – I got the last one a couple of years back 🙂 In the book, in the last passage of the introduction, Samuelson says : “As you begin your journey into the land of markets, it would be understandable if you are anxious. But take heart. The fact is that we envy you, the beginning student, as you set out to explore the exciting world of economics for the first time. This is a thrill that, alas, you can experience only once in a lifetime. So, as you embark, we wish you bon voyage!” These words have inspired generations of students (including me) to study economics.

I don’t know much about Samuelson’s life and what his political and social views were. But I know one thing – he was, is and will be a legend in his field. For generations of students, he was the one who gave economics its sex-appeal, and inspired novices like me to dream of becoming an economist. He is one of my heroes. How I wish I were still that age, when I was a student – when being a student was fun, and academics and professors and Nobel prize winners were our heroes and heroines.

Hope Samuelson is watching the world from the Elysian fields and smiling at how new students are discovering his favourite subject and how his successors in his chosen profession are pushing the frontiers of knowledge into exciting new terrain.

You can read a tribute to Samuelson on NYT here.

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I discovered ‘Walkabout’ by James Vance Marshall, when I was browsing books in the children / YA literature section of the bookshop recently. When I read the blurb, I discovered that the story was set in Australia. It looked quite enticing and so I thought that I will get it and read it. I started reading it yesterday evening and finished it in one sitting. Here is the review. I will say something here before I continue. Please pardon me for the length of my review. I tend to write more about things that I like. I hope that is a good excuse 🙂

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover.

Mary and Peter are the only survivors of a plane crash in the middle of the Australian desert. They are exhausted and starving when they meet an Aboriginal boy who helps them to survive. But an inevitable clash of cultures leads to a tragic misunderstanding.

Julia Eccleshare says this in her introduction to the book :

At its heart this is a story of survival – two children, stranded in the Australian outback when their plane crashes, must find food, water and shelter if they are to stay alive – but Walkabout is also much, much more than that. It’s a journey of emotional enrichment that takes Mary and Peter from knowing only the simple stereotypes of their upbringing to a new appreciation of a great deal that was previously unknown.

What I think

I enjoyed reading ‘Walkabout’ very much. It was an undiscovered treasure for me. James Vance Marshall’s prose is easy to read and the story is interesting from the beginning till the end. The book reminded me in some ways of ‘The Coral Island’ by R.M.Ballantyne (it was one of my favourite books, when I was in school) – because that was also a story of children who were stranded in an island. The difference was that in ‘Walkabout’ the children are stranded in the middle of a continent, and this part of the continent is so desolate, that it is similar to being stranded in an island. There is a description of this in one of the early chapters, which goes like this.

Sturt Plain, where the aircraft had crashed, is in the centre of the Northern Territory. It is roughly the size of England and Wales combined; but instead of some 45,000,000 inhabitants, it has roughly 4,500, and instead of some 200,000 roads, it has two, of which one is a fair-weather stock route. Most of the inhabitants are grouped around three or four small towns – Tennant Creek, Hooker Creek, and Daly Waters – which means that the rest of the area is virtually uninhabited. The Plain is fourteen hundred miles from Adelaide and is not a good place to be lost in.

It is quite interesting that, though we think today, that most of the world is known and is inhabited by people, there are parts of the world which are still uninhabited and are desolate and wild. ‘Walkabout‘ was published fifty years back, and so things might have changed today in Northern Territory, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are still desolate and wild lands out there. (more…)

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I discovered Madeleine L’Engle’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ through my fellow book blogger, Emily, who recommended it very much (You can read her post on Madeleine L’Engle, here). When I went to the bookshop to get Christmas and New Year cards, I decided to spend sometime in the children’s / YA (Young Adult) section of the bookshop. There, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ leapt at me 🙂 I started reading it day before yesterday. The prose was easy to read and the story was fast-paced and I finished it yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the introduction to the book, by Julia Eccleshare.

Meg needs to find her father. His disappearance is mysterious and inexplicable. Nasty teachers and school friends hint at him just taking off and leaving his family; but Meg knows better and she is determined that he’ll come home – even if it means she’ll have to travel through time and space to find him.
And that is just what she does. Accompanied by her new friend Calvin and her little brother Charles Wallace, both of whom have very unusual powers, Meg sets off with Mrs Whatsit, Mrs Who and Mrs Which, three strange neighbours who promise to help. It’s a journey fraught with danger. Survival depends on relying both on intelligence – of the most questioning scientific kind – and love.
Written almost half a century ago, A Wrinkle in Time is a journey through time itself, and stands the test of time quite remarkably. Helped by adaptations for television and other media, it has sold over eight million copies worldwide, making Madeleine L’Engle, who died in 2007, one of the bestselling and best-loved American children’s authors. (more…)

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