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Archive for October, 2010

I discovered ‘I Am Legend’ by Richard Matheson during one of my random browsings at the bookstore. At this time, I somehow found myself in front of the shelf which had science fiction books. I found a selection of interesting titles under a collection that the publisher Gollancz had brought out. I sat down in front of the shelf and carefully read the blurb of each of the Gollancz books. Two of them appealed to me and I ended up getting one of them. It was ‘I Am Legend’. Yesterday, I thought that after reading Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, I will read one more book as part of my Halloween reads, and so I picked up ‘I Am Legend’. I finished reading it today.

Before I get into the review, a few words on Gollancz. Gollancz was one of my favourite publishers when I was younger. The Gollancz logo was quite beautiful – it was a multi-pointed star –  and a Gollancz book had a distinctive look – the pages were thick, the font was old-fashioned and it was a pleasure to hold the book, smell the fragrance of the pages and read the old-fashioned font. Unfortunately, Gollancz is no more what it was – it is owned by Hachette now – and from a publishing company, it has been reduced to an imprint. Fortunately, the attractions of a Gollancz book are still there – the multi-pointed star logo still adorns a Gollancz book and the pages are still made of thick paper 🙂 It is sad that these days most of the books that anyone reads in English are published either by Penguin, Random House, Harper Collins or Hachette – atleast the ones I read. Whatever happened to all those small and medium-sized publishers? Do we really want the publishing industry to be so oligarchic?

Now to the review of the book 🙂

Summary of the story

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

A SF novel about vampires…

Robert Neville is the last living man on Earth…but he is not alone. Every other man, woman and child on the planet has become a vampire, and they are hungry for Neville’s blood.

By day he is the hunter, stalking the undead through the ruins of civilization. By night, he barricades himself in his home and prays for the dawn.

How long can one man survive like this?

What I think

I found ‘I Am Legend’ quite interesting. Though the book is about vampires it was published under a science fiction collection, and so I was curious to know how the two genres were blended in the book.

To continue the story in the summary, Robert Neville battles for survival in a world with two species – vampires and humans – with him alone representing the human-side. The vampires try to get at him by night, while he hunts vampires during day. Then he uses reason and tries to find a scientific explanation for the vampiric behaviour of people. He stumbles upon some secrets then. Then he chances upon a real live dog and he is delighted. Then, more surprisingly, he accidentally meets a human being who is alive. He is thrilled. The surprising events which ensue and the twists and turns they go through form the rest of the story.

I liked the way Richard Matheson has blended elements of horror, vampire themes and science fiction in his story. To bring a scientific logic into vampirism was something entirely new and unique. I don’t think anyone had done it before him. With his unique perspective, I think he has changed the way we look at vampires. Of course, this change comes with a cost. Vampires in this book are no longer scary as they were in the early vampire novels like ‘Dracula’. But there are twists and turns in the story which bring the scary element in. The ending of the story is quite interesting and brings out a new perspective to the way we look at things.

‘I Am Legend’ has been adapted to the big screen many times – most recently it was made into a movie starring Will Smith. I am hoping to see one of the adaptations.

I also read in Wikipedia that Richard Matheson’s novel has the same theme as that of Mary Shelley’s ‘The Last Man’. I found that quite intriguing. I can’t wait to read Mary Shelley’s book now. 

Excerpts

 I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book (contains spoilers).

Time the healer

He had no idea how long he’d been there. After a while, though, even the deepest sorrow faltered, even the most penetrating despair lost its scalpel edge. The flagellant’s curse, he thought, to grow inured even to the whip.

The number two

      His unkempt hair rustled on the pillow as he looked toward the clock. Two in the morning. Two days since he’d buried her. Two eyes looking at the clock, two ears picking up the hum of its electric chronology, two lips pressed together, two hands lying on the bed.

      He tried to rid himself of the concept, but everything in the world seemed suddenly to have dropped into a pit of duality, victim to a system of twos. Two people dead, two beds in the room, two hearts that…

      His chest filled with night air, held, then pushed it out and sank abruptly. Two days, two hands, two eyes, two legs, two feet…

Intense hope and monotony

      After the first few weeks of building up intense hope about the dog, it had slowly dawned on him that intense hope was not the answer and never had been. In a world of monotonous horror there could be no salvation in wild dreaming. Horror he had adjusted to. But monotony was the greater obstacle, and he realized it now, understood it at long last. And understanding it seemed to give him a sort of quite peace, a sense of having spread all the cards on his mental table, examined them, and settled conclusively on the desired hand.

      Burying the dog had not been the agony he had supposed it would be. In a way, it was almost like burying threadbare hopes and false excitements. From that day on he learned to accept the dungeon he existed in, neither seeking to escape with sudden derring-do nor beating his pate bloody on its walls.

      And thus resigned, he returned to work.

Hollywood ending and reality

      Simplicity had departed; the dream had faded into disturbing complexity. There had been no wondrous embrace, no magic words spoken. Beyond her name he had got nothing from her. Getting her to the house had been a battle. Getting her to enter had been even worse. She had cried and begged him not to kill her. No matter what he said to her, she kept crying and begging. He had visualized something on the order of a Hollywood production; stars in their eyes, entering the house, arms about each other, fade-out. Instead he had been forced to tug and cajole and argue and scold while she held back. The entrance had been less than romantic. He had to drag her in.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘I Am Legend’. Richard Matheson is an interesting new discovery for me and I am hoping to explore more of his books.

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I discovered ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley when I was in school and got an omnibus of horror novels. The first novel in the omnibus was ‘Frankenstein’. The other two were ‘Dracula’ and ‘Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde’. The book had a cover  with a scary picture of three fearful faces representing each of these creatures. The book also had a foreword by Stephen King. I first read ‘Dracula’, from the omnibus, because it was a story I was intrigued with and then I read ‘Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde’ because it was short. Somehow, I missed reading ‘Frankenstein’, though I remember reading Mary Shelley’s introduction to it, on how she came to write the book, and I found it fascinating. Later, one of my cousins borrowed the book, and as things happen in such cases, she never returned it. A few days back, I thought that in the week leading up to Halloween, I will read some novels which are scary and which have ghosts and supernatural creatures. The first title which leapt up at me was Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’. So, after so many years of procrastination, I thought I will give Mary Shelley a chance. I finished reading ‘Frankenstein’ yesterday, and I have to say that the wait was worth it. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

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

“I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” A summer evening’s ghost stories, lonely insomnia in a moonlit Alpine room, and a runaway imagination – fired by philosophical discussions with Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley about science, galvanism, and the origins of life – conspired to produce for Mary Shelley this haunting night specter. By morning it had become the germ of her Romantic masterpiece, Frankenstein.

Written in 1816, when she was only nineteen, Mary Shelley’s novel of “The Modern Prometheus” chillingly dramatized the dangerous potential of life begotten upon a laboratory table. A frightening creation myth for our own time, Frankenstein remains one of the greatest horror stories ever written and is an undisputed classic of its kind.

What I think

This review is going to be filled with spoilers and so if you are planning to read this book, please consider yourself forewarned.

I found ‘Frankenstein’ quite interesting. For 20th and 21st century readers, who have been brought up on a diet of horror novels and movies, it wasn’t as scary as expected. But if we bear in mind that it was written nearly two hundred years back, when there were no movies, we can imagine how scary it must have been to readers of that era. I had a few misconceptions about the story and the author. For example, I thought that Mary Wollestonecraft, the famous feminist, was the same as Mary Wollestonecraft Shelley, the author of this book. But while reading the potted biography of the author in the book, I discovered that Mary Shelley is actually the daughter of Mary Wollestonecraft. With respect to the book, I had imagined, from the Frankenstein-inspired movies I have seen, that the story would go like this –  a middle-aged doctor would be working on a dead patient’s body and trying to revive him or would be trying to do some research on a body when he discovers how to bring the person back to life. The dead person who comes back to life, would go on a rampage and kill people and would become a terror in the city. The law enforcement authorities would then try to hunt down this monster. This is what I thought the story would be. Mary Shelley’s story is told quite differently.  The start of the story itself is very different. A young man hires a ship, leads a crew and travels to the North Pole on a scientific adventure. During the course of this journey, the ship’s crew finds a haggard man who is fighting for life on an ice floe. The crew rescues him and after many weeks of fever and delirium he recovers. This rescued man tells the story of his life and that is the story of the monster he created. His story goes like this : this young man was once a student of chemistry and natural philosophy. His thoughts are noble and he wants to leave his footprints in the sands of science. So he works from scratch and creates a human-like creature and brings it to life. When it comes to life and he discovers that it is ugly and looks like a monster, he abandons it and runs away. The creature brought into life is confused because it doesn’t know how it came into being and it doesn’t understand the world around. Its attempt to understand the world and discover its maker / parent and the good and not-so-good things it learns, the havoc this wreaks on its psyche and how the creature acts on it forms the rest of the story. The overall story is told through three nested stories – the one narrated by the ship’s captain and explorer Robert Walton, the story told by the scientist Frankenstein and the story told by the Being, Frankenstein created.

When we look at it this way, ‘Frankenstein’ is not just a horror story, but is a  complex fable touching on many issues – on loneliness and being an outsider, on the dangers of fiddling with science, on the responsibilities of parenting, on the ability of individuals and social institutions to nurture people who are different (and use their unique talents to make the a world a richer place rather than pushing them away). From this perspective, many of the themes which the story touches upon are very relevant today. In one way, I am glad that I read ‘Frankenstein’ now rather than when I was younger, because I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate its rich themes then as I am able to, now.

After reading the book, I also read Percy Shelley’s review of it. This is what Shelley said :

Treat a person ill, and he will become wicked. Requite affection with scorn; – let one being be selected, for whatever cause, as the refuse of his kind – divide him, a social being, from society, and you impose upon him the irresistible obligations – malevolence and selfishness. It is thus that, too often in society those who are best qualified to be its benefactors and its ornaments are branded by some accident with scorn, and changed, by neglect and solitude of heart, into a scourge and a curse.

He also says this about the story :

The interest gradually accumulates, and advances towards the conclusion with the accelerated rapidity of a rock rolled down a mountain.

And this :

…the story, like a stream which grows at once more rapid and profound as it proceeds, assumes an irresistible solemnity, and the magnificent energy and swiftness as of a tempest.

I liked the character of the Being created by Frankenstein. One of my favourite scenes in the story is when the Being hides near a house and watches the human inhabitants living their lives and learns and discovers the beautiful facets of the human way of life. Here are a few excerpts from this part of the book.

“The young girl was occupied in arranging the cottage; but presently she took something out of a drawer, which employed her hands, and she sat down beside the old man, who, taking up an instrument, began to play and to produce sounds sweeter than the voice of the thrush or the nightingale. It was a lovely sight, even to me, poor wretch who had never beheld aught beautiful before. The silver hair and benevolent countenance of the aged cottager won my reverence, while the gentle manners of the girl enticed my love. He played a sweet mournful air which I perceived drew tears from the eyes of his amiable companion, of which the old man took no notice, until she sobbed audibly; he then pronounced a few sounds, and the fair creature, leaving her work, knelt at his feet. He raised her and smiled with such kindness and affection that I felt sensations of a peculiar and overpowering nature; they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions.”

“They were not entirely happy. The young man and his companion often went apart and appeared to weep. I saw no cause for their unhappiness, but I was deeply affected by it. If such lovely creatures were miserable, it was less strange that I, an imperfect and solitary being, should be wretched. Yet why were these gentle beings unhappy? They possessed a delightful house (for such it was in my eyes) and every luxury; they had a fire to warm them when chill and delicious viands when hungry; they were dressed in excellent clothes; and still more, they enjoyed one another’s company and speech, interchanging each day looks of affection and kindness. What did their tears imply? Did they really express pain?”

“I learned that the possessions most esteemed by your fellow creatures were high and unsullied descend united with riches. A man might be respected with only one of these advantages, but without either he was considered, except in very rare circumstances, as a vagabond and a slave, doomed to waste his powers for the profits of the chosen few! And what was I? Of my creation and creator I was absolutely ignorant, but I knew that I possessed no money, no friends, no kind of property. I was, besides, endued with a figure hideously deformed and loathsome; I was not even of the same nature as man. I was more agile than they and could subsist upon courser diet; I bore the extremes of heat and cold with less injury to my frame; my stature far exceeded theirs. When I looked around I saw and heard of none like me. Was I, then, a monster, a blot upon the earth, from which all men fled and whom all men disowned?”

I also liked the loving character and beautiful nature of Elizabeth Lavenza who is the fiancée and later, wife of Frankenstein.

Mary Shelley’s introduction to the book describes how she came to write the story. That is an interesting story in itself. She describes how she, her husband the poet Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and his doctor John Polidori were sitting one rainy summer evening inside their home in Switzerland, talking about ghosts and the origin of life, when Lord Byron proposed that each of them write  a ghost story and read it out to the group. (Sitting in front of the fire on rainy summer evenings, discussing the mysteries of life with two of the greatest poets – what a life!). Byron wrote a short ghost story, Polidori wrote one which didn’t look so good (it was called ‘The Vampyre’ and is regarded as the first ever vampire story), Percy Shelley gave up while Mary Shelley continued to think about it. Mary Shelley then goes on to describe how one day when she was in bed in a state between wakefulness and sleep, the conversations they have been having on life and death and ghosts melded together and came out as a vision to her and how she discovered that she had her ghost story then. Mary Shelley was not yet nineteen years when she wrote this book. It is an amazing feat of imagination for a nineteen year old girl.

I liked Mary Shelley’s prose. It had the style of nineteenth century English, which was so different from today’s plain English, with sentences which were a pleasure to read, But interestingly, Mary Shelley didn’t ramble along with long sentences – she typically used short or medium-length sentences. This made it easier for the reader to read those sentences and also enjoy the pleasure of the language. To me, it looked like Mary Shelley had beautifully blended the old and the new styles quite fascinatingly in her story.

I remember in the omnibus edition I had, the book started with this quote from ‘Paradise Lost’ :

Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay

To mould me Man, did I solicit thee

From darkness to promote me?

I remember those lines moving me powerfully when I read them at that time. They moved me so deeply that I memorized them and remember them even now after so many years. I was disappointed that these lines were not there in the edition that I read now.

Excerpts

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

He is so gentle, yet so wise; his mind is so cultivated, and when he speaks, although his words are culled with the choicest art, yet they flow with rapidity and unparalleled eloquence.

…I had contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. It was very different when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand; but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth.

A human being in perfection ought always to preserve a calm and peaceful mind and never to allow passion or a transitory desire to disturb his tranquillity. I do not think that the pursuit of knowledge is an exception to the rule. If the study to which you apply yourself has a tendency to weaken your affections and to destroy your taste for those simple pleasures in which no alloy can possibly mix, then that study is certainly unlawful, that is to say, not befitting the human mind. If this rule were always observed; if no man allowed any pursuit whatsoever to interfere with the tranquillity of his domestic affections, Greece had not been enslaved, Caesar would have spared his country, America would have been discovered more gradually, and the empires of Mexico and Peru had not been destroyed.

“He can no longer be a subject for pity; we must reserve that for his miserable survivors.”

Nothing is more painful to the human mind than, after the feelings have been worked up by a quick succession of events, the dead calmness of inaction and certainty which follows and deprives the soul both of hope and fear.

…yet a man is blind to a thousand minute circumstances which call forth a woman’s sedulous attention.

“Surely it not the custom of Englishmen to receive strangers so inhospitably.”

      “I do not know,” said the man, “what the custom of the English may be, but it is the custom of the Irish to hate villains.”

It is well for the unfortunate to be resigned, but for the guilty there is no peace.

Years will pass, and you will have visitings of despair and yet be tortured by hope.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘Frankenstein’ not because it was a horror story – though it was interesting from that perspective – but for its portrayal of what it is to be an outsider who yearns for love and acceptance, and how the psyche of such an outsider evolves when he is despised by the majority. It is a sad tale which is frightening in some aspects and carries valuable lessons for our 21st century world. I am hoping to read soon, ‘The Last Man’, which is another fascinating work by Mary Shelley.

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I discovered Robert B. Parker through fellow blogger Dolce Bellezza’s post. I haven’t heard of Robert Parker before and so I thought that when I get the chance, I will try reading one of his books. I got a chance to read one of his recent books ‘The Professional’ 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 back cover of the book.

Spenser has never had any difficulty handling women, but when four stunningly beautiful trophy wives hire him to protect them against a blackmailer threatening to expose their infidelities, even he must admit they look like trouble.

      Tracking down the blackmailer poses few problems for a private eye of Spenser’s abilities – and almost in spite of himself Spenser finds that he quite likes the guy. Certainly the women, with their loose purse-strings and looser morals, and their loveless marriages to powerful, corrupt men, are hard to feel sorry for.

      But a killing soon changes the complexion of the case, and draws Spenser into the world of Boston’s monied aristocracy : a world of corruption, vice and murder. As the bodies start to pile up, Spenser must decide which of his friends he can trust.

What I think

I found ‘The Professional’ quite interesting. The story was interesting for a while, and became complex after a while as it was difficult to tell who were the genuinely bad guys. (One reading of this could be the clichéd one – that the world is not made up of good guys and bad guys, but there are many shades of grey in between). The first murder came after 180 pages (it is a 290-page book) and the next one came after another 50 pages. And then the bodies started piling up slowly. The ending was a bit predictable and it was not the most important thing about the book.

From my perspective, the most important thing in the book was Robert Parker’s prose. I enjoyed Robert Parker’s prose. It is minimalistic, filled with dialogues and one has to really mine the book for descriptions. The ratio between dialogues and descriptions would probably be 90% : 10%. Because of the dialogues the story moves at a whirlwind pace. The book also has many one-liners which are a pleasure to read. One could say that Parker’s prose is (Raymond) Chandlersque. Maybe Parker was trying to pay tribute to the master.

Another thing I liked about the book was the character of Dr.Susan Silverman, Psychotherapist and the significant other of Private Eye Spenser. Susan has a Ph.D from Harvard, is not intimidated by Spenser’s associates and acquaintances – though most of them are hitmen or belong to the underworld or are policemen – and gives her own expert analysis of the situation, when Spenser asks for it. The dialogues between Susan and Spenser are some of the best pages in the book.

Excerpts

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

Abigail was twenty minutes late, but I had been trained by Susan, who was always late except when it mattered. And I remained calm.

George and Lenny

The bigger of the two was bald, with biceps that strained against the sleeves of a shiny leather jacket. The other guy was slim and dark, with deep-set eyes and graceful hands.

      “Lemme guess,” I said. “You’re George, and you’re Lenny.”

      The muscular guy looked at the slim guy.

      “He’s being a wiseass,” the dark, slim guy said.

      “Maybe he should stop,” the muscle guy said.

The Paparazzi

I went every day to Pinnacle Fitness. I had to be careful. If I improved my body further, the paparazzi would begin following me.

Looking and not looking good

      “Maybe I should shave my head,” I said.

      “White guys don’t look good with their heads shaved,” Hawk said.

      “Why is that?” I said.

      “Don’t know,” Hawk said. “Don’t look as good with hair, either.”

      “Are you making invidious racial comparisons?” I said.

      “Uh-huh,” Hawk said.

Jewish psychotherapist

      “A little guilt is not always a bad thing,” Susan said.

      “And you a psychotherapist,” I said.

      “I’m also Jewish,” she said.

      “I think that’s a tautology,” I said.

      “Oy,” Susan said.

Making progress…

      “Where you calling from?” Hawk said. “You sound kind of echo-y.”

      “Rowes Wharf,” I said. “I’m looking at the water.”

      “You on your cell phone?” Hawk said.

      “I am,” I said.

      “You dialed it by yo’self?” Hawk said.

      “I did,” I said.

      “Man, you makin’ progress,” Hawk said.

      “Susan’s been helping me,” I said.

      Hawk’s chuckle was very deep as he broke the connection.

Getting more out of a drink

      I drank some scotch. It was clarifying. People always claimed it was a bad sign if you started drinking alone. I always thought to sit quietly and alone and drink a little now and then was valuable. Especially if you have a fire to look at. What was it Churchill said? “I have taken more from alcohol than alcohol has ever taken from me.” Something like that. Good enough for Winnie, I thought, good enough for me.

Attracting attention

      “You want to come with me, Specimen?” I said.

      “Naw,” Hawk said. “I think I sit here and see if I attract the attention of some college girls.”

      “I don’t want to discourage you,” I said. “But no one paid any attention to me when I was here last time.”

      Hawk looked at me silently for a while.

      Then he said, “What that got to do with me?”

Solving a crime

      Then she said, “So how do you solve a crime like this?”

      “You don’t always,” I said.

      “But, I mean, how would you even go about it?” she said. “There’s, like, no clues.”

      “You talk to people,” I said. “You ask them questions. You listen to their answers. You compare what they said to what other people have said. You try to assess body language. You try to listen for tone.”

      “Is that what you’re doing now?” Estelle said.

      “Yes.”

      “How am I doing?” she said.

      “You’re not telling me anything, but it is sort of enjoyable to study your body language.”

      “Enjoyable?”

      “It’s a dandy body,” I said.

      “Oh,” she said. “Thank you.”

Final Thoughts

I liked reading my first Robert Parker book. I think I will try to find and read the first Spenser novel that he wrote (I think it is ‘The Godwulf Manuscript’). It is always a pleasure finding out how the main characters in a series evolved over time.

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After reading a bit of one book after another, in the last ten days, I am still not able to stick to one book, as my mind is not in one place and I am getting distracted quite easily. Today I took down, from my bookshelf, a book called ‘It Must Be Beautiful : Great Equations of Modern Science’, which is a collection of essays on equations edited by Graham Farmelo. I found the concept behind the book quite interesting – trying to bring out the beauty of powerful equations to the general reader – and the contributors who are leading scientists also seem to be wonderful writers. I finished reading the foreword by Farmelo today evening, and it gave me a lot of pleasure. I didn’t know that scientists could write so well – out of nonfiction writers I remember only John Carey (author of ‘What Good are the Arts?’ and editor of ‘The Faber Book of Science’) and Ed Smith (author of ‘What Sport Tells Us about Life’) writing so well. Graham Farmelo belongs to that select group too, in my heart atleast 🙂 I thought you might like to read some excerpts from Farmelo’s foreword.

Poems and Onions

During a radio interview Philip Larkin gave in May 1974 to promote his High Windows collection, he pointed out that a good poem is like an onion. On the outside both are pleasingly smooth and intriguing, and they become more and more so, as their successive layers of meaning are revealed. His aim was to write the perfect onion.

      The poetry of science is in some sense embodied in its great equations and, as the essays in this book demonstrate, these equations can also be peeled. But their layers represent their attributes and consequences, not their meanings.

Poetic Equations

Now a twentieth-century icon, E = mc2 is one of the few things about science that every TV quiz participant is expected to know.

      In common with all great scientific equations, E = mc2 is in many ways similar to a great poem. Just as a perfect sonnet is spoiled if so much as a word or an item of punctuation is changed, not a single detail of a great equation such as E = mc2 can be altered without rendering it useless. E = 3mc2, for example, has nothing whatever to do with nature.

      Great equations also share with the finest poetry an extraordinary power – poetry is the most concise and highly charged form of language, just as the great equations of science are the most succinct form of understanding of the aspect of physical reality they describe. E = mc2 is itself enormously powerful : its few symbols encapsulate knowledge that can be applied to energy conversion, from ones in every cell of every living thing on Earth, to the most distant cosmic explosion. Better yet, it seems to have held good since the beginning of time.

      In the same way as close study of a great equation gradually enables scientists to see things that they initially missed, so repeated readings of a great poem invariably stir new emotions and associations. The great equations are just as rich a stimulus as poetry to the prepared imagination. Shakespeare could no more have foreseen the multiple meanings readers have perceived in ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ than Einstein could have predicted the myriad consequences of his equations of relativity.

“Beauty, thy name is…”

      Of the hundreds of thousands of research scientists who have ever lived, very few have an important scientific equation to their name. Two scientists who were adept at discovering fundamental equations and especially perceptive about the role of mathematics in science were Albert Einstein and the almost comparably brilliant English theoretical physicist Paul Dirac. Neither was a mathematician per se, but both were remarkable in their ability to write down new equations that were as fecund as the greatest poetry. And both men were captivated by the belief that the fundamental equations of physics must be beautiful.

      This may sound strange. The subjective concept of beauty is unwelcome in polite intellectual circles, and certainly has no place in academic critiques of high art. Yet it’s a word that readily comes to the lips of all of us – even to the most pedantic critics – when we are moved by the sight of a smiling baby, a mountain vista, an exquisitely formed orchid. What does it mean to say that an equation is beautiful? Fundamentally, it means that the equation can evoke the same rapture as other things that many of us ddescribe as beautiful. Much like a great work of art, a beautiful equation has among its attributes much more than mere attractiveness – it will have universality, simplicity, inevitability and an elemental power. Think of masterpieces like Cezanne’s Apples and Pears, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, Judi Dench’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth, Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of ‘Manhattan’. During my first experience of each of them, I soon realized that I was in the presence of something monumental in conception, fundamentally pure, free of excrescence and crafted so carefully that its power would be diminished if anything in it were changed.

      An additional quality of a good scientific equation is that it has utilitarian beauty. It must tally with the results of every relevant experiment and, even better, make predictions that no one has made before. This aspect of an equation’s effectiveness is akin to the beauty of a finely engineered machine of the kind we hear about in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, when marine recruit Gomer Pyle starts talking to his rifle (‘Beautiful’, he whispers to it). The besotted Pyle praises its meticulous construction, delighting in the qualities that make it supremely fit for its lethal purpose. It would not be nearly so beautiful if it didn’t work.

“Enjoy the Onions”

      Among my own collection of poetry, on the shelf above my desk, sits a dustless copy of High Windows. I first read it when I was a greenhorn student of subatomic physics, strugling to understand its fundamental equations and to appreciate their beauty. The collection was given to me by a Larkin-loving friend, a student of English literature, just a few days after the collection was published. Her message to me was the same as mine is now to you. ‘Enjoy the onions’.

So beautifully written, isn’t it? 🙂

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Changing perspectives

I read this interesting passage, in a biology book that I am reading now.

The biology community is part of society at large, embedded in the cultural milieu of the times. For example, changing attitudes about career choices have increased the proportion of women in biology, which has in turn affected the emphasis in certain research fields. A few decades ago, for instance, biologists who studied the mating behavior of animals focused mostly on competition among males for access to females. More recent research, however, emphasizes the important role that females play in choosing mates. For example, in many bird species, females prefer the bright coloration that “advertises” a male’s vigorous health, a behavior that enhances the female’s probability of having healthy offspring.

– From ‘Biology’ by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece

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I got ‘A Single Man’ by Christopher Isherwood after reading fellow-blogger Bina’s review of it. I knew about the film ‘A Single Man’ starring Colin Firth and Julianne Moore, which came out last year, but I didn’t know at that time, that it was based on a novel. I had never heard of Christopher Isherwood before and as both the book and the film had got raving reviews, I thought I will try to read the book and watch the movie after that. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

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

In this brilliantly perceptive novel, a middle-aged professor living in California is alienated from his students by differences in age and nationality, and from the rest of society by his homosexuality. Isherwood explores the depths of the human soul and its ability to triumph over loneliness, alienation and loss.

What I think

To extend the story given in the summary, ‘A Single Man’ is about an English literature professor of British origin who works in an American university and who is gay. He has lost his partner Jim recently in an accident. The book describes one day in his life after this had happened and his experiences with the people whom he encounters – his neighbours, strangers, his students, his fellow professors and his best friend Charlotte.

A Single Man’ is a slim novel at around 150 pages. It has beautiful passages in every page leavened with deep insights. The book also depicts the era in which the story takes place – the early 1960s when the Cuban missile crisis broke out –  quite beautifully, through the conversations and thoughts of its characters. Christopher Ishwerwood’s style is like the smooth flow of a river. Or like a sophisticated car gliding down the road, when one doesn’t feels the friction of the road, and the car seems to be floating-gliding on the surface. One of the reviews said this about his style – “He strikes a note of great intimacy with the reader as if with a close personal friend, and a sense of total honesty is sought. This style – witty, observant, nostalgic, exact – was Ishwerwood’s great contribution to modern literature”. Very beautifully put and very true. When I read the book, I loved Isherwood’s style so much that I didn’t want it to end. I also couldn’t stop highlighting passages in nearly every page of the book!

I discovered that the movie version of ‘A Single Man’ was being aired yesterday evening and so I thought I will try to finish the book before watching the movie. I didn’t want the movie to spoil any surprises that the book might have. But, unfortunately, I still had around 28 pages left when the movie started. And unfortunately, it did have some spoilers for me. I was quite interested in finding out how such an introspective book would work in the medium of film. I found that the movie was interesting and well-made. Colin Firth does quite well as the professor George and Julianne Moore does quite well as George’s friend Charlotte. Even the character of George’s partner Jim was depicted interestingly in the movie. I noticed that Jim was wearing a naval officer’s uniform in one of the scenes in the movie, and I was puzzled because there was no mention of Jim’s profession in the movie. Then later in the book, towards the end, I discovered a description of how George and Jim met when Jim had taken a holiday when he was in the navy. I liked the fact that the movie screenplay writers had mined the book for information and had tried to make the movie authentic. On the other hand, I also felt that the screenplay had taken a lot of liberties with the book, some major and some minor, and so the film was quite different in many places – for example, while reading the book I felt that Jim was older but in the film Jim is portrayed as a young man, the book describes Kenneth Potter’s girlfriend Lois as Chinese American, while in the film she is not. There were also things in the film which were neither there in the book nor implied in it – for example things which are imagined in the book by one of the characters are spoken by other characters in the film, scenes which are not there in the book are there in the movie, which makes us viewers think about some of the characters totally differently – which made the movie watching experience different.

Excerpts

I had so many favourite passages in the book, that I found it difficult to choose some of them. I am giving some of my favourites here.

Now

But now isn’t simply now. Now is also a cold reminder; one whole day later than yesterday, one year later than last year. Every now is labeled with its date, rendering all past nows obsolete, until – later or sooner – perhaps – no, not perhaps – quite certainly : It will come.

Silence

      All this while, the tension has been mounting. George has continued to smile at the talkers and to preserve his wonderful provocative melodramatic silence. And now, at last, after nearly four whole minutes, his silence has conquered them. The talking dies down. Those who have already stopped talking shush the others. George has triumphed. But his triumph lasts only for a moment. For now he must break his own spell. Now he must cast off his mysteriousness and stand revealed as that dime-a-dozen thing, a teacher – to whom the class has got to listen, no matter whether he drools or stammers or speaks with the tongue of an angel – that’s neither here nor there. The class has got to listen to George because, by virtue of the powers vested in him by the State of California, he can make them submit to and study even his crassest prejudices, his most irresponsible caprices, as so many valuable clues to the problem : How can I impress, flatter or otherwise con this cantankerous old thing into giving me a good grade?

      Yes, alas, he must spoil everything. Now he must speak.

Happiness

And now, as George pours the vodka and the scotch he begins to feel this utterly mysterious unsensational thing – not bliss, not ecstasy, not joy – just plain happiness – das Glueck, le Bonheur, la felicidad – they have given it all three genders but one has to admit, however grudgingly, that the Spanish are right, it is usually feminine, that’s to say, woman-created. Charley creates it astonishingly often; this doubtless is something else she isn’t aware of, since she can do it even when she herself is miserable.

Love

…rage without resentment, abuse without venom. This is how it will be for them, till the end. Let’s hope they will never be parted, but die in the same hour of the same night, in their beer-stained bed.

On being drunk

But George is drunk in a good way, and one that he seldom achieves. He tries to describe to himself what this kind of drunkenness is like. Well – to put it very crudely – it’s like Plato; it’s a Dialogue. A dialogue between two people. Yes, but not a Platonic dialogue in the hair-splitting, word-twisting, one-up-to-me sense; not a mock-humble bitching-match; not a debate on some dreary set theme. You can talk about anything and change the subject as often as you like. In fact, what really matters is not what you talk about, but the being together in this particular relationship. George can’t imagine having a dialogue of this kind with a woman, because women can only talk in terms of the personal. A man of his own age would do, if there was some sort of polarity; for instance, if he was a Negro. You and your dialogue partner have to be somehow opposites. Why? Because you have to be symbolic figures – like, in this case, Youth and Age. Why do you have to be symbolic? Because the dialogue is by its nature impersonal. It’s a symbolic encounter. It doesn’t involve either party personally. That’s why, in a dialogue, you can say absolutely anything. Even the closest confidence, the deadliest secret, comes out objectively as a mere metaphor or illustration, which could never be used against you.

Familiarity

“What’s so phoney nowadays is all this familiarity. Pretending there isn’t any difference between people – well, like you were saying about minorities, this morning. If you and I are no different, what do we have to give each other? How can we ever be friends?”

Breeding and Bohemianism

The vets themselves, no doubt, would have adjusted pretty well to the original bohemian utopia; maybe some of them would even have taken to painting or writing between hangovers. But their wives explained to them, right from the start and in the very clearest language, that breeding and bohemianism do not mix. For breeding you need a steady job, you need a mortgage, you need credit, you need insurance. And don’t you dare die, either, until the family’s future is provided for.

The pleasures of driving

And now, as he drives, it is as if some kind of autohypnosis exerts itself. We see the face relax, the shoulders unhunch themselves, the body ease itself back into the seat. The reflexes are taking over; the left foot comes down with firm even pressure on the clutch-pedal, while the right prudently feeds in gas. The left hand is light on the wheel; the right slips the gearshift with precision into high. The eyes, moving unhurriedly from road to mirror, mirror to road, calmly measure the distances ahead, behind, to the nearest car….After all, this is no mad chariot race – that’s only how it seems to onlookers or nervous novices – it is a river, sweeping in full flood towards its outlet with a soothing power. There is nothing to fear, as long as you let yourself go with it; indeed, you discover, in the midst of its stream-speed, a sense of indolence and ease.

On Teachers

      Christ, it is sad, sad to see, on quite a few of these faces – young ones particularly – a glum defeated look. Why do they feel this way about their lives? Sure, they are underpaid. Sure, they have no great prospects, in the commercial sense. Sure, they can’t enjoy the bliss of mingling with corporation executives. But isn’t it any consolation to be with students who are still three-quarters alive? Isn’t it some tiny satisfaction to be of use, instead of helping to turn out useless consumer goods? Isn’t it something to know that you belong to one of the few professions of this country which isn’t hopelessly corrupt?

      For these glum ones, apparently not. They would like out, if they dared try. But they have prepared themselves for this job and now they have got to go through with it. They have wasted the time in which they should have been learning to cheat and grab and lie. They have cut themselves off from the majority – the middlemen, the hucksters, the promoters – by laboriously acquiring all this dry, discredited knowledge; discredited, that is to say, by the middleman, because he can get along without it. All the middleman wants are its products, its practical applications. These professors are suckers, he says. What’s the use of knowing something if you don’t make money out of it? And the glum ones more than half agree with him, and feel privately ashamed of not being smart and crooked.

Final Thoughts

I enjoyed reading ‘A Single Man’ and I loved Christopher Isherwood’s luscious prose. I will come back and read my favourite passages from this book again. I also hope to explore other books by Isherwood soon.

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I discovered ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ by Wilson Rawls through fellow blogger Natalya, who said that it was one of her favourite books. I haven’t heard of the book or of the author before and so I thought I will search for it. It was not available in any of the bookstores here (no surprise – it always happens when I search for a specific book). One day I had gone to the library to return books which were lying with me for months. Then I thought I will do some random browsing in the library. When I was browsing through the children’s literature section, out from deep inside the bookshelf, ‘When the Red Fern Grows’ leapt at me! I couldn’t believe it, because I don’t remember the last time I made a surprise discovery in this library. (You can guess by now that my library stocks only popular bestsellers – if you want to get Harry Potter books or the Twilight Series or books by Agatha Christie and Jeffrey Archer and thrillers by Robert Ludlum, this is the place!) I grabbed it immediately and went to a cafe and started reading it. I finished reading it yesterday and here is the review. 

Summary of the story

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

Billy, Old Dan and Little Ann – a boy and his two dogs…A loving threesome, they ranged the dark hills and river bottoms of Cherokee country. Old Dan had the brawn, Little Ann had the brains – and Billy had the will to train them to be the finest hunting team in the valley. Glory and victory were coming to them, but sadness waited too. And close by was the strange and wonderful power that’s only found…where the red fern grows. An exciting tale of love and adventure you’ll never forget.

What I think

‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ is about a boy and his two dogs. This boy, Billy, lives near the Oklahama Ozarks, works with his father in his farm and learns reading, writing and arithmetic from his mother. He loves dogs and he wants two hunting hounds. But, hunting hounds are expensive and his family is not able to afford them. This boy doesn’t give up. He works hard for two years, saves money and with the help of his grandfather buys two hound pups. They are the joy of his life. He trains them and makes them wonderful hunters. His hounds participate in a hunting competition and win prizes. What happens to the boy and his dogs during the course of their hunting adventures form the rest of the story.

‘Where the Red Fern Grows’ is a dog story, but a dog story which is quite different from the ones which are popular today (like ‘Marley and Me’ and ‘The Art of Racing in the Rain’). It is an old-fashioned dog story set in the middle of mountains and forests. It is a story of the pleasures of friendship, of loyalty, of the thrills of hunting, of parting and grief and of the difficult and complex process of growing up. When I read a little bit about the author Wilson Rawls, I discovered that when he was a boy he roamed the Ozarks with his hound. So probably some of the book’s events are inspired by his own experiences.

I read a little bit about the Ozarks in Wikipedia and discovered that it is a region rich with nature, culture and folklore and it has inspired many books and movies. I am hoping to read / see some of them. There is one book in particular which I found quite interesting and really want to read – ‘Pissing in the Snow and other Ozark Folktales’ by folklore historian Vance Randolph, which is a collection of Ozark folklore. It reminded me of Pavel Bazhov’s ‘The Malachite Casket’ which is a collection of Ural folklore, and which is quite famous in Russia.

I enjoyed reading ‘When the Red Fern Grows’. I wish I had discovered it when I was in school. I would have loved it even more.

Excerpts

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

A Good Day

It was one of those days when a man feels good, feels like speaking to his neighbor, is glad to live in a country like ours, proud of his government. You know what I mean, one of those rare days when everything is right and nothing is wrong.

The Girl

The girl pup was small and timid. Her legs and body were short. Her head was small and delicate. She must have been a runt in the litter. I didn’t have to look twice to see that what she lacked in power, she made up in brains. She was a much smarter dog than the boy dog, more sure of herself, more cautious. I knew when the trail became tough, she would be the one to unravel it.

Mama warmed some milk for the pups. They drank until their little tummies were tight and round.

Little Ann and Big Dan

Little Ann took one of her silly spells. She started nipping at the long red tail of Old Dan. Not getting any reaction from him, she jumped over him. She barked at him. He wouldn’t even look at her. She ran around in front of him and laid down in the trail, acting like a cat ready to spring. Stiff-legged, he walked up close to her, stopped, and showed his teeth. I laughed out loud. I knew he wouldn’t bite her any more than he would bite me. He was just acting tough because he was a boy dog.

“Everyone suffers..”

“You’ve done no wrong, Billy,” she said. “I know this seems terrible and I know how it hurts, but at one time or another, everyone suffers. Even the Good Lord suffered while He was here on earth.”

The legend of the Red Fern

I had heard the old Indian legend about the red fern. How a little Indian boy and girl were lost in a blizzard and had frozen to death. In the spring, when they were found, a beautiful red fern had grown up between their two bodies. The story went on to say that only an angel could plant the seeds of a red fern, and that they never died; where one grew, that spot was sacred.

Nostalgia

      I have never been back to the Ozarks. All I have left are my dreams and memories, but if God is willing, some day I’d like to go back – back to those beautiful hills. I’d like to walk again on trails I walked in my boyhood days.

      Once again I’d like to face a mountain breeze and smell the wonderful scent of the redbuds and papaws, and the dogwoods. With my hands I’d like to caress the cool white bark of a sycamore.

      I’d like to take a walk far back in the flinty hills and search for a souvenir, an old double-bitted ax stuck deep in the side of a white oak tree. I know the handle has long since rotted away with time. Perhaps the rusty frame of a coal-oil lantern still hangs there on the blade.

      I’d like to see the old home place, the barn and the rail fences. I’d like to pause under the beautiful red oaks where my sisters and I played in our childhood. I’d like to walk up the hillside to the graves of my dogs.

      I’m sure the red fern has grown and has completely covered the two little mounds. I know it is still there, hiding its secret beneath those long, red leaves, but it wouldn’t be hidden from me for part of my life is buried there, too.

      Yes, I know it is still there, for in my heart I believe the legend of the sacred red fern.

Final Thoughts

If you love dogs and like children’s literature, you will enjoy ‘Where the Red Fern Grows’.

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