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Archive for April, 2017

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?

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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?

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