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Archive for December, 2017

I discovered ‘Princeless‘ through my friend Bina from WOC Reads, who has been recommending it for years. I finally got a chance to read it today.

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The first scene in the story depicts a fairytale, like Rapunzel. A princess with golden hair is imprisoned in a tower, which is guarded by a dragon. One day a brave prince arrives, fights with the dragon and kills it, and saves the princess. The prince and the princess get married and live happily ever after. We have read many fairytales like this. In the next scene, we discover that the princess of our story, Adrienne, is reading this popular fairytale. She calls it hogwash and finds a lot of plot holes in it. Adrienne, contrary to the popular image of a princess, is dark haired and dark skinned. But, unfortunately, when she turns sixteen, the exact same fate befalls her – her parents put her in a tower and put a dragon outside to guard her. When a prince comes in search of her, the dragon eats him. The princess is frustrated with this clich├ęd fairytale life. Then one day, she finds something interesting under her bed. By that time, she and the dragon are friends. And then instead of sitting in the tower waiting for a prince charming, she and the dragon decide to do something. What follows is a cool, stylish, rip-roaring adventure, the likes of which we have never seen.

I loved ‘Princeless‘. It takes the traditional fairytale, turns it upside down, and creates something new and beautiful and charming. If you are tired of traditional fairytales in which the princess is saved by the prince, and have wanted to read a new type of fairytale, in which the princess take charge and does her own thing, this is that book. It is contemporary, modern, empowering and stylish. Get it today and read it. And gift it to your daughter. And your son.

Have you read ‘Princeless‘? What do you think about it?

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I have wanted to read Adichie’sDear Ijeawale‘ for a while now. I got it as a Christmas present yesterday. I couldn’t resist taking it out today and I read it in one breath.

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Adichie explains at the beginning, the way she came to write this book-essay. One of her friends became a mother and asked Adichie to advise her on how she could raise her daughter as a feminist. Adichie was hesitant because she was not sure she was the right person to give that advice. But then she decided to write to her friend what she thought about it. That letter is this book.

The book is short at around 60 pages. It can be read in one sitting. I loved all the fifteen suggestions, each page, and every line. My highlighting pen was working overtime and it didn’t know when to stop. In the book, Adichie covers most of the things that a parent of a girl baby will think about and worry about. The advice she gives is insightful, wise, brilliant, inspiring, nuanced. It is beautiful.

Instead of writing more about the book, I will share some of my favourite passages from it, to give you a flavour of the book. There are too many of them and so this is just a random selection of my favourites.

On Sharing Child Care

“Share child care equally. ‘Equally’ of course depends on you both, and you will have to work it out, paying equal attention to each person’s needs. It does not have to mean a literal fifty-fifty or a day-by-day score-keeping but you’ll know when the child-care work is equally shared. You’ll know by your lack of resentment. Because when there is true equality, resentment does not exist.”

On Reverence and Equality

“Tell Chizalum that women actually don’t need to be championed and revered; they just need to be treated as equal human beings. There is a patronizing undertone to the idea of women needing to be ‘championed and revered’ because they are women. It makes me think of chivalry, and the premise of chivalry is female weakness.”

On Marriage

“Never speak of marriage as an achievement. Find ways to make clear to her that marriage is not an achievement, nor is it what she should aspire to. A marriage can be happy or unhappy, but it is not an achievement.
      We condition girls to aspire to marriage and we do not condition boys to aspire to marriage, and so there is already a terrible imbalance at the start. The girls will grow up to be women preoccupied with marriage. The boys will grow up to be men who are not preoccupied with marriage. The women marry those men. The relationship is automatically uneven because the institution matters more to the one than the other. Is it any wonder that, in so many marriages, women sacrifice more, at a loss to themselves, because they have to constantly maintain an uneven exchange?”

On Keeping One’s Name

      “Even some friends made statements like ‘You are successful and so it is OK to keep your name.’ Which made me wonder : why does a woman have to be successful at work in order to justify keeping her name?
      The truth is that I have not kept my name because I am successful. Had I not had the good fortune to be published and widely read, I would still have kept my name. I have kept my name because it is my name. I have kept my name because I like my name.”

On Feminism and Femininity

“If she likes make-up, let her wear it. If she likes fashion, let her dress up. But if she doesn’t like either, let her be. Don’t think that raising her feminist means forcing her to reject femininity. Feminism and femininity are not mutually exclusive.”

On Opinions

      “Please note that I am not suggesting that you raise her to be ‘non-judgemental’, which is a commonly used expression these days, and which slightly worries me. The general sentiment behind the idea is a fine one, but ‘non-judgemental’ can easily devolve into meaning ‘don’t have an opinion about anything’ or ‘I keep my opinions to myself’. And so, instead of that, what I hope for Chizalum is this : that she will be full of opinions, and that her opinions will come from an informed, humane and broad-minded place.”

I must be the last person to read ‘Dear Ijeawale’, but if you haven’t read it yet, please get it and read it now. It is a beautiful, brilliant, inspiring book.

Have you read ‘Dear Ijeawale‘? What do you think about it?

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I have had this graphic guide to feminism for a while and have dipped into it from time to time, but today I thought I will read it properly from the beginning till the end.

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The book starts with a definition of ‘feminism’ and other important terms and then describes how feminist thought evolved from the middle of the 16th century. It describes the development of feminist thinking and the fight for equal rights across the centuries. It covers most of the important moments – Mary Wollstonecraft’s pioneering book, the fight for the right to property, the right to keep one’s earnings, the right of a divorced mother for access to her children, the right to vote, the right to higher education, the right to professions which were closed to women, women’s suffrage, First Wave Feminism, Second Wave Feminism – and brings the discussion till today’s time, at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Many of the important personalities who were part of the feminist movement are portrayed beautifully and realistically. I have dipped into this book before and knew about many of the things that it described, but it was wonderful to read about it all in one place – it was a huge educational experience. I found that there was a big difference between First Wave Feminism and Second Wave Feminism as described in the book. While the former described how feminists fought for rights and there was a lot of action there, the latter involved a publication of a lot of books and that part of the book and the movement was more about how feminist thought evolved. One of the things I loved about the book was that if a feminist said one thing at some point and said the opposite a decade later, the book highlighted that. Thus the book didn’t shy away from controversy and depicted the real world as it was – beautiful and imperfect. So, though the book was a graphic guide, it was not simplistic – it was complex and nuanced.

There are some limitations in the book though. It talks mostly about Anglo-American feminism. The authors are conscious of that, and the book mentions that in the first page. So, though there are mentions of feminists from other countries – Simone de Beauvoir gets good coverage (can’t ignore her), and there is mention of Nawal El Saadawi, Fatima Mernissi, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Gayatri Spivak – those pages are few and far between.

A couple of big things that I think the book missed are these. The first was the day that Icelandic women went on strike in 1975, fighting for equal rights and which brought about huge change in the laws of that country. Reading about it gives us goosebumps even today. That was a very important event not covered in the book. The second one was Billie Jean King and the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ match she played with Bobby Riggs. I think that was an important moment. Another important event was how Billie Jean King and her fellow women players founded the WTA, making it probably the only sport where women players run the show themselves and how they have nurtured it and made it thrive and become a huge success across the decades. This is one of the huge, feminist (in my opinion) success stories which has been missed in the book.

I have a wishlist for a book on feminism. The first thing is it should cover contemporary issues – in today’s world of the Women’s March and the #MeToo hashtag, we need coverage of these important contemporary events and discussions. The second thing is that the coverage should be global. Feminism means different things to people in different parts of the world. That diversity should come out in the pages of the book. In some countries, the issue is not equality in terms of legal rights, because equality is enshrined in the law. But the issue is more on the ground, where even though a woman has equal rights as a man according to the law, she really can’t pursue an education that she wants, pursue a career she is interested in, marry a person she likes. The family, community, society all exert pressure on a woman – sometimes emotionally and psychologically and sometimes violently – and prevent her from enjoying and exerting her legal rights. This situation requires a more complex battle for equality and freedom. The third thing I would like the book to explore would be the interesting things that happened in some countries which are normally not talked about. For example, the first woman pilot who fought in a war was Russian. The first woman astronaut who went to space was Russian. How did it happen that Russians turned out to be pioneers in gender equality much ahead of other countries, atleast in some areas? How did it happen that there is more gender equality in China (a Communist country) than in Japan (a capitalist country)? How is it that countries where there is better gender equality on the ground, struggle to elect a woman head of state, while countries where gender equality on the ground needs more progress, select women heads of state effortlessly? Why is there this contradiction? I would also like the book to talk about pioneering women, who defied the social norms of their time and the hostility of the patriarchy and achieved great things in their respective fields and contributed greatly to the feminist cause, though they might not have called themselves feminists or they may not have been well read in feminist thought. Well, that is my wishlist. Hope somebody writes that book. Hope one of my feminist friends who is reading this will give it a try.

Introducing Feminism – A Graphic Guide‘ is a wonderful introduction to feminism. It uses the comic format effectively and it is sophisticated, complex and nuanced. It has limitations, but that is to be expected in an introductory book on this subject. If you want to read about feminism, but have been intimidated by the classics written by feminist scholars, this book is a wonderful place to start. It is also a great book to gift to your daughter and son.

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

Feminism :

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Patriarchy :

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Harriet Martineau :

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Virginia Woolf :

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Post Feminism :

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Sojourner Truth :

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Alice Walker :

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Have you read ‘Introducing Feminism – A Graphic Guide‘? What do you think about it?

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I discovered Toni Morrison’sThe Origin of Others‘ when I visited the bookshop for Christmas shopping last weekend. It was slim, had big font, covered important contemporary themes in Toni Morrison’s powerful voice, and had an introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It was too tempting to resist. And last but not the least, it had this awesome cover. Doesn’t Toni Morrison look majestic in that picture? I can’t stop looking at it! It gives me goosebumps!

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I took out ‘The Origin of Others‘ yesterday, and didn’t go to sleep till I finished reading it. This book is based on lectures that Toni Morrison gave early last year. In the book, Morrison explores the idea of why, as human beings, we love employing an ‘Us vs Them’ way of thinking and differentiate some people as ‘others’ and ignore them and discriminate against them and sometimes indulge in violence against them. She also looks at how literature aids this behaviour and surreptitiously makes us discriminate against people we regard as ‘others’. While discussing the way literature biases our outlook, Morrison picks some of the finest writers – Harriet Beecher Stowe, Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway – and gently pokes a finger at them. Sometimes this gentle poke is more forceful. For example, she says this about Flannery O’Connor – “Flannery O’Connor exhibits with honesty and profound perception her understanding of the stranger, the outcast, the Other.” If we think that what is going to come next is some good praise for Flannery O’Connor, we would be mistaken. Morrison doesn’t spare herself when she looks at a particular situation when she regarded someone as the ‘other’ and has unfair expectations from this person. Morrison also talks about a book which she describes in glowing terms, in which the roles of the insider and the other are reversed – Camara Laye’sThe Radiance of the King‘. I want to read that book now.

Morrison’s book has six chapters which address different aspects of the theme of ‘the other’ – ‘Romancing Slavery‘ which talks about how people justified slavery and propagated it and how the legal system defended it, ‘Being or Becoming a Stranger‘ which describes how a person becomes an outsider or is come to be regarded as one, ‘The Color Fetish‘ which describes how literature employs skin colour to drive the narrative, ‘Configurations of Blackness‘ which explores the definition of ‘black’ and how people differentiate between different types of blackness, ‘Narrating the Other‘ which describes how literature describes the ‘other’, including first person memoirs of slaves and outsiders’ accounts, ‘The Foreigner’s Home‘ which talks about what happens when the role of insider and outsider are reversed and also addresses the globalization and migration that is happening today. During the course of the book, Morrison talks about memoirs of slaves, stories of escaped slaves and the fate that awaits them, and memoirs of plantation owners in which these owners casually describe the way they treated slaves with indignity. Morrison quotes from some of these books and articles, and it is heartbreaking to read.

I loved all the chapters, essays, in the book, though I loved the first half of the book more than the second – I felt the first half was stronger and Toni Morrison was more in her element there. The book has a brilliant introduction by Ta-Nehisi Coates in which he beautifully argues why this book is important today, when we are living in these challenging times. I remember Francis Fukuyama wrote a book called ‘The End of History and the Last Man‘ at the end of the Cold War era, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. That book implied that, from then on, human beings will get together and live happily ever after. Well, things haven’t gotten any better, and Fukuyama’s book sounds laughable now. Toni Morrison shows how some of the oldest biases from across the centuries, probably from the earliest days of humankind, are still alive and kicking, and have put down roots in new and sophisticated ways, and how our challenges are still immense in rooting them out to reach that happily-ever-after state we yearn for.

I loved ‘The Origin of Others‘. It is wise, perceptive, brilliant and a must read for our times. I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

The first passage in the book, which made me smile and gave me goosebumps :

“We still played on the floor, my sister and I, so it must have been 1932 or 1933 when we heard she was coming. Millicent McTeer, our great-grandmother. An often quoted legend, she was scheduled to visit all of the relatives’ houses in the neighborhood. She lived in Michigan, a much-sought-after midwife. Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room : without urging, all the males stood up.”

This insightful passage :

“How does one become a racist, a sexist? Since no one is born a racist and there is no fetal predisposition to sexism, one learns Othering not by lecture or instruction but by example.”

And my most favourite passage in the whole book :

“It took some time for me to understand my unreasonable claims on that fisherwoman. To understand that I was longing for and missing some aspect of myself, and that there are no strangers. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we have not embraced, most of which we wish to protect ourselves from. For the stranger is not foreign, she is random; not alien but remembered; and it is the randomness of the encounter with our already known – although unacknowledged – selves that summons a ripple of alarm. That makes us reject the figure and the emotions it provokes – especially when these emotions are profound. It is also what makes us want to own, govern, and administrate the Other. To romance her, if we can, back into our own mirrors. In either instance (of alarm or false reverence), we deny her personhood, the specific individuality we insist upon for ourselves.”

Have you read ‘The Origin of Others‘? What do you think about it?

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I got this collection of poems by Hermann Hesse as a Christmas present from one of my favourite friends. I didn’t know that Hesse wrote poems, till I saw this book.

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This book has 31 poems in bilingual form, with the original German version on the left and the English translation on the right. The poems are about love, loss, friendship, war, the yearning for a beautiful, mythical, innocent past, imaginary cities, the beauty of nature, about nights and dreams, about life and death. The poems are beautiful, lyrical, poignant. It is to be expected because it is Hesse. When Hesse pokes his finger gently at modernity and technology and today’s godless world, irrespective of our beliefs, we can’t resist taking his side. For example, when he says this :

“Nobody knows you, my friend; this new age had driven
Far away from the silent magic of Greece.
Without prayer, and cheated out of gods,
People stroll reasonably in the dust.”

And when he says this :

“But we, your younger brothers,
Stagger godless through a confusing life,
Our trembling souls stand eagerly, opened
To all the sufferings of passion,
To every burning desire.”

There are beautiful lines throughout the book, like this :

“To listen to the song forever in blessed pain”

and this :

“The summer lightning of shy human friendship”

and this :

“But sleep has turned into a frightened bird,
Difficult to catch, to hold, yet easy to kill;”

And thought-provoking lines like this :

“And one day you will know
That the sweet breath of this life,
The precious possession of the heartbeat,
Is only a loan”

and this :

“And that for every hair on your head
Somebody endured one struggle, one pain, one death.”

And inspiring lines like this :

“And as flowers die,
So we die, too,
Only the death of deliverance,
Only the death of rebirth.”

And these lines were so beautiful that they made me cry :

“But the mild night,
That bows with its gentle clouds above me,
Has my mother’s face,
Kisses me, smiling, with inexhaustible love,
Shakes her head dreamily
As she used to do, and her hair
Waves through the world, and within it
The thousand stars, shuddering, turn pale.”

I loved most of the poems in the book. It was vintage Hesse. There is a translator’s note at the beginning of the book which is five pages long. In that note, the translator James Wright, talks about what is the common theme among the poems of the book, and brings forth examples and supporting evidence to build his case, including excerpts of a review of Hesse’s ‘Narcissus and Goldmund‘ and an excerpt from Hesse’s ‘Steppenwolf‘. (In case, you are curious, Wright says that the common theme binding the poems in the book is homesickness and argues elegantly on why that is the case. He ends that discussion with these beautiful lines – “That is what I think Hesse’s poetry is about. He is homesick. But what is home? I do not know the answer, but I cherish Hesse because he at least knew how to ask the question.“) This ‘translator’s note’ is one of the most brilliant introductions to a poetry collection that I have ever read – it is accessible and insightful. And I have to repeat it again, brilliant.

I loved reading this collection of Hermann Hesse’s poems. I am delighted to discover that one of my favourite novelists wrote poetry too. I can’t wait to read more of his poems now. If you like Hesse’s novels, you will like this.

Have you read this collection of Hermann Hesse’s poems? What do you think about it?

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I got ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales‘ by Dylan Thomas from one of my favourite friends as a Christmas present. If you don’t know Dylan Thomas, he was the poet who wrote that powerful poem, ‘Do not go gentle into that good night‘.

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In this book, Dylan Thomas describes a typical Christmas that his family celebrated during his childhood in Wales – he describes how all Christmases merged into one another and were very similar, how his whole family and uncles and aunts and cousins all came together and celebrated, how in one year a neighbour’s house caught fire which led to a lot of excitement, how they waited for the postman to deliver packages which contained presents and how excited they were to open them, how it snowed outside and everything was white and they made snowballs and threw them at their cats, how Dylan Thomas blew up balloons till they burst and woke up uncles who were taking their afternoon nap, how in the evening there was always music and the uncles played the fiddle while the aunts sang – this and many other anecdotes and stories are shared by the author. The whole book is structured like a conversation between a grown-up Dylan Thomas and a boy and Thomas tells the boy how the Christmas during his childhood was different, was better. One of my favourite characters in the book was Aunt Hannah, who has a soft corner for wine and who loves singing. The book is beautiful, charming, nostalgic and is filled with descriptions and images that only a child’s mind can paint – beautiful scenes which we imagine naturally when we are children and which we forget how to, when we grow up. The book is also filled with beautiful illustrations on every page. I loved ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales‘. It is a beautiful book to read on Christmas day.

Have you read ‘A Child’s Christmas in Wales‘? What do you think about it? What book did you read today, on Christmas day?

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‘Childhood’s End‘ by Arthur C. Clarke was highly recommended by one of my book group friends. So, when I saw it in the bookshop last week, I couldn’t resist getting it. The story told in the book goes like this. It is the beginning of the twenty first century. (This book was written in the early 1950s. So that was five decades into the future.) There is a project which is planning to send humans to Mars. But on the eve of that trip, suddenly people see giant, silent spaceships floating in the sky of all the major cities. Aliens with vastly superior technology have arrived on earth. It is like a scene straight out of the movie ‘Arrival‘ (or Ted Chiang’sStory of Your Life‘, if you prefer that). The Mars project sinks without a trace. Soon the leader of the aliens, called Karellen, contacts the humans. It soon becomes apparent that the aliens want humans to get together and live in peace and prosperity with no social or political boundaries. It sounds too good to be true. No one knows what their true aims are. The aliens also don’t reveal themselves. They use the UN to get their work done. The only person who can talk to the alien leader is the UN Secretary General. He goes to the alien ship regularly for meetings. But even he is not able to see the aliens. He is only able to talk. Most people accept this situation and peace and prosperity fill the earth. But some people don’t accept this situation – they suspect the alien overlords’ intentions and they want their former imperfect lives which had freedom. They protest in different ways.

Well, lots of stuff happens after this. What is the aliens’ true purpose in coming to earth? Do they reveal themselves to humans? Does the too-good-to-be-true-peace-and-prosperity last? What happens to some of the humans who want to go back to the previous free and imperfect way of life? The answers to these and more are revealed in the rest of the book.

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Childhood’s End‘ is not a very long book, at around 250 pages, but it is epic because it covers a time period of more than a century. Because of that, the characters who are there at the beginning of the book are not there at the end of the book. Except for the aliens, of course. They seem to be ageless and a century seems to be nothing for them. The first part of the book, after the initial events, is mostly about the conversations between Stormgren, the UN Secretary General, and Karellen, the head of the alien overlords. This was probably my favourite part of the book. In the third part of the book, there is a boy who dreams and we are taken inside those dreams. They are beautiful, amazing, surreal, mindblowing. I would love to see how it would look like in a movie. There is a lot of similarity between this book and Ted Chiang’sStory of Your Life‘ – the way the spaceships arrive, the different nature of the aliens, the nonlinear, circular nature of time. These are broad similarities though – the details are very different. It makes one wonder whether Chiang was inspired by Clarke’s book. I also felt that there were some similarities between this book and Clarke’s own ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey‘. But I can’t tell you more, because I don’t want to reveal spoilers. I loved the way Clarke has embedded biblical themes, images and characters in the story – it was believable and very intelligently done. I also loved some of the utopian changes that Clarke describes in the book. I wish it had happened in our real world. My favourite character in the book was the alien Karellen (he speaks the legendary lines – “The planets you may one day possess. But the stars are not for Man“), but I also loved Stormgren (the UN Secretary General), Jan Rodricks, who tries to defy the alien overlords and succeeds, Professor Sullivan who helps Jan, Rashaverak, an alien scientist in Karellen’s team, and many other major and minor characters in the book.

There was one interesting thing that I noticed in the book. Arthur Clarke makes predictions on how the futuristic technologies in the early and middle twenty first century will look like, in the story. As the novel was written in the early 1950s, he was looking fifty years ahead. The big predictions were grand – stuff like there won’t be regular cars but there will be flying cars etc., the kind of stuff which is the staple of science fiction. On the small stuff, he doesn’t really make predictions. At around the year 2030 in the story, one of the characters carries a camera with a lot of photographic film. One character has a library at home with bookshelves filled with rows and rows of traditional paper books. It is amazing how science fiction writers and futurists got all the small stuff wrong, while their big predictions still feels futuristic. No one predicted the arrival of the computer in every home, or the internet, or the smartphone, which is so ubiquitous these days. Even stuff like the digital camera and digital books. If we can travel back to the ’50s and show the people of that time, a Kindle or a digital camera, it looks like people will be amazed. Probably even Arthur C.Clarke. It just shows how predicting the future is a difficult business. The big things almost never happen and if they happen it is suddenly out of the blue. While the small changes, developments and progress keep happening and we miss it – it is like the world changed while we were sleeping!

I loved ‘Childhood’s End‘. I have read two Arthur Clarke novels before – ‘Rendezvous with Rama‘ and ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey‘ – and I can say now that ‘Childhood’s End‘ is my most favourite out of the three. I have heard science fiction fans say that Clarke focuses on current technology and pushes the envelope a bit and shows us what happens then, and though there are some aspects of that in this book, I think that it is very different from that traditional Clarke book.

I will leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“There were some things that only time could cure. Evil men could be destroyed, but nothing could be done with good men who were deluded.”

“An earlier age would have regarded Professor Sullivan as an expensive luxury. His operations cost as much as a small war : indeed, he would be likened to a general conducting a perpetual campaign against an enemy who never relaxed. Professor Sullivan’s enemy was the sea, and it fought him with weapons of cold and darkness – and, above all, pressure. In his turn, he countered his adversary with intelligence and engineering skill. He had won many victories but the sea was patient : it could wait. One day, Sullivan knew, he would make a mistake. Atleast he had the consolation of knowing that he could never drown. It would be far too quick for that.”

Have you read ‘Childhood’s End‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Arthur C. Clarke book?

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