Search This Blog

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro- A review

The Remains of the Day is the third novel by Kazuo Ishiguro and was a winner of the Man Booker Prize. It was the first of Ishiguro’s novels that has no relation to Japan. It is set entirely in England and told from a first person perspective, the narrator being an English butler named Stevens.

The book takes us into post-war England where Stevens finds himself in a world that does not seem to need him. The days of large house parties are gone and with it the household full of servants. Even his old employer, Lord Darlington, has died and Stevens now works for an American, who seems to have a completely different idea of the expected decorum of servants.

Stevens recounts anecdotes of past times during a trip to see Miss Kenton, a former employee at Darlington hall. These reminisces portray Stevens as cold and single-minded but he sees this lack of emotions as professionalism and correct behavior. The extent to which Stevens takes his obsession with duty is shown when we realize that Stevens will not spend time with his dying father because he instead tends to daily chores and that Stevens will not give his opinion on anything which would offend his employer, regardless of the clearness of morality.

The faith Stevens has in Lord Darlington also is obvious from these reminisces. In Stevens view Lord Darlington ‘helped further the cause of humanity”. Only when the story fully unfolds do we realize that Lord Darlington is anti-Semitic, sympathetic to the Germans and Hitler and a believer in appeasement. Stevens believes that the criticisms of Lord Darlington are unwarranted and malicious, even in hindsight, and refuses to see any wrong in his ideas.

As in all of Ishiguro’s novels, memory plays a key role. The recollections of the past are given by Stevens himself and so he edits them, possibly without intending to. The realization that Stevens is an unreliable narrator becomes apparent. This causes the reader to have blind faith in Stevens statements and so attempt to find the real story hidden in Stevens anecdotes.

The emotional blankness of Stevens becomes clearest when he recollects on his relationship with Miss Kenton. The complex feelings he has for Miss Kenton remain a mystery to him and he is never able to realize that they had anything other than ‘an excellent professional relationship’. Stevens is never able to realize any feelings while they worked together due to his skewed understanding of the dignity. It is only in the finale of the book that Stevens begins to realize what could have been.

The book has many characters, all of whom impact, but the portrait of Stevens is what makes the book excellent. The passage of time gives us realization that Stevens is less sure about his life than he used to be, doubts are setting in. The way Ishiguro subtly changes the tone of Stevens as well as the nostalgia in his memories allows into the mind of a conflicted man. Stevens has the values and morals of a past era and they are clashing with life in the current era.

The Remains of the Day is outstanding because of its realism. The portrayal of life in a country house between the wars and the gradual elimination of the grandeur of such houses after the war is accurate enough to draw the reader into this world. The depictions of the characters and of their defining values and emotions which must be set a time of social constraints are deep and complex. This novel draws you into an intricately created world. It is a book that you will want to read more than once.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

the best of a simple life

It doesn't take too much to find contentment. Usually food works. And I have favorites for all the things I like, as does everyone. So, here's a list of everything that's the best (to me) that you can get in a store/restaurant.

Coffee: Blue Mountain Coffee

Choclate : Belgian, specifically Leonidas or Valrhona

Crackers: Carr's Table wafer's

Cheese: very variable, but probably fresh Gouda

Ice Cream: Gelato from Ciao Cafe, Tobago

Pizza: mushrooms and onions, Half&half cafe, Prague

Initial London Dialogue

I've had a conversation recently that went something along these lines. It was equally hilarious and annoying.

Person: "Where are you from?"

Me: "Toronto"

Person: "You don't look Canadian. Say 'about'. " (Pronounced as "aboot")

Me: "About"

Person: "You don't sound Canadian either."

Me: "Yeah, well, it isn't always like you see on TV. Plus I grew up in the Caribbean."

Person: " Oh, you don't look Caribbean either."

Me: "No one looks Caribbean. Mixed up place, the West Indies."

Person; " I guess you could be Brazilian. That's close to Caribbean, right?"

Me: " Kinda? Not really. I'm of Indian descent."

Person: "So why are you in the Caribbean?"

Me: " Colonialism. Everyone's everywhere."

Person: "You've reached England from the colonies."

Me:" I guess that could said."

Friday, October 17, 2014

The Stranger by Albert Camus - A Review

Book title: The Stranger
Book Author: Albert Camus
Publication Date:  1942
ISBN: 9782070360024

The term ‘modern classic’ is used far too frequently but The Stranger is a novel for which such a description holds true. It is a major book of twentieth century philosophy and encompasses several schools of thought, most prominently absurdism and existentialism.

The book is about a man called Meursault who lives a bland daily existence and seems bored with everything in life. His daily routine is thrown out of order when he commits a senseless murder of an Arab on a beach in Algiers.  The story is told in first person from Meursault’s point of view, with part one leading up to the murder and part two dealing with the aftermath and trial.

The book is written in a very distinctive style. One that is not French at all but ironically, for one of the most popular French books of the last century, an American style. Camus writes in the way Hemingway would write. He makes use of short sentences and minimal descriptions to give the reader the feel that there is a lot happening beyond what they are being told.

This style works especially well to describe Meursault’s life. The short sentences manage to give the impression of the narrator’s malaise and disinterest. The fact that he barely manages to describe his mother’s funeral or any emotions about it in the opening chapter immediately sets the tone of Meursault as a somewhat emotionless person.

The book is not entirely about the boredom of daily life. Meursault goes to the beach with his new friend Raymond and his new girlfriend Marie. The passages which lead up to the killing of the Arab at the beach are some of the most descriptive and intriguing in the entire book. The author manages to convey the fact the sun is affecting the narrator strangely and completely shows that he is suffering from the effects of heatstroke without ever coming out and saying it. The author only uses the sun and its effects as the reason for the killing, yet it does not seem as an impossible leap by the way it is described.

The second part of the book which deals with after the murder is much more specifically philosophical than the first. The trial deals almost exclusively with the narrator and his apparent emotionless state and unconventional behavior at his mother’s funeral. It is this more than anything which will seal his fate.

The narrator is unable to understand the link between his mother’s funeral and the murder. As a consequence he is unable to show remorse. He tells the reader that he is unable to feel remorse or strong emotions about any of his actions in life. This statement shows the extent of the influence of absurdism in the book since the narrator can see no inherent meaning in life, it just happens.

Meursault meets with a priest in the final chapter of the book, who has come to prepare him for his execution. In a climactic scene, the narrator refuses to be absolved of his atheism and tries to convince the priest that the universe is indifferent to his execution. This again is a reference to absurdism and its theory of finding meaning in life to be a waste of time.

The Stranger is one of the most original works of the last century. While the style and ideas may not originate with Camus, the tessellation to form the complete work brings about a book like no other. This book is one of the most thought provoking ever written. It manages to work as both a novel and a philosophical text and that alone makes it special.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga- A Review

Book title: The White Tiger
Book Author: Aravind Adiga
Publication Date: April 22, 2008
ISBN: 1-416-56259-1

The White Tiger is the debut novel of Indian writer Aravind Adiga. It won him the Man Booker prize in 2008. The novel is written as a series of letters to the Chinese premier from the main character of the story, Balram Halwai. Balram’s story is set in modern India, amid the backdrop of globalization, and tells of his climb out of poverty to become a successful entrepreneur.

The contrast between the new India, a global economic power, and the life of rural poverty which is reality for the majority of Indians, is a major theme in this book. The book successfully portrays the India of reality and as such encompasses such themes as religious tension, familial loyalty and the difficult of returning to India after living abroad.

The story is of a climb out of poverty but it is no conventional rags-to-riches story. This is not the success story for which Balram will be invited to lecture on how he found his way out of poverty. Balram is not the hero who took only the good out of rural poverty and came out shining. He is witty and endearing but ultimately ruthless and willing to use any method to find financial independence.
Balram describes the poor in India as roosters in a cage. The roosters know that they will soon be killed but do not rebel. They make no attempt to escape. To him the poor in India are like the roosters, they have no fight left in them and they accept their fate. Balram decides that he will escape the cage renouncing established morals and values along the way.

The narrator finds himself out of rural India, when luck and his ability to take chances land him a chauffeur job in New Delhi. He works for the New York educated son of a landlord from his old village. This son at first seems to be the only character who cares about Balram but the progression of the story shows that he is just simpler weaker than the rest of his family.

Adiga’s plot may be slightly predictable and the final act which set Balram up to become a successful entrepreneur is one the reader may see coming. But it doesn’t really matter because this is one of the books where the setting and style overpowers the plot. There’s such a draw with the sarcastic and witty style of the narrator that the book is difficult to put down.

Arvind Adiga has managed to write a novel that is extremely funny but apparently without trying to be. Comparisons have been made to Richard Wright’s Native Son, another novel about living in poverty, and those comparisons have been made because they are true. While the two novels are nothing alike in writing style, they evoke a sense of familiarity between them. And when a novel can be continuously compared to a classic such as Native Son, there can be no higher praise.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Youth : scenes from a provincial life by J.M. Coetzee- A book review

Youth is a short novel, less than 200 pages. Yet the ability to convey in a few sentences what would take other writers paragraphs continues to be evident in J.M. Coetzee’s writing.

Youth tells a familiar story for people who live in the Commonwealth and what was even more widespread during the 1950’s and 1960’s when the story is set. It deals with migration and immigration. The narrator dreams of going to London to get away from his home country; when he gets there he will be able to live fully and truly be an artist.

The opening portion of the book is set in the University of Cape Town. The Sharpeville massacre, civil unrest and the possibility of a military draft finally give the narrator enough excuses to leave for London.

Just like the immigrant tales we are accustomed to, the gap between real London and fantasy London was too large to be bridged. The narrator takes a job as a computer programmer, which is monotonous but still he knows that must strive to become a poet. The alienation of the London populace keeps weighing him down after time. He cannot pass as an Englishman but deems it necessary to eliminate all ties with his homeland.

Youth has parts of the immigrant experience we are accustomed to reading about. The experience we find in books such as Selvon’s The Lonely Londoner’s and Naipaul’s The Mimic Men. The alienation and displacement are familiar themes of the immigrant experience but Coetzee’s narrator attempts to pass as an Englishman. This is an option that is impossible for the ethnic minority characters we are accustomed to. The different view of the immigrant experience is refreshing by the very familiarity it brings.

The narrator has ideas about poetry and love that rule his life. He expects that one must suffer for art and the ability to be able to create things of beauty. But there is one consolation: “''Because they are creators, artists possess the secret of love,'' and women, wanting to be brushed by ''the sacred fire,'' instinctively recognize this.”

Unfortunately for the narrator, absolutely nothing in his life happens according to his ideas. Youth speaks about that part of life when one has several dreams, all of them seemingly just out of reach. The period of life where frustration is all too regular.

While Youth is supposedly a story about a young man attempting to become a writer, the narrator never writes much. Given the semi-autobiographical nature of this novel, it seems that the narrator of the story and J.M. Coetzee have nothing in common as writers. Perhaps when J.M. Coetzee publishes a book about his life after 23 we will find out what made him such a great writer.

White Teeth by Zadie Smith - A book review

White teeth

White Teeth is a novel that, like London (the city it describes), has very many different aspects and stories to it which make up the whole. The book tells the story of multiple generations of two families, the families of Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archie Jones who met as soldiers during the Second World War. There is more to White Teeth than just a story of family though. It addresses racial issues such as the relevance of race and the idea of identity and being English. The book also touches on the topics of religious fundamentalism and scientific progress; dealing with the eventual clash between them.

Immigrant life in London is a familiar topic detailed in such diverse books as Brick Lane by Monica Ali, The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi and Youth by J.M. Coetzee. The general trend in these books has all been their serious portrayal. Smith gives us a humorous take on immigrant life which is a fresh perspective.

The first family who focused on in the book is that of Archie Jones. Having narrowly escaped a suicide attempt in 1975 he celebrates his continuation of life by crashing a party. There he meets Clara, a teenaged Jamaican immigrant who is anxious to get away from her extremely religious Jehovah’s Witness mother. Their daughter Irie grows up intelligent but lacks confidence because of her appearance.

Samad’s twin sons, Magid and Millat are English, having been born and raised in London. In a critical scene in the book Samad decides that it would be better for Magid to return to Bangladesh and so be away from negative Western influences and be educated in Islamic ways properly. All of this is done without informing Alsana, his wife, who retaliates by giving him no direct answers until her son is returned. Samad’s romanticized views of Bangladesh as well as his fear of assimilation into English culture by his children are in direct conflict with the fact that he has left Bangladesh for England.

Magid, ironically, becomes an atheist who is committed to science. Millat ,on the other hand, abandons his earlier lifestyle of womanizing and delinquency and becomes a fundamentalist and joins an Islamic ground (with  the humorous acronym KEVIN).

About halfway through the book a third family is introduced- the intellectual Chalfens. The family is headed by Marcus, a biologist working on a genetically engineering mouse called FutureMouse. Millat and Irie become involved with the Chalfens through their son Josh. Magid also contacts Marcus and works as his research assistant on return from Bangladesh. The Chalfens somehow become a second family for Millat and Irie and to some extent a haven.

FutureMouse is a plot motivator in White Teeth but its introduction signals when the book starts to get away from Smith. The lure of the novel is in the depiction of its characters. Smith has the ability of describe realistic characters, down to their mannerisms which represent their different cultures and their speech patterns. In the final part of the book, the focus is on FutureMouse or at least the idea of FutureMouse. Smith moves away from the characters which have made the book so enjoyable and focuses on organizations instead. The plotlines become a bit overdone and the clarity disappears a bit.
Still, the novel is an exceedingly ambitious one and different from most novels around today. Such ambition cannot be perfect and the novel remains an excellent one despite a below-par ending.

White Teeth is foremost a comic novel. For all its serious themes of societal struggle, acceptance of immigrants and cultural displacement it is a happy book. One which the reader feels hopeful after reading and not disillusioned. That alone should be the measure of the success of the humorous novel.