Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Cat O’ Nine Tails: Jeffrey Archer

A lazy weekend afternoon, a heavy lunch, a dull mind seeking a quick light read – that’s what led me to Jeffrey Archer’s latest offering – Cat O’ Nine Tails. Cat is a collection of twelve stories – nine of which are based on real stories Archer gathered from fellow-prisoners when he served a two-year term for perjury.

Now I must confess that for a reason that I cannot quite remember, I have read all of Archer’s works (except for the prison dairies), starting from my late school days with Archer’s first (and arguably best) novel – Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less. I used to devour his other books with gusto in those days, particularly enjoying his short stories – at that time, a short story to me meant one with a twist at the end, and Archer provided that almost as a rule.

However, over his last few books, there was a discernible drop in the quality of the plots – books like Sons of Fortune and False Impression were really disappointing. And, sad to say, Cat seems to fall in the same category. There is a forcedness to the expressions and turns of phrase (things I used to see as Archer’s strengths in his early works); a predictability to the plots, and worse, to the twists at the end; and a tiredness in the characterization. May be it is the incarceration that did this to him. Or may be he has just run out of ideas – the stories almost read like he is parodying himself. It’s almost as if he is reminding himself at every turn, “I am Jeffrey Archer; I am supposed to write like this.”

To be fair to Archer, there are some unusual plots like “Don’t Drink the Water” and interesting characters like Patrick O’Flynn in Cat. May be a younger Jeffrey Archer would have give them a better spin and us, a better read.

Thankfully, the stories are short and so I was done quickly. May be I will not read Archer again. But then, that’s what I thought for the last few books of his. Now I am older (and hopefully…); and I don’t have too many lives left.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Seeing Voices: Oliver Sacks

An Anthropologist on Mars (read my review of it here) led me to explore Dr. Oliver Sacks a bit more. Seeing Voices is about deaf people, the evolution of their language (Sign), and their struggle to be accepted in a world that is predominantly, well, non-deaf.

This short book has three chapters. The first chapter, A Deaf World, introduces the reader to the world of the deaf and talks of the pioneers in understanding and teaching deaf people. The second chapter, Thinking in Sign, dwells on Sign language, its different variants, and how it evolved to the level of sophistication it has reached today. The third chapter, The Revolution of the Deaf, traces a campaign to get a deaf person elected as the President of Gallaudet University (a university for the deaf).

As you would expect from Dr. Sacks, there is a lot of detail about the deaf in the book. Some of the smaller details are quite illuminating, and makes you appreciate the deaf from a totally different perspective. Consider this example.

“If a dead person becomes seriously ill, it is crucial to immobilize only one arm with IVs; to immobilize both arms may render him unable to talk. Similarly, it is often not realized that to handcuff a deaf signer is equivalent to gagging him.”

The significant difference between the deaf and the non-deaf is, to me, summarized in this excerpt.

“Different social conventions arise in the intercourse of signers, dictated in the first place by the differences of eye and ear. For vision is more specific than hearing—one can move one’s eyes, one can focus on them, one can (literally and metaphorically) shut them, whereas one cannot move or focus or shut one’s ears. And signing, so to speak, is lasered in a narrow beam, to and fro, between signers, and does not diffuse in all directions, acoustically, like speaking. Thus one can have a dozen different people signing at a table, in six different conversations, each conversation clear and distinct, none of them disturbing the others. There is no “noise,” no visual noise, in a room full of signers, because of the directionality of visual voices and of visual attention. By the same token (this was very clear at the huge student bar at Gallaudet, and I have seen it at large deaf banquets and conventions) one can easily sign to somebody at the other end of a large crowded room; whereas yelling would be horrible and offensive.”

However, there are some aspects of the book that left me a bit cold. An Anthropologist on Mars was brilliantly readable because it was driven by the examples – each piece was a story, and empathy was built through the story. Seeing Voices lacks that tone and feel. Consequently, it tends to get a bit heavy at times, especially for a novice like me.

A second drawback is that Dr. Sacks is a touch too strident in defending the deaf and in demanding acceptance for the deaf. Without denying his right to do so, I would have preferred it if he could have dwelt on demonstrating the life the deaf lead, and leave us to build and demonstrate our empathy for them. The classic “show, don’t tell” tenet of writing, I suppose.

The last criticism I will lay on this book, albeit a minor technical one, is the split between the main text and the footnotes. The main text is 129 pages long, and the footnotes make up an additional 65 pages – that’s half a page of footnotes for every page of the main text. While the footnotes are useful and insightful, it tends to break the flow of reading, making you flip back and forth twice for every page. Moreover, if you are one of those who tend to concentrate more on the main text than on the footnote, you may miss out on some gems. Incidentally, both the quotes above are from the footnotes.

May be my expectations were raised too much, but Seeing Voices did not move me as much as An Anthropologist on Mars did.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Locked Room: Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

I came back home just before midnight on Sunday (thanks to a 2-hour delay in my flight), but I could not sleep. I still had about 50 pages to go in The Locked Room; I just had to finish it. And what an ending!

The Locked Room is rated by some as the best work of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, and while I haven’t read all their works to have a substantial view on this, it certainly is the best of the five I have read so far. (The other four I've read are The Laughing Policeman, Roseanna, The Man on the Balcony, and The Man who went up in Smoke.)

The book runs on two parallel streams: Martin Beck investigating a locked room suicide / murder and “Bulldozer” Olsson going after a murder-cum-bank-robbery. The contrast between the methods used by the two of them exemplifies what a police procedure is and what it perhaps is not. Beck goes through the drill, follows every trail until it leads to a new one, and completely avoids making any assumptions or playing any hunches; Olsson, on the other hand, is purely driven by “inspiration” – he starts with a hypothesis, and goes all out to prove himself right.

By the end of the book, both Beck and Olsson succeed, and both of them don’t. The finish leaves you completely stunned, packed as it is with misery, pathos, and a tantalizing sense of incompleteness – depressingly realistic.

The Locked Room has all the other elements that are staple fare from this author duo – the socialistic touches, a sense of forlornness about Stockholm, a conspicuous absence of joy and happiness among the characters, and a diversity of characters that represents a good sweep of the Swedish middle-class. (Notice how there are rarely any rich people in these books?)

Another feature that make the works of Sjöwall and Wahlöö so compellingly readable is the plaintive language (kudos to Paul Britten Austin for the translation of The Locked Room) – a combination of wry humor, bleak reality, and socialistic undertones. The sequence in which Martin Beck extracts the confession from Mauritzon is a classic. But my favorite is this paragraph:

“Martin Beck had been in his profession long enough to know that if something in a report appears incomprehensible, it’s because in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred someone has been careless, made a mistake, is guilty of a slip of the pen, has overlooked the crux of the matter, or lacked the ability to make himself understood.”

It sums up Martin Beck; it sums up Sjöwall and Wahlöö.

Friday, November 10, 2006

An Anthropologist on Mars: Oliver Sacks

Occasionally, there comes a book that makes you sit up and take notice of something that you may never have thought of all your life. To me, An Anthropologist on Mars was one such. This is a collection of seven “case histories” of people with neurological disorders, written by Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Touching on disorders like cerebral achromatopsia, amnesia, Tourette’s syndrome, and autism, among others, Dr. Sacks paints a vivid picture of each of the patients, what they go through in life, and how they cope with their daily rituals.

People of the sciences can come across, especially in their writing, as belonging to a different world, speaking in a different language. Thankfully, not so Dr. Sacks. The simplicity of his language and expression ensures that you don’t need to be a neurologist to understand the cases.

The other outstanding feature of Dr. Sacks’s writing is the tone he uses to describe the patients and their problems. Not for him a tone of sympathy, pitying the patient for being deprived of senses most other human beings have. Not for him an excessive emphasis on the other strengths of the patients and a downplaying of their problems, thus pitching them as “special” people. The tone is brilliantly matter-of-fact, just putting things as they are. So unconsciously you end up seeing the patients as normal people.

Take the language and the tone together, and this book is probably worth reading purely for its literary merit. Overlay that with the insights you get on the human mind and how people respond to different challenges and address them in their own unique way, and you have a book that is worth owning, reading, and reading again. And again.

Monday, November 06, 2006

When the Gangs Came to London: Edgar Wallace

Set in the late 1920s-early 1930s (the Golden Age of Gangdom, if you will), When the Gangs Came to London (WGCL) is rated as one of Edgar Wallace’s best work by fans (I must confess I am one of the more ardent ones) of his genre of crime fiction.

A kind of crossover mob story, WGCL traces the exploits (and eventual downfall) of two gangs from Chicago, operating in London.

The book has all the elements you would expect from Edgar Wallace – an all-knowing villain (or set of villains), a hard-working intelligent set of policemen from Scotland Yard fettered by a very British set of laws, quick murders of the rich and the poor, an exceedingly pretty woman, a hint of a love interest (so wonderfully portrayed by Wallace in so many of his works), a company that acts as a cover for the mob (another Wallace staple)… Not to mention, Wallace’s sparkling oh-so-brilliant language and outstandingly dry wit – a wit that pervades through the narratives and the dialogues. Two examples stand out.

“With great presence of mind, Mr. Smethwich Gould realized that he had forgotten to note the number of the car. He realized this the moment the car number was invisible…”

“She produced a platinum card- case and a card, and sailed out, leaving behind her the exotic aroma of everybody’s favourite scent. Leslie opened the window. She liked perfumes, but preferred them one at a time.”

What makes this book different from many of Wallace’s other works is the character of Captain Jiggs Allerman, who comes from Chicago to help Scotland Yard nab the mobs. Wallace uses Jiggs delightfully to comment on the rigidity and the corresponding inadequacy of Scotland Yard in controlling the mob. The commentary is not so much on police themselves, but on the laws of the land, and the people who bring them to effect. Of course, by the end of the book, you realize that Jiggs is as English in his humour as his Yard compatriots.”

An anxious nurse bent over him.

“‘You mustn’t talk any more, Captain Allerman,’ she said.

“He scowled up at her.

“‘Not talk any more?’ he growled. ‘What’s the matter with me—dead or sump’n?’”

Extensive detailing is something you don’t expect from Edgar Wallace – may be it’s the constraint of limiting his books to 192 pages, or may be it’s just his impatience and urge to go on to his next book. But in the case of WGCL, it could have been interesting to get more background on the two mobs – green and blue (subsequently they merge into one – red) – how they grew and why they are so powerful. The only people you read of in the book – the leaders of the two mobs – seem too glibly powerful.

That notwithstanding, WGCL is a great read in the true Edgar Wallace tradition – you just sit on the sidelines and watch. You don’t sweat when you read it, you don’t lose the thread, you don’t worry about the good people – you know all will be well in the end.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Bookends: Colophon

Bookends is a place where I will be posting reviews of books as and when I read them. My reading tends to get dominated by crime fiction - in the past, a lot of it used to be writers from the UK (and a bit from the US), but of late, I have been reading a lot of crime fiction from mainland Europe.

There generally is no pattern in my reading, but in terms of frequency, I tend to read about one book a week, so I hope my posts will be just as frequent.