Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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Archive for July, 2011

The Long March – William Styron

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 24, 2011

Shed to bare bones, all organizations are a bunch of power structure dynamics. Nothing epitomizes or demonstrates this as well as the current day institutions like bureaucracy,   commercial corporations and military. Unlike in corporations, in military there are no pretensions to egalitarianism, openness and freedom – the hierarchy is clearly defined and followed. The consequences of transgressions are explicit and unambiguous. William Styron’s “The Long March” is a small book which explores the interplay of power structures, ego plays, resentment, silent defiance and the resulting outcome of testing the limits of human endurance

Set in a marine camp in Carolina after the aftermath of an accident in which six young marines are killed due to a faulty explosion, Colonel Ted takes on himself to ensure that his battalion stays fit and combat ready. To realize this he orders a thirty six mile long drill for his battalion which comprises of reserves who have been called away from their homes. In this group of reserves is Mannix – a captain who is entrusted with the responsibility of the drill. Mannix resents this deeply. Against extraordinary hardship from a completely unprepared lot this exercise is accomplished but while doing so it also brings out the deep disgust, hatred and the meaninglessness of it all

There is a great sympathy and wonderful eloquence that Styron brings out in his writing.  Along with this Styron also depicts with an extraordinary vividness the state of mind of the reserves who long for peaceful life which is continuously denied to them and hence resulting in a feeling of degradation. A deeply moving read

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The Enchanted Muggles

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 19, 2011

 As we settled into the comfortable and plush seats of the movie theatre to watch the screening of Harry Potter – Deathly Hallows Part 2, I glanced at my two sons – who already looked gone and lost into a different world behind those largish dark 3D glasses – and a slightly supercilious thought flitted through my mind: here are two mesmerized muggle kids – addict like, excited, expectant, thrilled, thralled, soft suckers – who will remain so for a brief while to come. For over three years – ever since they have started to come into their own and asserted their limited independence – not a week went by without reference to some aspect of the fantasy world that Rowling created for them. To them the world of Harry Potter was precious. Every single twist and turn of the fascinating tale spread over seven volumes was keenly pored over. Every detail was internalized including the Latin sounding names of spells and potions. The complex but consistent and ever altering nature of relations among the key characters, the gentle twists and turns in the tale, the possible shape of things to come was regularly discussed and debated. If only they applied fifty percent of that absorbed intensity to their regular school work – things would have been different. The younger one, who could not read fully well on his own, followed the older one for information, giving the older one an opportunity to feel superior, knowledgeable and big brotherly. Even elders were reduced to kids. In a commencement address at Harvard University – the pedestal of higher learning – the segment of Rowling’s brilliant speech received claps for the longest duration when she equated them to the class of Gryffindor. Lush with imagination, originality and above all a wonderfully inventive storytelling, the tale of Harry Potter and his brave friends and acquaintances entertained a generation of kids and adults like no other books did in the recent past. That the popularity of the book was sustained by brilliant marketing and hype created by the stunning movies with their ever improving computer graphics does not and should not take away the richly deserved recognition for Rowling’s work. The sad part is that it has now come to an end – although some feeble hope has been left lingering with the initiation of circle of life of the next generation of Potters, Weaslies and Malfoys about to begin their schooling at the reconstructed and restored Hogwarts. Platform 9 ¾  – the place from which the first step to the fantasy land made has been left intact.   

However, as the curtains draw to a close, a question that remains worth pondering is – Will the Potter mania sustain with the same intensity and excitement beyond this generation of muggles? My guess is that it will not – although actually the contrary seems to have happened with similar other sagas like Tolkien’s The Lord of Rings and C.S.Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. These two fantasy sagas received a second shot in the arm through an introduction to a second generation of readers by their movie adaptations. These propellants (of movie adaptations) came nearly five to six decades after the original works swept away an older generation of readers off their feet across the western world. On a minor scale the same happened with Urusula Le Guin’s “The Earthsea Quartet” (despite some controversy on intended interpretations) and Philip Pullman’s “The Golden Compass”. In all these cases the spacing seems to have worked very well. On the contrary and with Potter, the intensity of hype got sustained simultaneously by the book releases and superbly entertaining movies. In that sense the twin forces of hype sustainers stand spent unless something dramatically different substitutes them to ensure a sustained interest.

 My weak imagination and dim sight does not see any substitutes on the horizon barring a generational commitment and love for the work. I do hope that this generation of muggles who supported, sustained and poured life and vitality into Rowling’s wonderful creation will have the good sense and commitment to pass it on to a next generation of little muggles

…………….. and that only time will tell

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The Usual Destiny

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 10, 2011

From the mysterious wombs of celestial silence
Unruffled by the resplendent cosmic violence
The ineluctable fates that stars oversee
Of all the mortals; be it a he or a she
Unravels a pattern which is quite common
Endlessly repeated with the down trodden
The rich and powerful get away scot free
While commoners have the usual destiny

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The Book That Changed My Life

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 8, 2011

    I am a book lover. Yet, I do not believe that books change people’s lives in a major way. Life is too powerful, too strong, too unpredictable and too fickle to be changed by books. Life experiences are far more potent change agents than books. However, what books can certainly do and do reasonably well is temper certain fundamental negative instincts in us and that too in lucky circumstances. Even where there is tempering, it happens at a glacial pace. Human beings need time and more importantly take time to change. Dramatic makeover is a facile possibility in the realms of fiction and not real life. Most of the times a human being is already on the path of reformation or mellowing down and through co-incidence he or she may come across a book or a set of books which reinforce, refine and articulate his reformative thought processes and shore up the courage to persist on that path

I cringe when I read articles especially in business magazines under the title “The Book That Changed My Life” and the writer typically a CEO or a senior business leader glibly pointing to a Jim Collins title like “Good To Great” or “Built To Last” or Lou Gerstner’s “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance” or worse still Tom Peter’s “In Search Of Excellence”. My immediate reaction is to write a brief but polite letter to the person and the editor who allowed the publishing of the article with a one line terse message which says – “It is time you grew up buddies”. Business books may make you a better professional but it feels sad to see people to think that better professionals are better human beings. This applies to all professional books

And that brings to the important point: What sort of books changes one’s life? Well… that to me is a million dollar question and the answer to which I will always be interested to know

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Clockwork – Philip Pullman

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 7, 2011

A well told tale is a precious thing for its palliative effects. There are times when I am in the throes of ennui and listlessness which are disorienting. As a remedial measure, I opt for reading material that is piquant and engagingly provocative to wriggle my way out. The material I read could be a favourite short story which I would have read umpteen times before (usually these are – Rain by Maugham, Retrieved Reformation by O.Henry, Enemies by Chekov, A Piece of Steak by Jack London or We’ll Have Fun by John O Hara), a poem that I wanted to learn by heart but postponed it for want of time (Kipling, Wilde or A.E.Houseman) or a few pencil lined paragraphs that caught my attention during the earlier reads. On my library shelf these books lie in a separate place for easy retrieval – a special place for my literary palliatives. Philip Pullman’s “Clockwork” is one such book that I read time and again for the sheer quality of storytelling and the originality and inventiveness of the story itself. Although intended for children, the story is equally appealing to grown-ups (at least definitely for me)

Set in the town of Glockenhiem in medieval Germany, “Clockwork” is a story within a story triggered by a chain of interlinked events. Karl, apprentice of the town clockmaker is due for his apprenticeship the next day for which he needs to contribute an original piece of invention to the town clock. He is far from passing the test and arrives with his master at the town’s tavern on a cold wintry night where he is met by expectant townsmen and the writer Fritz who starts on tale for the audience in the tavern. Fritz starts with a recently occurred bizarre event involving their prince Otto who returns dead with a mechanical heart implanted after meeting the strange Dr.Kalmenius – a dark and mysterious genius adept at creating mechanical beings and toys with godlike perfection. The need for replacement of Otto’s heart arises on account of the need to save the prince’s son Florian who also has a mechanical heart that was implanted into him as a child by Dr.Kalmenius and which is now failing to function on account of natural deterioration. Kalmenius arrives at the tavern exactly at the time Fritz is narrating the story and leaves a mechanically moving knight Ironsoul (what a name!!!) with Karl to be implanted in the town clock as an output of his apprenticeship. Ironsoul has a razor sharp blade which he uses on anyone who utters the word “devil”. The killing intent can be terminated by singing the famous “Flowers of Lapland” song. Prince Florian who is taken out for convalescence into the fresh air of the forest is deserted by his servant and reaches the tavern where Karl steals him and installs him in the town clock. Karl entertains the evil intention of using Ironsoul to kill people and perpetrate various evil deeds and earn wealth but gets killed by Ironsoul as he inadvertently utters the word ‘devil”. The tavern owner’s daughter rescues Prince Florian and gives her heart to him which transforms him to a complete human being. Ironsoul is taken away by the clockmaker of the town and Fritz the person who started the story in the first place without thinking of a proper ending leaves Glockenhiem. Kalmenius remains the mysterious enigma that he is portrayed to be. And like other fairy tales “Clockwork” too has a happy ending

Clockwork to me is the work of an accomplished master at story telling. The element of suspense filled with a tinge of terror is brilliantly done and the evocation of the atmosphere of a medieval town in Germany and the events of the night sends down a pleasant chill down the spine. In bringing this balance between storytelling, element of horror and an inventive plot lies the greatness of Pullman’s writing.

In a YouTube interview, Pullman revealed that the idea of writing an intertwined story which travels back and forth in time came to him while watching the mechanism of a grandfather clock in a London Museum – indicating the inexplicability of a writer’s mind

Overall, a book worth having in one’s library

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The Creation – E.O.Wilson

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on July 3, 2011

Civilization was purchased by the betrayal of Nature – E.O. Wilson

My introduction to the work of E.O.Wilson came through an essay of Tom Wolfe in his book “Hooking Up” – which I ignored then. Then came his “Ant Hill” which won the Pulitzer for fiction. I could vaguely connect these events but left it at that. Not till I flipped through Margaret Atwood’s essay titled “The Homer of Ants” covering the work and life of Wilson in NY Review of Books, did I start to realize the importance of his work. Even at this stage, I had only made a mental note that I need to read his books but marked it as a future activity. The proverbial last straw on the camel’s back came when I saw Wilson’s inspiring and riveting speech delivered as part of TED acceptance prize. It is this speech that prompted me to read his lucidly written “The Creation – An Appeal to Save Life on Earth

The book is a scholar’s urgent cautioning to his fellow human beings on the deleterious impact mankind is having on various eco systems of the world in specific and the overall biosphere in general. Prof. Wilson squarely puts the responsibility of this degradation on human beings and in doing so brings out a philosopher’s touch to characterization of the state of human beings when he says:

“A wiser intelligence might now truthfully say of us at this point: here is a chimera, a new and very odd species come shambling into our universe, a mix of Stone Age emotion, medieval self-image, and godlike technology. The combination makes the species unresponsive to the forces that count most for its own long-term survival…………we are the giant meteorite of our time, having begun the sixth mass extinction of Phanerozoic history”

Prof. Wilson takes the reader gently through the paradigm where ordinary people are increasingly becoming aware of the impact of changes in environment yet insists that the triumvirate of reasons relating to ignorance of the environment, inadequate science education and bewildering growth of biology are preventing a wide spread awareness and active participation in preservation efforts. Prof. Wilson believes that the two forces that can bring a significant shift for the better are the twin forces of religion and the transfer of stewardship of earth’s biodiversity to ordinary people, their education and encouragement for their active participation. In fact, Prof. Wilson argues that religion is not doing enough to ensure preservation of biodiversity a high moral priority and hence structures the whole book as a series of letters to an unknown Pastor who is the proxy for Church

Long ago, I remember reading an essay by Prof. Lynn White Jr. of Harvard titled “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” where he very cogently argues that the Judeo-Christian religious temperament and belief that human beings are superior to all the living creatures on earth had sown the seeds for our current day ecological crisis. I believe that there is a germ of truth in this. For example, Jainism has been the most vocal of Indian religions that emphasized the concept of co-existence of all animal forms with a lion’s share of the responsibility of maintaining harmony of the immediate eco-system on man. This is a thread that I think is worth exploring in this book and does not even get a mention. Prof. Wilson also laments about the harmful impact of over-fishing on our seas and its contribution to extinction of fish species. I felt that a careful analysis of vegetarianism as practiced in some parts of the world deserved a mention in the book

Notwithstanding these two perceived gaps, “The Creation” is a deeply moving book written by a scholar who is wise, compassionate, hopeful, anxious and an expert in the field of biology.

Ones views on nature will not remain the same after reading this wonderfully lucid book

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