‘The Hours’ well spent

9:24 PM 8 AUGUST 2017

This short book was winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1999 and takes as its start point the graphic suicide of Virginia Woolf. The tragic loss of one of the leading lights of the ‘Bloomsbury Group’ in 1941, finally succumbing to the fatal depths of recurrent depression at the age of just 59, conferred a profound loss on the cultural health of a nation, yet posterity has rightly lauded the author’s legacy. In his homage to Woolf, Michael Cunningham interweaves the thoughts and experiences of three female characters: Mrs Woolf (Virginia), Mrs Brown (Laura) and Mrs Dalloway (Clarissa), Located in 1923 London, 1949 L.A. and 1990s New York , respectively. Virginia is mulling over ideas for the fictional character yet to inhabit her most famous novel, while Clarissa and Laura are spending a day in preparation for a celebration in their respective times and place. Successive chapters rotate between the discrete storylines  culminating in an unusual cross-over in the end, but the snapshots also draw on some common themes, which beset each of the protagonists, irrespective of the prevailing social norms in ‘their’ time.

What rescues the book from a sense of cerebral indulgence on the part of the writer though, is the moving beauty of the language and as the reader quaffs down the pages like a smooth, warming liqueur, it is good to savour the interplay of quite sumptuous tones. It also remains consistent with the ‘stream of consciousness’ storytelling deployed by Woolf in ‘Mrs Dalloway’ (published 1925), albeit this example is not entirely satisfying, given its fragmentary nature and slightly bitter aftertaste

Still, the takeaway theme for me from this book is the individual capacity, indeed responsibility, to create and shape one’s life, within the context of the prevailing time and to weigh the personal sacrifices and gains that attend our choices. Some of the metaphors were also interesting, for example, some mistakes such as cake-making are retrievable, others require stoicism to deal with the consequences, but when it comes down to it, life and love is fundamentally fragile…and fickle.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

OTT, but Uber Cool!

9:35 PM 30 APRIL 2017

There was a time when Dirk Pitt was one of my favourite fictional heroes and Clive Cussler the master at placing his creation in the most intriguing of plot-lines. Who can forget, “Raise the Titanic” (1976), which brought the world’s attention to the ‘National Underwater & Marine Agency’ (NUMA), led by the phlegmatic Admiral Sandecker and his resourceful, but unruly director of operations. The echoes of James Bond are unmistakable, yet the brand of Dirk Pitt novels has also been synonymous with raucous adventure, just without the accompanying blockbuster movie franchise (a couple of spin-off movies have not remotely done justice to the original Cussler books). Not that comparative failure at the box office should diminish the written word, wherein the author has retained a solid readership.In fact, “Iceberg” (1975) preceded Mr Cussler’s seminal novel and clearly Dirk Pitt and his crew received further polish, but the familiar format is established here.

Based on an unlikely, though plausibly fascinating premise, Cussler nurtures the reader’s curiosity, suspends incredulity and weaves a spectacular tale of against-the-odds triumph of good over evil. The Bond-esque one-liners, the steely-eyed propensity for violence, Pitt’s gritty good looks and predictable womanizing gives a rather dated feel to the macho hero. Still, the OTT, unreal nature of the characters and the plot are perhaps just necessary components of the genre’s worship of unadulterated escapism. Whatever the flaws, it’s a fast-moving yarn that in the past might have been described as ‘swashbuckling’ and the protagonists get the appropriate comeuppance!

Sadly the thrill I experienced following Dirk Pitt as a teenage reader, isn’t so vivid today, but perhaps, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, emotional grip is very much in the mind of the reader. Unlike DP, I have got older!

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It’s a case of judgement…

10:56 PM 28 JANUARY 2017

As a long time admirer of the Grisham back-catalogue,  there is always a tremor of excitement when a new title is added to the list (currently the list of novels numbers twenty nine) and more often than not the author delivers for his army of fans.’The Whistler’ carries all the traditional hallmarks of a Grisham thriller – the victims, the baddies and the agents of the justice system seeking to uphold the rule of law. The intrinsically arcane and yet equally fascinating backdrop of the US legal system has been successfully mined repeatedly by Grisham and  his tales often turn on an obscure element of the law and in this instance that pertaining to ‘whistle-blowers’. Wrap around that nugget a plot involving organized crime, a corrupt judge, the land belonging to a native American tribe, murder, extortion and a range of misdemeanors and this novel makes for a compelling read.

In this offering, Grisham does not dwell much on motivation, though the presence of greed and its corrupting influence looms large. More interesting though is the inadvertently heroic efforts of the law enforcers to see justice prevail, without the inducements anticipated by the ‘whistlers’. More grave, the disloyalty of a judge to the public she exists to serve and the abject abuse of a revered high office.

However, for me, the acid test unfolds in the epilogue. The ‘triumph’ of justice can be fickle and the apportioning of ‘just deserts’ nuanced and sometimes unsatisfying. For example, the full weight of the law being lightened by plea-bargaining, the witness protection programme, the apparent need to reward some people to ‘do the right thing’, while expecting it of others. Still, there was something very satisfying about wealthy criminals being temporarily unable to engage expensive lawyers. At that moment, at least, the playing field seemed level, perhaps in the way we’d like to imagine the law should operate.

Ultimately though, the conclusion was greeted with an indifferent  shrug, not so much a thrilling crescendo, as a damp squib really. But why? 

On reflection, I don’t think the characters were developed enough to be fully plausible, nor to make the reader ‘care’ about their respective outcomes. Yet, on balance, ‘The Whistler’ remains an enjoyable romp, but, rather like fast food, I was quickly left feeling the need for something more substantial. Then again, who am I to judge.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.