Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Of Mice and Men - The First Book That Made Me Cry

How many movies have made you cry? Numerous, maybe. The cinema has the advantage of creating vivid images, music, sights, looks, etc, which influence the viewer and touch the deepest, most hidden and sincere parts of his/her soul.

How about a book that made you cry? That's a bit more difficult. You have to submerge into the story, to feel it, to understand it, to visualize it, to go into the character's souls and then to cry. It all happens inside your mind without any visual aids. That's why it is more difficult to have a book that makes you cry. Some novels indeed make you sad, lonely, desperate, despaired. But how many of them prompted you to share a tear? How many of them in fact had you crying like a little baby even though "it was just a story". Of Mice and Men is such a novel. I finished it in exactly 5 hours and still whenever I think about I can't help but cry. Way to start, Mr Steinbeck. The first novel by you that I read made be whimper like a little baby looking for its mother's hug.

Of Mice and Men is a novel about friendship. Friendship in its purest form, friendship between two lonely men on the quest for happiness. Lennie and George are drifters looking for work in the diffucult years of the Great Depression in the USA. George is a clever ambitious little man, looking for ways to save up enough money and one day to have a house of his own. His friend, Lennie, is a simple minded good guy, very hard worker, but not much of a brilliant thinker. George is trapped in taking care for his mentally slow friend and they constantly change jobs because of Lennie's unfortunate inclination to always get into trouble. Finally, the two friends get a job on a ranch in California's Salinas Valley. Their hopes of a better future are doomed when Lennie is again confronted with jealousy, cruelty, misunderstanding, and becomes a victim of his own strength. Now his best friend George must make the most difficult decision in his life in order to save both himself and Lennie from a terrible destiny.

Of Mice and Men is Steinbeck's middle book in his trilogy about agricultural labor in California (including In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath). All of these novels are epic responses to the acute problems of farm labor in California, where large-scale firms exploit the laborers to harvest seasonal crop. The author explores the difficulties of the working force, their loneliness, despair, and isolation.

Lennie and George are among the few workers that travel together. Most of the men at that time prefer to be alone, changing jobs, always in competition with each other for a place under the sun. George and Lennie are different. They are different because they have each other to take care of. It seems that only George is taking care of his slow friend Lennie. However, Lennie also provides support for George, constantly reminding him about their shared dream to own their own place one day, to have their own harvest, and to work only for themselves. Steinbeck's greatness as a writer lies in his empathy for the simple people - their joys, anger, strenght, and dreams, their cravings for land and their connection to places. All of these themes are elaborated in the context of the theme of friendship between men. As Steinbeck himself pointed out "Knowing a man well never leads to hate and nearly always leads to love". Even though sometimes George is sorry for being trapped with Lennie, the reader feels the great connection and compassion between the two poor souls, looking for a place in an unforgiving world.

The character of Lennie somewhat reminded me of the big African-American character in the movie Green Mile. Clumsy, strong, but incredibly good at heart, both of them become victims of misunderstanding and cruelty in society. Reading about Lennie I kept imagining the storyline in the Green Mile. Maybe this vivid image ultimately led to my sobbing throughout the whole novel. When I came to the end of the novel, I couldn't but feel terribly sorry for Lennie, for George, for the unfortunate circumstances that determined their destiny, for the collapse of their dreams.

I fell in love with Of Mice and Men. I loved the image of George and Lennie's friendship, the way George yelled to Lennie, the way Lennie tried not to disappoint his friend, the goodness and affection that kept them going together for so many years, the shared dream that kept them alive. The title itself, taken from a Robert Burns's poem, suggests the transitory quality of even the "best laid schemes". George and Lennie would never get their own land, with a cow, rabits, chickens, a fireplace, etc. They would always remain outsiders in this world. The important message that Steinbeck conveys though is that it is OK because "I got you to look after me and you got me to look after you and that's why".

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Oh, So Tender is the Night

Even if F. Scott Fitzgerald had only written The Great Gatsby, he would have stayed in the anali of world literature as one of the most prominent American writers. Yet, his final novel, Tender is the Night is considered by the author himself as his masterpiece. He struggled for 9 years to create a deep psychological and philosophical piece, which discusses the issues of talent, his feelings about money and the different levels of American society, his struggle with alcoholism, his worries of becoming an emotional bankrupt, and his wife's illness. All of these themes feature the glamourous life of the Divers in the 1920s and 1930s.

Dick Diver is a clever and up-and-coming young psychiatrist, who after graduating, takes on a complicated case of neurosis. After a terrible accident with her father in her youth, Nicole remains a mental invalid for the rest of her life. Nicole is beautiful and rich; Dick is infatuated with her and decides to marry despite her sister's opposition that he is taking her only for the money. At the beginning, the Divers live a glamorous and extravagant lifestyle. They are surrounded by people, mostly Americans, who worship them, and especially Dick. The prominent psychiatrist now abandons his studies and dedicates his life to taking care of his wife and her emotional outbursts. A natural idealist, the doctor reaches the top of the social class, living in a society which is both romantically attractive and undeniably corrupt. His life becomes more shallow and hollow and Dick turns to dissipation and alcohol. At the end, the parasite is not Dick, but Nicole, for his only purpose in their marriage was to make her stronger at the expense of his own life and dreams. Dick is a man of almost limitless potential who makes the fatal decision to marry a beautiful but mentally ill woman, and who ultimately sinks into despair and alcoholism when their doomed marriage fails

Tender is the Night is largely biographical. It reflects the tense relationship between Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, who was hospitalized for schizophrenia in 1932. The writer learned a lot about psychology from the doctors treating her and this knowledge served as a basis for his novel. He spent a lot of time in the French Riviera (just like the Divers) working on the novel. Fitzgerald finished Tender is the Night in 1934, pouring into it his disappointment of his wasted talent, his problems with alcohol, his problematic relationship with his father (reflected in Dick's relationship with his own father, who, like the author's, dies), his struggle with alcohol, and his life with a mentally unstable woman. Dick's affair with the younger actress Rosemary resembles the intense relationship of Fitzgerald with the teen actress Lois Moran.

In fact, the American writer changed the plot and the constitution of the novel several times. Thus, there are two versions published. The first one features flashbacks of the characters, while the second one, published postmortem, is in chronological order. Fitzgerald left his notes on the alteration of the book, which were then taken as a basis for the second version. Even after The Great Gatsby, the author still felt he hadn't reached his professional apogee. He wanted to make Tender is the Night the best American novel ever written.

To be honest, I don't like Fitzgerald. I had to read The Great Gatsby in high school and I have only vague memories from it mainly because I read every other chapter. Nevertheless, Tender is the Night appears quite similar. In both novels the author discusses the devastation effect of money on one's idealism and personality. Ultimately, the haute bourgeoisie is glamorous but corrupted. The shallowness of this extravagant life style leads to the moral degradation of the characters. Dick, as well as Gatsby, enter this world with hopes and dreams only to exit it disillusioned and despaired.

Fitzgerald created the Jazz Era, lived in it, and criticized its main flaws. He is an author of immerse potential but still, his topics are not a bite for every mouth. Certainly, not for me.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Never judge a book by its cover. So far I have used this expression only in its metaphorical sense - do not judge people by their outward appearance. I never thought that one day I will use in its literary sense. If I had judged the book by its cover (and its title for that matter) I would never have read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and I would have missed a lot.

When my flatmate gave me the book I was shocked. The front cover was a disaster - a dog stabbed by a garden fork. It looked as if some 5 year old child had drawn it quite unsuccessfully. Next, I looked at the title... The Curious Incident with the Dog... What?! Wait! This is far too long to be a title. In fact it was quite long but it had no promising meaning as to the content of the book. I opened the first page. The first chapter was not chapter 1, it was chapter 2! I flipped the pages several times, thinking that the problem is me of course, but no! The first chapter was indeed chapter 2.

So far, the novel didn't do anything to grab me. But my laptop was broken, I didn't have any other books to read, I am not a huge fan of the TV, so...I just resigned and I started reading.

Sometimes the books that look unappealing are just the ones you need to read at that particular moment. Haddon's novel quite proves that notion. It is told in first point-of view, with the main character being the 15-years-old Christopher. In the first chapter (my mistake, in the second chapter) the boy is startled to find that the neighbor's dog has been killed with a garden knife. Christopher is upset; he loves dogs and he decides that if the police is not going to solve the case, he is. Thus, the young detective and narrator sets on a terrifying journey to discover who killed the dog. In the process, however, he discovers hidden truths in his family that are going to turn his world upside down.

Up to this point, nothing so impressing. If you keep reading though, you will understand what makes this book special. The main character. Christopher is not a usual boy. He is autistic; he is great at maths and physics but he doesn't know anything about the human relationships. He is afraid to be touched or to be in the same room with strangers. He hates the colors yellow and brown and loves red. He doesn't eat pieces of food that touch each other. He loves patterns, puzzles, and logic and he knows all the prime numbers up to 3,000. That is why all of the chapters have only numbers that are prime.

Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules even if you spent all your time thinking about them.

Christopher notices details that most other people don't. He loves the sky and the universe, he dreams of being an astronaut or a scientist and he has never been by himself further than the street he lives on. Thus, you can imagine the difficulties of the boy, when he sets on a journey to find the murderer of the dog, a journey that even takes him to London.

Actually, the author never mentions it, but most critics assume that Christopher has the Asperger's syndrome (disorder that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests). Accordingly, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is written simply and understandably. It features a lot of drawings, maps, and lists. In fact, this unusual aspect makes its immerse effect on the reader even more powerful. Haddon shows a great understanding of the autistic mind and the way it works. Sad, funny, challenging, surprising, this novel is going to make you laugh, cry, and think seriously about the people with disabilities.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Communism, Oops, I mean Animalism

1984 by George Orwell is a manifestation of the failure of communist regimes, which fail when their leaders become corrupted with power and start serving their own interests rather than the interests of those, who they are meant to serve. But before inventing the utopian world of 1984 with its new language, Newspeak, used to transform reality, to turn black into white, and to conceal important truths, Orwell wrote Animal Farm.

The subtitle is 'A Fairy Story'. Indeed, in Animal Farm animals behave, speak, and think like human beings. However, unlike a fairy story, the novel doesn't have a happy ending. It tells the story of a revolution, that had the best intentions to change the lives of the animals in Manor farm for the better by overthrowing their cruel owner. However, the leaders become corrupted with power and the initial ideals are carefully modified in order to serve not the community, but the chosen few. 'All animals are equal' turns into 'All animals are equal but some animals are more equal'. Sounds familiar, doesn't it?

Animal Farm is a witty allegory of the Russian revolution and its terrible consequences in the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the novel Major, a forward looking pig sets the principles of Animalism, according to which animals should be working for themselves, and not for the human beings. All animals are equal and should share the benefits of their work. Similarly, Lenin, highly influenced by Marx, presented the postulates of communism, which triggered the Russian revolution in 1917. Unfortunately, Major dies and the struggle for power is divided between the two pigs Napoleon and Snowfall. Eventually, Napoleon overthrows his opponent largely through methods of fear and terror. Snowball is exiled from the farm and is now portrayed as an enemy to the principles of Animalism. Similarly, Trotsky is outcast from the Soviet Union by Stalin.

As Napoleon gains more power, he orders working conditions and targets, which are hard for the other animals to achieve. Some of them still work hard because they believe in the initial principles of Animalism. Slowly, however, these principles become perversely changed in order to serve the pigs, who become the chosen few in the farm. Analogically, Stalin uses terror and secret police to control people and to hide the true severe conditions in the Soviet Union.

Eventually, the animals suffer even more than before the revolution. They are forced to work longer hours, they starve, and they are suppressed by Napoleon and his army of fierce dogs. The new commandments of animalism allow the pigs to enjoy a lifestyle similar to Mr Jones's, the previous owner. They drink, wear human clothes, play cards, and sleep in beds, all of which contradict the initial principles set up by Manor. Obviously, Stalin and his loyal supporters also formed a higher class, which enjoyed the benefits of power.

The Flag of Animalism. Quite resembling something familiar, eh?

The revolution in Animal Farm (and in Russia accordingly) fell apart not because of the principles of equality. It fell apart because the leaders became corrupted. They served themselves and not the community, slowly but surely turning into the dictators they so wanted to overthrow in the first place. Orwell ingeniously points out the shortcomings of totalitarianism, and on a larger scale the shortcomings of the human behavior. Animal Farm is a political satire with all the powers of a myth. It is also a realistic examination of the importance of honesty and truth, two things the world desperately needs after the two world wars.

Orwell believed in the values of democratic Socialism and liberal and social conscience. His works have influenced many writers to focus on the communist myth (especially the Soviet one) and the reasons for its collapse. Ray Bradbury, Aldous Huxley, Anthony Burgess, and George Orwell, all authors use quite different, yet witty and profound perspective to investigate the devastating effects of a world, where truth is concealed, mind is controlled, and people are severely suppressed with the false illusion of equality.

Strangely, a book against informational propaganda was in fact negatively affected by this same propaganda. Animal Farm was finished in 1943, during the Second World War but was published late in 1945. The reasons: at the end of the war the Soviet Union was a British ally against Hitler's Germany. Thus, it was seen by many political leaders that Stalin and Soviet Communism should not be criticized, even indirectly. God bless, though, Orwell was not one to be persuaded by such orthodox views. His novel, a precise attack on the failure of the Russian revolution was published.

I will finish off with a sentence I saw in a movie last night, which I believe very well adapts to the topic. The use of information and disinformation is ultimately power. The Soviet communists are well aware of this fact and effectively use it to establish and stabilize their power.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

The English Dream in Two Caravans

WHERE: All around the fields of England
WHO: Eastern European and Asian workers
WHAT: Strawberry Picking
WHY: Looking for the English dream

This is Marina Lewycka's Two Caravans. The two Poles Tomasz and Yola, the two Ukrainians Andriy and Irina, the two Chinese girls, and Emmanuel from Malawi, they all have come to the UK for different reasons, yet having one thing in common - looking for something. Whether it is money to start a new life, an old friend, love, companionship, or adventure, they are restless to explore whatever the new land has to offer to them.

At the beginning they all work and live in two caravans in a strawberry picking land in Kent. However, the working conditions are far from desirable for immigrant workers. They are exploited and robbed by the farmers, being paid the lowest wages. When Irina is kidnapped by the Russian mafia gangster Vulk, who is looking to make her his lover and then a prostitute, the brave company goes on a journey to set her free. Throughout they meet shady people, luring them into taking insecure jobs. The two Chinese girls are even sold as prostitutes. UK at that time is not a nice place for the immigrants. Full of wanna-be gangsters with mobilfon (that is how they are satirically called in the novel), expensive clothes, and shady sun-glasses, it is a place where these people are exposed to danger and deceit daily. As an immigrant herself, Lewycka quite profoundly describes the difficulties of adapting to a different culture.

At a first glance the novel is supposed to be funny. At a first glance it is actually quite similar to Laurie Graham's Life according to Lubka, where several Bulgarian singers go through ridiculously funny experiences in their clash with the English civilization. On a closer look, though Two Caravans is tremendously powerful and sadly realistic. Taking Yola, for example. The 40 something years old woman has come to the UK to save enough money to buy a house back home and to find a man, who is not repelled by her son with the Dawn syndrome. Andriy and Irina, both young and innocent, have read and dreamt about meeting English lady/gentleman and spending their life drinking tea and being admired. Tomasz is a lonely 45 years old man, who loves playing his guitar and is desperately in love with Yola. All of them came to the UK in the hopes of escaping the poverty in their home countries after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Yet, what they find is more sorrow, more problems, and more struggle.

At the end, though, Two Caravans is somewhat optimistic. One way or another, all of the characters (whom every reader gets to love throughout the novel) find some king of settlement. In a good way, this encounter with one another has helped them realize the false appeal of the so-called English dream.

Witty, perceptive, filled with black humour, and highly satirical, this is Two Caravans by Marina Lewycka. The Ukrainian immigrant creates a plausible picture of the obstacles in front of these workers, presenting the reality of the UK labour, exploiting the weak and nurturing the gangsters and the mafia. One of the most enjoyable and distinctive features in the novel is the presence of the dog, called, of course Dog. Somewhere in the middle of the journey, this loyal friend joins the strange company and the author shares the animal's thoughts and experiences in a unique way.

Lewycka is an Ukrainian immigrant, living and teaching in Sheffield. Two Caravans is her second novel, after A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and it is brilliant. Quite worth reading.

Saturday, 12 March 2011

The Financial Crisis Within - Michael Lewis

The financial crisis, which began in 2007 in the USA, turned into a global recession and affected American as well as European and Asian markets. The years preceding the crisis were marked by dramatic structural transformations in the American economy and by changes in the real sector. A large number of jobs were exported into developing countries such as China and India. Without any sufficient protection measures, many sectors in the American economy experienced a crisis leading to the inability of the working force in these sectors to pay their loans back; the result was a massive wave of bankruptcies and bank failures. Secondly, before the crisis the market experienced strong economic growth, partially due to the boom of the construction business. The interest rates were low and the government encouraged individuals to buy new homes. The large economic growth lead to a strong competition between banks and financial institutions, which focused on maximizing short-term profits by unprecedented credit expansion. Combined with the free market structure of the financial industry and the lowered governmental regulation this resulted in the collapse of the financial markets. The government intervention was inadequate; it existed but it was not administered correctly and on time. In the presence of this inadequate control the use of complicate financial derivatives lead to a deep recession, decline in trust in the financial markets, unemployment, etc. Moreover, governments had to invest huge amounts of money (which resulted in higher taxes for the common individual) in order to cover the losses and to save the financial system from collapsing.

Understanding the machinations behind the financial crisis is difficult. Most people know only that "it has to do with lending too many mortgage loans". In fact, the doomsday machine from inside is much more complicated. Even the traders, bankers, and investors on Wallstreet do not understand some of the financial derivatives used to trade billions of American dollars from mortgage loans, which eventually lead to the near collapse of the US economic system.

Writing about the financial crisis is also difficult. Actually, writing about it in a way so that people, who are not in the area of finance will understand is actually almost impossible. Yet, Michael Lewis, a former investment trader on Wallstreet manages to produce a masterpiece, that targets not financial experts, but common individuals more or less affected by the crisis. Thus, The Big Short is a not a complicated financial interrogation about the causes and results of the 2007 economic disaster. It is a novel that explores the moral hazards of investors to undertake large risks, the inadequate actions by the US government, and the effects on the American taxpayer in order to save the economy from collapsing. It is a novel about a few people, who were the only ones to predict doomsday in the financial world. Clever but criticized for their beliefs, Steve Eisman, Michael Burry, Charley Ledley, James Mai, Meredith Whitney and Greg Lippmann are the eccentric investors, traders, and analysts who go against the market and end up profitting after the bubble burst. Who are those people, who go against the grain even when most of the financial world ridicules them? What qualities do they possess in order to capture the downfall of the market, when most of its most clever Wall Street participants are blind for the consequences of their actions. How do they manage to defend their point even when all of their clients leave them and the whole financial world condemns them.

Michael Lewis gives us an answer by following the rebellion of these really amazing minds, who forecast the crisis but unfortunately there was no one to listen to them. The novel explores beneath the surface of the glamorous financial world with sarcasm, black humour, and wit. Definitely a worth-reading non-fiction even for people with little or no financial background. Lewis did an outstanding job in being comprehensible and entertaining.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Dandelion Wine or How to Capture Summer in a Bottle

Have you ever tried to capture summer moments so that you go back to them in cold winter nights and remember the good times? Have you ever realized that you forgot some of the precious magic of summer, when you were content, pleased, and happy? Have you ever cried when summer is over and counted the days till the next one? If your answer is "Yes" to any of these questions, this is your book.

Dandelion Wine by Rad Bradbury is a gentle, touching nostalgic novel about summer days gone by. Combining reality with fantasy, the book represents the magic of childhood, the excitement of simple experiences, and the childish curiosity about the meaning and purpose of life. Through the eyes of the main character, 12-years-old Douglas Spoulding, the author explores the daily summer routines of a small fictional town, Greentown. People there live a simple, calm, and uneventful life, waiting for days, months, and years to pass. Douglas, with his passion, desire for knowledge, and curiosity stands out in this crowd. The boy is fascinated with summer days and nights. He records all of his experiences into a little notebook, afraid that someday he might forget them. Despite playing with his friends, Douglas is also preoccupied with topics far too mature for his own age. At the beginning of the summer he suddenly realizes he is alive and has to take advantage of every opportunity, to enjoy every moment, to run barefoot on the grass, to eat as many ice-creams as possible, to have new shoes, to swing, to laugh, to play. Mid-summer, the boy is faced with the inevitable truth that he is going to die. He losses his best friend, his grandmother dies, and Douglas is now disillusioned and confused. Yet, what the author is trying to tell us, is that the contentment of people depends on their ability to deal with and accept the imperfect aspects of life and to find pleasures in the small things.

The entire novel is trying to show the reader how much happiness and joy is right in front of our eyes but we fail to notice it. The first summer day, the time you hang the swings, the first time you wear your trainers, the first time you eat ice-cream, the first time you hear the crickets sing, the first time you run in the grass, all of these events excite Douglas and his friends. The boy's philosophy of life is so mature, yet grown up people very easily forget it. We should live today, grab up everything we can, enjoy it, play with it, write it down, make someone smile, capture the sun, the moon, the wind, the grass, because this day is never going to come back.

Most of the short stories are in some way related to Douglas, his family, or his friends. The old characters are nostalgic about their youth, their loved ones, who have died, their experiences. The young ones listen to their stories with amazement that these old people have sometime been young. Overall, Bradbury's heroes are sweet, loving, sensitive, caring for life, living in memories or carefully storing them for future years. Bradbury's heroes are healthy and happy mainly because they live today, without plans for the futures, without waiting for something grand to happen. They realize that existence is about is the little pleasures that we experience every day, even every hour, in between the big, shaking events that transform our lives drastically.

All of these summer moments are accompanied by the gentle touch of dandelion wine. For Douglas, the wine symbolizes all the summer joys, trapped in a single bottle. Every day has its own bottle, which reminds the boy of what he did, what he felt, or what he learned that day. So that in the winter, he can go down the basement, open the dandelion wine, and return to this blissful time.

Dandelion Wine is a semi-biographical novel. It combines Bradbury's actual experiences as a little boy in a small US town with his unique imagination. Most of the stories were published previously as short-stories before being combined into one large novel. These romantic and sentimental short stories are in a huge contrast with the grim, depressing world that 451 Fahrenheit portrays. As if two different people wrote two different novels, both of which feature intimate reflections about our world, even though in totally different aspects. Ray Bradbury is a name that combines everything - science, fantasy, horror, science-fiction, and...nostalgia.

In Dandelion Wine reality is sometimes overwhelmed by fantasy to arrive at a wonderful novel, which warms up even the most cynical and cold heart. I will be re-reading it over and over again when I feel I am living not in the present but in some uncertain future. Because the present is all we have and we should enjoy it with a bottle of dandelion wine.