Wednesday, July 27, 2005

The Jungle Books

by Rudyard Kipling

A series of stories, mostly but not always set in India.  I did not know when I first picked this up that not all of these tales feature the most famous character: Mowgli, the baby carried off by a lame tiger and rescued by wolves, who grows to be master of the jungle. (In this, he predates Tarzan by a couple of decades.)  I remember reading some, but not all, of this book many years ago, but I remembered little of it, especially from the second book.

Some of the tales are well-known ("Rikki-Tikki-Tavi”) and some not so well known ("Servants Of the Queen," in which various army pack animals discuss their lot, and by extension, the lot of their masters, in life). For me, the ones that jarred the most were the stories that take place in the Arctic regions of all places ("The White Seal" and "Quiquern"). They seemed wildly incongruous mixed in between the better-known tales of the tropics. The one connecting thread of the tales, no matter what their locale, is that they all deal in some way with an animal's view of the world.  Are these tales allegories of colonialism?  I don’t know.  I can see how one might argue the fact - "The White Seal" in particular appears to be a particularly blatant suggestion of the superiority of the white man - but it's also clear that Kipling loved India, far too much to write about it simply to push an agenda.  Even if it is an extended allegory (which I don't believe) it’s a very poor one, since it's so rich and subtle. Anyone could pick it up and enjoy a tale of adventure, fantasy, heroism, familial love, triumph over tragedy, and sad farewells without ever dreaming there might be some hidden meaning, or considering what the various animals "represent." It's often considered a children's book, but I doubt it would be thought so if it appeared today; the language is complex, there's quite a lot of killing and threats of torture, and, least Disneyfied of all, the end is not at all the neatly-tied happy resolution that the majority of non-series children's stories seem to require today. (Kipling seems to favor ambiguous, rather sad endings; Kim and Thy Servant a Dog are respective examples).  Still, what kid wouldn't want to hear about how Mowgli massacred the pack of wild dogs with the help of a python, some wolves, and about a million angry bees?

Monday, July 25, 2005

The House Of the Spirits

by Isabel Allende
translated by Magda Bogin

Four generations of an aristocratic and extremely eccentric Chilean family, tied together by the patriarch, Esteban Truebe, a hardworking conservative who marries Clara and becomes a wealthy man and a senator. His wife, a mystical clairvoyant with a loving heart, passes her peculiarities to her descendants, much to Trueba’s rage and dismay. Even as he rails again the communists and what he sees as the ridiculous behavior of his sons (one a dreamer and mystic, the other an obsessively dedicated doctor to the poor), the political countryside shifts, the left and the military battling for power.

Another epic – 430 pages – this book had me hooked at the first paragraph. Like Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, this is a blend of political criticism, comedy, magic, and an homage to the family, especially (albeit Trueba is the one consistent thread) matriarchy. Allende keeps the rich tapestry of so many years and events together through a variety of devices: hints of foreshadowing, two narrators (one in the first person), and Clara’s notebooks, which purportedly provide the material for the book itself. This is a grand book, filled with wonder, needless tragedy, great love, and in the end, a family that conquers pride and tyranny with love. A hugely entertaining and thought-provoking novel.

Friday, April 22, 2005


by Rudyard Kipling

Kim, orphaned son of an Irish sergeant in the Indian Army, is brought up as an Indian street urchin. Fluent in Hindi and Pushtu, he is quick-witted and street-wise. When he becomes attached to a Tibetan lama searching for the River of Buddha’s Arrow, his life becomes intertwined with the Great Game --- England’s espionage network that safeguards British India.

This is a terrific novel: witty, suspenseful, rich in descriptions of forgotten or disappearing people and customs, and above all as complex and layered as India herself. There is a smack of the white man’s superior airs in the novel --- it is Kim’s “white blood” that makes him immune to the suggestions of India’s magic and his English education that allows him to resist hypnotism --- but there is nothing, to my eyes, denigrating in the novel. Kipling loves India, and Kim is India. Able to mimic a Sahib, a Hindi, a Muslim, a beggar, a chela or what have you, he represents all of India: its “good, gentle” people who revere the wise and the virtuous. The ending of the book is perfect: there’s closure, but it leaves all of India, from its dusty plains to the bitter cold of the Hills (Himalayas), open to Kim’s skills and knowledge. A truly great book, much more than an adventure story, road trip, or coming of age story. It is all these and more. It is one of the world's greatest novels.

five stars

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

The American Black Chamber

by Herbert O. Yardley

The author headed the titular Black Chamber, a euphemism for MI-8, the branch of US Intelligence that dealt with ciphers, codes and “secret inks” through WWI and beyond, until the branch was summarily closed by a spectacularly naive and short-sighted Secretary of State.  Hardley is a fine raconteur, detailing step-by-step the painstaking ways he and his staff decoded, for example, messages that were composed solely of long strings of five-digit numbers (which turned out to be references to a dictionary’s page and line numbers).

The decryption of the Japanese codes, too, considering the lack of available information on the language itself, is incredible.  There’s a long stretch of intercepted and translated Japanese telegrams which I suppose Yardley included to make a political point, but which is a bit dreary, when all one wants is more info on how he cracked the codes. Aside from that, it’s fascinating, not only the code breaking but the period detail: how legions of typists and thousands of cards were needed in those days before computers or the level of government spying: letters and cables read as a matter of course, people followed and observed...  And here we are whining about the Patriot Act. 

four stars