Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Half A Life

Half A Life
by V.S. Naipaul

Willie Somerset Chandran is the son of a Brahmin father and a Dalit mother. His father gave him his middle name as a homage to the English writer Somerset Maugham who had visited the father in the temple where the father was living under a vow of silence. Having come to despise his father, Willie leaves India to go to 1950s London to study. There he leads a life as a poor immigrant and later he writes a book of short stories and manages to publish it.

Willie receives a letter from Ana, a mixed Portuguese and black African girl, who admires his book, and they arrange to meet. They fall in love and Willie follows her to her country (an unnamed Portuguese colony in Africa, presumably Mozambique). Meanwhile Willie's sister Sarojini marries a German and moves to Berlin. The novel ends with Willie having moved to his sister's place in Berlin after his 18 year stay in Africa.

Half a Life is a precursor to Naipaul's 2004 novel Magic Seeds which starts with Willie in Berlin.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Exorcist

The Exorcist
by William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist is a horror novel written by William Peter Blatty. It is based on a 1949 exorcism of Robbie Mannheim that Blatty heard about while he was a student in the class of 1950 at Georgetown University, a Jesuit and Catholic school. Aspects of the novel are based upon an exorcism performed by the Jesuit priest, Fr. William S. Bowdern, who formerly taught at both St. Louis University and St. Louis University High School.

Barcelona: The Civic Stage

Barcelona: The Civic Stage
by Robert Goldston

Mr. Goldston is enormously sensitive to the look and feel and life style of Barcelona and his first few pages are tantalizing. But his purpose is not simply to exalt "a congeniality, satisfaction and inner order which is to be found in practically none of the world's other large cities"; he intends that its past should be a lesson to it, that its near-present should be a lesson to us, that its future should be a universal concern--and along the way the argument falters. After surveying the history of the city, he focuses on the amenities of each historic quarter and the factors which together distinguished Barcelona--which is all well and good if hardly novel (the terms of analysis are as old as Lewis Mumford's 1938 The Culture of Cities and some go back to Camillo Sitte [1889]) or unique--as he concedes later, similar conditions existed elsewhere. The late arrival of Barcelona to the modern world is his strongest point but now that it has arrived, the bulwarks of a humane existence are crumbling (as they have elsewhere), which he also acknowledges: "Religious forms and influence. . . are facing disintegration"; "the economic 'stand-off' between those eager to exploit the city for their profit and those who have seen in the city's preservation their principal means of protecting themselves against exploitation is coming to an end too"; "and Catalan apartness, the sense of Barcelona's civic independence which has preserved so many cultural forms and activities. . . is also vanishing." What is the remedy? The book's greatest weakness is that Mr. Goldston not only evinces no acquaintance with the more sophisticated solutions of modern city planning (decrying the encroachment of the car, he offers no alternatives) but also that he holds to the "villain" theory of urban development; if capitalist exploitation is to be countered, the city will need to adapt as well as preserve. Mr. Goldston knows the good life when he sees it but he doesn't show how Barcelona can hold on to it or how the rest of us can attain it. And of course there may be some people who prefer punctuality and supermarkets. . . but this review is too long already.

Sunday, June 14, 2015


Barcelona: A Thousand Years of the City's Past
by Felipe Fernandez-Armesto

Barcelona, like Spain itself, has in recent years attracted the gaze and fascination of the world. Chosen as the host city for the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, the international spotlight will soon focus on this beautiful, two thousand year-old city, furthering Barcelona's hopes for a lasting place on the world stage. But success has never come easily to this Spanish metropolis. Not blessed with a natural port, and checked throughout history by a series of natural disasters and military defeats, Barcelona has struggled hard to become the industrial and commercial first city of Spain, and the biggest urban center on the Mediterranean seaboard. And Barcelona's relationship with the rest of Spain has always been strained by its status as the capital of the separatist Catalonian state.

As this comprehensive and vividly written history makes clear, all of Barcelona's fluctuating fortunes are mapped out in its remarkably rich architectural and artistic heritage. While many associate the city with the distinctive, fin-de-siecle signature of the architect Gaudi, Fernandez-Armesto reveals Barcelona's many other faces. Tracing the legacies of the Roman occupation, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the modern age, he illuminates the inherent tension that makes Barcelona one of the most vibrant, beautiful, and misunderstood cities of Western Europe.

Thursday, June 4, 2015


by Stephen King

Cujo's name was based on the nom de guerre of Willie Wolfe, one of the men responsible for orchestrating Patty Hearst's kidnapping and indoctrination into the Symbionese Liberation Army. Stephen King discusses Cujo in On Writing, referring to it as a novel he "barely remembers writing at all". The book was written during a period when King was drinking heavily. Somewhat wistfully, King goes on to say that he likes the book and that he wishes he could remember enjoying the good parts as he put them down on the page.

The story takes place in the fictional town of Castle Rock, Maine, the setting of numerous King works, and revolves around two local families. The narrative is interspersed with vignettes from the seemingly mundane lives of various other residents. There are no chapter headings, but rather breaks in between passages, which indicate when the narration switches to a different point of view.

The principal characters are the Trenton and the Camber families. The middle-class Trentons have recently moved to Castle Rock from New York, bringing with them their four-year-old son, Tad. Father Vic discovers that his wife Donna has recently concluded an affair. In the midst of this household tension, Vic's fledgling advertising agency is failing, and he is forced to travel out of town, leaving Tad and Donna at home. The blue-collar Cambers are longtime residents; Joe is a shade-tree mechanic who dominates and abuses his wife Charity and their ten-year-old son Brett. Charity wins a $5,000 lottery prize, and uses the proceeds to inveigle Joe into allowing her to take Brett on a trip to visit Charity's sister, Holly, in Connecticut. Joe acquiesces, secretly planning to use the time to take a pleasure trip to Boston.

Cujo, the Cambers' large, good-natured St. Bernard, chases a wild rabbit in the fields around their house and inserts his head in the entrance to a small limestone cave, where a rabid bat bites him on the nose and turns him mad. Soon after Charity and Brett leave town, Cujo attacks and kills their alcoholic neighbor, Gary Pervier. When Joe calls on Gary, Cujo also kills him.

Donna, home alone with Tad, takes their failing Ford Pinto to the Cambers' for repairs. The car breaks down in Camber's dooryard and as Donna attempts to find Joe, Cujo appears and is ready to pounce. She climbs back in the car and Cujo starts to attack. Donna and Tad are trapped in their vehicle, the interior of which becomes increasingly hot in the sun. During one escape attempt, Donna is bitten in the stomach and leg, but manages to survive and escape back into the car. She plans to run for the Cambers' home, but abandons the idea due to her fears that the door will be locked and she will be subsequently killed by Cujo, leaving her son alone.

Vic returns to Castle Rock after several failed attempts to contact Donna and learns from the police that Steve Kemp, the man with whom Donna was having an affair, is suspected of ransacking his home and possibly kidnapping Donna and Tad. In an effort to explore all leads, the state police send Castle Rock Sheriff George Bannerman out to the Cambers' house, but Cujo attacks and kills him. Donna, after witnessing the attack and realizing Tad is in danger of dying of dehydration, battles Cujo and kills him. Vic arrives on the scene with the authorities soon after, but Tad has already died from exposure. Donna is rushed to the hospital, and Cujo's head is removed for a biopsy prior to cremation of his remains.

The novel ends several months later with both the Trenton and Camber families trying to go on with their lives: Donna has completed her treatment for rabies, her marriage with Vic has survived, and Charity gives Brett a new, vaccinated puppy named Willie. A postscript reminds the reader that Cujo was a good dog who always tried to keep his owners happy, but the ravage of rabies drove him to violence.