Sunday, October 30, 2005

33. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

A House for Mr. Biswas book pictureThis book was recommended to me by the Dean of the University of Crumbolst during a discussion about Time Magazine's 100 best english novels written after 1929. I asked people for recommendations from that much-maligned list because I was in need of some new reading material, outside of my comfort zones (which had clearly stagnated in the last month as you can tell by the few books that have been read) and that might add some prestige to me, either in cocktail party conversations or when visibly seen reading at a café.

A House for Mr. Biswas is a great book. It's the story of one man's life, beginning with his birth (after a brief prologue at his death) and going through his entire life until he dies. Mr. Biswas is a poor Brahmin, part of the Indian diaspora living in Trinidad. His life is defined by a lack of power and freedom and his constant, often aggravating, often self-defeating, struggle against the things that oppress him. The progress of his struggle is his domestic situation, most of the time under the roof of his wife's (whom he also married against his will) family home, a sprawling, female-dominated network that is almost a society in and of itself.

Mr. Biswas is not a likeable person. He treats his wife terribly, constantly attacking her family (because he's too scared to confront them directly), belittling her, ignoring her, trying to escape from her. The first half of the book is a bit trying just because Mr. Biswas is so difficult. But the rich descriptions, both of the physical and social environment, and the steady layering of character development (of really engaging, interesting and often eccentric characters) keep you reading. By the time Mr. Biswas starts to develop some character, you've suffered with him so much, that you have total sympathy for him.

Most of the time, he is either thinking about a future house, worrying about his current one, or hating it. The house and the freedom and independence associated with it is the central theme, from beginning to end. And even though you know, in outline, what happens to Mr. Biswas by the end of his life, the story is so rich and engaging that you really want to find out how and why it all turns out.

By the end, you close the book feeling like you have a deep and intimate connection with a single man and the family around him. I strongly recommend this book.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

32. Killy by Donald E. Westlake

Killy book pictureI actually read this almost a month ago, but since I'm getting back on the book-reading wagon, I realize I'd better start keeping track.

This is an early Westlake, about a young man who gets an intern job at a union headquarters. He works for a man named Walter Killy. Their job is to encourage unionization. At first it's all presented as business-like and professional, creating PR and publicity and talking with people who are interested. But when they go to a single-factory town where some of the men want to unionize, things get ugly really fast.

Most of the book is an interesting look at how the unions operate in situations like this. As it moves forward, it becomes more about the narrator and his growing confidence in the position. It foreshadows Westlake's study of the psychology of jobs and workers which we see more of in The Axe and is always an undercurrent in most of his books.

Watching the union respond to the locked-down town, the corrupt cops and the plant owners is really cool and worth the read alone. The ending is a bit abrupt and not totally satisfying, mostly because the protaganist is a bit soulless. Enjoyable, though.