Sunday, December 29, 2013

Book Review: The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck

The Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck is a phenomenally engaging and complex account of a scientific expedition by one of the greatest American novelists. The science itself makes it a worthwhile read, but what tugs most at your heartstrings, and fires most sparks in your head is exceptional prose that serves a cocktail of science, philosophy, anthropology and history. The Log from the Sea of Cortez succinctly presents Steinbeck's beliefs about humanity, vanity, intellect, progress, technology, morality and society, and thus this book provides a key to deeper understanding of Steinbeck's novels, life and work.

At the simplest level, the book recounts a 4,000 mile voyage on a sardine boat out of Monterey, California around the Baja peninsula into the Sea of Cortez. This expedition, undertaken by Steinbeck with his biologist friend Edward Ricketts, was aimed at collecting a wide range of marine animals and observing them in their pristine condition. The curiosity-driven adventure provided Steinbeck and Ricketts an opportunity to explore marine lifeforms and their subtle adaptations in various gulfs, bays, estuaries and reefs along the shores of the Sea of Cortez. The book describes daily events and labor that contributed to a rich harvest (or collection) of many species of crabs, shrimps, anemones, corals, sea cucumbers, sharks, string rays, mussels, clams, and other marine animals.

Many critics and in fact, Steinbeck himself, have recognized that the biologist Ricketts exercised a great deal of influence on the creative and imaginative life of Steinbeck. This log and the complete text of The Sea of Cortez are obvious examples of their collaboration. Based on self-consistent evidence, it is clear that Steinbeck himself was a seeker of deeper knowledge of the scientific and biological world around him, and that his interaction and friendship with Ricketts broadened his perspective on science, life and humanity. In our contemporary world, there are fewer than ever individuals who are equally comfortable in discussions that involve bot literature and science. Steinbeck seems equally deft in writing about both realms.
The book is full of passages about research and science that are gems in their own right, and I am sure many scientists would enjoy reading these. Example sentences: "There is a curious idea among the unscientific men that in scientific writing there is a common plateau of perfectionism. Nothing could be more untrue. The reports of biologists are the measure, not of the science, but of the men themselves." Or these sentences from another chapter: "It is difficult, when watching the little beasts, not to trace human parallels. The greatest danger to a speculative biologist is analogy. It is a pitfall to be avoided -- the industry of the bee, the economics of the ant, the villainy of snake, all i human terms have given us profound misconceptions of animals." Somewhere else in the book, Steinback writes: "There is one great difficulty with a good hypothesis. When it is completed and rounded, the corners smooth and the content cohesive and coherent, it is likely to become a thing in itself, a work of art. It is then like a finished sonnet or a painting completed. One hates to disturb it."

There are particularly powerful and evocative discussions and passages about the distance and difference between the timeless, archaic culture of the Native American (aka American Indians) and the hasty, wasteful, money-minded culture of urban Americans. Steinbeck explored similar themes in his other books and in the script he wrote for a documentary titled "The Forgotten Village" (1941).

Steinbeck the writer is as soul stirring here as he was in The Grapes of Wrath. Likewise, his world view expressed in this log will be in conflict with the same people who labeled him as a socialist or a communist. Though many people see Steinbeck as a propagandist who spews venom against the rich and the ruling elite, a critical examination of Steinbeck's writing here shows him as a person who wants to see reality as it 'is'. This reality, be it socio-political realm or biosphere, contains weak and strong, preys and predators, survivors and dead. Though Steinbeck writes about humans or marine animals like a detached observer, his sympathies seem to lie with the underdog. Perhaps that is the reason for his popularity around the world.

The book reaffirms my belief that great scientists and artists have both caliber and appetite for acquiring knowledge in diverse realms. I think the travelogue is an inspirational text and a valuable resource that should be read by all practicing or aspiring marine biologists.  It is a must read for anyone who really cares about the writing of Steinbeck, and I dare say, for all scientifically-minded people.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: Jospeh Anton by Salman Rushdie

Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie is a memoir of his alias-being, a shadow-identity that allowed the author to exist in spite of threats, insults, stress and the fatwa that followed the publication of The Satanic Verses. Shadows are two-dimensional, and their form, size and intensity changes as a day progresses. Shadows are visible only when light is blocked. For years Salman Rushdie lead the life of Joseph Anton, a shadow, haunted by justified fears for his life and the life for his loved ones. The memoir revisits the psychological, social, political, personal, national, international, literary and imaginary landscapes Salman Rushdie inhabited for nearly twelve years. The name Joseph Anton, we learn, was forged by combining the names of two of Salman's favorite authors: Joesph (Conrad) and Anton (Chekov).

For readers like me acquainted with nearly every book and essay Salman has written as a novelist and an essayist, the memoir provides a rare voyeuristic perspective into the workings of a fascinating author. The conception of each novel and essay, especially the ones he wrote during his years spend in hiding, involve stories made poignant and almost tragic-comic in the retelling by the protagonist. We learn about many other authors, their eccentricities and foibles, and the behavioral and political choices authors, politicians and the majority among us make when faced with a death sentence hanging over the head of a writer, thinker, intellectual like Salman Rushdie.

Is it possible to write an autobiographical text without appearing self-obsessed and self-congratulatory? Maybe, maybe not. Let me pick three autobiographical texts from Indian sub-continent to compare with Joseph Anton: Mahatma Gandhi's My Experiments with Truth, Harivansh Rai Bachchan's autobiography in four parts and Baburnama. Gandhiji text provides a glimpse into the development of a leader whose impact on humankind has given this text a stature beyond its literary worth. History will note that his ideas and writing influenced the course of the Indian freedom struggle and served as inspiration to Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr as well as countless leaders and commoners in Africa, Asia and Americas. Baburnama, which is supposedly the first autobiographical text by a Muslim author, provides an exceptional account of the life and rise of Babur from a small chieftain in and around Samarkand and Kabul to the founder of the Mughal Empire in India. The richness of the text is perhaps in its catalog of defeats and victories, families and feuds, customs and comments, wines and fruits and landscape and lifestyle of a bygone era, but the longevity of text rests primarily on the exploits of an emperor.

In contrast, Bachchan's autobiography is perhaps the only one that is both a literary masterpiece and a personal testimony, and at both levels it is full of otherwise inaccessible perspective about the author, his life & work, and his world. Rushdie's Joseph Anton succeeds like Babur's and Gandhiji's text do, as notes that will be remembered primarily in contexts of other deeds and words enacted off the page. Unlike Bachchan's autobiography, where the author explores his own weaknesses and incongruities, along with those of his friends and family, Rushdie's writing is aimed at setting a record straight about the impact of fatwa on his being and writing. In Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie shows (not tells) how his personal life was altered completely, irreversibly and how the writer came to terms with a relentless barrage of opinions and counter-opinions that considered him a trouble-maker rather than a victim. Though the larger issues about artistic values, freedom of speech, religious fundamentalism, political ambivalence, national security, terrorism and exile are all integral to the narrative of Joseph Anton, the personal struggle of Salman Rushdie is too distant from the experiences of even his most ardent readers, giving it a flavor of "unmagical unrealism", if such a phrase can be used to describe Joseph Anton. They who condemn him for writing The Satanic Verses believe he  launched himself into an orbit of nearly no return by writing what they consider blasphemous book, and unfortunately, the people who condemned him earlier would neither show empathy towards the author nor compunction for their behavior after reading Joseph Anton, if they ever read Joseph Anton.
By writing Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie reinforces his demand on all intellectuals, liberal and otherwise, to take a stand against the practice of silencing voices, banishing authors and burning books. Salman's own survival we learn here has been made possible by the efforts of multiple governments, efficient and nameless security officers & guards, staunch friends and a great deal of expenditure. Attacks on ideas and writers have continued nearly unabated in our times. Unfortunately, even after so many authors have been sacrificed at the altar of literature and truth, most of us continue to bide time in silence. Jospeh Anton is a strong and a soul-stirring reminder of how even the most advanced and liberal nations (and citizens) can be held hostage by a small group with strong opinions or by the threat of religion-related or sometimes superstition-related violence. 
Though we must feel free to disagree with writers like Salman on many issues and take time to criticize their words or choices, we owe it to the humanity to provide safe passage to all ideas and ideologues. Even though it is convenient to believe that the callous and shallow ideas, harmful and deceitful writings and the power or influence of dishonest and vicious writers/politicians will disappear in time, it is only through free speech and active engagement with all facets of an argument that we can turn tables sooner rather than later. Read Joseph Anton and see how many spark plugs in your mind are set ringing by Salman Rushdie, who I love to call a blasphemous apostle. If you haven't read him already before, to really appreciate the extraordinary skill, wit and intellect of Salman Rushdie the writer, pick Midnight's Children or Haroun and the Sea of Stories, for these will be valuable reads even a thousand years from now.