Tuesday, December 11, 2007


A comment on one of my other blogs talked about Ogden Nash, and that has sparked off a train of thought about poems. I remember how, back in school, we all had to read and mug up reams of poetry, and it was usually up there with Calmpose for most people, because it's seen as 'culture' and 'intellectual' and all that. I've always loved poetry, especially the Romantics - Shelley, Keats and so on - as well as several other poets whom I've come across, and it seems a shame to hang the tag of 'arty' on poetry and so keep people from enjoying them.

Poems are really interesting, because, unlike prose, editing is the very essence of poetry. It's a very precise art. Prose is more forgiving - it's like painting with oils, where if you goof up, there are things you can do. Poetry is more like water colour - just the right amount of paint and water in just the right spot - and there's no repairing a mistake. It's delicate, it's precise..in a way it's like the work of a jeweller. Each word has to be the right size, has to be polished to sparkle in that exact way. Each and every word has a set place which, in the wrong place, would spoil the beauty of the piece.

I have been meaning to put up a wonderful poem I discovered recently about life in olden times, but I've left my poetry book in the car. So instead, here are some of my favourite pieces. In humorous poetry, the poet has to be all the more careful, because each and every word has to have an impact. Ogden Nash is one of the masters in this genre, and his poems are so droll and so wonderfully crafted that generation upon generation will get the same mirth out of them.

"Some primal termite knocked on wood
and tasted it and found it good
And that is why your cousin May
Fell through the parlour floor today."

This one is by a poet whose name escapes me for the moment. It was my favourite during my (neverending) ugly duckling phase:

"For beauty I'm not a great star
There are others more handsome by far
But my face, I don't mind it
For I am behind it
It's the people in front
that I jar!"

And here's a piece from one of my all time favourite poems, Renascence, by Edna st. Vincent Millay:

"I would I were alive again,
To kiss the fingers of the rain,
To drink into my eyes the shine,
Of every slanting silver line,
For soon the shower will be done,
And then the broad face of the sun,
Will shine above the rain-soaked earth,
until the world with answering mirth,
Shakes joyously and each round drop
Rolls, twinkling, from its grassblade top."

I think it taught us something ineffable, to have to by-heart some of the world's great poetry and to have it available as a ready resource at the back of the mind. It added a certain richness to the mind, and I wonder if schools still make you do it. They should - because sometimes poetry has a way of painting such a vivid image that there are no other words to describe the same thing when it happens in your life...'For oft when on my couch I lie, in vacant or in pensive mood, they flash upon that inward eye, which is the bliss of solitude...' He could be talking about poetry!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Monsieur poirot

It's been a long time since I wrote about books, huh? Not because I never read - I'm addicted to reading, and am usually about 3 deep, but because I've been busy and writing about books takes time for reflection and analysis. Lately I've been doing a course of Agatha Christie - all the old Miss Marples and Hercule Poirots. It's always amazing to me how prolific some of the old English authors were - Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Enid Blyton, Noel Streatfeild etc. It's also interesting to note how many of them had a classical education, and how well they wove it into the stories they wrote so that while being erudite, they still appealed to the masses because their style was not erudite and forbidding, but warm and welcoming.

When you compare and contrast Sherlock Holmes with Hercule Poirot, it's almost as if Christie set him up to be an exact opposite. Holmes is tall, with a cadaverously lean face. Poirot has an egg-shaped head and vast moustaches. He leaps to conclusions quickly and gathers clues at the site of the crime. When something happens, he says, "The scent is up", like a foxhound at the hunt, whereas Poirot prefers to sit back in his armchair and use the 'little grey cells'. Holmes is addicted to opium and plays the violin. He is organised but untidy, with the tobacco pouch often in his slipper, whereas Hercule is precise, as tidy as a pin and has a mania for symmetry.

Yet they both share certain characteristics. One of the most humanising things about them is their love for their less cerebral friend - Dr. Watson/ Captain Hastings - both of whom are interchangeable as characters. They both have a touch of vanity, a touch of the conjuror about them - they like dramatic denouements and neither is above bending the law in certain cases. They both believe that "... when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." They both plan to retire to the country, Holmes to do beekeeping and Poirot to grow marrows.

Interestingly, the sidekicks are the same character, under different names. Dr. Watson is straight-forward, gullible and rarely sees what Holmes is driving at. Captain Hastings is straight-forward, gullible and rarely sees what Poirot is driving at. Both have a soft spot for personable young men and pretty women. Both hope their 'hero' gets his comeuppance some day. And both are, thankfully, indefatigable chroniclers of their hero's doings, without which world literature would have been much poorer!

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Stories for Kids

I don't know why ( maybe a recessive gene), but I seem to have a fascination for the past, be it history, biographies, antiques...even my husband is older than me! Part of that fascination naturally spills over into my choice of books. I collect children's books, and the bulk of my collection dates back to what I would call children's classics. There is a certain innocence to the children and their problems in those books which is endearing and much easier to deal with than the modern children's books which deal with drugs or dating, divorces etc. Even books which do have serious problems at their heart feature children who are lovable and child-like in their outlook.

William has already featured in a blog. Another children's writer whose books I adore is Noel Streatfeild - famously referred to as 'the shoe books' in the movie You've got mail. Her books are set during WWII and thereafter, and feature children who face genteel poverty. There are several different themes, from show business, which she does amazingly well from experience ( Ballet Shoes, Wintle's Wonders, Movie Shoes, Curtain Up, Apple Bough) to catching spies, playing competitive sports (Tennis Shoes) and so on. There is a stock cast of supporting characters of the Nanny type , and the children also fit into broad patterns - there is the vain child, the one who worries about everyone and one with a chip on his or her shoulder. There is also the child who is always wholly, naturally himself or herself. Despite the recurrent themes, there is a universal appeal even to those children born today who may not understand the context of WWII in Europe or the concerns of those children.

Another children's author who is incredibly good at relating to and painting the world of the child is Beverly Cleary. I have just started reading her memoir, A Girl from Yamhill, and am enjoying discovering all the interesting stories in her own childhood that she later wove into the life of Ramona Quimby and Henry Huggins, among others. She is extremely good at painting life from the perspective of the child even while she reports what is going on in the life of the grown-ups in the book.

Laura Ingalls Wilder is another favourite. Her books are memoirs, not fiction, and she has written about life as a pioneer girl going out West with her family in the America of the 1880s. As she grows up through the series, the perspective changes so the reader grows up along side. The language is simple yet evocative and is a wonderful record of life in those times. I am awed by her ability to remember the details of what happened when and where, since she wrote these books many years later - I'd be hard put to it to remember what happened yesterday.

Edith Nesbit is another children's author whom I enjoy reading, though I confess I usually re-read The Railway children more often than Five Children and It or the other stories. There is a certain resemblance to Noel Streatfeild in The Railway Children in the characters of the children in the book, and the issues they face, how they face them. The supporting cast is also similar, which may explain my fondness for the book.

What makes most of these books firm favourites for me is that the characters are alive. As a fledgling writer myself, I am going through the struggle of finding the 'voice' of different characters and differentiating one voice from the other. The plot and character development both complement each other; one does not compromise the other in these stories. And of course, the pay-off, as with Biggles - the good guys always win. Not a win as they would have pictured it, perhaps, but a win nevertheless.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Just William

William is an endearing child - though only from a distance. If he was my son, I'm sure my BP would be way over normal. He gets up to all kinds of mischief, from running on fences to letting sheep out of their pens. He is constantly into mischief. He loathes school and wants to found a society for suppression of cruelty to boys, abolishing school and baths, among other things. He is always the fearless leader of his gang, and is to be found outdoors, ideally as dirty and mud-soaked as possible. His imagination constantly runs away from him, and he cannot perform the simplest of tasks without injecting an element of fantasy into them. He talks endlessly, he can be shrewd and manipulative when needed, and has a secret soft corner for extremely feminine girls.

William Brown was the creation of author Richmal Crompton, who came up with the boy in 1919. From then until her death in 1969, she wrote 38 novels featuring William and his band of outlaws. What is incredible is that despite somewhat repetitive storylines, there is some twist or other to keep you engrossed through the series. She has managed to capture the mind of the child ina completely natural way, as the best of children's writing does. At the same time, her books are cleverly layered so that they appeal to adults as much, if not more. One of her cleverest stories, for instance has to do with a critique of communism. In it, William's elder broether and the brothers of his friends band together to create a bolshevist society and decide that since everyone should have an equal share of everything, they will ask their fathers for a fair share of everything their fathers own. William and his band naturally overhear all the rhetoric, and fired by it and believeing it implicitly, do their best to even up the injustice of the world by helping themselves to a fair share of their brothers' possessions. That's when the brother and his friends realise the weak spot - it's all very well asking for other people's things but it's a different matter when someone else asks you for their share of your things!

Richmal Crompton also unerringly puts her finger on the foibles of the older generation, be they parents, or youth - William's brother and sister, or the endless stream of relatives and neighbours who populate William's world, from victorian Great-aunts to the vicar's wife, to a nouveau riche culture vulture. The books are set in what I like to think of as 'Merry England', not Robin Hood's time, but a time before the two world wars, when life seemed to have a gentleness and an innately gracious rhythm the world has not seen since. Though several of the books do take place during WWII, encompassing some of the events that Britain went through, including air raids, bomb shelters and rationing, life is still a fun adventure, rather than something serious to be analysed and pondered over.

Reading William always puts a smile on my face, though I daresay I won't let my son read these books before he's in his teens (don't want him to get any more ideas for mischief). I'm sure if I were William's mom I'd go mad. But I do find it sad that we live in a world where I need to send someone to supervise my son, rather than letting him run to the park by himself, and envy William and his friends their ability to range across field and wood, at their will.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Indian rib-ticklingly funny book

Forgot to mention one really funny book I came across a couple of years ago - No onions nor garlic. It's about caste-politics in a South Indian university. It's by an Indian author based in Canada and so funny that I actually laughed out loud more than once. I'm not sure everyone will get it, i.e. if you're not South indian/ clued into caste politics in South India, so I have given it to a friend as an experiment, but i loved it. Deliciously ironic and peppered with funny characters.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Indian authors

Let me, first of all, admit to my pretensions to non-intellectuality. That means I'm a little scared of books that seem difficult or intellectually challenging, and usually don't go there. By and large I prefer easier reading - classics like Pride and Prejudice, the whole genre of Golden Age detective fiction including Sapper et all, swashbuckling adventures and romances, fictional biographies etc. One genre that I have unfortunately never been able to get into is Indian Authors.

I have tried to read some of them, and my husband used to buy all of them once upon a time, but now we have decided we're too old to pretend to grey cells we don't have ( anyway post 30 one is supposed to start losing the few we had acquired till then!). I find many of them very difficult to read, angsty and depressing. The one I do like is Chitra Banerji Divakaruni - though she does get repetitive. I used to read a lot of Nayantara Sehgal at one time but not lately. I also feel that what many Indian authors write about hits too close to home - I'm an escapist when it comes to reading and would rather read about a better/ more interesting world than the same old - if I wanted reality, I'd curl up with the daily newspaper!

It's interesting - I had never analysed this before but now that I have and the cat's out of the bag, I feel happier - no more pretending/ feeling intellectually challenged for not wanting to read about the miseries of Parsis/ partition/ urban/ rural Bengal/ whatever!

Speaking of which let me also admit that I thought the book The Namesake sucked. What was the big deal - it was just another second gen immigrant's tale. Gogol never came to life! What was amazing was the luminous film Mira Nair crafted out of it, and the fact that she realised that the story lay in Ashima and her husband, their evolution and the struggle to adjust.

Also, I did not like The God of Small Things, apart from the last chapter which describes the affair between the mother and Velutha. The rest of the book was badly over-written and incoherent!

Liked: Swati Kaushal's Piece of Cake. Light, witty and charming. Contemporary.
Born Confused, I think by Tanu...Desai. Intelligently and movingly written 2nd-Gen tale.
English, August by Upamanyu Chatterjee. Funny and heartfelt.
The Cuckold by Kiran Nagarkar. Poignant and lyrical in its writing.
Chitra Banerji Divakaruni - Beautifully written, real characters, poignant moments
though I do wish all the Indian characters weren't from homes where women were
suppressed, and who found freedom and self expression once exported to America. There
are a few of us self-expressing non-suppressed types even back here in India. In fact,
going by reports about the Indian community in the UK, there may be more suppression
and oppression going on there!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Book-buying spree

I love it when I go shopping for books - and given my fatal addiction, that happens about once a week on average. It's ruinous on bank account and house space but certainly makes up for it by the happiness generated before, during and after the purchase. I was out for a meeting yesterday evening and found myself in a market I rarely visit nowadays because of its severe parking problems - Saket main market.

It has a couple of bookshops, but I headed for the big one, Om Book Shop, to check out their collection. I had been wanting to buy a cookbook by Jamie Oliver for a while but unfortunately they were all out of stock of those. I eyed several Culinarias wistfully - they look gorgeous and the pictures are wonderful, but they cost such a bomb. And weigh a ton, too. I finally bought Ismail Merchant's cookbook and another interesting one called Spices in the Eastern Mediterranean. The Spices one has lots of interesting recipes from Turkey which is a country I recently visited and have a soft spot for, and the pictures are great too. I find that in cookbooks there are 2 categories - the food memoir and the instructions manual. Tarla Dalal tends to err on the instructions manual side, and while I love her cookbooks, have most of them and admit all her recipes turn out brilliantly, I can't quite curl up in an armchair with her stuff. What I like to read ( even bedside reading) is the food-memoir - Shoba Narayan, Madhur Jaffrey et al.

I also bought an Indian 'chicklit', I guess, though I haven't yet begun it, called The Hindi Bindi Club - one of my friends has been mentioning it for a couple of years - one of her writing club friends began it a couple of years ago - it sounded interesting. And ShahRukh Khan's biography by Anupama Chopra is out, so I got that too.

My husband, who's the complete non-cook apart from making tea, started leafing through the Ismail Merchant book and was tempted to try out some of the recipes, so that's probably a good book to buy for someone who likes non-vegetarian Indian cuisine and can't cook! The Shah Rukh Khan book is well written, and traces the growth and development of India alongside the trajectory of both Bollywood and King Khan. It does a good job of getting inside his head and explaining what he is all about, though it leaves out a few facets. Definitely worth a read and a buy, especially at its price of Rs. 295. Only thing that irritated me - the sanskrit play Mrigacchi Kattika was changed to mirch kattika!

What I love about the process of buying books is the adventure - will I find a new author or a new book by old favourite author today? Will I discover a new genre? Will I bankrupt myself in trying to buy 25 new books all at once?

Ooh, lots of lovely reading to do now!

Monday, August 6, 2007

The Lure of Biggles

I have been quite stressed at work lately so I decided to head for comfort reading - digging up old favourites. Interestingly, rather than head for humour as my husband tends to do, I tend to go for old favourite authors in the adventure category when I have limited bandwidth. I re-read a whole set of Biggles books, in any old order since at present my library is in a shambles and not organised enough to keep books of a type together. From the one where he first turns up in France to fly to the ones where he is an accomplished Ace to ones where he is outwitting a specific enemy of the 'Hun' type and those where he is merely fighting off a bunch of thugs...it's great bedtime reading.

I found myself wondering what was the appeal of these. To me, first of all, I love reading books about the World Wars - II preferred to I, but either will do. Then, the characters are straight-forward. No bellyaching about their motivations or tortured thought-processes. Simple credo really - fight for your country, defend your friends, go off at half-cock if someone throws you a challenge or implies that you can't do such and such. Don't flinch at danger. And always be up for a bit of fun and adventure.

The stories range across a wide canvas geographically and in terms of specific situations and cast of villains. Characterisation is not the hallmark of these stories - the surrounding cast is pretty mich interchangeable, apart from one or two sidekicks and villains. The stories have a racy pace and display a nice sense of humour and irony from time to time.

But ultimately what gets me is the feel-good payoff - the good guys always win!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter 7

Whew. What a weekend! I've been hooked to Harry Potter since 1999 - when my then boyfriend (now husband) gifted me the first three books. I've wavered in my loyalties through books 5 and 6 in particular, because they just seemd like prologues to the real stuff, i.e. Book 7. And after all the hype, all the news and all the excitement, I hoped it wasn't going to be a letdown.

We had pre-ordered our copy from Fabmall but the kids woke us up at 5 am - not to read the book, they're too young, but JLT - and after that I couldn't get back to sleep. So I lay and brooded and brooded and brooded until by 8 am I couldn't stand it. "Can't wait for the postman", I yelled, and chivvied poor hubby, who'd been out late the previous night, into driving us down to the nearest Landmark to buy us a copy. While there, I also saw the kidebrity who's featured on HT Sunday's front page as the 7 year old who loves the HP books (whether they're suitable or not for a 7 year old is a whole other post).

Despite all our rushing, I could only seriously start reading around 1:30 as we were running around doing errands. I had to force myself to slow down despite the breathless pace of the book itself, as I really didn't want this book and therefore the series, to end.

When I put it down finally, I was in awe of the author - she's my pin-up idol, if I had one today. What is incredible is the little touches of whimsy which show a fantastically inventive brain at work - and once she names something, it seems so natural that one wonders why one never realised that before, e.g. goblins speaking gobbledegook, or the deluminator...She has created a wonderful world which is so real that one is a little dazed when one looks up from the book and sees our everyday world. She has borrowed from the classics, both ancient and modern, and made them so spectacularly her own, that a whole generation of children is likely to say - Doesn't this remind you of Harry Potter?, when they read the myths, rather than the other way around. And she has spun a phenomenon which reaches people across ages, cultures, countries and languages. It's not about the commercialisation of the book - people must have tried that and failed with several other books. But the reason why the commercial aspect of the Harry Potter franchise succeeds is because of the success of Harry Potter, rather than the other way around.
Children and adults in India, Russia, South America, Germany, the US and other parts of the globe overwhelmingly respond in the same way to her books ( I'm talking about the fans here). Seriously, when was the last time you saw so much excitement, so much participation or so much security around a book? When was the last time both parents and children fought among themselves to be the first to read a book or bought individual copies for each person in a house? When was the last time a book release made you so anxious you queued up outside the bookstore at 1 am or thereabouts to get your hands on a copy?
I think people should be thanking her, not only for writing this wonderful series, but for making it cool, in a world where pictures have started to mean more than a thousand words, for people to read more than a thousand words!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I Confess

I like to think of myself as somewhat intellectual - not necessarily the JNU type, but as someone who lives for and loves mental stimulation, and takes in a wide range of topics as areas of interest. That is true to some extent, but I do have a darker, shallower self too. It tends to be more active when I'm stressed at work - not that that's any excuse - in the form of what I read.

All the most undemanding, comfortable, old friends type of genres and authors get dusted off at this time. Chicklit, naturally, is a big part of this phase, and I really enjoy Jill Mansell whose characters are always fun and not much given to agonising over anything. I like Shiela O'Flanagan too, and I really enjoy the Shopaholic series by Sophie Kinsella though I do wish her heroines would show a tiny bit more of grey matter. Georgette Heyer is also a favourite, for her wonderful mix of adventure, mystery and romance, and her heroines usually tend to be more substantial in terms of character.

GO - Girl's own - literature is another soother for me. I love Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's Chalet series ( should since it inspired my first book) and these effortlessly transport me back in time to an era where all that mattered was another schoolgirl's rivalry/ jealousy, homework assignments and exams (come to think of it, not much different from work, eh?). Anne of Green Gables, Betsy-Tacy and their friends, Katy and what she did, all of them have the same resonance - of a simpler, less harried world in which relationships were not only important but nurtured with time and patience, where kids could run around freely with little worry of either traffic or human predators, and time itself seemed to move less slowly so they could enjoy each day to its fullest.

Adventure/ thrill is another genre I'm partial to at these times, from the swash-buckling stories of Rafael Sabatini and Anthony Hope (Prisoner of Zenda is an old favourite book and movie) to the more modern Biggles single-handedly hunting down huns and assorted villains. Nancy drew sometimes gets a look in though by and large I don't like her, and the Hardy Boys and Three Investigators are visited more often. I just finished a Hardy Boy story set in the Canadian North-West - how can you not like stories with adventure out in the wilds of wherever, in which the villains get captured with a left/ right hook to the jaw instead of a 'wicked automatic' and immediately start fighting amongst themselves and spilling the beans ( no torture needed here)?

Romance is a genre that I do take to now and then, though my appetite for pure romance a la Mills and Boon is dying down - maybe I'm growing up. I prefer M&Bs that have adventure/ detection as a central theme. Barbara Cartland's novels have recently been re-released by an indian publisher so I'm rreading a few of those, though I tell myself it's for the historical detail. It can hardly be for character analysis - all her heroines are in the same mould of being super thin, petite, with over-large eyes for their faces and very fair, spiritual, all interested in the East and reincarnation and abused in some way, while the men always have angular faces with strong chins, are outstandingly handsome and accomplished, usually well-read as well as well-traveled to exotic places including the East, and also very rich and with many mistresses/ lovers panting after them while they have never given their hearts to anyone...Danielle Steel, I blush again to confess, is another of the romance-authors I live, though her heroines have a little more spirit. However they too are typically cast in the same mould, and sometimes I wonder if it isn't the very sameness that attracts me - no surprises, happy ending...

Last of all but definitely not least of all, the humour section of our library gets dusted off. There's the autobiographical books of Bob Hope - screamingly funny, and laugh-out-loud - don't read them in public if you get embarassed by people staring at you strangely! William and his shenanigans are always good for a little bedtime reading to stop thinking about work/ computing numbers in your sleep. Wodehouse's entire oeuvre comes into this category as well. And I love both Cheaper by the dozen and Belles on their toes (don't see the movies with Steve Martin, they are a travesty). Daddy Long Legs is another book that falls between GO and funny.

There, now it's out. Now I can go back to my intel-prententious self (until 21st and Harry potter the 7th, of course)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

About books

As I said on my other blog one day, I love books. They are almost more than the breath of life to me and it is a rare place or occasion that I can't find the time to read. I read while in the car (my husband/ driver driving, natch), while bathing, while reading, while watching TV, while...you get the picture. I also love collecting books and have now amassed a collection that is literally reading us out of home - there are books spilling out of practically every corner of the house. I'm kind of ashamed of the condition my books are in because they've been shoved into a storage area and are rather dusty, since we moved the library out of the spare bedroom to make space for our two kids. But we are expanding the house and plan to set aside a room as the library/ study by the end of the year, hopefully.
Books are my friends, my entertainers, my comfort...I've spent a lot of white nights in my youth, propped up by a stack of books next to my bed. As a result I am pretty possessive and hate it when friends don't return what they borrow - as a result I'm pretty selective about who I lend my books to.
I am a serial hobbyist - you know the type - gardening one day, interior decor the next, and my favourite way to learn more about any of these hobbies is through books - it's also a great excuse to buy more books, if I needed one. I have managed to collect some 'collectables', i.e. out of print paperbacks from the Golden Age of detective fiction - SS Van Dine etc. I love scouring through second hand bookshops, because it's kind of like a treasure hunt - not so much that you may find a book that can make you rich, but that you may discover an old favourite or a gem you had heard about but not found.

I am a re-reader, frequently seeking out old favourites to soothe jangled nerves, but also like discovering new authors. I have catholic tastes, ranging from children's literature, school stories to whodunnits, poetry, classics, biographies, travel writing and books about food. In fact, I have amassed over 200 books about cooking and recipes over the last 2-3 years, to fan one of my other passions.

This blog is primarily going to be about whatever I'm reading, my opinions, loves, hates, things like that, but I would also love to host a book club section - where we brainstorm together about what to read in the next month ( 2 titles, max) for the club, and then have an online discussion about the books.