Monday, July 28, 2008

Varying the pace...

I finally read Barack Obama's autobiography, Dreams of my father, over the weekend. It is extremely well-written and engages the reader from page 1, and Barack raises a lot of questions about race, people's assumptions about it and the different ways in which they choose to address their own ambiguities on the issue. As you read through the book you realise it can't have been easy to be the child of a white American and a black african, with an Indonesian step-father and step-sister, growing up in the 60s and 70s, even if much of that happened outside the continental United States. Throughout the book you see how people try to go outside their comfort zone or even their reality, trying to prove how 'non-racist' they are or how true to their own race. It certainly gave me a lot of food for thought, to the extent that I couldn't the time I read Roots and was haunted for weeks by images of slavery and the anguish of Kunta kinte...

So I descended to the ridiculous and picked up some Hardy Boys books to calm me down. The first one I picked up was hilarious - somehow beset with Indian characters with names like: Ramhud Ghapur; Tava Kapoor; Bangalore; Mr. Bhagnav and Nanab!!! The only Indian name they got right was a character called Ragu. I was just imagining the coterie of writers responsible for this series randomly scanning menus from Indian restaurants and coming up with these strange monickers. Not to mention a priceless climax straight out of a Hindi movie in the 70s, where the book states that Indians love wrestling so the gang of villains agree to let Frank and Joe Hardy engage on a wrestling bout with some members of the gang, with 2 out of 3 falls being the condition for winning...

Friday, July 25, 2008

Old Tag

Doing Mystic Margarita's tag after ages...and what a fun tag it is too - to talk about your 10 most favourite fictional characters...
1. Ashton Pelham (Pandy) Martyn - the protagonist of my favourite book, The Far Pavilions. Ashton is a mixed up, idealistic soul who believes passionately in justice and fairness and thus is always at loggerhorns with the world. Torn between two culture, he is also unable to decide which one he belongs to and is forced, yet unable to compromise at every turn, and eventually turns his back on the world, looking to found a new one where, like in Martin Luther King's dream, 'people will be judged not by the colour of their skin but the content of their character'...Delightfully complex, idealistic...Not a guy I would fall in love with but would love to chat and get to know
2. William - irrepressible, mischievous, imaginative, amalgamation of adjectives is enough to describe this eleven year old who lives in his own world and causes such disruptions to the world of others around!
3. Ramona - the female equivalent of William, with her own unique take on the world.
4. Mr. Darcy - I'm not sure if I'm more in love with the character from the book or Colin Firth's portrayal of him - both are yummy.
5. Sherlock Holmes - how could anyone not be intrigued by this strange mixture of a person who knows everything about obscure alkaloids, rare strains of mud and knows so much about human nature in the course of his investigations yet fails to know as much about human nature in his own life...and of course, the television series starring Jeremy Brett...
6. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford - Agatha Christie's most charming detective duo, blithely romancing their way through life...
7. Jo Bettany - the heroine of 62 Chalet school books, and of my own first book
8. Winter de los Ballesteros - the heroine of Shadow of the Moon, by MM Kaye - passionate, wilful, determined and in love with India
9. Scarlett - yes, despite all her faults - for her passion, her belief that whatever happened she could make it right, her never-give-up attitude, her love for the land...
10. The Fossil sisters - the heroines of ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild - original, funny, charming, I see a theme here?
I pass the tag on to: Mad Momma, Kiran and Asha

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Childhood Books

From the sublime to the...

From poetry, when we went book shopping over the weekend, I descended to the good old books of my childhood and bought 2 sets of Famous Five books. There is a new edition, priced at Rs. 200, which contains 3 stories in each volume. I've really been enjoying re-reading these though the FF are not my favourite Blyton characters. I do have several bones to pick and always did, with the rather bossy Julian who seems to call all the shots, and Anne who is a typically 'girly' girl which didn;t appeal to tomboy me. I also thought the gender-stereotyping was quite unfair, with the boys getting to do all the fun and dangerous things, while George, who was pretty adventurous herself, had to stay back to babysit Anne who was always scared of the adventure.

Oh, well, I still hugely enjoy the books, especially the spirit of adventure and daring, all the weird places they discover and the way the kids go off by themselves. Those must have been much safer times than these, when we wouldn't let Chubbocks so much as go cycling by himself if we didn't live in a gated community. I was reading one where they go off in a caravan and I immediately thought what fun it would be for us to do something like that, or a driving holiday, in England sometime. The countryside there is really gorgeous in the summer.

The other thing I love is all the mention of food - the kids always have a slab of chocolate on hand - and for those of us who grew up in India in the 70s, a slab of chocolate was unheard of - at best we had 5 star bars or those skinny Cadbury's Dairy Milk bars and even those were few and far between. The kids always used to exclaim at things like tomatoes, potatoes boiled in their jackets and fresh radish and lettuce - how healthy! Wherever they went, they hauled copious amounts of food - sandwiches, plums and the like - and drink - gingerbeer for choice. Farmer's wives use dto be super-generous and hand out 'a jar of brawn' - which I don't know what it is, or cold tongue or scones with lashings of butter or cream...I can't read a FF book without something to munch on.

What I appreciate is also how self-sufficient the kids seem to be - no running about to daddy when the problems appear; they just take charge and solve it for themselves. They wander all over the countryside by themselves and don't get intimidated by random, rude grown-ups.

I'm really enjoying my time capsule, and am pretty sure my kids will like the series too, apart from the girl/ boy divide. The values are great - honesty, loyalty, being brave and standing up for oneself, carrying on when things get tough, helping others...

Sunday, April 13, 2008


There is something about good poetry - the careful editing, the exact juxtaposition of one right word next to another, the cadence and rhythm - which makes it so much more evocative than the best prose. I used to be a poetry buff when I was younger - both reading and writing it - and even now find great delight in dipping into it from time to time. Many years ago, i came across this poem by Rabindranath Tagore which I fell in love with. For some reason, most anthologies of his poetry don't have it and when I look for a poem called The Gift, a different poem pops up. I recently re-located it through Google ( Google ki Jai) and had to share it here.

O my love, what gift of mine
Shall I give you this dawn?
A morning song?
But morning does not last long -
The heat of the sun
Wilts like a flower
And songs that tire
Are done.

O friend, when you come to my gate.
At dusk
What is it you ask?
What shall I bring you?
A light?

A lamp from a secret corner of my silent house?
But will you want to take it with you
Down the crowded street?
The wind will blow it out.

Whatever gifts are in my power to give you,
Be they flowers,
Be they gems for your neck
How can they please you
If in time they must surely wilt,
Lose lustre?
All that my hands can place in yours
Will slip through your fingers
And fall forgotten to the dust
To turn into dust.

When you have leisure,
Wander idly through my garden in spring
And let an unknown, hidden flower's scent startle you
Into sudden wondering-
Let that displaced moment
Be my gift.
Or if, as you peer your way down a shady avenue,
Suddenly, spilled
From the thick gathered tresses of evening
A single shivering fleck of sunset-light stops you,
Turns your daydreams to gold,
Let that light be an innocent

Truest treasure is fleeting;
It sparkles for a moment, then goes.
It does not tell its name; its tune
Stops us in our tracks, its dance disappears
At the toss of an anklet
I know no way to it-
No hand, nor word can reach it.
Friend, whatever you take of it,
On your own,
Without asking, without knowing, let that
Be yours.
Anything I can give you is trifling -
Be it a flower, or a song.

Then there is Invictus, which has always sent shivers down my spine for its indomitable spirit and inspirational theme. In some ways, it reminds me of Beethoven's 5th Symphony which is my favourite - that is the one in which the composer rails against the malign fates that made him deaf; starts out by rebelling, slips into despair briefly and then thunders back his defiance at the Gods and concludes with the triumph of his will over fate.

The poet, Henley, went through a similar fate - he had TB of the bone and one leg had to be amputated at the knee. Doctors suggested amputating the other one too but he persevered and kept that and lived on till the age of 54. Invictus was written from his hospital bed.

William Ernest Henley

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever Gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of Circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of Chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The Key To Rebecca

We've been doing a lot of WWII at home, what with watching The Battle of Britain and The Battle of the Bulge, and that prompteed me to dig out my well-worn copy of The Key to Rebecca. I always think this and The Eye of the Needle are amongst the best things that Follett has ever done. Many of his later books seem to tread a well-worn territory and wear a been-there-done-that look.

But 'Rebecca is really interesting - believably set in Egypt, which at the time was struggling for independence - and with an interesting cast of characters. Unlike many later and American thriller writers, Follet spends a lot of time detailing the background of each character and actually shows character development through the book - in a way that affects the denouement of the novel, which is always interesting.

'Rebecca is a really interesting spy novel, with its twists and turns and many points of suspense - Hitchcock would have loved filming it, and I can almost imagine it, with Ava Gardner playing Elene. I was reflecting later on the reason why many people are such WWII buffs and came to the conclusion that it was rather mythological in its construct - you knew who the good guys and the baddies were, the baddies got their come-uppance, and there were many Homeric heroes and tragedies enroute to the final victory.

The current situation with terrorists is much harder to engage in - firstly because there's no end in sight. In a way, terrorism can be likened to the Hindu demon, Raktabeejasura. Any time anyone fought him, with each drop of his blood that was spilled, a thousand more Raktabeejasuras sprang up, finally requiring a Bhadra Kali who came, fought him and drank up all his lifeblood.

Am tempted to read something comforting again, like Eye of the Needle!

Monday, March 17, 2008

Dorothy L Sayers

I've been doing an intense course of DLS lately. For some reason, Wimsey never made it to my list of favourite detectives while growing up, though Holmes, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot all found a place. I discovered DLS when I had started working, and immensely enjoyed her style of writing - a very rich, layered and erudite version of detective fiction. Most of the other authors, though well-versed in the classics, didn't weave them into the story as much as DLS did.

And DLS spends a considerable amount of time painting a portrait of her flawed hero and heroine. Wimsey belongs to the Bertie Wooster class of hero, upperclass, rich, titled and all too prone to twittering. But of course, he's a lot more intelligent than poor Bertie, and not only works to manage his inheritance and income, but also at detecting and has serious hobbies like collecting first editions. A host of titled acquaintances and relatives make their way through the books.

Wimsey, like Bertie, is ably supported by a Man Friday, Bunter, though Bunter is less brainy than Jeeves, since Wimsey is bright himself. Bunter also 'demeans' himself by doing a variety of things that I'm sure Jeeves would never deign to, like taking photographs of assorted corpses, fingerprinting and engaging in romantic interludes with a variety of domestics to dig out information about each mystery.

There is an air of seriousness and tragedy that hangs about Wimsey, who has also suffered from nerve shock after WWI. Unlike the typical detective, Wimsey stays involved way after the murderer has been unmasked, and suffers agonies of self-doubt over his self-appointed role as the arm of justice. The murder victim, like in many other detective stories, is often an unlikeable or plain wicked creature, and the murder is almost 'asked for', which is what plants the seeds of doubt. Unlike Poirot, though Wimsey too does 'not approve of murder', he sees the world in shades of grey.

Gaudy Night, set in Oxford in a female college, is a rather detailed and interesting study of life in a Women's college, in a day and age when it was still not that common for women to study beyond school. One of the books I find most interesting is Strong Poison, which is where Peter Wimsey meets his nemesis - his future wife, Harriet Vane, who's been accused of poisoning her lover. A most unusual heroine for those times, one would think.

Reading a Sayers is a serious occupation, because each book has so many allusions, seemingly thrown away in a random bit of dialogue or prose, and unless one works out the source and the full context, the allusions don't make sense. It's almost like turning detective yourself. Sayers is a good author for those who enjoy detective fiction but prefer it to be intricate and laced with detail as well as heavy on atmosphere.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Books for kids

By now this is becoming a familiar theme on this blog. But the good news - my son has started reading. Of course, like the lazy bum he is, he starts out by protesting that the words are too hard but when I refuse to budge and read to him, he starts off and has read a whole Reading Level 2 book about Lions, and started on the Ladybird edition of Wizard of Oz.

One of the books I rediscovered recently and that we both love reading together is a series called Amelia Bedelia. It's about a young housekeeper named Amelia, who always manages to misunderstand the instructions she is given. For instance, when she is asked to separate the eggs, she carefully puts the 6 eggs in the basket at different corners of the room. When she is told to baste the chicken, she whips out her needle and thread. And when she plays baseball, she is funnier than ever - she runs all the way to her house, when told to take a home run, and argues that stealing is wrong when told to steal a base.

The books are easy reading and loads of fun but they also help build vocabulary and are a great introduction to synonyms and homonyms as well as colloquialisms. I'd recommend them to any beginning reader since the stories are so interesting it keeps kids engaged and wanting to read more.

Cross-posted at Rainbow days

Friday, February 29, 2008

The TamBrahm Bride

The title intrigued me as well as the theme which is about a typical arranged marriage among TamBrahms, so I hunted this book down at Landmark and read it last week. Overall, it is a good description of the arranged marriage process - the 'viewing of the girl', the ritual of making her serve tea or coffee, and the stupid questions asked, e.g. can she sing? Who cares - and how's it going to affect her marriage if she's tone deaf? The equation between the Boy's side who are to be venerated, and the girl's side, who are always meant to be eager to please. The horoscope-matching business - as if some random matching of two horoscopes can guarantee peace and felicity in a marital home. The focus on the looks and complexion of the girl, while the boy is only to be evaluated on his education and job...It was a great capture of all of these.

However, I did feel that characterisation suffered at the hands of the incidents needed to make the plot move on. One didn't really end up getting a good understanding into the heroine or her family and certainly there was no character development. I find myself wondering whether that would be the case in real life as well, i.e. with someone who's not only agreed but happy to go through the arranged process, would the person really change while going through it? I'm not really sure of the answer, especially because anyone I've met who's had an arranged marriage has pretty much only met 1 or 2 people before deciding on it, whereas the heroine here meets some vast number of eligibles. Plus the epilogue was really not required - it was quite pointless.

More interesting than this was Mahashweta, a book by Sudha Murty ( yes, the Narayana Murty one). it's about the problem of Leucoderma and how it can impact people's lives, how little knowledge or understanding anyone has of the issues. The heroine has a love marriage with someone from a much richer family and is tolerated by her MIL but later, when she develops Leucoderma, she is shunned by everyone including her parents and her husband. She eventually goes on to settle in a cosmopolitan city and comes to accept what has happened as for the best. I had no idea that this medical ailment was considered such a big deal and that people with it were treated so badly, so it was a real eye-opener.

The book is also very evocative of the nuances of daily life in a small town and the big city, and using simple language, charts the graph of the heroine's life. It was a great read, but my only complaint is that at the end, when the heroine meets someone who wants to marry her regardless of her problem, she says she has given up on that side of life. I would have been fine if the protagonist had said she wasn't in love with the guy but to have given up on a normal married life because of her past seemed defeatist to me.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Books I read last week

I read a mish-mash of books last week, ranging from historical biographies to a fantasy-chick-lit. First, the Fantasy chick-lit...was a book called If you coulod see me now by Cecelia Ahern, a 25 year old author who's written 4 books already and whose book PS I love you has just been released as a major Hollywood film. I love a certain genre of fantasy book, where the wisdom is contained in simple little nuggets, like The Little Prince, which is far and away amongst my favourites. Cecelia Ahern's book while not quite as exalted is in the same genre. It is an intensely likeable book full of little incidents and windows upon what really matters in life. It is absorbingly written and one starts feeling for the main characters immediately. It is a book with whimsy, fun and frolic and yet with a message, and is a quick read. It is certainly one I'll be picking up again whenever I need a pick-me-up sort of book.

The historicals were mainly Jean Plaidy's - Victoria Victorious about Queen Victoria, written from a first-person perspective, The Haunted Sisters about the daughters of James II( son of Charles I of England who was beheaded by the Roundheads), Myself my Enemy, about Henrietta Maria, the wife of Charles I and in some ways a key instrument in causing his downfall by her insistence on Catholicism, The Goldsmith's Wife about Edward IV's mistress Jane Shore and The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory. They were all fascinating reads, though after going through them, I find myself all the more thankful that I'm a simple member of the proletariat rather than an aristocrat - they just had too many things to live up to and too many expectations imposed on them.

Victoria comes across as not a very shrewd ruler, led hither and thither by her personal likes and dislikes of the ruling Prime Minister of the day and content to listen to her husband whom she elevated into the status of a Saint who could do no wrong. She was a lively, fun-loving person with a temper until Albert came along and with his rather priggish attitudes towards life, made her also more and more prissy until she was unable to take a joke, which may explain why the phrase "We are not amused" is the chief one associated with her. Victoria also had little or no grasp of politics or policies, as per the book, and was content to either listen to Albert and her Prime Ministers on most state matters. Even on issues like the fact that Victoria's mother had tried to usurp her place in terms of importance and forced her to be rude to the King and Queen of England had to be swept under the carpet and Victoria's own resentments sat on because Albert was shocked that Victoria did not think everything her mother did was perfect.

She was also so completely in thrall of Albert that she didn't even bother to protect her own children from his sometimes harsh behaviour. Maybe it's because I'm a mother myself, but I found it impossible to understand why she let Albert treat the Prince of Wales so harshly - any tutor or governess the PoW ever liked was sent or taken away from him and harsher and harsher ones found so they could drive learning into his head. His powers of charm, liveliness and ability to love and protect his brothers and sisters were ignored or belittled, and anyone who spoke in favour of the PoW was promptly banished, while Albert continued to run him down and punish him with both rod and scoldings and harsh treatment. No wonder the PoW ran wild when he grew up! Frankly, Albert does come across as a rather dislikeable gentleman.

The Haunted Sisters and Myself My Enemy are about the Stuart reign. The Haunted Sisters was a rather shocking book in that it was the story of King Lear all over again - the two daughters of James II turned against him, mainly for their own ambition and sided with their husbands or friends who had personal ambitions. The two sisters too turned against each other both because they had advisors whose gains lay in the enmity of the two sisters and because they both nursed ambitions for the throne of England. Henrietta Maria's story is yet another proof, if I needed one, that anyone who becomes too dogmatic about religion and insists their own way is the only way is bound to cause trouble for themselves and for other people. One of the reasons I like being Hindu is because one of its basic tenets is that there are many roads all leading to God and that neither is better or worse. Catholicism has a lot to answer for in its dogmatism, from the Inquisition to the attempts to proselytise, to the disdain for other religions and the way the church reacted to Hitler's policies. It's a bit ironic that anyone with wide tastes is said to have 'Catholic' tastes when it's amongst the least embracing religions.

The Goldsmith's Wife was a glimpse of the Plantagenet period at its height, when Edward IV ruled. There was witchcraft and treachery and strife amongst the brothers, leading to a possible fratricide by Edward of his brother Clarence who was supposed to have died in a butt of Malmsey. Jean Plaidy believes in the anti-Tudor theory that the sons of Edward IV were done away with by Henry VIIth, rather than Richard who certainly thought they were royal bastards but loved them as his nephews. It's always been one of the fascinating mysteries of English history and of the Tower of London, as the Beefeaters will tell you when you visit. It makes me want to re-read another book written on this subject by a detective fiction author, Josephine Tey, called A Murder in Time, which had a fascinating theory, if I recall correctly. Interestingly, in this book, Plaidy makes the point that Richard was the last English King - and if you think about it, it's true - the Tudors were Welsh, the Stuarts Scottish and the Hanovers German. So Britain had its last English king way back in the 1500s.

The Other Boleyn Girl was brilliantly written and has made me curious about more books by Philippa Gregory. It was a very detailed portrayal of life at King Henry the 8th's court, with its scheming, jockeying for power, ambitions and the making of a tyrant who thought any of his desires was justified because it was 'the will of God'. I had never thought much about Mary Boleyn, Henry's mistress before Anne who eventually married him. The depths to which ambition can take you and the description of the long, long courtship dance which Anne had to perform to hold the King's interest long enough to marry him and the barren fruits of that marriage are incredibly well described and too me away into a world where I could heard and see the swishing silks and velvets, furtive whispers behind the doorways and the singing and dancing of the royal court. I hope the film releases here soon - if it's a good adaptation of the book, it should be a spectacular film, though I'm not sure about Eric Bana playing Henry the VIIIth - he looks too thoughtful and intelligent, whereas Henry was a sensual, selfish man given to self indulgence rather than reflection.

If you like historical fiction, read the Plaidys. If you're in the mood for high drama and intrigue, read The Other Boleyn Girl. And if you're in the mood for something fun and whimsical, go for If You Could See Me Now.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Indian Cuisine Book - Updated review

Haven't had much time or mindspace for cooking lately, with Puddi's illness and hospitalisation. But she's fine now, back to being the family dog ( i.e. begging for scraps off everyone's plate, no matter what they're eating!) and her usual zany self. I celebrated her return home by brewing up a pea soup with spinach greens sauteed with garlic, but haven't done much else.

But I came across this interesting book which I started reading while nursing Puddi in hospital. It's by an Indian food writer settled in the US ( Chitrita Banerji) who specialises in Bengali food but was on a self-imposed quest to find out more about the origins of the different styles of cooking in India. Her chapter on Bengali food, especially that served at weddings made me slurp deliriously, even though I'm vegetarian. I of course immediately turned to the chapter on Karnataka food which I admit was a bit of a let-down because it hardly mentioned the varied types of cuisine and was not informed or knowledgeable enough, in my opinion.

Sadly, the book mysteriously vanished after I had completed these two chapters and I could neither find it in the hospital room or at home so I assume it's vapourised into that great library in the sky. I'll have to buy myself a new copy because I found the little that I dipped into quite intriguing...
Finally found it in a mixed bag at home and finished it. I found it a little disappointing, to be honest, because while the quality of writing is good and the descriptions evocative, the author has a tendency to relate everything back to Bengali cooking, which really was not the point. Even when she goes to have Karnataka cuisine in Bangalore, she spends more time marveling at a Bengali sweet shop which has been there for a while. It was an interesting one time read but certainly not a re-reading type of book. for that, I prefer Madhur Jaffrey's Tastes of India, where she covers different regions in great detail, telling us about their cooking, the evolution of those styles and then shares recipes from people who are from those regions, so that they are authentic.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Bridget Jones's Diary

I re-read BJD yesterday, after several years, and discovered all over again what a fun book it is. When it first came out, there was so much hype about it that I ran in the opposite direction, as usual. Eventually, I was lent that and Edge of Reason by a friend and was hooked. Of course, ever since that, I have been reading several chicklit authors including Jill Mansell, Marian Keyes, Shiele O Flanagan and Sophie Kinsella and have an almost-finished manuscript of my own. But BJD really was the kick-off to this genre of books, and now one thinks about it, one wonders why someone didn't do this before.

Granted, Georgette Heyer in many ways could have been said to be chicklit, albeit in Regency times. But what defines Chicklit and sets it apart from plain old romance is its focus on not just romance but also friendships and career. Moreover, the 'happy ending' of a chicklit is not necessarily marriage or a proposal but the very act of finding/ getting together with the other person.

BJD is a really wittily written book, with not only laugh-out-loud moments but also a vein of 'taking the mickey' running through it. I was struck by a fabulous piece of writing about women's preoccupation with weight and dieting in which Bridget says that she had almost forgotten that food was meant for nourishment, she had become so obsessed with it as a diet/ self-esteem tool. The only crib I have about the book is the almost complete lack of ambition/ seriousness about career of the protagonist. I have to say, though, that on re-reading the book, I couldn't help but picture Renee Zellweger and Colin Firth ( Mr. McDreamy) , both of who did a great job in the film.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Jean Plaidy

I have always loved history and, at one point of time, wanted to major in it at college. So it's no surprise that I enjoy writers who write historical fiction/ biography. I discovered Jean Plaidy at one of Kolkata's many second hand bookshops during post-grad. I remember, we used to have a lo-ong bus journey from Joka to Free School Street, on the BaroC bus. The entire street used to have these dingy, tiny little cubby-holey shops stuffed with old books from the floor to the rafters. It used to be like a treasure-hunting expedition to sift the grain from the chaff, then you would bargain for the books you wanted, because every five bucks - or even two - that you managed to save made the difference between being able to order toast at the night-canteen on campus and making do with burnt coffee.

Jean Plaidy books were always from the Pan editions - thick books with tiny print, the pages yellowed and brittle with age. They covered a wide range of historical figures, from the English Plantagenets to the Tudors, the Stuarts, the Hanovers and the Victorian age to the French Capet dynasty - Louis Quinze and his peccadillos, Louis Seize and his poor, silly wife Marie, Mary Stuart, Catherine de Medici...there were some books about the fascinating Lucrezia Borgia and the mad Georges and the Regency in England...In all she must have covered about 800 years worth of history through her books. Each book is incredibly detailed and the mind boggles to think of the amount of research that goes into each and every book, particularly because she did it in the dark ages, i.e. before computers, WWW and Google. I always used to buy two or three Jean Plaidy's and then proceed to get so completely immersed in the period that it used to take me by surprise to find myself in a well-lit, modern cubicle bedroom instead of an ancient stone castle with rush flooring and gloomy tapers.

Over the two years in Cal, while I bought quite a few of her books, I also passed up several due to sheer lack of funds, for which I can only weep now. the last time I visited Free School Street a couple of years ago, the quality of the stock in the stores had really deteriorated, and I hardly found anything to buy ( which is so rare for me, I can barely begin to explain - I buy books the way most people buy groceries - cartsful at a time). Amazon does work out to be an expensive option so if you're not a collector but an avid reader, does the trick. They have literally thousands of second-hand bookstores on their list which stock all kinds of authors. I have lately been adding to my Plaidy collection through abe, and picked up 3-4 relating to the time around the death of Queen Anne of England ( who has always fascinated me for the furniture designed in her reign and the flower named after her - Queen Anne's Lace) and the entry of the Hanovers into England.

The Hanovers seem so much the opposite of what merrie England expected of her rulers that it's a wonder that they not only survived but that their descendants are still around and, going by reports, quite popular. Pompous, eccentric, not too intelligent and the first couple of them far more attached to Germany than England. A far cry from the imperious but merry, profligate but intelligent Tudors and Stuarts who were beloved by the country. The books are written with such insight into the daily life and thoughts of the characters that you actually feel as if you're observing them, as if they are alive...

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Floating Admiral

I'm a collector of Golden Age detective fiction - Freeman Wills Crofts, GDH and M Cole et al. Over the weekend, at a second hand bookstall in Vasant Vihar, I came across a book that I had never heard of, called the Floating Admiral. It was written by the Detection Club, a group of detective fiction writers in the UK in the 1920s onwards, whose objjective was to form a fellowship that kept the standards of detective fiction flying high and to help each other over the technicalities. Members included GK chesterton, Dorothy L Sayers, Agatha Christie and other illustrious writers.

The Flosting Admiral is a book they all wrote together as a sort of Chinese whisper. Each author had to write one chapter and pass it on to the next one who would build from where the previous one had left off, decipher the clues and add new ones and so on until the last one whose job it was to clean up the tangled web. Just as a pure intellectual challenge it sounds phenomenal - because each has characters thrust upon them, as it were, and situations to which they don't already know the answers beforehand and they each write in their own detection style, i.e. those that are alibi-hunters get busy with their Bradshaws while those that study the psychology of the victim get busy with that.

Dorothy Sayers, in the introduction, says that real life police tended to scoff at the 'amateur' detective beloved of this genre of fiction because the author always knows what is going to happen, and so the amateur 'tec finds the situation all set up for him; all he has to do is to spike the ball over the net, to use an analogy from my favourite game, volleyball. Therefore the writers took this up as a challenge to figure out what they could do when the situation was not of their own orchestration, and discovered some interesting things. For instance, the fact that the detective in the books always says, "There is only one way this could have happened". They were surprised at the varied explanations each of them could come up with for a situation that they themselves had imagined could only come about in one particular way.

I'm barely a few chapters into it, and I know that characterisation is going to be a victim of this type of group-writing. But as a budding writer, i find myself getting excited about the possibilities of intellectual exploration that something like this throws up, and already know that this is going to be one of the prized books in my 'tec collection, even if I don't like it.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


I just finished an incredibly interesting book about Shakespeare by - surprisingly - Bill Bryson. I expected Bryson to use his characteristic wit to make his point about Shakespeare, and I wasn't disappointed, but I also found a scholarly work that proves an intimate knowledge and understanding of all the many books and analyses of Shakespeare over the years, and uses that to create a vivid picture of Shakespeare. Well, it might be more correct to say of his time, because so little is known about Shakespeare himself, that almost anything we say about him as a person could be called pure conjecture.

In a way, I quite like that, because I really respect the bard and consider his works seminal - as do millions of people around the world - and to find out that in reality he was a pompous popinjay, dirty and unshaven, stingy and rude and money-grubbing, churning out plays for a profit motive would have quite destroyed my pleasure. Somehow we human beings like making Gods of our accomplished and finding out the God has feet of clay mars the accomplishments themselves.

So basically all we know is when he died, probably when he was born and the date of his marriage. Even all the words of the plays may not be the ones that he wrote because editorial ethics and proof-reading were conspicuous by their absence. Many later editors who put together his works apparently deleted or changed whatever they didn't approve of or understand, and some of the purported words from his plays have still not been deciphered.

However, what does come through is that it was a strange and complex world of the theatre that Shakespeare inhabited. Theatres were placed outside the city, along with 'noisome' industries like dyeing and tanning of leather ( interesting but yucky fact - tanners used to soak leather in dogpuddy to soften it!), and the city gates were closed at dusk, which in winter fell at about 4 pm, and were only reopened the next morning. So god alone knows how people got to the theatre and how they got back home.

Plays used to go on for 4-5 hours, with breaks between the acts to trip the lights in the theatre. There was no set pattern as to how many scenes in an act or how many acts in a play. In order to make money, the theatre needed to be full day after day, so the play enacted changed almost daily, and the actors used to have to memorise parts from several plays at the same time. Moreover, due to the limited number of actors and the pay available for them, each actor used to play multiple roles within the same play. One of the factors that enabled the prolificity of playwrights was the constant demand for new material with which to woo back the audience. Given the miniscule pay that most people got, it's a wonder that so many of them seem to have thronged the theaters, but a rough calculation indicates that something like 50 million people - ten times the population of England - saw plays in a span of two years.

Shakespeare was not by any means a lauded man in his own lifetime - that was given more to Christopher Marlowe ( played unforgettably by Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love), and to a host of other writers including Fletcher and Beaumont, many of whom are obscure today or known only to scholars. However, he was an incredibly inventive genius who came up with thousands of phrases which now are so often used as to have become cliches - one fell swoop, vanish into thin air etc. He also excelled at creating words - like hereditary or critical, for example - and more than 800 of them are still in use and in the Oxford dictionary.

The book is well-writted, vivid and fast-paced. It very quickly takes you through the years that Shakespeare has inhabited and points out the unnerving lack of factual, verified material about the man known as English literature's genius. And it cobbles together the few facts from a host of sources and yet coherently knits them together to paint a picture( and I know there are 3 mixed metaphors in that sentence). So you come away with an interesting insight into the times that the man lived in, while having reached no further in undertsanding the man himself. Which, as I said earlier, is probably all the better - now we're free to imagine him as the idealistic young lover played by Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Classic Children's books

I was chatting with one of my oldest and dearest friends over the weekend and she asked me to tell her about some interesting books that her kids would enjoy. I'm a reader and collector of children's fiction so it's something I'm enjoying doing - Nance, this post is for you! Though it's more about the authors I enjoy than specific books, because in genre writing, many of them do an excellent job throughout their body of work. In this blogpost, I'm only covering the older authors - I'll have to do a whole new post to cover modern ones.

Let's start with the golden oldies. I love the classic children's authors from the 1920s and 30s and even older. Louisa May Alcott is contemporary even today, and Little women and many of her other books relevant and resonant in the characters that inhabit them. You can read and re-read these books from childhood to adulthood and always find something to think about, something to delight you. I enjoy Laura Ingalls Wilder too - her meticulous and easy-to-read frontier diaries of an american family settling the Wild West. It's interesting to note how independent the women were in spite of their traditional roles. Then I've always enjoyed Frances Hodgson Burnett, though I have to admit she errs on the side of the sentimental. Kate Douglas Wiggin and LM Montgomery also spring to mind for their happy yet spirited leading characters.

For ensemble casts combining boys and girls, I like Edith Nesbit and Noel Streatfeild. The children are so real and without any open sermonizing, many messages are driven home. The kids squabble and bicker like any normal children would, and are strong characters. I also admit to enjoying Enid Blyton - particularly the Five Findouters series, The Magic Faraway Tree and The Wishing chair series and the individual books - Those Dreadful Children, the Put-em Rights, The Family at Red Roofs and all the ones about farm and circus life - Six Cousins at Mistletoe Farm and Mr. Galliano's Circus, the adventure series and what are now called the Barney mysteries. Some of the other Blyton's I love are the Books of Fairies, book of brownies series, the Mr. meddle and Mr. Pink Whistle series, which are funny and fun. I've also always loved her Children's version of Pilgrim's Progress - The Land of Far Beyond. For younger kids, Noddy is fun and good reading. Blyton is an underrated and amazingly prolific writer who could as eaily write about the world of fantasy as about real children in the modern world. The only books that I didn't much enjoy were the Famous Five - which were too gender-role stereotyped.

I recommend Beverly Cleary - both her Ramona and Henry Huggins series are both peopled with believable characters and are funny and insightful. I like many of her other books too - Emily's Runaway imagination, for instance. I also really loved Elizabeth George Speare's The Witch of Blackbird Pond - a book about Puritan New England in the 1600s and have all her books including the lesser-known but equally interesting The Bronze Bow. Elizabtha Enright is another author who does lovely Ensemble books, including her series about the Melendy children - vivid, distinct little characters - and the Gone Away Lake.

I also love William, Billy Bunter and Jennings - and feel the enjoyment in particular of William becomes higher as you age ( as I have blogged about before). Adventure stories of all kinds appeal to me, from The Scarlet Pimpernel to Rafael Sabatini to Biggles to the Hardy Boys and the Three Investigators, though these are for pre-teens and not kids.

I also think childhood is a good time to introduce some of the classics - Tom Brown's Schooldays, Tom Sawyer and the many versions of the greek epics - Roger Llancelyn Green is particularly good with the Greek myths. And one of my favourite fairy tale books - which I just rediscovered on amazon - is the World's Best Fairy Tales by reader's digest. This has an exhaustive list of fairy tales from around the world, and is apparently now in two volumes. It had some delightful new fairy tales -from Andrew Lang's collection and beautiful colour illustrations. The copy I had was second-hand when I got it, and is now falling apart, so I am delighted to have found this for my kids to enjoy.

I have carefully refrained from ascribing reading levels to any of the books, because firstly all kids differ in reading ability. Secondly, I feel that if you get the kids interested in a story, they will wind up raising their reading level in order to read what they like - I remember starting the Findouters series at age 5.
So cheers and happy reading!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

New Books

I have made a new resolution - a promise to my husband, rather, that I won't buy more than one book a month this year. In the interests of fiscal prudence. However, being the crafty soul I am, I've already come up with a great way to overcome that limit. Over the weekend we were at Om Bookshop which was having a post Christmas sale. I saw a really interesting cookbook on African and Middle Eastern cooking which I promptly picked up. It said Buy 2 get one free, so I quickly urged A to pick up a cookbook for himself, since his new resolution is to try and cook once in a while. So then we got a third book free. Plus, later when we waded into the fiction section, since I had cleverly forgotten my wallet at home, A got to pay for my book selections as well! I got an interesting historical biography of Boudicca, someone I have always wnated to know more about.

I also picked up a few books just before the last year ended, so I have all that piled up. First of all, Alexander McCall Smith, whom I've never read despite or perhaps because of, his amazing popularity. I've picked the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency to start with. Then I got a couple of edgar Wallace reprints since I collect golden age detective fiction. And lastly, the book I started this morning - Shakespeare by Bill Bryson. An interesting contrast between writer and subject and I can't wait to read more...

Friday, January 4, 2008

The Kite Runner

First of all, a Happy New Year, and to celebrate the new year, I changed my blog's name to something more appropriate for me. I'm a hungry reader and always three-deep at least in books of different genres. If reading were a sport, I'd be in the pro leagues. So I figured amateur reader just wasn't doing it for me. I'm a hungry bookworm. When I was growing up, my parents often had to scold me because I'd be so engrossed in whatever I was reading that I knew nothing about what was going on in the real world in front of me. When we visited family friends with kids, I was forbidden to take out any books from their bookshelves, because my parents knew that I'd be dead to the world, and highly rude to the host kid, because rather than play with them, I'd read by myself. I even used to smuggle a torch into my bedroom and read under the covers till late at night.

Of course, now being the sleep-deprived mother of two, I often wish I could get those sleep-hours back, but I have to admit, even now I often read until late at night. A often wishes he could get away for a reading holiday, but my idea of one would be to pack the kids off on vac and hang out at home reading through all the thousands of books we have collected. Yes, our collection does number thousands now, which includes many that we want to read but simply have not found the time for. This is what happens when a bookworm and hoarder meet a place with no decent library - they create their own!

In keeping with my resolve not to lazily fall into one of half a hundred easy re-reading books, but to actually read the 'recommended' new books, I finally read the Kite Runner when I was travelling on work. The book was gripping, and I felt I was meeting familiar characters because so many of the terms were the same as Hindi words, and so much of the culture seemed similar. The story was haunting, and yet had an inevitability about it - you somehow knew what was going to happen from page 1. Honestly speaking, the Afghan background was not required - the story could have happened in any one of a dozen places in the world, such are the times we live in. I guess it just had to be Afghanistan because tha author is from there.

How do I feel about the book? I liked it, though I saw shades of A Separate Peace in the story, which is a book I loved in high school. I also felt that many of the other characters remained shadow figures, apart from the protagonist. And I didn't really end up figuring out the protagonist either - who he was, what he was like as a person, apart from his guilt and the expiation of it. Apart from the father, who's easily the most complex character in the book and who yet never fully comes into his own, most of the characters are unidimensional and in a way functional to the story - it's as if everything in the story had to be tailored to build up to the particular climax. That works well for a thriller, but I'm not so sure it works in a character-development novel.

It was interesting to read the descriptions of California, though, as I believe Hossaini lives in Sunnyvale, which is where my sister and one of my best-liked Indian authors, Chitra Divakaruni Banerjee lives. Maybe it's something in the water there - will have to drink copious amounts next time and see if that propels me into best-selling author!