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!