Sunday, March 20, 2011

What I've been reading

I've been doing a lot of good reading since this year began. Henning Mankell was one such new discovery. I'm also enjoying India by Patrick French and Jaya, an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik. For my bookclub, I read The Alchemy of Desire by Tarun Tejpal. A had very mixed feelings about it and I typically have similar reactions so I began it hesitantly, but soon found myself drawn in by the story, the characters and the writing. The way that the author wrote about the stage of a relationship where one partner has lost interest but still cares for the other, and wants the other person to read their mind so they don't have to do the bad job of actually breaking up was beautifully and poignantly described. The story of the American woman was intriguing, and overall the quality of the writing was beautiful. I have to confess I skipped several passages of purple prose but I loved reading the book, and I loved the conclusions about the nature of desire and relationships.

I read Louis XIV by Antonia Fraser. He is someone who has always fascinated me, because we know such superficial things about him, like his long reign and the Sun King who built Versailles. The book brought him alive as a person, the many women he loved, his attitude towards the duties of kings, the fact that he was deeply religious, the reasons behind the pomp and splendour, his strategising in terms of foreign policy and much more.

I also read Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser, and found it a compelling and revealing read, despite the fact that I have read several books about her and am quite well-versed with her story. The book brought home the fact that she was much more sinned against than sinning; even that famously fatuous 'let them eat cake' remark attributed to her had also been attributed to Louis XIV's mother a hundred years before. She was neglected in terms of upbringing and education by her ambitious mother, and taught conflicting things. on the one hand, her mother wanted her to be a true 'daughter of France' after marriage, on the other, she wanted marie Antoinette to influence French policy in a way beneficial for Austria. With an unhappy marriage to a boorish, suspicious, sullen and self-conscious husband who didn't consummate the marriage for 7.5 years, in an age when princesses were only valued or their ability to give the country royal heirs, she turned to all kinds of amusements, from the Trianon to Opera and gambling.

The famous extravagance that is cited against her was a royal habit, with none of the French royals ever sticking to their allowances. Her chief desire was to be a good wife and especially a good mother but the ceremoniousness of the French court at Versailles prevented even that. In the end, after her husband's vacillation had caused their escape efforts to come to nothing, after his execution, her infant son (8) was forced to turn against her and accuse her of all kinds of indecent behaviour so she could be found guilty and executed. The book brilliantly brings all this to light, and her to life as a character. I found myself in tears by the end of it.

Another series that I am reading and enjoying tremendously is the Isabel Dalhousie series by Alexander McCall Smith. Set in Edinburgh, the books bring the city vibrantly to life with its contrasts of a rich cultural city life and the boon of amazing views and countryside within easy reach. The key character is a 40-ish female philosopher who thinks deeply about everyday decisions and leads a reflective life, even while she hooks up with a boyfriend 15 years younger, who also happens to be her niece's ex-boyfriend, and has a baby at over 40.

I love the way that McCall Smith shows such deep insight into the female mind, and it's a suspension of disbelief to realise it's a he who wrote the books. The books have an investigative problem at the heart, though nothing as gruesome as violent crime, and their resolution is always rooted in philosophy, the simple art of courtesy which seems to be disappearing from modern life, and John Donne's famous poem, 'Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee'.

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