Thursday, August 1, 2013

Read Alert

For a change, the silence on the blog is not because I haven’t been reading; rather because I have been reading with a frenzy, which is just how I like it. However, the disadvantage of reading books back-to-back is that you do not get enough time to reflect on the one you’ve just finished, before you’re on to the next. All I have the energy for here, is to list everything I’ve read since I finished the Ibn Batuta trilogy. So, to the beat of Tom Lehrer’s The Elements, here goes: Empires of the Indus – Alice Albinia, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star – Paul Theroux, The Elephanta Suite – Paul Theroux, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall – Anne Bronte, Layover at Dubai – Dan Fesperman, Grave Secrets in Goa – Katherine McCaul, A Regular Guy – Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here– Mona Simpson, My Theodosia – Anya Seton, Crazy Salad – Nora Ephron…

Ok, the list sounded a lot longer and a lot more impressive in my head. And in my defense, I would’ve had a few more books in there, but for the fact that I struggled with Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here. The book was more than well written; I just found the characters difficult and depressing. I struggled much less with her A Regular Guy, but liked the protagonists no better.

In this list, the standout was, by far, Alice Albinia’s Empires of the Indus. The book traces the mighty river from its mouth in Sind province in Pakistan, to its source in Tibet. I also loved Ghost Train to The Eastern Star, particularly the bits in Turkmenistan and Vietnam, and Theroux’s encounters with Orhan Pamuk in Turkey and Pico Iyer and Haruki Murakami in Japan. The book added many places to my-must- see list, on top of which, now, is Hanoi. The three novellas in The Elephanta Suite, set in India, actually have themes that a reader of Ghost Train will instantly recognize. Many incidents and realizations from his travels through India resurface in it. The two murder mysteries set in Dubai and Goa were pure pulp fiction. Layover was decent, Grave Secrets, a miss. As for the two older books, I am ashamed that I never read The tenant.. until now. Anne Bronte is unusually perceptive and knowledgeable for her times about addiction, but I would’ve loved the story more if I had read it in my early teens, while I was discovering her sister Charlotte, and Jane Austen. My Theodosia, which is set in post-independence America, was a fast and interesting read, but in terms of literary style and historical accuracy, more Jean Plaidy than Hilary Mantel. Crazy Salad, was good fun and gave insights into America, particularly the women’s movement in the 70s, but some of it felt dated.

I am grateful for the stream of books that has kept me busy over the last few weeks. As someone who is often mostly dependent on friends for reading material, it is wonderful to have access not just to books, but to wonderful, varied, intelligent books. I shall enjoy it while it lasts!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Ibn Batutah Trilogy - Tim Mackintosh Smith

I’ve just emerged – yes, that’s the right word - from one of the most intense reads in a long time. Intense in length, and densely packed with information. For the past month, I have been travelling with Tim Mackintosh Smith, as he retraces the journeys of Ibn Batutah (IB), the fourteenth-century Tangerine traveller.

Spread over ten years, Smith’s travels have been chronicled in three volumes, Travels with a Tangerine, The Hall of a Thousand Columns and Landfalls. The first book starts in Tangiers, IB’s birthplace, and covers Egypt, Syria, Turkey and Oman, if I remember right. The second book is entirely in India and the third, is a more episodic narration of his journeys to Zanzibar, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, China, Mali, Guinea and Spain.

As I have tediously and repeatedly mentioned, I like my information disguised as fiction. Even history, which I love, I love less when it comes in textbook form. TMS (for the sake of brevity) is an accomplished writer, however, who does not bore you for an instant. But I did feel overwhelmed at various points in during the journey. The first volume, Travels with a Tangerine, especially, was a difficult read, but only because this is a part of the world I am completely alien to. It just made me realize how Europe-centric my reading has always been, with North America thrown in now and then. But the Islamic world, North Africa, the Levant, these are regions I have no knowledge of. In fact, I cannot even claim superficial knowledge. And things are more complicated because TMS is following in the footsteps of IB, and the fourteenth century is also unfamiliar territory. For instance, in Egypt, it is not the country of the ancient pre-islamic pharaohs - the one that we are all so familiar with, that he visits - but that of Sultans and saints. So I had to deal with both historic and geographic dislocation in this volume. Both The Hall of a Thousand Columns and Landfalls were easier in that respect, but that respect only.

TMS has a simple, lucid style with self-deprecating humour and an understated yet keen sense of the marvelous. Still, there are cultural references and words that I needed to Google frequently. There is latin, French and Arabic thrown in frequently, but in the most unpretentious way possible.

Following in the footsteps of IB, especially when those footsteps have been obscured by time, is not easy. TMS sets off looking for tangible remnants in the places that IB mentions visiting, but these are few and far between. IB’s tomb in Tangiers, which he visits in the beginning, is probably a fake. Many of the monuments that IB mentions in his travels are either destroyed or renamed. Many of his co-ordinates too, are inaccurate. But occasionally, TMS does hit paydirt and finds a relic of IB’s times, intact. (Although strewn with turd in some cases: The hall of a thousand columns.)

The three volumes contain such a wealth of esoteric knowledge, that one reading is not enough. I enjoyed several accounts. In the first book, my favourite parts were set in Oman. Going to college in Kerala meant that you’d bump into, and even befriend several Gulf malayalees, as they are called, and quite a few of my friends were from Oman. They would tell me tales of mythical beings such as KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut, all fantastic to my just-liberalized Indian ears. TMS’ Omani legends are quite different. His travels to Dhofar, particularly, made me want to go there.

In The Hall of a Thousand Columns, my favourite part (perhaps predictably) is when he goes to Calicut and meets the Zamorin (the ruler). IB’s ship had been wrecked on the coast of Calicut just as he was about to depart to China, and it was the Zamorin of his time who protected him. There is a goosebump moment, when the Zamorin’s nephew shows TMS a ruby necklace gifted by Vasco Da Gama. Not long afterwards, the Portuguese adventurer (and I use that word in its negative sense) slaughtered many locals as the Zamorin would not give the Portuguese exclusive trading rights. TMS talks of meeting the Arackal Bibi and a Muslim family, whose history is fascinating. It gave me a particular thrill when he talks of travelling by the country boats in Kerala, bound together with ropes not nails. Now this is something I have written about in many travel/resort brochures, knowing it was an old traditional custom, but not really understanding how far back it went, or where its roots really were.

The Hall of a Thousand Columns starts in Delhi, as IB was appointed judge to Mohammed Bin Tughlaq, the very same Delhi Sultan who was dubbed ‘the wisest fool’ and whose shenanigans captivated us in middle school. TMS also visits Daulatabad, the brief ill-fated, capital of Tughlaq’s empire. The spookiest moment comes when TMS identifies a sati ground mentioned by IB, somewhere in the heartlands of India. In Delhi, TMS also meets scions of ancient Indian families.

Landfalls chronicles a series of journeys. Each chapter takes you to a different Batutian destination. It’s hard to say what I enjoyed most in this book, because each was a perfectly crafted bit of goodness. There was something eerily beautiful about the Balafon performances in Guinea, and downright spooky about the ancient pagan sacrifices in the Maldives. The chapter on China was a revelation in that I had never thought of its Islamic past. Exceedingly dumb of me, but there it is. The ‘Ding’ episode is just the kind of historical serendipity that I adore: TMS meets a clan of Dings, and realizes that the name is a version of the Islamic surname, Al Din.

Over the course of the three books, TMS himself emerges as a likeable, humble and fun chap. In many ways he seems to be the antithesis of IB, who was famously a swaggering, libidinous profligate. In spite of the worst setbacks, his spirits don’t seem to flag. A lot of reviews mention the scatological slant to some of the writing, but it didn’t bother me in the least. What amazes me is how understanding and empathetic he is of Islamic history and culture, while still being able to maintain an academic distance from it all.

I know it’s not everyone's thing, but I shall still recommend it without reservations!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Fry Chronicles – Stephen Fry

I’m going to come right out and say it: I haven’t enjoyed a book as much in a long time. You’re free to leave the page now. Or stick with me while I ramble some more.

The Fry Chronicles is the autobiography of the English actor and writer, Stephen Fry. Specifically, it covers his stint at Cambridge and early years in television. An earlier volume Moab is my Washpot, covers his childhood, including his incarceration for credit card fraud.

I have always been a huge fan of Fry’s generation of English actors, and specifically British comedy of the eighties and nineties. My first encounter with Fry was through Jeeves and Wooster, which was televised in India in the early nineties. Although my mother, sister and I had too many preconceived notions about Wodehouse and did not think the casting perfect, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie registered in my mind. Over the years, they popped up here and there.

I first got a taste of Fry’s writing first through twitter and then through a wonderful article on PG Wodehouse written by him, which a colleague shared with me. (Read it here But Fry has actually been writing as long as he has been acting. His style is humorous, ironic and self-deprecating. I found myself wishing to write down quotes and phrases in a way I have not since my teenage years.

The Fry Chronicles seem to document the actor’s ‘normal years’ – the phase that came between imprisonment at 17 and cocaine addiction/experimentation at 30. The portions set in Cambridge are fabulous. I have always been an anglophile, with an unabashed admiration of an Oxbridge education. Fry spends more time at various theater performances – on stage and as a spectator than at classes – but he brings alive the history, tradition and exclusivity of these ancient institutions, particularly their special interest clubs. His nostalgic descriptions of the wonder and beauty of the May Ball and May Bumps especially, capture a beautiful moment in time and the whimsical, ephemeral nature of youth. You wish you had been around at that particular time, meeting those particular people, living those particular experiences.

Fry makes frequent apologies for the exclusive and often outdated traditions of these places, without once failing to show us their magic and mystery. He makes no bones about his love of Wilde (whom he played in a biopic which I have always wished to see), Wodehouse and Sherlock Holmes, and the age and manners they represent. In a lesser man, these loves may reek of pomposity, but Fry is funny and self-aware and doesn’t take himself too seriously. Whenever he gets too introspective, he lightens the mood with a casually tossed remark such as “Goodness Stephen, who rattled your cage?”

It is also an absolute delight to bump into a hundred familiar characters – Emma Thompson, Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Douglas Adams, Tony Slattery (it took me a while to place him), Graham Norton, Richard Curtis and more.

More than anything else, I loved the hopeful, kind and gentlemanly tone of the whole book. In a world where sensationalism reigns, it is heartening to see a celebrity making no excuses for bad behavior, for erring - especially knowing that he is not playing to the galleries in doing so, but expressing genuine regret. Fry’s demons are very real, and this is evident from the way he resists aggrandising his mental agonies. Before you allow yourself to say “What does he have to complain about?” Fry takes the words out of your mouth.

The sheer wealth of intelligence in the book, the pleasure of not being talked down to, makes me want to take a crack at the classics again – Shakespeare perhaps? It’s like Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt in ‘As Good as it Gets’, “You make me want to be a better man”. The Fry Chronicles makes me want to be a better writer and better travelled – or at the very least, better read!!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The New Yorker on Hilary Mantel's win

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Paris Wife - Paula McClain

A conversation with a really close friend today made me think of The Paris Wife. How do you know when a marriage is over? This friend, who recently walked out of her marriage after 15 years, the last several abusive, without so much as a rupee to her name, has come under flak from friends and family for putting up with it so long. While I’m thrilled to see that attitudes have changed, and that no one advocates living with abuse any longer, I also think she deserves a break.

As does Hadley Richardson. The Paris Wife is the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, the woman who put her faith in him before the world did. The New York Times review, and the wonderful new friend who lent me the book, were both scathing of Hadley’s tolerance of ‘Hem’ and for staying on in the marriage longer than necessary.

I felt rather differently. I completely agreed with Hadley’s decision to leave him, but I’m not surprised that it took her long. (Not that long, by the way, they were married only about 5 years in any case.) But let me start this story from the beginning.
Hadley Richardson was a sensitive, quiet woman in her late 20s, past the first flush of youth, when she met Hemingway, at the start of the 1920s. An injury in her early childhood had meant she led a reclusive, overprotected life, in the shadow of her suffragette mother, and scarred probably even more than she realised, by the suicide of her father. Hemingway, some eight years her junior, swept her off her feet. Eventually, using her money, the couple moved to Paris so that he could devote himself to writing…as all the literati of the time, like Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald lived there.

In theory, this should make for a grand tale. My quibble with the story, is not Hadley’s meekness. What annoys me is that in spite of such fantastic material – a stellar cast of characters, a luminous setting – the story never rises above the ordinary. The writing is far too uninspired, and the characters, are just a series of names dropped, with no real insights. The big names aren’t just exposed to have feet of clay (which still would make a good story) but are rather small, commonplace people.
What I did like is how beautifully the squalor and poverty of an artist’s life is portrayed. It, definitely, is not for the fainthearted. Hemingway’s neuroses, ego and changing personality are nicely done too. I’ve never been much of a fan of the writer, even though I’ve struggled with A Farewell to Arms, For Whom the Bell Tolls and To Have and Have Not, so I was not approaching The Paris Wife with anything close to reverence. At the end of it, of course, I was not a fan of the man either. I found his combination of puritanism, self indulgence, pig-headedness and licentiousness repelling.

Hadley I feel much kinder towards. Definitely a misfit in the hard glitter and shallowness of the parisien life, her essential niceness comes through. So what if she seems retrogressive? From our 21st century perspective, it is easy to be judgemental. Hadley, I believe, was a woman of her time, even as her female contemporaries were trying to be progressive. She wasn’t glamorous, she wasn’t creative, but she was solid. I can understand her staying. I can understand her thinking things would improve. I can understand her trusting someone, and then being shocked at betrayal. I can understand her wanting to believe that her love was true, and that it would triumph. I can understand her inability to see what was happening. I can understand her paralysis when faced with life changing choices. When you trust someone that much, you never imagine, for a moment, that they have changed; moved away.

In fact, as I went on, I was more surprised that Hadley did walk away when she did, rather than stay on or agree to any humiliating arrangement that Hem had in mind (a typical male, he wanted it all, his wife Hadley and his lover Pauline, also in typical male fashion, he didn’t want to be the villain). For women, sometimes will do anything for love, or the distant, highly seductive promise of better times.

Knowing when to leave is not easy. I would like to believe that there is however, a sign, a breaking point, which most sensible people do not ignore. I’m glad Hadley didn’t, I am relieved my friend didn’t.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Bring Up The Bodies - Hilary Mantel

I just finished Bring Up The Bodies last night, and I really don’t know what I should think of it. I did not feel the unalloyed pleasure in reading it that I did with Wolf Hall. Maybe it suffers from the middle child syndrome, and fails to have the novelty of the first part or the finality of the last. This is no reflection on Hilary Mantel’s writing, which is just as compelling in this volume.

Most of my discomfort was with the changing or emerging character of the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. In Wolf Hall, I didn’t expect to like him, but I found myself drawn to his character. In Thomas Cromwell, Hilary Mantel made efficiency sexy. His tenderness for his family, his camaraderie with the boys at Austin Friars, his adeptness at handling disparate personalities, and his sense of humour were endearing. There was integrity in everything he did, that made you believe that history had Cromwell’s measure wrong.

In Bring Up The Bodies however, I find Cromwell slipping from my grasp. If I was puzzled as to his motivations in Wolf Hall, I am more so now. What compels him to bring down Anne and her so-called lovers? Does he really believe they are guilty? If not, is he driven solely by vengeance over Wolsey’s death? An instinct for self-preservation brought on by Anne’s growing power? Or a desire to do the King’s will at all costs? The book suggests all three, but it is hard to reconcile this Cromwell with the one of Wolf Hall. I don’t want to believe that he was an opportunist, but perhaps it is a measure of his good sense and ability that he is one. It is easy to forget that times were different, and survival required sharper wits and less reliance on law.

All the same, these inconsistencies make Cromwell’s personality that much more complex. He is nearly as inscrutable to us, as he was to his contemporaries. Henry emerges as peevish and silly, Anne self destructive and arrogant. Yet in her final days, she arouses our sympathy. I had to remind myself of the number of lives she herself destroyed, and would no doubt have continued to, had she lived.

Reading of Anne’s destruction also fills me with foreboding, because I do know what is coming at the end of the last volume. There are times, fleeting moments, when the usually surefooted Cromwell seems hesitant, even fearful.

Is Cromwell, in some recess of his mind, beginning to know it too?

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Charlotte Gray - Sebastian Faulks

Over the past few months, I’ve been quietly catching up on my reading. I re-read Sea of Poppies, in preparation for reading River of Smoke. River of Smoke is a very different animal from its predecessor, but it is an amazing book too. There are fewer characters and fewer threads. A long time ago when I was a quizzer – not a very good one – I went through a brief period where I stopped reading for pleasure, and more for acquiring knowledge. I tried memorizing opening lines of books, quotable bits, minor characters’ names – as these were the kinds of questions that were asked frequently at quizzes. It rather destroyed my pleasure in reading, and I had to consciously stop myself from doing so. I don’t enjoy reading non-fiction, so any knowledge I have acquired has come as a by product of my reading for pleasure. That was one of the best things about River of Smoke. I knew virtually nothing about the age or its politics, while now I understand a lot more about it, I really didn’t have to labour very hard to do so. I look forward very much to the third part in the trilogy.

I also read Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, one of the most lyrical and haunting stories I have read in a long time. I believe it is somewhat autobiographical and the least characteristic of Murakami’s novels, as there is nothing remotely surrealistic or non-linear about it. This time at the library I toyed with the idea of picking up another Murakami but then put it off for later.

What I did pick up was Sebastian Faulks’ World War II novel, Charlotte Grey. Really, it seemed to have been written with me in mind, the sucker that I am for this particular time in history. One of my favourite popular authors is Ken Follet, whose writing is always well crafted. I adore his WWII novels especially, such as The Eye of The Needle, Jackdaws, Hornet Flight and The Key to Rebecca . These are fast paced and full of nail biting excitement, and decent characterization. Of course, they are popular fiction, and do have all the limitations of that genre.

According to Wikipedia, Charlotte Gray is one of three novels written by Sebastian Faulks, set in wartime France. Birdsong is set in WWI, and The Girl at the Lion d’Or is set in the period before WWII.

Charlotte Gray is the story of a young Scots woman who goes to London at the height of the war (1942) and because of her knowledge of French, is slowly co-opted into the secret service as a courier. Her task is to accompany an agent in to France. Charlotte has an ulterior motive in going, her airman lover has been shot down in France and she hopes to find him. When she is due to return to England, she opts to stay back in the little French town Lavaurette, where her contact, Julien Levade, lives. She becomes, for a time, his father, Levade’s housekeeper.

Even though the book’s summary at the back makes it sound that the story is all about Charlotte’s search for Peter, her lover, it actually isn’t so. In fact, when they do reunite at the end, it isn’t because of any machinations of hers. Her search for him, in fact is mostly fruitless and it is just chance and luck that he escapes. It may have been the motivation for her staying on in France, but her stay goes on to mean much more than that.

What the book really does is offer an insight into the French collusion with Nazi occupation. With our benefit of hindsight, it is easy for us to see that the colluders were in fact making the wrong choices, but at the time, it was simply a matter of aligning with the power that seemed the stronger at the time, with the hope of being rewarded with power and prestige in a “new Europe”. And the English, of course were always their traditional enemies. As characters in the book say, Churchill was seen to be prolonging the war for his own ends, and it was believed that the English were refusing to bow to the inevitable. Charlotte Gray does a wonderful job of putting things in their historical context. When the book draws to its close, the allies have begun to regain ground and the mood has changed.

Some of the most luminous exchanges in the book are between Charlotte and Levade, the father. A man who is thoroughly imperfect, yet very perceptive. Julien the son, is endearing, and there are moments when you do wish that it was him Charlotte loved (I believe the movie version has it that way). But only for a fleeting second, because more than liking Peter Gregory, you fall in love with Charlotte’s intense love of him, and wish to hold on to the belief that such love does, and will, conquer all.

The Jewish question is also beginning to rear its ugly head in the book. Two little Jewish boys, Andre and Jacob, as French as can be, lose their parents who are amongst the early deportees. Julien Levade, himself a part Jew, hides them and provides for them. The little boys almost never take centrestage in the story, except for one harrowing chapter, which is perhaps the most heartbreaking in the entire book, and the one that stayed with me the longest. I defy anyone to read about the little boys’ fate with a dry eye.

For a novel about war and spies, the book is curiously lacking in tension, the feeling of imminent danger. You almost never fear that Charlotte will be caught. But then, it is never intended to be a spy novel in the conventional sense. There is a big denouement though, when all things come to a head, when Levade is denounced as a Jew and deported, and Charlotte is threatened with exposure.

As a child when I read my commando comics and concentration camp stories, I was horrified and saddened, but in a more abstract way. The Diary of Anne Frank, which I have read several times over, affected me deeply, but still on an impersonal level. But as one grows older, and struggles in a real way with a world that is often strange and arbitrary and seemingly full of random tragedy, these characters’ struggles begin to be your own. Charlotte Gray may be a work of fiction, but to me it felt very real.