Monday, November 27, 2006

Gathering the Water

Gathering the Water is the first of Robert Edric's books that I am reading. If only I had known that his was such a beautifully understated style, I'd have converted long ago.

This book has been described as a "bleak, dreary novel"; I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. There is no physical drama to move the novel along, though one can always sense the build up to an awful disaster. Set in 1847, in the Forge Valley in north-eastern England (I assume the North York Moors is the area, but the key word is assume), at a period when the valley is about to be flooded by the dam built in the area, the novel's structure and sound echo the gloom that fills the valley. Charles Weightman is appointed by the dam construction company to oversee the clearing (eviction) of the valley and monitor the progress of the flooding. Weightman, who has just lost his fiancee, takes up the job with the intention of being far away from anything of his past. His only companion in the moors is Mary Latimer, widow, caretaker of a mad sister, woman battling her own demons.

Most of the action takes place in Weightman's head, in the form of reflections, surmises, imagined conversations. However, I found his somewhat terse, inconclusive conversations with Latimer very interesting. They may seem contrived at times, but I think conversations between two lonely yet wary people are bound to be carried on in that manner. I read somewhere that there are many Biblical allusions in the book. Other than the explicit quotes by Latimer, I missed the allusions given my ignorance of the Bible.

Gathering the Water is unlikely to appeal to readers who want an active pace, a sound plot, neatly tied ends and lively characters. Weightman and Latimer have their own charm though. And there are moments of humour. All of these are packaged into compact prose as well. That, in my opinion, is the best treat that this book has to offer.

Earlier post on Gathering the Water.
A lot of questions deserve just one answer,

Never Mind.

Maybe we'll be a bit more devilish and say,

Never, Mind.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Digressions...

Ideally the post below should have gone here. But it is not ideally *...


Every time I come across a discussion on who is rightfully Thamizh, it leaves me bemused because if adeptness in the language were the filter, I wouldn't ever qualify.One of the downsides of studying in an Anglo-Indian convent is that it leaves you shaky in your mother tongue. As you get promoted class after class, the idea that English is sacred is firmly imprinted in your head while second language, Thamizh in my case, gets the same treatment that Needlework gets, barely any attention. Therefore I ended up growing with hardly any proficiency in both Thamizh and Needlework.

At home, my father, an ardent Thamizh enthusiast, tried his best to make me aware of the beauty of Thamizh. He would teach me a kural a week, explain its meaning and ask me to link it to an example. He would read aloud his verses and when I memorized them he would delight in describing them to me. Perhaps because of all that effort oral Thamizh is not as daunting to me as written Thamizh. Yet the truth is that I am very self-conscious when reading in my mother-tongue. Now, this is a disastrous condition because the quality of my reading worsens in direct proportion to the number of people who are listening to me read. Don't even ask me how I write in the language. Does this mean I am a lesser Thamizh than the ones who can quote at will? Or will I qualify because I have lived in Tamil Nadu all my life? But then so have many others, say Marwaris, who have lived in this state for generations and many purists seem to have trouble accepting them as part of this state. What if somebody came up and said the filter is that you have to have Thamizh features and appearance in order to qualify? I look more like a Malayali than a Tamilian and that would work against me too. Maybe then the filter will be Thamizh blood in your veins, which I might meet, if my parents make the standards of the purists.

Consider, for example, some of the readers of the metblog, who like to share views on Thamizh culture and tell us how awfully some of us writers stink at being Thamizhs. You can imagine how I must have reacted when one of them asked a non-Thamizh speaking blogger to go out of the state because he writes from the perspective of an outsider in Chennai. If that blogger had a Thamizh sounding name and hadn't admitted to being an outsider, no one would have ever known he wasn't Thamizh. Abuse, I guess, is the price he is paying for frankness of opinion and for willingness in making Chennai his own. Take the example of Thad.E.Ginathom, a regular reader, who plays the mridangam. Wouldn't some part of the Thamizhness of the experience have seeped into who he is today? Doesn't that make him also welcome in this city because he is open to soaking a part of its spirit? And because I cannot play the mridangam, doesn't that make me a bit of an outsider from the inside too?

Forever, I've considered myself Thamizh because that is the spirit that permeates me, because that is the spice of all of my life's memories, because that is the encompassing label that gives me a group to call my own. And I don't mind the fact that others in the group may not be carbon copies of me because if that were the case, no one would have anything fresh to teach anyone anymore. I am a Tamilian because the label is inclusive. If not, I'd be a foot-here, head-there, multi-labeled, fragmented spectacle. And so would you. Because if fragmentation were the aim, there are infinite ways to do it.

* as a friend of mine put it
Last weekend, we took off on a suddenly thought of trip to stay in a place where we usually only stop by.

Pondicherry, a mere 150 odd kilometres away, yet just a passing fragment in our choices so far. We realized we should have soaked in the spirit of that territory long ago. The French quarter was so nice to walk in and I was very surprised that there were so few vehicles honking us aside.

What I missed was a visit to Kailash French bookstore (it was closed for lunch when we went and Sunday was a holiday) and digging around for some details on the fascinating Jeanne Albert, wife of Governor Dupleix. Overall, it was an absorbing vacation.

We are contemplating Tranquebar next!
No matter how much the way we do things changes, the way we remember them stays the same. Every generation's memories have different events but the same essence. I loved reading the wonder years.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Metroland - Julian Barnes

The pleasure of picking up a book on sheer instinct, of flipping for it completely by page 10 and of reading it in a single sitting, is very hard to explain. Such a pleasure is something I hadn't experienced in recent times, stuck as I was in the magic-free yet reliable habit of reading reviews of books before deciding to read them. I realize now that all the fiction I read in the past year or so had been chosen on the basis of reviews. Gone was the habit of picking up unheard of books, reading parts of them standing on a leg and a half, the body supporting itself against the nearby shelf, borrowing them only if I liked what I read, of being surprised at the book resonating with me, of being disappointed with its early promise...such drama the act of choosing what to read next used to be, until reading-reviews-habit happened.

Metroland somehow beckoned to me from the library rack - I am inclined to think that I fell for the elegance of its cover, a new Picador print, or perhaps for the name of its author, Julian Barnes. On reconsideration, noticing Barnes would have made it a dare because of my dismal attempt at Flaubert's Parrot. Since I discovered Metroland by chance and found it totally fascinating, the effusiveness that's come over me is hard to shake off (I am not even trying to do so actually).

First published in 1980, Metroland was Barnes' debut novel. It may be described as a 'coming of age' story. Also as a 'coming to terms' story because Christopher Lloyd, the narrator and protagonist lets you in on three important years in his life and thereby shows you how his life has shaped up. In using the key ages of 16 (school - London), 21 (research - Paris) and 30 (suburban home - Metroland), Barnes has beautifully shown how individual outlook changes over time.

Chris Lloyd and Toni Barbarowski are bosom buddies who, at the difficult age of 16, spend time in observing people at the National Art Gallery, in devising theories for all of life's questions, and in cocky posturing. Chris takes the Metropolitan Line to travel from his home in the suburbs to his school in the city. In the novel, Metroland (the suburb) is the focal point, which Chris is keen to move away from when young and ultimately returns to and accepts when thirty.

There are no sudden twists in the story to grip you to your seat. Instead Barnes keeps you eager for more with his sharp observations and ready wit. Indeed Metroland is all about insights, humour, reflections. I read Barnes' biography at Contemporary Writers after I finished Metroland and realized that a number of incidents and the timeline have been taken from his own life. His love for French is evident in the way he makes Chris a Rimbaud obsessed young man.

While I was reading Metroland, the husband was similarly engrossed in one of his favourites and out of habit, he reached out for the dictionary on the table and opened it to find that it was my dusty Larousse de Pouce and not the concise OED. Since I am barely-versed in French, I had to endure questions on how I understood a French book well enough to find it funny and why, of all silly things, it was titled in English!

Metroland is a very warm, entertaining book; one that I am sure to buy a copy of very soon and re-read several times over.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

John Updike on his daily writing schedule (via):
My life has been constructed around the hope of having some free afternoons, it's true. Somehow, being me, they fill up, as my wife points out, with more and more writing. She has the impression that I work all day. There is stuff that has to be done ... so my days are busy enough.

An avid reader who's decided to read all of John Updike in the order he wrote them:
I do things like this. I get an author in my teeth and I just won't let go. I've read virtually all of the novels by Philip Roth, Joyce Carol Oates, Reynolds Price, I.B. Singer and Bernard Malamud over the years. After I graduated from college, I was struggling with the basic question of what to read. I was bouncing around from one hokey title to the next. I'd read a mystery one week, a comedy the next. It wasn't very satisfying. I took a weekend trip back to my school and spoke to one of my old English professors about it and he said, "Find something you like and read everything you can by that author until you've had your fill."
...
I've learned to parcel out my favorite authors slowly over the course of the year. I read Wodehouse in the summer, Updike in the fall, Bellow (the greatest Jewish-American writer) at Christmas-time and Alice Munro's stories are for the interstices amidst the larger books. Spreading the books out like this has made the search for these titles all the more pleasurable.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Teach Me Tonight - a blog that takes a serious look at Romance Fiction. If that is too serious, how about the Pink Heart Society? If you are still inclined to give me more rope, take a look at Sophie Kinsella's (of the Shopaholic fame) much improved website.

Mush aside, I stumbled upon Jennie's book blog a while ago and found it interesting.

If you read this post, you are likely to imagine Gathering the Water as a serious and boring tale. But guess what, I am halfway through the book and it is anything but boring. Edric knows how to keep his reader's attention, that's for sure. I hope to write more about the book soon.

Rushdie, Pamuk, Manea sat around the same table for an evening of readings
“Speaking about censorship, it’s difficult to explain it to a logical mind,” Manea said. Contrasting the once-oppressive Romanian government to the freedom afforded writers in the States, he said, “In the U.S., everything is allowed, so nothing matters. And in Romania, nothing is allowed, so everything matters.”
...
Pamuk addressed translation: “A good translation does not just convey the same meaning, but it gets the music of the words right.” Riled up, he went on, “A good sentence is one that plays with the expectation of the reader.”
...
[Rushdie] “fiction is the only art form that takes place entirely in the reader’s head.” A sharp observation. Movies, out there. Painting, out there. Music, over there. But reading a novel is an entirely internal process, one that every person will experience, and in turn relate to, in an entirely different way.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Hindu's Literary Review is usually a carefully compiled collection of articles. However some issues can leave you unsatisfied because you are the kind of reader you are and they cannot always please your kind of readers.

Yesterday's issue was a real treat. Orhan Pamuk got a lot of space, there was a review of Theft, but what stood out for me were:

Pradeep Sebastian's In Autumn Radiance on Pico Iyer
Here is an unworldly writer recording the world in all its dark grace. He's probably the only author in the world whose work, in its published form, is seen by his readers even before he has laid eyes on it. Once Iyer sends his work out into the world — whether a book or an essay — he withdraws from finding out what became of it. And even when it comes out, he may not know of it for months!

Anita Nair's musings on chick-lit
IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a woman in possession of chick lit is very seldom a chick herself...
However little known the feelings or views of the chicks themselves with regard to how they are depicted, this truth is so true in the minds of the women of a certain age, that all chick lit is considered their rightful property...


The former convinced me that reading Pico Iyer's essays is merely scratching the surface and that I need to read his books. The latter had me nodding in agreement, which I suspect is a very very early attack of the 40s mindset (if such a thing exists. I am beginning to suspect it exists only in the fertile imagination of the young chicks).
They'd rather die - a very disturbing article on the sorry state of women in Afghanistan:

Three months ago Gul Zam poured petrol over her body and set herself alight. To her it was the only way out of a marriage so abusive that her husband Abdul had beaten her until her clothes were soaked in blood.

“I felt all other ways were blocked,” she whispered. “My husband and his family treated me like a slave. But I could not go back to my family because of the shame that would bring. So I crawled into the yard, poured a can of petrol over me and lit a match.”

Five years after the Taliban were ousted from Kabul, the number of Afghan women setting fire to themselves because they cannot bear their lives has risen dramatically.
...
...there is a huge gap between the reality on the ground and the “remarkable progress” claimed by western diplomats who sit in fortified compounds behind guards and concrete blocks and who never leave Kabul. The only area in which the country could really be said to have made remarkable progress is in growing the poppy. Under British supervision, Afghanistan has become the world’s biggest opium producer. Last year it produced 6,100 tons — 92% of world supply.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

A list of some of the books "restricted" in Malaysia. More here (via)

It is usually rare for men to be making a case for a Heyer novel, so when it comes, one points to it. Also, Risky Regencies asks what one's Favorite Heyers are - ten and these will keep changing often, anyway - The Grand Sophy, Regency Buck, Beauvalet, Devil's Cub, These Old Shades (one's first Heyer), Venetia, Frederica (ah Felix!), Sylvester, The Nonesuch, The Unknown Ajax...(entire list)

Paul Aster wants to tell a story:
...art is useless, at least when compared, say, to the work of a plumber, or a doctor, or a railroad engineer. But is uselessness a bad thing? Does a lack of practical purpose mean that books and paintings and string quartets are simply a waste of our time? Many people think so. But I would argue that it is the very uselessness of art that gives it its value and that the making of art is what distinguishes us from all other creatures who inhabit this planet, that it is, essentially, what defines us as human beings.

Hisham Matar's In the Country of Men is on the list for Guardian's First Book Award.

The Inheritance of Loss - book burning threat over portrayal of Kalimpong.

A very interesting project Seen Reading where readers are celebrities (via).

Friday, November 03, 2006

If nobody speaks of remarkable things...


...maybe things aren't remarkable after all.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

In Chennai (and the rest of India), there is finally some sort of reliable mapping service that we can use to get directions (via)

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

the worlds there are to know

Only a tiny man you are, in a forest of tiny trees,
Or a man on a tiny mountain top, surrounded by tiny seas;
And none who dwell, if dwell they do, in lands beyond the sun,
Would shed a tear, if a flash and a smear
tells those who live in the outer sphere
That your tiny race is run.
(more)

Lotus Reads reviews This is Paradise! - very clearly a disturbing story of a North Korean childhood. The post also has links to other books on North Korea.


TEV has some pointers on works by and about Hungarians on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

I really must stop this habit of reading about books that I want to read...so much of the element of discovery is lost because I am looking for the discoveries I've read about...

The only time I had read about Marisha Pessl was in a bookslut interview a couple of months ago. I skimmed that interview and that was that. Until this SFGate piece came to my notice - for the moment, I am very excited by the sound of Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which
focuses on a precocious, hyper-literate teen named Blue van Meer as she prepares for her senior year of high school in North Carolina after crisscrossing the nation with her college professor dad, a brilliant widower.

It's a lush book, studded with metaphors. A woman's perfume "hung in the air like a battered pinata." A man seems "to hand out smiles like a guy in a chicken suit costume distributing coupons for a free lunch." A girl "looked at me with anxious interest, like I was a dress on sale, the last in her size."

the book has a Rowling-like website as well.