Archive for the ‘****’ Category

I’m making my way back to book blogging by linking to my review of Empires of the Indus on the Lonely Planet website. Do read!


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There is nothing, I say, quite like a Wicked Man. Capital letters and all. And nobody writes them quite the way Georgette Heyer does. I don’t mean evil men, true villains; what I’m talking about here are the Regency bad boys, the ones who do everything they ought not to do by the social codes of the day but have a certain unshakable morality, alternative though it may be. Perhaps it’s just Heyer’s settings, several hundred years away from us, that give them their dash and excitement, the thrill of men who are dangerous and bold. To be sure, a Wicked Man is so much more delectable on a horse, with a sword, and wearing a powdered wig… even the foppish fashions of Heyer’s period romances, presented in loving detail, never make her heros seem anything but all male.

And it’s with those very fashions that she introduces her Wicked Man in These Old Shades. Justin, the Duke of Avon strolls along one evening in Paris, wearing a costume of incredible magnificence. We have just enough time to digest the fact that he is no ordinary passerby when he, and we, are thrown off balance by a red-headed urchin who races out of the shadows. The boy, Leon, is running from his brother, who follows soon after. The Duke looks into Leon’s face, observes his brother for an instant, and decides that he will buy the boy, “body and soul,” for a diamond pin.

The boy is introduced into the Duke’s household as his page; he goes everywhere with the Duke, who he plainly worships, for having rescued him from the sordidity of the existence he had living with his brother. All is not quite as it seems, and a few weeks exposes the truth — Leon the page is actually Leonie, a girl dressed as a boy. But that isn’t the only mystery about Leonie, and nothing will escape the Duke’s sharp eyes and long memory…

This is one of the first Heyers I ever read and I still enjoy it tremendously. It has a plot that is insanely dramatic and has more than a few sharp twists, but it is, ultimately, a search for justice and cannot but drag you in and make you cheer lustily for the side of the right. The book’s hero may not have the purest of histories (with a nickname like “Satanas” this is no surprise), but when he seeks out vengeance, it is much more for somebody weaker than it is for himself.  And if, by the end, he isn’t convinced of his own worthiness, we definitely are. Justin, Duke of Avon, is indeed one of Heyer’s most swoon-inspiring Wicked Men. Just as Leonie, the urchin turned beauty, is an intriguing, brave, and proud heroine, and also one of Heyer’s naughtiest creations.

Still, Justin and Leonie aside, I do think one reason I love this book is because of the supporting cast. Justin’s friend, the kind Hugh Devenant, almost as antithesis to Justin’s Satanas persona; his sister, the vain and silly, but tender-hearted Lady Fanny; his brother-in-law, pompous Edward Marling, who nonetheless has the capacity to be charmed; his brother,  the reckless, handsome, courageous Rupert; his neighbours, who aren’t on speaking terms with him, the Merivales; the wise old priest who has known Leonie since her childhood; Heyer writes them all in most lovingly, and gives them things to say that are charming, funny, delightful, memorable and even occasionally insightful. Even the fringe characters are memorable; for my part, I always grin when I recall Lady Fanny’s maid, Rachel, and her cry of “Lawks!” when she first realizes Leonie is a girl dressed in boy’s clothes. And Heyer’s chief villain here is, in some ways, her most dastardly.

Heyer chooses not to go into any detail on Leonie’s past and her life before the Duke buys her, and this is perhaps the only real stumbling-block. The book loses a certain emotional power by completely omitting any deep discussion of what Leonie may have faced, though it does, in passing, mention these “horrors.” Still, there is something to be said for the fact that we, as readers, and every character that encounters Leonie and loves her, all end up wanting to protect her and hoping that the villain gets his comeuppance. There may be an outward frivolity to the conversation, but these are all people who not only love Leonie but also are outraged by what her life has been made into by villainy before the Duke rescues her. Social justice this isn’t, but, to be fair, that’s never the point of a Georgette Heyer novel.

What this is, is a bit of highly pleasurable nonsense. Everybody larger than life and twice as wonderful — or evil — but with enough good storytelling to make it into a good book. Heyer shows us that a romance needn’t be stupid or boring or predictable; it can actually be full of wit and a grand amusement.

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One of the great joys of unravelling the skeins of history, I think, is definitely the process of linking causes with effects and understanding how something that happened several centuries ago led, however indirectly, to something that happened today. Alternate universes with “might have been” scenarios based on one change in the history we know are always fascinating.  To think of how different Indian history would have been is a little intimidating; but without the British and the Portuguese landing in India in search of spices, would I have been an English-speaking, baptized but lapsed Catholic, fond of bebinca and the architecture of colonial Bombay? And would any of us ever have sat down to eat a humble aloo parantha?

John Keay’s history of the Spice Route starts us on the trail of “might have been”, asking and answering questions about how the spice trade changed the history of the world. Drawing on maps, ship’s logs, travelogues, histories, and other documents, he pieces together this long and complex story, starting from more than a thousand years before Christ and continuing until the late eighteenth century, when spices finally became commonplace; as Keay says, the end of the mystery has finally come in our time, when we can pick those once-rare commodities off supermarket shelves. Lost the mystery may be, but his narrative remains alive to it, of what these strange, exotic substances were, where they came from, and how they travelled the world.

Keay sets out the background to his narrative with the Banda Islands of Indonesia, whence came nutmeg and mace, two of the rarest of spices. These islands he compares, quite directly, to paradise; an untouched Garden of Eden in his writing. But, we are aware, if this is the Garden of Eden, there must be a fall. The entire book leads up to the history of how that fall came about, when the Dutch laid the islands waste and spilled blood savagely all over them, in their quest to control the trade routes.

It starts out quietly enough, with Keay painstakingly taking us through piecemeal, fragmented accounts of trade routes so early that they are only sketchily mapped out and no particular names are associated with them. We know only the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Greeks. Perhaps the only specificity here is Pliny, who comes in for a good deal of witty snark from Keay.

But as the marked routes extend and start to link continents to each other, Keay gives us a taste of the violence of greed, as it focuses on controlling the trade and rivalries start to come up, and other concerns, such as those of religion and its dissemination, come into play. The Portuguese in Kerala, under Vasco Da Gama, are particularly brutal. And slowly, as the trade routes of the world are mapped out and discovered, as continents are rounded, oceans crossed, and the very globe itself circumnavigated, the famous names appear on Keay’s pages — Columbus, Magellan, Alberquerque… until the power finally shifts to the hands of the British and Dutch East Indian Companies.

Nobody could accuse this book of not being scholarly enough; it is erudite, precise in its wit, and highly readable, but never self-indulgent. Presenting its reconstructed history lucidly and intelligently is its paramount aim. Its points of view are simultaneously cultural, sociological, economic, and historical, approaches that it perfectly balances, while always retaining some measure of lyrical fascination with the spices themselves.  But this is a dense book, which is why it is hard to summarize Keay’s narrative; each page, if not each paragraph, brings forth a new name and a new voyage of discovery, a new account of some spice and a new route attempted. It is not, therefore, a fast read; I must have taken three weeks over it.

Still, it was three weeks very well spent. To understand in some measure exactly how the world changed because of the yen for bits of dried vegetable matter and how globalization and its discontents are not entirely new to humanity, you could do no better than this engaging history.

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Cover of 'Swan Song'Well, well, well. So what do you say to a detective novel in which, in response to a telegram saying that his brother has been found dead, a character says “DELIGHTED HOPING FOR THIS FOR MONTHS SUICIDE EH QUERY DONT BOTHER ME NOW CHARLES SHORTHOUSE”? The telegram reply is mad, quite mad; so is the character that sends it; and so, you might think, the man who invented this, Edmund Crispin. Mad, and deliciously so.

And this book is a bit of delicious madness. Crispin’s forte tends to be sheer farce, laced with wicked, clever witticisms and obscure literary allusions. His characters are extremes, for the greater part–extreme eccentrics, extreme geniuses, extreme philosophers, extreme all sorts of things–and this larger-than-life scale on which they operate often results in hilarity.  Gervase Fen, Crispin’s English professor of English Lit. and detective, is rather reminiscent, in approach, of the very silly Lord Peter Wimsey of Dorothy Sayers’ Whose Body, but, if anything, Fen is actually nutty where Wimsey seemed to affect nuttiness (and other novels in which  Wimsey features show us that the silliness masks a troubled mind). To Fen, a nice murder is a puzzle to be solved—there are no moral concerns here. He  seems, in fact, determined to enjoy himself as much as possible, even to the point of indulging in some completely off-kilter deception to get things done and to get information he wants. And of course, Crispin permits such deception for the purpose not of showing anyone what a genius at disguise Fen is—he decidedly isn’t, since he doesn’t bother with it—but simply because the result is good-natured, rollicking comedy.

In this case, Fen is called in to investigate the mysterious death of Edwin Shorthouse, a much-disliked opera singer.  We are in Oxford, where rehearsals are on for the first post-war production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. Shorthouse has been found, hanged, in his dressing room, with the door locked. Suicide, eh? That’s what his brother says in the telegram quoted above. As it turns out, this is not suicide, but murder—but how do you murder somebody by hanging in a closed room, with a witness around to testify that nobody entered or left at the time of death? Somebody from among the opera’s cast and production members has been clever enough to do so, and it is Fen’s job to find out whodunit and how.

Suffice it to say that, as well as being a grand comic turn of a book, this is also a deviously plotted one. The investigation is complicated and the identity of the murderer a genuine surprise. It has the signature Crispin (and also John Dickson Carr) flaw of being a little too elaborate to be soved so neatly, but no matter; as it is for Fen, it is supposed to be a puzzle. Right through, Crispin treats us to pithy observations on each of the characters, on Wagner, on singers in general, on composers, and on whatever catches his fancy, really. The only false note is struck, I find, at a point when there is another death and tremendous sorrow for one of the characters. The black-comedic tone doesn’t wear very well all the time. It is murder and death and extreme hatred that we’re dealing with, after all; at times, a certain gravity we feel robs us of any enjoyment.

Still, I forgive a lot for the moment in the book when a little man says, reproachfully, to somebody just rescued from  an apparent suicide attempt: “Think of the nice birds, and the nice trees, and the nice bloody atom bombs, and all the things what make life worth living.” Now that is, most certainly, a worthy sentiment. But give me a nice bird and a nice tree and a nice bloody Edmund Crispin, and keep the atom bomb, dear sir.

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Cover of 'Monkey-man' At one point in Usha K.R.’s new novel, Monkey-man, one of the protagonists, Neela Mary Gopalrao, is vetting correspondence addressed to her boss, deciding what will actually reach him and what isn’t worthy to.

National Trust College, she thought, had become very ambitious of late—there were two proposals from them. One from a film studies person, a Shrinivas Moorty, asking for funds to upgrade their equipment—which she threw into the dustbin without a second thought—and another from the head of their Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Studies suggesting a collaborative workshop—which was a cleverer way of asking for money—that she put into the Important pile.

It’s a quiet but telling moment in Usha’s narrative, contrasting two approaches to making connections and getting something done. And, arguably, this moment operates as a reminder of how urban India has changed in the last twenty years and continues to change, how the route to success has changed. No more does achievement come from assuming that power is concentrated in somebody else’s hands, that one must work, be recognized for one’s work, and accept what the power bestows. Achievement is now in setting oneself up as a centre of power, an entity with much to offer, a collaborator—even if the Neela Mary Gopalraos of this world recognize that this is just ‘a cleverer way of asking for money,’ the fact is that, sooner rather than later, the money, the success, the achievement, the greater power does come. In the new urban India, there are more opportunities than ever before, for the taking—but only the confident can take them.

And it is this new urban India that Usha is concerned with, setting her novel at the beginning of the new millenium, a few days into January 2000. Four people have encountered a strange, savage beast the previous evening on Ammanagudi Street, Bangalore. Now, three of them are at a radio station’s studio with an RJ, Bali Brums, ready to talk about that they saw and what it might have been. Monkey-man is not a thriller—it’s not about what or who the monkey-man is and the process of hunting it down. Instead, it traces the stories of these  people–Srinivas Moorty, lecturer in History at National Trust College, a man who realizes how far his friends have drifted and how much he has not achieved, and whose marriage has become the mere sharing of a house; Neela Mary Gopalrao, personal secretary to the head of a research institute, who uses her power to play with the lives of her colleagues, but has once secretly opened herself up to another person and been humiliated; Pushpa Rani, who has risen from living in a one-room home on the edge of the city and earning a daily wage to become a Team Leader at a call centre, a girl who has turned her family’s fortunes around and is finally able to pay for the care of her ailing father. And Bali Brums (whose name is actually Balaji Brahmendra), the RJ, who dropped out of engineering college to take up one of the opportunities he came across in the changing India, a man who lives at home with his parents, even though he and his father disagree all the time, a man who trades on, in both personal and professional life, his ability to talk — not so much talk with people as talk at them — and to keep women, especially, swooning. Monkey-man is about each of their stories until that brush with terror on Ammanagudi Street and about how their lives have changed in the new India, along with the new tensions, negotiations, and opportunities that accompany these changes in what they might have thought of as immutable.

With a third-person narrative that speaks from the perspective of each of the main protagonists in turn, Usha perceptively constructs each of their lives. She has an eye for observing and describing the abstract and concrete minutiae of ordinary life–signboards on the street, the titles of public lectures, the colors and style of apparel, food preferences, passing encounters, smells, and so on–that her characters engage with every moment of the day, and it is through these minutiae that she painstakingly puts together a picture of how they live. This is a narrative that is deeply concerned with the internal, the life of the mind–not as it philosophizes or reflects on the abstract, but as it processes the constant stimulation from the material world around it—successfully chronicling some of the many facets of middle-class urban Indian life.

Usha’s prose is not without humour–it has a certain dryness, a subtle wit, in dealing with these minutae, that manages to simultaneously invoke both amusement at any evident pettiness in her characters’ existences and a strong feeling of sympathy for them, perhaps, most importantly, a feeling of recognition. This is what makes her work such a pleasure to read, as it helps the reader enter into these other lives, not in a voyeuristic sense but with the potential for deep understanding.

The journeys of her main characters take in several broad swathes of life in urban India. With Srinivas Moorty, the long road of boyhood friendship, the slow alteration of the street on which he lived, from semi-rural to urban, college days, the introduction to philosophy and politics with Marxism, to social life, to arranged marriage, all the way up to the sense, in the novel’s fictional present, that he might not have made the most of his life, as the world moves on around him and he is unable to quite keep up. With Neela Mary, the hierarchies and pecking orders of society, the ways in which they are reinforced and subverted, the confusion of women who have never been fully conditioned to professional ambition and yet never have an opportunity for marriage or partnership, because social mores stand in their way. And with Pushpa Rani and Bali Brums, the young, the hopeful, the way in which new technology has led to new employment and new optimism in urban India, even spaces where young people can engage in ways previously closed to them, while superstitions die hard and the burgeoning modernity is not of the European, individualistic, irreligious sort.

Churlish as it feels to level this criticism against such a finely written and imagined book, I have to say that, while I appreciated the craftsmanship that went into the telling of Srinivas Moorty’s story, I did not entirely see why it had to take up so much space. For, while Usha’s writing of college life is as nuanced as you could hope for, it is simply not compelling in the way that the rest of the book is compelling. It gives the reader a background, yes; but Srinivas, and his friends Geeta and Jairam, remain curiously concave throughout, gawky cyphers of youth. It is in the depiction of his marriage to Lily that Srinivas becomes a character to care about, not in that of his life before. Neela Mary and Pushpa Rani, on the other hand, are both strong, fascinating woman characters, and I do feel Usha would have done better to give them more time and space. Bali Brums, I have to say, was not a character I found myself drawn in by; somehow, he’s less sympathetic, less compelling than any of the others and that feeling doesn’t change by the end of the book. In sum, it does seem that Ushain this novel wrote her women far more confidently and fluently than her men—and perhaps that was an attempt to make a point.

That said, the strongest point of this novel, and Usha’s strongest point, is that she is genuinely interested in the journeys of each of her characters, men and women alike; as the words she uses to express Pushpa Rani’s thoughts say, “[E]veryone, she knew, had a story, a path down which they had walked, a journey that had formed them, that they were indistinguishable from.” This is a book to read for those stories. The new Bangalore, and urban India, has found in Usha a storyteller with a great capacity for compassion.

Edited because Harini pointed out that Bali Brums was missing from the first review I posted!

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Cover of 'The Miracle Game'Sitting down to respond to Josef Skvorecky’s The Miracle Game, less than twenty-four hours after I finished reading it, I already feel that I have to refer to notes. And I know even notes won’t help me to explain that elusive point, exactly what this book is about, because it’s a behemoth of a comic opera; any plot summary seems to leave out as much as it puts in.

The fact is, this isn’t precisely a book constructed around a severely methodical plot. It’s a tough read–and a completely engrossing one–because it takes as its fulcrum one person’s experience and memory, and then pivots and pirouettes around that with one scene and event after another, leaping backwards and forwards in time, changing circumstances every few pages, and encompassing a vast selection of characters. It is readable in the sense that, even though it’s a first-person narration, it’s in clear, crisp, grammatical prose and upholds basic principles of narration. But the ordering of events is, in fact, quite near to chaos, and all the better for that.

There is a point to this narrative chaos–it reflects and evokes quite effortlessly a feeling of being completely unable to ever come entirely to grips with reality and circumstances. Just when you think you’ve got it, it twists around on itself and sends you in another direction. Whether this actually works in the author’s favor is debatable, but it did, in my opinion, for the greater part. There were bits of the book we could have done quite well without, making it a rather more manageable read, but they’re there and not about to be removed.

Which is why, I find, no plot summary I’ve read, whether the synopsis on the book cover or the publisher’s blurbs on Amazon.com, can quite do justice to this labyrinth of a story. Still, one can try. The fulcrum of the book is Danny Smiricky, a first-person narrator who is a thinly disguised version of the author Skvorecky himself. In the late 1940s, in Bohemia, Danny wakes up with a start during a service in a tiny chapel to find that he, along with Vixi, his student and lover, and a congregation that has gone into hysterics, has just witnessed a strange event–the statue of St. Joseph has moved, either by some divine power, as the villagers and their priest believe, or by the power of some human contrivance, as the Secret Police judges. For this is Communist Czechoslovakia, and Catholicism isn’t looked upon kindly, leave alone miracles apparently engineered by Catholic saints. The priest is arrested and dies while being interrogated, and this is all kept silent as far as possible. But it doesn’t get completely covered up–some twenty years later, during the Prague Spring, a journalist tries to reopen investigation into exactly what happened there, and Danny discusses the miracle with him, until they finally get to the bottom of it.

That is, ostensibly, the plot. It would be more accurate to say that this book traces the events that led to Danny being in the chapel with Vixi when the miracle takes place; and further, that another thread can be drawn through the scenes of the Prague Spring and its end, when Danny observes the counter-revolutionary zeal and reactions to events in Czechoslovakia in various settings in Europe and parts of the U.S.A., which he is visiting on a Ford Foundation grant.

Yet none of this captures what the book is about. What it is about is different people living in a Communist state, some simply going from day to day and either actiuvely trying or spectacularly failing to stay out of the headlights of the Secret Police and those in power, while others, driven by ideology, use any means to justify its ends. But Skvorecky, whose first book this was after emigrating to Canada in the late 1960s, makes a chaos of it precisely because there is no other way for people in a police state to understand the world around them and how it can suddenly crack because the ideology from which power stems is suddenly redefined or reunderstood or seems to be disrupted by somebody’s actions or words.

So this is a book about something so very serious and grave–but it is also probably one of the funniest books I’ve read recently. To the point that I laughed aloud every few pages. Skvorecky’s narration drips generous quantities of irony, is cheerfully bawdy, and even throws in some slapstick for our entertainment–and satirizes the Party and its machinations even as it warily describes them.

It’s an uncompromising narrative eye that skewers everybody and leaves them wriggling as we observe them, though it is kinder to some than to others. With the Party, it is savage, angry, but with the anger of a surgeon who knows how to wield a scalpel without too much mess; with most other characters, teachers, students, writers, most often women, it mocks, but more gently. It achieves all this mostly through fast-moving conversation and debate, sometimes reported, sometimes direct speech–Skvorecky certainly has a ear for dialogue (though I was uncomfortable with the translator’s decision to render the dialect of the Czech peasant in pure American hillbilly) and knows just how to time his characters’ speech.

Skvorecky and his wife, early in their marriage
Skvorecky and his wife, writer and actress Zdena Salivarová, in the early years of their marriage

Skvorecky’s writing of a Soviet novelist, Arashidov, drunkenly telling Morris, a British author, the long and complicated way by which his translation of the latter’s book passed beyond all Party authorization and was made available to the public; a meeting of Maoists in California, horrifyingly blind to anything beyond the framework of the ideology they espouse; schoolgirls learning by rote a description of a subject for which the government has never provided textbooks, dragging that description out time after time during an oral exam, and then trying to first feed and then drug the examiner into submission; Danny attempting to flee Soviet tanks and ferry Sylva, his friend’s wife, two children, and a suitcase full of very sexy lingerie and birth control pills to safety in Paris; a small-town girl, dazzled by the glory of a city girl’s wardrobe, trying on one outfit after another in the steamy haze of a kitchen dotted with benevolently lecherous men… the memorable scenes in this book come in plenty, as do the brief anecdotes, little one-paragraph capsules of story that could be novels in themselves, strewn carelessly on the pages.

The prose turns lyrical and yearning at times, for instance, when Danny thinks about the cult of the Virgin Mary, when he traces his route through the U.S.A., and certainly, but certainly, when he expresses his desire for a woman. It did feel sometimes that Skvorecky had too many women in this book for Danny to lust after, but then again, the narrative does cover more than twenty years, which would equate to a lot of women for a single man. Yet he undercuts this lyricism sometimes, with the acknowledgment of how the passing of a moment is final, and a memory can sometimes reveal how simply ridiculous past earnestness was. Cynical, sometimes too clever by half, yet heartfelt, with a cynicism born of genuine disappointment and disillusionment–that’s The Miracle Game. And perhaps the only end to this story is that eventually, everything, absolutely everything, can be found to be at least, as Skvorecky and Danny see it,  not uplifting, but certainly comic.

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Cover of 'The Case of the Late Pig'Most of the novels that feature Margery Allingham’s detective, the mild-mannered, harmless-looking Albert Campion, feature him in the third person. This one departs most drastically from that custom; it is, I think, the only one of the Campion novels in which Campion himself is permitted to tell the story. And a fine, funny story it is too, because of his amused, tongue-in-cheek view of the mayhem around him; Allingham really should have given him the pen more often.

The plot centres on Campion in the village of Kepesake, where the much-disliked “Pig” Peters has been found dead, brained with a flower-pot pushed off the terrace of a country house. This is enough of a mystery for any detective, but Campion has something rather more complicated on his hands–he knows he’s been to Peters’ funeral five months previously, in which case, whose body is this one anyway? And what on earth does the strange anonymous letter that took Campion to Peters’ funeral mean?

Campion sails through the action with a voice that deftly treads a fine line between P. G. Wodehouse and all of the best proponents of the country house mystery, Allingham definitely among them, while the action and characters also hover between these two regions of literary imagination. There’s a lovelorn vicar, a slicked-down man of the City who’s also Campion’s junior at school, the deceased’s rather impulsive inamorata, whose pretence of familiarity with Campion manages to rub his own favourite girl in the story entirely the wrong way, and, of course, the stupendous, completely irrepressible Lugg, Campion’s “man,” who is (consciously, I think) presented as a contrast to Wodehouse’s impeccable Jeeves and, indeed, anyone’s idea of a butler or valet. Where we’re accustomed to Allingham’s dry wit and more literary prose, we have Campion’s sense of the absurd and a flippant, rather whimsical way of putting things. This is earlier “silly” Campion (as opposed to later Campion, who is a much more nuanced character) at his most charming. It works, and how. It may not be Allingham’s longest mystery—this can, at best, be called a novella—but it certainly is one of her most enjoyable.

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