Archive for February, 2010

February 28, 2010

Practically Marzipan: Books on a plane

I am amazed I managed to get through this without screaming about getting these motherfucking books off this motherfucking plane.

Anyway. An edited version of this appeared in the New Indian Express yesterday.

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Recently I read of a rumour (hopefully proved false by now) that passengers on flights bound for the US would not be allowed to carry anything on their laps during the last hour of the journey in order to prevent terrorism. Among the dangerous items banned from passengers’ laps were books.

Packing books for a journey is a complex and involved process. For one thing, there’s the time factor to be considered. How long is your trip, and how much time will you, realistically, have to read? If you’re like me, you will vastly over-estimate this and carry twice as many books as are actually required, but it’s good to have a figure to base things on.

There’s also the question of packing relevant reading. Until relatively recently, when I went on holiday I would try to carry books about the place I was visiting – historical fiction or crime thrillers or anything that would be familiar with the geography of the place. It took a few years for me to realize that this didn’t always work. Some places simply that interesting, and even when they are you still risk an informational overload that could leave you craving a bad romance novel. The situation is made worse for me because I’m actually a terrible packer, and far too prone to wanting to carry everything I might need – I have a pair of formal shoes that have traveled halfway across the world with me on the pretext that I might need them. They have never been worn. With books, my instinct is to fill my bags with related and unrelated literature, thus (in theory, at least) preparing myself for every eventuality.

At this point constraints of space and weight come into play. I know through long experience exactly how many trade paperbacks can be stuffed into a regular backpack – subtract four if the backpack also contains a laptop. Whether it is wise or healthy to carry a big bag of books on ones back is of course another matter entirely. But the alternative is to put the books in one’s checked-in baggage and airlines are unfairly harsh about those of us who wise to transport mini-libraries around with us. (I could, perhaps, just about avoid having to deal with airline baggage allowances if it wasn’t for the fact that I buy books compulsively when in other cities).

Once on a plane, the books you’ve carried with you become tremendously important. You don’t want to carry anything that will make you cry – I made two businessmen seated next to me quite uncomfortable once when I carried a particularly weepy book on a flight. Equally, you don’t want something that will make you laugh too much or cause the stewards to think you require medical assistance (P.G Wodehouse is not a valid excuse for disrupting a flight). And it must be absorbing enough to keep you absorbed, since if you glance away from the page you run the risk of being sucked into conversation with the guy next to you, who wishes to tell you all about his son in England who is well settled and unmarried and possessed of every virtue. Do not look away from the page. If books are a weapon in this case, they’re a defensive one.

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The book that made me cry and so disturbed those unfortunate men was Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, which I wrote about here. I think my most inspired choice of themed books was on a few days’ trip to Turkey, when I carried Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, and Teresa Tomlinson’s The Moon Riders (also a tear jerker, though).

February 24, 2010

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I mentioned a couple of days ago that I’d been reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin.

The Arameri derive their power from a group of captive (and resentful) gods. Yeine is summoned from the north by the Arameri grandfather who she has never met, who is the most powerful man in the world, and has just named her one of his possible heirs – a situation that is most likely to end in Yeine’s death. The palace is raised above the city of Sky, and all sorts of strange things that Yeine does not understand take place there: Gods are chained, heretics killed, ordinary citizens tortured to death. No one (including her grandfather) seems to like her, and she must learn to negotiate the intensely political atmosphere of the palace while saving her country and finding out what she can about her mother’s death and her own mysterious birth.

And most importantly there are the gods, particularly Nahadoth and Sieh with whom she feels a strange connection. As the story progresses she (and we) learn more about the gods; particularly the big three: Itempas, who Yeine has been taught to worship, Enefa, and Nahadoth himself.

Yeine’s voice is fascinating. The story is told in the first person, but the “I must try to remember” on the first page immediately makes you wonder if Jemisin’s playing with the concept of an unreliable narrator. She isn’t, exactly: what she is doing is far more interesting and I don’t wish to spoil it. But it requires a lot of jumping around of styles – the frequent shifts from Yeine’s ordinary voice to the less human, more mythical tone of a fabulist could easily have been disorienting. I think it’s very impressive that they’re not.

I also loved that Yeine really is shaped by her back story. She has grown up in a matriarchal warrior tribe where men are held in contempt and she has a particularly interesting relationship with some of her tribe’s own customs. She’s as ruthless (though less perverse) in her own way as her Arameri cousins. For much of the book she is aware that her own death is almost inevitable, but she deals with this knowledge – there’s much less a sense that she’s struggling to stay alive than that she’s trying to sort stuff out while she can.

I’d read a couple of Jemisin’s short stories and am a fan of her blog, and expected this book to contain lots of politics. I was right, but it was all a lot more nuanced than I expected (and my expectations were high). Power and how it works, relationships between nations, class, race and gender; these are all things that materially affect life in Sky.

But what raised The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms above most good sff, I think, were Jemisin’s gods. She gets the gods pitch perfect. Huge and eternal and worldchanging. There’s a very real sense of the vast periods of time involved in their history. (This is particularly true of Nahadoth, the first god, who spends aeons alone before his brother appears). And their story is unutterably sad – these beings are doomed to carry out this pain-filled (and love-filled) story for all of eternity because it’s fundamental to who they are. But being human is an important part of them as well – at one point Yeine characterises the entire story as merely “one family squabble pitted against another”.

This wonderful tension between big, eternal archetypes and the very human characters who have to carry them out reminded me a bit (because it’s a book I love and think about a lot) of Alan Garner’s The Owl Service.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not flawless. Things began to get blurry and rushed for me towards the end, and there are a couple of side plots where I felt I’d been promised more than was delivered – a case in point is the danger to Darr, which is never quite threatening enough for me. But this is still a fantastic book (even more amazing because it’s a debut) and I cannot recommend it enough.

February 24, 2010

YfL1: Gaudiloquence

Here is some news.

I have a new column. Every Monday (starting with the Monday just passed, the 22nd) I will be in the New Indian Express’ educational supplement, EdEx, talking about things related to the English language – such as dictionaries and swearing and the like. I’m (clearly) not an expert on any of this, but I love it anyway. The column will be called Yell for Language (see what I did there?) The Practically Marzipan column will hopefully continue uninterrupted.

(An edited version of the piece below appeared in EdEx on the 22nd of February)

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Gaudiloquent: Speaking joyfully or on joyful matters

A few years ago I was wandering around a natural history museum and was accosted in front of a display about bees by a man who was clearly a bee expert of some kind. I know nothing about bees, and don’t particularly care to learn, but it was the best thing that had happened to me all week. This man was utterly convinced as he spoke that bees were the most fascinating, joyful topic he could imagine, and I was convinced that other people’s enthusiasm was one of the nicest things in the world. We could all do with a little more gaudiloquence in our lives.

The subject upon which I am inclined to be gaudiloquent is the English language. There is such capacity for happiness in English – a language which contains words like “gaudiloquent” clearly expects the people who speak it to feel joy, or they’d have no occasion to use it.

Just leafing through dictionaries or coming across English words that have fallen into disuse can make me happy. A few months ago I “adopted” a few words of my own, vowing to use them in my day to day speech and bring them back into use. I’m particularly fond of “sinapistic”, an adjective that is used for something that consists of mustard, and that is just nasal enough to remind you of that feeling you get, when eating strong mustard, that something has shot up your nose. Then there’s “redamancy”, meaning an act of loving in return. It’s a gentle word, and one that could not simply be replaced with “love”; that the love is reciprocated is what gives redamancy its air of quiet confidence.

Then there are words that are easy to slip into conversation, like “roomthily” (pertaining to space), or “woundikins” (mild profanity), or “murklins” (in the dark). We don’t use these words much, and we could quite well get along without them, but why would we want to? I can well imagine myself describing someone as “vultuous” (having a sad or solemn expression), partaking of a “prandicle” (small meal) before bed, or complaining of the “austerulous” (somewhat or slightly brutal) nature of my gym instructor, all these commonplace statements somehow elevated by these wonderful words.

But perhaps the best of all the the words you can never imagine having reason to use. Like “ficulnean” (worthless information regarding fig-tree wood). Or “frutescent”, whose definition (having or approaching the appearance of a shrub) is singularly pointless, since surely if something looks like a shrub it probably is one. Then is there any real reason to fight to keep these words in the language? None, except perhaps that they contribute to the sum total of joy in the world. Which is really the best reason that there could possibly be.

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February 20, 2010

In which I come from the future

Reading N.K Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (about which more later, but it’s brilliant and you should read it) I was very pleased to find an extract from another book that is soon to be published by Orbit, Celine Kiernan’s The Poison Throne, at the back. I was also very amused, because the book was first published in Ireland a couple of years ago. I read it last summer (though I never reviewed it I did talk about one aspect of it here – beware spoilers) and talked a bit about its sequel, The Crowded Shadows, here. I’m really glad that Orbit are getting the book to a wider audience, and that it’s getting this publicity – it’s a book I genuinely like (and since I published that first blog post I’ve exchanged enough emails and blog comments with the author that I’m glad for her sake too). It’s just that, having spent most of my life in a country where most books and movies are released much later than the rest of the world, it’s a little bewildering to find people anticipating part one of a trilogy while I am desperately waiting for part three.

February 13, 2010

Practically Marzipan: Bad Romance

rah rah ah ah ah ro ma ro ma ma ga ga ooh la la…

Ahem. An edited version of the column below was published in today’s New Indian Express.

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Regular readers of this column are probably aware that I am well-disposed towards the romance novel. I will devour uncritically most historical romances, and I do not scorn the products of Messrs. Mills & Boon or Harlequin when accompanied by the right combination of tea and laziness.

Nor am I particularly against the romance movie genre. I like romantic comedies; I like films that are all romance and no comedy; I even like teen films and have a special fondness for the Makeover Movie. Nevertheless, on what is probably the most significant weekend of the year, romancewise, I feel the need to complain about them (thus proving that this column is Serious Cultural Critique). So here are some of the romance tropes that annoy me most:

  • Eyes Meet Across A Room: I said I liked makeover movies, though they rest upon the assumption that a romance can only really go ahead after the girl has shown herself to be capable of beauty (and every virtuous heroine is secretly gorgeous). Nonetheless, at least in those stories the couple are forced to get to know each other before they fall in love. Whereas all this love at first sight rubbish requires is that one partner be superlatively attractive. For the majority of us who have had to charm our partners through conversation, this can all be rather dispiriting.
  • The Hero Learns An Important Lesson: This trope works in Pride and Prejudice. Mr. Darcy has actual, cultural reasons for thinking so highly of himself, and he does learn (we’re told) to laugh at himself. But Austen was writing at the end of the 1700s. Why, then, do I keep reading romances where the male romantic lead consistently underestimates the female because she is female before finally learning to respect her? Occasionally this is masked in terms of career – the (male) businessman dismissing the (female) baker/designer because after all, how hard could it be? Of course by the end of the book they generally do learn some respect, and it’s nice that they’ve reformed. But why bother with such a man in the first place? I’m not sure what Elizabeth Bennet’s choices were, but I live in a world where there are a number of good men. Why go to all the trouble of reforming the arrogant ones?
  • Sex Is Suddenly Really Good: You find the man of your dreams and sex suddenly goes from being awkward and bumpy and comical to transcendent and earth shattering. Even leaving aside the question of whether this is even desirable (surely sex with no sense of humour would get boring?), this is a bit off. Sure, sex with someone you Truly Love adds a new and excellent dimension, but was it really that bad before? I feel like they’re trying to confer upon the heroine a sort of virginity: sure she’s (in the interests of modernity) had sex before, but at least she didn’t enjoy it.
  • All Romance is Heterosexual: You could apply most of the traditional romance plot (barring the sex) to most buddy movies – thus the“Bromance” genre. I’m sorry; if you don’t think Star Trek is about the epic romance of Kirk and Spock, you simply haven’t been paying attention.

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February 10, 2010

"There are so many funny videos"

“…but why we laugh at them nobody knows”

It seems redundant to share a video asking you to check my blog…on my blog, but I have just realised that many people (otherwise well-informed in most areas of popular culture) still have not encountered the genius that is Wilbur Sargunaraj. And this must obviously be put right.

February 8, 2010

Unrelated quotes

Louis de Bernières on Ataturk:

I learned that you couldn’t satirise him because he wasn’t remotely ridiculous … He was the only dictator in the history of the world who wanted his country to get smaller. He’s also the only dictator in the world who set up his own opposition party, and when it didn’t oppose him effectively, he abolished it and established another.

Elif Batuman on writing and criticism:

The premium on conciseness and concreteness made proper names a great value—so they came flying at you as if out of a tennis-ball machine: Julia, Juliet, Viola, Violet, Rusty, Lefty, Carl, Carla, Carleton, Mamie, Sharee, Sharon, Rose of Sharon (a Native American), Hassan. Each name betrayed a secret calculation, a weighing of plausibility against precision: On the one hand, the cat called King Spanky; on the other, the cat called Cat. In either case, the result somehow seemed false, contrived—unlike Tolstoy’s double Alexeis, and unlike Chekhov’s characters, many of whom didn’t have names at all. In “Lady With Lapdog,” Gurov’s wife, Anna’s husband, Gurov’s crony at the club, even the lapdog, are all nameless. No contemporary American short-story writer would have had the stamina not to name that lapdog. They were too caught up in trying to bootstrap from a proper name to a meaningful individual essence—like the “compassionate” TV doctor who informs her colleagues: “She has a name.

But names don’t work that way. As Derrida once wrote, the singularity of the proper name is inextricable from its generality: It always has to be possible for one thing to be named after any other named thing, and for different people, like the characters in Anna Karenina, to be called by the same name. The basic tension of the name is that it simultaneously does and does not designate the unique individual. As someone who likes to keep to a minimum her visits to Planet Derrida—that land where all seemingly secondary phenomena are actually primary, and anything you can think of doing is an act of violence, practically by virtue of your having thought about it using some words that were also known to Aristotle—I nonetheless felt that Derrida had been right about names. More important, he had really thought about names, about how special they are, so that, even if Of Grammatology was more painful to read than the Best American Short Stories, still it belonged to a discourse that tried to say something about what things mean.

February 6, 2010

Contains Language

Seen in a restaurant in Pune.
February 2, 2010

January Reading (III)

This is the last post in this set – a lot of the books I’ve read this month are pretty short, and reasonably light to get through. I highly doubt I’ll be consuming anything like this much for the rest of this year.

Nirupama Subramanian – Keep The Change: Light and funny and very readable. Keep The Change is about a nice TamBrahm girl who gets into a rut, moves from Madras to Bombay, and deals with things like a corporate career and finding love. The cultural stereotyping-as-humour gets tiring at times (and you feel like the author never quite manages to get away from it, even when she’s trying to undermine it a bit towards the end) but it’s still a really enjoyable book.

Elsie J. Oxenham – A Dancer From the Abbey/ The Song of the Abbey: Girls’ Own literature is one of my comfort reads, and though the Abbey series (which tend to be categorised as school stories, even though most of them have nothing to do with a school) is nowhere near as good as some of the other writing within the genre, it’s a satisfyingly long series, which is obviously what one wants – I still haven’t read the whole series yet. These particular books were pretty disappointing; they are some of the last in the series, and as far as I can tell the author is in a tearing hurry to marry off any adult female characters (bar the writers, for some reason) who might still be unattached. Both books follow pretty much the same pattern: nice young man with some sort of connection to the Abbey people returns from Africa to England, meets a member of the group around the Abbey, and is engaged to her by the end of the book. The book following these two, Two Queens at the Abbey (last book in the series) apparently has the same thing happen again. In future if I do choose to reread the Abbey books I think I’ll try harder to ensure that the ones I pick aren’t functionally identical.

Angela Carter - The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History: I had only ever read sections of this book before, and it is rather good. Of more significance to me, though, is that I was reading Carter critically for what may have been the first time, as opposed to reading her with fangirlish glee. This is new, and welcome, though I will continue to fangirl her whenever I want to.

H.G Wells – The Time Machine: Read as a companion piece of sorts to the awful Jaclyn the Ripper book I mentioned here. I hadn’t read the book in years, and it was actually a lot better than I remembered it being (and I remembered it being pretty good). Even with such distractions as this.

Daisy Ashford – The Young Visiters (sic): The situation as I understand it: Nine year old Daisy Ashford writes a book; possibly quite good for a nine-year-old. In 1919, when Ashford is in her late thirties, it is published with a preface by J.M Barrie with the original typos because that’s just so cute. Except it’s mostly not cute, but annoying. Still, it does contain this lyrical tribute to bathrooms everywhere:

Then Mr Salteena got into a mouve dressing goun with yellaw tassles and siezing his soap he wandered off to the bath room which was most sumpshous. It had a lovly white shiny bath and sparkling taps and several towels arrayed in readiness by thourghtful Horace. It also had a step for climbing up the bath and other good dodges of a rich nature. Mr Salteena washed himself well and felt very much better.

For which I am willing to forgive it much.

P.G Wodehouse – The Mating Season: This is not one of my favourites, but it is a Wodehouse book and therefore deserving of my love. Bertie impersonates Gussie Fink-Nottle and Gussie impersonates Bertie (here I should say something clever about the instability of identity in Plum’s works, but it all seems meaningless when you’re talking about an author who in Piccadilly Jim has a character impersonating himself). Multiple engagements are broken and re-forged in various combinations, and there is random abuse of the constabulary and everything turns out well in the end.

Philip Reeve – Fever Crumb: This book really deserves a post to itself, and will probably get one in the next day or two. For now though – it’s really good, though not quite as visceral as I recall A Darkling Plain being(which is rather an unfair comparison), and I definitely think it’s best read after the Mortal Engines series, though it comes before them chronologically. And it’s such a beautiful object, the hardback is solid and lovely and looks like it is made of wood. Definitely worth it.

So what are you reading?

February 1, 2010

Practically Marzipan: In which I meditate upon the end of the world

(An edited version of this appeared in the New Indian Express on the 30th of January.)

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Recently someone I know, on being handed a foil-wrapped product*, discovered that the date of expiry printed on it was the year 2012. Uncontrollable giggling ensued. Since then, I have checked the expiration dates of every perishable good that has come my way. An alarming number of them seem to forsee 2012 as the year of their demise. 2012 is, of course, the year the world is expected to end, or at least change drastically, according to a much-debated prediction in an ancient Mayan calendar.

This is not, of course, the first time the world has been scheduled to end. The 1000AD, 1666AD and 1843AD apocalypses all failed to take place. 1999 saw the release of that dreadful Arnold Schwarzneggar film, End of Days, and also Y2K hysteria. I was fourteen years old when 1999 turned into 2000 and I remember being terribly disappointed that nothing had happened. I had gotten all dressed up for a party that turned out to be a dead bore, the world as we knew it had not ended, and our computer still functioned no less efficiently than it had the week before.

If 2012 is not our collective expiration date we still don’t have long to wait. Various relatives of mine have been complaining for years that we are in the Kalyug and surely it has to end some time. Isaac Newton apparently used the Bible to calculate that the world would end in 2060, giving us an extra half-century should the Mayans be proved to have gotten it wrong. I am support of this particular date: in 2060 I hope to be a venerable old lady with a colourful past – it seems to me that that is the perfect time of life in which to enjoy an apocalypse. I am glad that the apocalypse seems set to occur during my lifetime. It would be a pity to miss such a major event.

But it is looking more and more likely that 2012 is the year. Over the last few years there have been a number of signs and portents to indicate that we were coming to the end of all things. Reality TV. The gradual decline of Liverpool Football Club. The monstrous regiment of women who were behind the pink chaddi campaign. At the beginning of this year Dubai’s Burj Khalifa was opened – the world’s tallest building (if the Tower of Babel story from the Bible were not warning enough).Most damningly there are both global warming and the extreme cold wave sweeping across Europe this winter.

If the world is to end in a couple of years (and by now I have convinced myself that this is unavoidable) I’d like it to be dramatic. None of this anticlimactic Y2K nonsense. I expect, at the very least, a universal deluge, celestial bodies being swallowed up, and if possible some rampaging ice giants. I have enough faith in humanity to believe that we’ll go out with a bang, not a whimper – could the race responsible for Rakhi ka Swayamvar really settle for less?

* Read “condom”. I’m never quite sure how far I’m supposed to self-censor in these columns, and I tend to go overboard.

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Have you been noticing any portents of doom recently? Mention in comments, please, I know I’ve left lots out.