Archive for April, 2010

April 29, 2010

April Reading (I)

I’ll be out of town for the weekend and swamped with work for a few days after that, so here in advance is the first bit of my monthly post on books I’ve been reading. Luckily I’ve written about quite a few of these already so links are all that is really needed.

H.G Wells – The First Men in the Moon: I am planning to read (and in some cases reread) all of Wells over the next year or so, because I think I have neglected him. And also because I have obtained some very pretty editions of his books. For this book (which I wrote about here) I read the Penguin Classics edition with an introduction by China Mieville.

Edgar Allan Poe – The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket: I wrote about this here. I loved it; it was shrieky, ludicruous, surprisingly creepy goodness. I’ll soon be reading the Verne book that riffs off it (many thanks to Fëanor for pointing it out to me).

Gail Carriger – Soulless and Changeless: I read and enjoyed Soulless last year, and thought it would be fun to reread it before Changeless came out. It was still good the second time around, and Changeless turned out to be even better.

Paolo Bacigalupi – The Windup Girl: I thought this was excellent. I could have wished the publishers (or the author) had not gone and italicised every Thai word, but well. It was engaging and impressive. I’m just not sure how much I liked it. Jonathan M. has a good review of it here.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The Thing Around Your Neck: I read this at the beginning of the month and really should have written about it then, when it was still fresh in my mind. It’s too late now, but wow. This is a wonderful collection. It’s thoughtful and restrained and feminist and African and occasionally gutwrenching. I’m reading everything this woman has ever written.

Paul Jessup – Glass Coffin Girls: I reviewed this here. It’s a collection I’ll be returning to often, I hope. It’s dark and rich and gives you so much to think with. Delicious.

Kyla Pasha – High Noon and the Body: I wish I knew enough about poetry to talk about this collection as it deserves to be talked about. I’ve been dipping in and out of it since February and have consisently been blown away. Lovely, lovely book.

Syed Muhammad Ashraf - Numberdar Ka Neela (translated as The Beast by Musharraf Ali Farooqi): Tranquebar are doing these nice little short story/novella editions of Indian fiction, and I thought this one looked good. I was particularly drawn to it because Musharraf Ali Farooqi is a fine translator and did such a wonderful job on the Hamzanama and Tilism-e Hoshruba. The Beast is a satire of sorts about a power hungry zamindar who trains a violent bull to protect his interests. It’s a frequently comical, frequently angry murder mystery, that has lots of things to say about the nature of power. It’s also an incredibly nuanced piece of writing. I hope to return to it and write on it at length, but until then read Roswitha on the text.

The rest of my reading for this month will follow, including whatever I read on the plane tomorrow.

April 29, 2010

Delhi Noir

Edited version of a shortish review that appeared in the New Indian Express (here) a few days ago:

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For the past few years, Akashic Books have been publishing anthologies of noir writing set in various cities across the world. The selection is diverse and fascinating, with such unusual settings as Trinidad, Istanbul, Richmond and Havana.

Published by Harper Collins in India, Delhi Noir is edited by Hirsh Sawhney, and it is an intriguing collection of short fiction set in the capital city, populated by a diverse cast of characters. Irwin Allen Sealy’s “Last In, First Out”, the story of a vigilante auto-rickshaw driver named Baba Ganoush, is one of the best things about the collection. Baba Ganoush is that classic character of the genre; the decent guy whose attempts to do good are thwarted by an immoral system. In this he has a lot in common with the narrator of Omair Ahmad’s “Yesterday Man”, a private detective investigating a case with links to the 1984 riots. Likewise, Hartosh Singh Bal’s excellent “Just Another Death” features a well-meaning journalist trying to uncover the real story behind a mysterious death in the fact of a number of extremely successful attempts to conceal the truth.

“Hissing Cobras” by Nalinaksha Bhattacharya is a classic, hardboiled story about a policeman who blackmails and rapes a young housewife, while Mohan Sikka’s “Railway Aunty” has an older woman manipulating a young man into performing sexual favours, first for her and then for an increasing network of her acquaintances.

Radhika Jha’s “How I Lost My Clothes” stands out in this collection. It is the bleakly funny tale of a man who finds himself unexpectedly naked and travels through the city attempting to remedy this. “How I Lost My Clothes” straddles the border between the realistic and the bizarre. Jha is not the only writer to introduce elements of non-realistic fiction. The title character of Ahmad’s “Yesterday Man” might easily have popped straight out of a magical realist novel. And though Uday Prakash’s wonderful “The Walls of Delhi”, translated by Jason Grunebaum, at first appears a solid, traditional story of a man tempted by money into making a bad decision, a subtle twist at the end makes one wonder if this story too might fall into that category.

Manjula Padmanabhan’s “Cull”, on the other hand, is outrightly Science Fiction. Set in a dystopic future Delhi where every aspect of human life is regulated, this is the story of a group of stubborn members of the underclass who refuse to be wiped out.

The collection does have its weaker points. Siddharth Chowdhury’s “Hostel” feels incomplete and is too clearly extracted from a larger work. It suffers further from being placed right after Mohan Sikka’s stronger piece. Ruchir Joshi’s “Parking”, set an upper-class South Delhi neighbourhood, is a good story but it’s not really “noir” enough. It and Padmanabhan’s story both fit uncomfortably in this collection. Indeed, the placing of Padmanabhan’s story at the end of the collection rather gives the idea that the editor wasn’t sure what to do with it.

It is also a bit unfortunate that Uday Prakash’s story should be the only translated piece in a collection of fourteen stories.

On the whole, however, Delhi Noir is a good collection which brings to light a few real treasures. I will be seeking out more work by writers like Prakash, Jha and Sikka. Akashic have plans to publish a Mumbai Noir collection in the near future, but it will have a hard time beating the Delhi edition.

April 27, 2010

YfL10: Some flatulence

I’ve been lazy about posting either of my columns here for the last couple of weeks, but here is yesterday’s Yell For Language column. It is about farting.

(An edited version of this was published in the New Indian Express educational supplement, EdEx, on Monday)

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Petard: A small bell-shaped bomb used to breach a gate or wall.

I have been reading the expression “hoist by his/her own petard” in books for as long as I can remember. In context, it’s a simple enough expression to understand – it merely signifies that someone has become the victim of his own plot; that his plan has backfired upon him. Because it was so easy to make sense of it at first, and in time, I suppose, because I was so used to seeing it, it had never occurred to me to wonder what the word “petard” meant. I assumed (the presence of “hoist” made me think it had something to do with rope) that a petard might be some sort of jungle trap; the kind where you carelessly put your foot into a loop of rope and suddenly find yourself hanging upside down from the branch of a tree.

Recently though, I was reading an old children’s book (I forget which) in which a child asks what the expression means, and all the adults around her burst out laughing and tell her that it is an expression she should not repeat. This was intriguing, so I resolved to find out what was so shocking about the expression or the word.

“Petard”, it seems, comes from a medieval French word, “peter” (pronounced the French way, not as Spiderman’s real name). “Petards” were explosives used in the sixteenth century to blow up walls or huge gates. To be “hoist” by one’s own petard would, therefore, mean that one had been thrown by the bomb that one had set. This is all very satisfactory and not scandalous at all.

Nowadays, however, the word in French means “firecracker”. It will be noted that the one thing bombs and firecrackers have in common is that you light them and they explode. Does “peter”, then, mean “explode”? Close enough, but not quite – it turns out it means “to break wind”. Flatulence. Farting.

Perhaps this is what the adults in the book I referred to meant when they declared the expression unfit for children’s ears. I can find no other undesirable connotations of the word. But what really delights me about this discovery is that the expression “hoist by his own petard” takes on a new and glorious meaning.

In Roald Dahl’s The BFG (a children’s book whose name I do remember), the big friendly giant of the title shuns regular fizzy drinks for a special variety in which the bubbles move downwards instead of upwards. This saves him the embarrassment of burping, but it does lead to the gas in the drinks being otherwise expelled. As a result he spends a great deal of time flying happily about, propelled by the force of his own flatulence. Clearly Dahl did not think intestinal gas an unfit subject for children’s ears.

I end this with the revelation that the Greek “peter” (Spiderman pronunciation appropriate here) means “stone”, which is presumably the material from which the sixteenth century walls blown up by petards were made. Language is strange.

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April 25, 2010

Glass Coffin Girls (and the boys who know them)

Paul Jessup’s Glass Coffin Girls is a collection of eight surreal short stories (with an introduction by Jeff Vandermeer). I’d had this for a while and finally decided to read it last week. I’m glad I did; Jessup is an intriguing writer.

“Secret in the House of Smiles” is the first story in this collection, about a man who cuts bits of women out of magazine pictures in an effort to piece them together into an image of the perfect woman. It’s also about his vampire hunting friend. It’s a good story intellectually, but the point at which it really grabbed me was when the two main characters are walking through a forest being followed by a vampire who until now has seemed not much of a threat. This is nightmare logic (at least the logic of my nightmares), and it’s real, and it works.

“Glass Coffin Girls” has at its centre a story that is more domestic drama than anything else – a rather weak male protagonist caught between two women with stronger personalities than his own. But it’s also full of fairytale elements; glass coffins, giant walking dogs, birds caged and otherwise, all made weird.

My two favourite stories in the collection have some similarities. The protagonists of “Stone Dogs” and “Red Hairs” start their respective stories in schools where they don’t quite fit in. Both stories also contain mysterious foxes. “Stone Dogs” is wonderful. A school is snowed in and all the students are trapped inside. Books are weirdly powerful, everyone is having sex, and a purple haired boy (part anime character, part fox) arrives to warn our narrator that the world is ending. It’s hard to explain just how awesome this story is – there is fantasy fandom, there is teenage angst, there is anime, there is an apocalypse. There are ice giants.

“Red Hairs” is rather less straightforward and I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it. The early sections reminded me a little of a very different sort of writer, Laini Taylor’s “Goblin Fruit”.* It’s fascinating to see that Jessup’s writing can also be very sensual – my experience of this story is wholly tied up in colour and smell. It has a warm, autumnal feel to it, and it’s accompanied by the smell of ink which Jessup accurately describes within the story. This is of course a very personal reaction, and I don’t know if it would work this way to another reader, but I hadn’t realised that this kind of writing could evoke this mood.

I was equally unsure of what to make of “The Drinking Moon”, though in a less pleasant way. I suspect I’m simply not the sort of reader this is for – it felt like weirdness piled upon weirdness with nothing else to it, and it simply did not work for me. I didn’t particularly dislike it, but I didn’t get anything out of it either. “Wire Rabbit” was interesting for the shift in language, and “Jars of Rain” probably requires a whole post to itself. I still don’t know how much I like it as a story, but I’m fascinated by how much is going on in it and how much one could do with it.

“It Tasted Like The Sea” is the last story in the collection. It balances things out quite nicely – where the first story had a man cutting up magazine pictures of women, this has a character who cuts up real women to turn their dismembered limbs into art. (Similarly, “Stone Dogs” and “Red Hairs” are the third stories from the beginning and end respectively). Again, this story draws on the language of fairytales, particularly the Bluebeard myth. It also draws on some of the themes of the previous story: mermaids and dismemberment among them. It’s the strangest story in the book, and the most horrifying.

This is a collection of stories about women, but the men, and their attitudes to the women, are one of the most interesting things it explores. There are a number of connections between the men of different stories, and I think I’m going to be going back to this again and thinking about it more.

Glass Coffin Girls is not all brilliant, but it’s fascinating enough to keep you thinking and wanting to write. It’s an impressive collection on the whole, with a few moments of pure joy.

[For the sake of transparency: I received an advance eARC from PS Publishing. Also, I've talked to the author a bit over twitter since I started reading]

*In the comments here, the author says that this collection has received some good reviews among readers of paranormal romance. That would fit.

April 20, 2010

"Every species of calamity and horror befell me"

…or, The Trials of Arthur Gordon Pym
[There are spoilers, if you care about that sort of thing]

I don’t actually remember reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. I always assumed I had in my extreme youth because I remembered the basic plot and it isn’t one of those books that is so embedded in culture that everyone knows the plot just by existing. But surely I’d have remembered reading something this odd?

It’s tempting to sneer a bit at this book for being so ridiculously over the top. There’s a quality of breathless “and then, and then, and then!” about it – there was a mutiny! And then we were shipwrecked! and there were ghosts! And we had to eat a crew member! Then we were attacked by sharks! Yet this works – this is a story posing as a travel journal and if this were supposed to be a realistic narrative (it’s not) it would be a bit strange to have it carefully plotted. As a horror (? travel? fantasy? shipwreck? angry natives, run away!?) story it works even better – the eerie, bizarre incidents build up one on top of the other and by sustaining a level of hysteria throughout the book promise a spectacular climax.

I was struck by how genuinely weird the book is. Towards the beginning, when Arthur stows away aboard the ship, his friend Augustus has made careful arrangements to conceal him until they’re safely away at sea. He is to be hidden down a secret passage (on a ship!) in a box:

The taper gave out so feeble a ray that it was with the greatest difficulty I could grope my way through the confused mass of lumber among which I now found myself. By degrees, however, my eyes became accustomed to the gloom, and I proceeded with less trouble, holding on to the skirts of my friend’s coat. He brought me, at length, after creeping and winding through innumerable narrow passages, to an iron-bound box, such as is used sometimes for packing fine earthenware. It was nearly four feet high, and full six long, but very narrow. Two large empty oil-casks lay on the top of it, and above these, again, a vast quantity of straw matting, piled up as high as the floor of the cabin. In every other direction around was wedged as closely as possible, even up to the ceiling, a complete chaos of almost every species of ship-furniture, together with a heterogeneous medley of crates, hampers, barrels, and bales, so that it seemed a matter no less than miraculous that we had discovered any passage at all to the box. I afterward found that Augustus had purposely arranged the stowage in this hold with a view to affording me a thorough concealment, having had only one assistant in the labour, a man not going out in the brig.

My companion now showed me that one of the ends of the box could be removed at pleasure. He slipped it aside and displayed the interior, at which I was excessively amused. A mattress from one of the cabin berths covered the whole of its bottom, and it contained almost every article of mere comfort which could be crowded into so small a space, allowing me, at the same time, sufficient room for my accommodation, either in a sitting position or lying at full length.

Pym shows absolutely no surprise at the notion that he is to encoffin himself and sit around in the dark for a few days; it is treated as an entirely routine part of stowing away. He obligingly goes off into a delirious dream for a few days. He wakes up days later to rotten meat, a dog who is behaving strangely , and the discovery that the ship has been taken over.

But it’s the delirious dream part that I find interesting – for someone who has just recently shown such willingness to bury himself prematurely (a chapter or so later Pym finds himself impersonating a corpse again) Pym seems to be suffering quite the breakdown.

While occupied with this thought, however, I fell in spite of every exertion to the contrary, into a state of profound sleep, or rather stupor. My dreams were of the most terrific description. Every species of calamity and horror befell me. Among other miseries I was smothered to death between huge pillows, by demons of the most ghastly and ferocious aspect. Immense serpents held me in their embrace, and looked earnestly in my face with their fearfully shining eyes. Then deserts, limitless, and of the most forlorn and awe-inspiring character, spread themselves out before me. Immensely tall trunks of trees, gray and leafless, rose up in endless succession as far as the eye could reach. Their roots were concealed in wide-spreading morasses, whose dreary water lay intensely black, still, and altogether terrible, beneath. And the strange trees seemed endowed with a human vitality, and waving to and fro their skeleton arms, were crying to the silent waters for mercy, in the shrill and piercing accents of the most acute agony and despair. The scene changed; and I stood, naked and alone, amidst the burning sand-plains of Sahara. At my feet lay crouched a fierce lion of the tropics. Suddenly his wild eyes opened and fell upon me. With a conculsive bound he sprang to his feet, and laid bare his horrible teeth. In another instant there burst from his red throat a roar like the thunder of the firmament, and I fell impetuously to the earth. Stifling in a paroxysm of terror, I at last found myself partially awake.

It strikes me as I write this that the characters all spend a good deal of their time not in their senses. There’s a drunken boating expedition in the first chapter that nearly causes Pym and Augustus their lives; there’s a lot section during which they and Dirk Peters are crazed with hunger (which happens to be when they see the alleged ghost ship), and the last section of the book, as they sail closer to the south pole, has a definite dream like quality to it.

And that’s how the terror element works as well. The shriekiness of the beginning (which is also the section where things like rotting flesh and cannibalism form the major part of the horror) gradually slips into this muted fear that is far more effective. When the southern barbarians kill most of the crew towards the end of the book, it’s a relatively bloodless mass murder that involves getting a cliff to fall on top of them (the earlier chapters would have included some dismemberment at the very least). The final sections of the book have the narrator and two of his companions sailing south into the unknown. At the very end Pym sees “a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow” and the narrative ends abruptly, with nothing more than a note in the frame narrative to tell us that the next few chapters are missing, that Pym is dead, that companion Dirk is alive. The climax we were promised turns out to be not knowing.

Arthur Gordon Pym is bizarre – it has elements of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, Lovecraft, and the pirate comic in Watchmen, and I haven’t said half of what I want to say about it here. I’m surprised it hasn’t been referenced more in later literature – and if anyone reading this can think of instances where it has, let me know?

April 14, 2010

"Uless"

(Every post should start with a Kate Beaton comic)

Reading H.G Wells’ The First Men in the Moon I found myself preoccupied with the number of things about it that reminded me (mostly superficially) of later works. For example, in my head the Selenites look very much like the Bones, even though Wells tells us their bodies are insectoid.

They also look a lot like the underground dwelling gnome creatures from the land of Bism in C.S Lewis’ The Silver Chair. Lewis was worryingly present during my reading of this book (he has been far too present on this blog recently) – his Out of the Silent Planet is strongly influenced by The First Men in the Moon. Except that Lewis’ scientist is a rather scary imperialist and his religious man of letters is lovely and fits right in. Wells is a little more interesting with regard to his two major characters.

[Spoiler warning, but this thing has been out for more than a century]
The story: an out of work banker ruralises and considers becoming a playwright. He meets a scientist who lives in the area and is working on inventing a material that resists gravity. Alive to the commercial possibilities the banker (Bedford) gets involved. When Cavor, the scientist, invents the material, they travel to the moon where they lose their spaceship and anger some natives (by killing them). They also consume some magic mushrooms. Bedford finds the spaceship, loses Cavor, and flees to Earth taking with him lots of moon gold. Due to a Victorian equivalent of Balloon Boy the ship is lost (so is the child) and Bedford cannot return. Luckily he still has all that gold.
However, a scientist then begins to pick up radio signals from the moon which are from Cavor updating us on his life, the Selenites, and what he has learnt about them. Eventually he comes to a realisation that everything he has told them about Earth and war and colonialism (and the fact that he’s the only one who knows how to make Cavorite, the anti-gravity substance) means that they would be wise to kill him. So they do, and that is the end.

The science is off, as Verne would complain, but that is clearly not the point. Because this is a fascinating portrayal of men from Earth encountering new land. When he first realises the possibility of space exploration, Bedford is ecstatic.

My imagination was picking itself up again. “After all,” I said, “there’s something in these things. There’s travel–”

An extraordinary possibility came rushing into my mind. Suddenly I saw, as in a vision, the whole solar system threaded with Cavorite liners and spheres deluxe. “Rights of pre-emption,” came floating into my head–planetary rights of pre-emption. I recalled the old Spanish monopoly in American gold. It wasn’t as though it was just this planet or that–it was all of them. I stared at Cavor’s rubicund face, and suddenly my imagination was leaping and dancing. I stood up, I walked
up and down; my tongue was unloosened.

“I’m beginning to take it in,” I said; “I’m beginning to take it in.” The transition from doubt to enthusiasm seemed to take scarcely any time at all. “But this is tremendous!” I cried. “This is Imperial! I haven’t been dreaming of this sort of thing.”

Once the chill of my opposition was removed, his own pent-up excitement had play. He too got up and paced. He too gesticulated and shouted. We behaved like men inspired. We were men inspired.

The Moon, it seems, has plenty of gold. Bedford is ecstatic.

Cavor is not treated particularly well either. He doesn’t form a nice, unworldly contrast to Bedford and his grabby hands – he is callous (that the men who he employs in his research all die because of the cavorite is something he ignores), he never really shows much excitement at anything but science. When he receives his chance to be the narrator in the final chapters of the book, he comes across as quite as unpleasant as his companion. Bedford may think that writing a play needs only a couple of weeks, and he may think killing aliens and stealing their stuff is decent human behaviour – he’s worldly, but he’s also of this world, and human. He has probably read Shakespeare. He’s too much of a philistine to bring any reading matter on his trip, but then he reads the cheap magazines he picks up at the last minute to remind himself that people exist. He’s the one who can communicate – I don’t think it’s an accident that Cavor’s narrative, when it comes, is broken and full of static, or that it breaks down mid-sentence into the nonsense word “uless” that probably means “useless”.

And Bedford has genuine moments of enthusiasm and seeing (or I could be reading too much into this – he’s the narrator for most of the novel, so if Wells wanted to draw attention to something exciting he had few other options). But you have bits like this as a result:

I turned about, and behold! along the upper edge of a rock to the eastward a similar fringe in a scarcely less forward condition swayed and bent, dark against the blinding glare of the sun. And beyond this fringe was the silhouette of a plant mass, branching clumsily like a cactus, and swelling
visibly, swelling like a bladder that fills with air.

Then to the westward also I discovered that another such distended form was rising over the scrub. But here the light fell upon its sleek sides, and I could see that its colour was a vivid orange hue. It rose as one watched it; if one looked away from it for a minute and then back, its outline had changed; it thrust out blunt congested branches until in a little time it rose a coralline shape of many feet in height. Compared with such a growth the terrestrial puff-ball, which will sometimes swell a
foot in diameter in a single night, would be a hopeless laggard. But then the puff-ball grows against a gravitational pull six times that of the moon. Beyond, out of gullies and flats that had been hidden from us, but not from the quickening sun, over reefs and banks of shining rock, a bristling beard of spiky and fleshy vegetation was straining into view, hurrying tumultuously to take advantage of the brief day in which it must flower and fruit and seed again and die. It was like a miracle, that growth. So, one must imagine, the trees and plants arose at the Creation and covered the desolation of the new-made earth.

Imagine it! Imagine that dawn! The resurrection of the frozen air, the stirring and quickening of the soil, and then this silent uprising of vegetation, this unearthly ascent of fleshiness and spikes. Conceive it all lit by a blaze that would make the intensest sunlight of earth seem watery and weak. And still around this stirring jungle, wherever there was shadow, lingered banks of bluish snow. And to have the picture of our impression complete, you must bear in mind that we saw it all through a thick bent glass, distorting it as things are distorted by a lens, acute only in the centre of the picture, and very bright there, and towards the edges magnified and unreal.

April 13, 2010

Changeless

[Spoiler warning: if you haven’t read Soulless and don’t want the plot given away you might want to not read this post. Go and buy Soulless instead – it’s really good.]

Gail Carriger’s Soulless was an excellent first novel – hilarious fluff with moments of actual creepiness. One of its biggest strengths, for me, was how familiar it felt; the tropes being referred to are recognisable, are lovingly retraced and parodied, and the result was still incredibly fresh. It was as if Carriger and I had similar bookshelves and that is the sort of thing that makes you feel safe.

Changeless is a completely different sort of book, and I suspect it’s a better one.

Changeless begins with Alexia (now Lady Woolsey) finding out about a mysterious affliction affecting all the supernatural beings in the city. In her new post as muhjah to the queen, Alexia tracks the source of this malady to Scotland; upon which journey she is accompanied by her sister (catty), her best friend (featherheaded, in love, and devoid of fashion sense), her husband’s valet (actor with odd taste in women) and a French milliner/inventor/genius (delicious, and possibly trying to kill her). It’s all most inconvenient, and someone tries to throw her overboard, and her wonderful new parasol won’t open when it rains, and then she has to sort out the messy family affairs of her husband’s pack who have recently returned from Egypt…

Carriger really plays up the steampunk element in this book, with the dirigible (mentioned and depicted on the cover) and the aethographors and Madame Lefoux’s tech-geekery.

So Changeless is funny and silly and geekful. But it also feels to me to be a lot more substantial than Soulless.From a couple of things I’ve read, I’ve gotten the impression that Carriger’s conception of these books is deeply rooted in the history and the structure of the British Empire. With this book (and possibly because of Alexia’s new political role within the plot) you get a much wider sense of the existence of the empire, which made the fictional universe a lot stronger for me. I suspect that with the next book we’ll see even more of this. I loved the inclusion of Egypt in the plot – Victorian England’s* relationship with Egypt is something that fascinates me and it’s always fun to see it referred to.

The one thing that did annoy me a little was the way in which Ivy and Felicity are both treated by the text – I’m choosing to believe that their characters are going to be the subjects of some startling reveals in the next book, and that their uni-dimensionality here is intentional.

Soulless did the (capital R) Romance brilliantly, but I didn’t think it was as good at actual emotion – when emotional scenes happened they were touchingly awkward (Maccon telling Alexia she’d been raised to feel unworthy? Aww). When the focus of the book is off the Alexia-Maccon romance the relationship between the two is a lot easier to see. Changeless does emotion a lot better -Near the end of the novel there is a moment that is actually gutwrenchingly sad (and also a cruel, cruel cliffhanger). Everything about the text of Soulless reassures you and lets you know that nothing too awful will happen. Lord Akeldama will not be killed by rogue scientists; Alexia will end up with the hot, rich man who loves her; all will be well.

With Changeless that certainty is taken away, and suddenly it’s just not that comfortable anymore. And as much as I adored Soulless for precisely that comfort, I rather think I love this.

*And Scotland’s, of course.

April 10, 2010

Practically Marzipan: An Obituary

I discovered last week that William Mayne was dead and had been for about ten days. The reason it had taken me so long to find out was that hardly anyone had reported it – the Darlington and Stockton Times had a story here, and that was the only mainstream publication to have mentioned it at all. Since I wrote the column last week there have been a few more mentions of his death – Locus has a bit here, and links to this bit in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, and I’ve discovered this two line obit in the Times. There’s a nice, long piece by Julia Eccleshare in the Guardian too. Which probably makes this column unnecessary. Still, though.

I suspect I made this more about me than was strictly warranted.

[An edited version of this was published in today's New Indian Express]

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This must be how the Michael Jackson fans felt.

When Michael Jackson died last year and various people were writing obituaries, I was a little disturbed by friends’ refusal to confront the child sexual abuse allegations. It wasn’t their conviction that he was innocent of the charges that was bothersome (everyone has the right to weigh the evidence for themselves and believe what they choose) – it was the complete dismissal by people who would normally take such allegations very seriously, just because they happened to be fans of the accused. That’s the easy way out, of course; it’s harder by far to acknowledge that an artist whose work you love and admire may have had serious flaws or committed crimes. There were obituaries that did just that, and those must have been difficult to write.

Fans of British children’s writer William Mayne do not have the comfort of wishing the bad parts away. Mayne was charged with the sexual abuse of young female fans. He pleaded guilty (though he later retracted this statement) and was convicted in 2004. He was imprisoned for two years.

I discovered Mayne’s writing only last year, and as an adult. I had heard him spoken of in connection with other children’s writers I liked, and around this time last summer invested in secondhand copies of A Grass Rope (which won a Carnegie Medal in 1957) and A Swarm in May (which was filmed in the 1980s). And I was overwhelmed; this was phenomenal writing. Not quite real, not quite fantasy, deep and introspective and uncomfortable and lovely. When I look back and try to remember my childhood (which wasn’t that long ago) Mayne’s books feel achingly familiar.

And this is not just my opinion. Mayne was widely acknowledged as one of Britain’s finest children’s writers. In addition to all the critical acclaim, he was quite popular. In addition to the movie of A Swarm in May, a five-part television series adaptation of another of his works, Earthfasts, was shown on the BBC in 1994. By anyone’s standards he ought to be considered at least a reasonably well-known writer.

Mayne was found dead in his home on the 24th of March this year. He was 82, and he seems to have died alone. Only one newspaper (and not a particularly big one) has reported his death. As of this date (almost two weeks after his death) none of the major papers have made mention of it. I don’t know why that is; whether it has anything to do with his crimes (and as I said before, such an obituary has to be hard to write) or he has just been forgotten.

Mayne was one of the greatest writers of the last century. His writing thrilled me when I first discovered it, and it continues to delight me. His actions in his personal life on the other hand upset and anger me. It’s a contradiction that we should all be used to handling by now (so many great artists have been less than ideal as human beings), yet somehow it’s still hard.

But I’m writing this column because Mayne deserves some sort of memorial, somewhere. He was brilliant, he was loathsome, but he mattered, and it would be shameful to let that knowledge die.

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Also (and I wish I could have hyperlinked this in the column itself) here is the Guardian’s report of Mayne’s trial. The quote from Mayne there enrages me.

April 8, 2010

Three pairs of hands and some waffling on genre. Also, Fabio.

There has been quite a bit of debate on various SFF blogs in recent months over the nature of book covers. I’m not going to rehash the whole thing because the people who have been following the discussion are all probably really sick of it by now, but briefly, some people are annoyed by the sameyness of a lot of SFF cover art at the moment, with all the hooded figures and swords and things. Which is a valid enough complaint. On the other hand, other people have pointed out, a major (perhaps the primary) function of the cover is to sell the book to as many people as possible. That means making sure that regular readers of the genre see the book and recognise it as the sort of thing they like. Those cliche elements on the cover act as useful signifiers. [I’m simplifying unfairly – if you haven’t read this stuff and want to, go here, here and here].

On the whole, I’m neutral. I’d like things to be more original; then again, the fiction I read doesn’t usually have this problem – I haven’t read as much epic/ sword and sorcery fantasy in the last few years as I used to. Plus, generic covers have been useful to me as a romance reader, so I can quite well see why they would perform that function for someone who reads fantasy in the same way. So yes, cover cliches as useful signifiers of genre make sense to me.

I was very amused a couple of years ago when the good people at Sepia Mutiny came up with this hilarious Anatomy of a Genre post where they pick apart the various elements of a generic Indian Novel In America (is there a less clunky term for this category of book?) cover*. The book in question is The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi. For a more detailed pointing out of what, specifically, makes that cover so…generic, you should probably read the SM post. Or just look at the picture of the cover below, along with a couple of other books that deal with a similar theme.

Except, wait. One of these things is not like the others.

Earlier today I read about Heather Tomlinson’s Toads and Diamonds on John Scalzi’s blog. Toads and Diamonds is a retelling of a Perrault fairy tale set in India. What it is not is a generic Indian Novel in America. But would you be able to tell by the cover?

Tomlinson’s book is set in India and the publishers are justified in using an “Indian” image (however cliched) on the cover. Just as, for example, the publishers of Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia could have argued for the inclusion of a romantic image on their cover (the title is apparently a play on the Russian for “I love you”). Yet if I’d gone into a bookshop and seen this I’m pretty sure I would have been surprised and confused (and delighted!) to find Roberts’ book between the covers.


(Yellow Blue Fabio)

It’s a silly example, but that is how weird it feels to see a book from one genre with a cover that so obviously suggests it to be part of another

I have no idea whether Ms Tomlinson’s publishers purposely designed the book to look like the sort of covers above, or if it’s all a very odd coincidence. Perhaps it’ll get mis-shelved, or someone walking past the SFF section in a bookshop will do a double take and buy it and so become a hopeless fantasy addict? I do not know.

*The existence of this sort of genre raises a few other interesting questions in the context of this cover debate – I’m footnoting them because I don’t really want to make them the subject of this post. In some of the discussions around covers people brought up the issue of publishers “whitewashing” covers (which the publishers involved presumably think will sell more books) vs using cliches to indicate genre. (which the publishers involved presumably think will sell more books). To my mind the difference is obvious, yet here is a genre where the cover conventions are entirely dependent upon presenting a very specific picture of India to a mostly Western audience. You could hardly call that entirely divorced from race. Hmm.

April 5, 2010

YfLs6 & 7: Gopi Manjuri with donuts for afters.

I was lazy and failed to post the Yell for Language column last week. As a result, this week you get two whole columns on the subject of spelling.

Hurrah?

[Edited versions of the pieces below appeared in the New Indian Express today and last monday.]

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A la carte: according to a menu or list that prices items separately

Among the more fascinating sites upon which one can see the English language being used are restaurant menus and signs. Some of these are completely unrelated to the food itself – I recently visited a cafe in Pune where patrons were informed in no uncertain terms, “READING WRITING USE OF LAPTOP STRICTLY PROHIBITED”, conditions that might have led to difficulties where reading the menu and ordering food were concerned. Nissim Ezekiel famously wrote a poem based on the noticeboard at his favourite Irani cafe which had a long list of things that patrons were not supposed to do, including “No bargaining/ No water to outsiders/ No change/ No telephone/ No match sticks/ No discussing gambling/ No newspaper/ No combing/ No beef/ No leg on chair/”. One wonders what patrons were allowed to do.

But signs and menus (or in one case, Meenu) that deal with food are far more exciting. It is amazing to note, for example, the new and wonderful forms that a basic dish like matar-paneer takes on asit travels across the country. One can sample mutter-panir, mater-panner, mottor-paneer, cheese-peas (to attract the foreign clientele, perhaps?), often within two hundred metres of each other. You could also order some toast, or “tost”, accompanied by omelette, omlet, omlit, or even crumbled eggs. Or Garlic Bread with Chesse, which is sadly less about the intellectual stimulation and more about the calories. A venue in Calcutta practically bludgeons you with the perplexing sign “CHICKEN HUNGER TASTE”. Chinese food options include chowmin, chomin, gobi manchurian, and gopi manjuree. If you’re lucky enough to be in a place which serves alcohol, you could even have a Child Bear on the side.

It’s far too easy to mock the dhabas and reasonably inexpensive restaurants though – especially since the food they serve is frequently delicious. It is far more satisfying to visit an expensive place, where the people writing the menu have attempted to make the food sound as wonderful as possible with prose that grows thicker and purpler by the moment. What you thought was a dosai is actually a golden rice pancake, crisped to perfection with coconut chutney offering a transcendent experience. On Valentine’s Day I visited a restaurant in Delhi that had hopefully marked at least half the items on its menu as having aphrodisiac properties (artichokes, who knew?). They had also written flowery and ungrammatical pieces of poetry to describe their cocktails, making me particularly keen to sample something called “First Kiss”:

Kiss is a lovely trick designed by creature to stop speech, two souls but with single thought, two heart but beats as one. Served with a slice of banana.”

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Lexicography: The editing or making of a dictionary (Merriam-Webster)

Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge that busies himself in tracing the original and detailing the signification of words. (Dr. Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language)

In 1746 Samuel Johnson started his project of creating a definitive English language dictionary. There had been other works before, but none of them had been particularly satisfactory, and Johnson practically had to start out from scratch. When you think about it, it’s mindboggling: that it took Johnson less than a decade to write (it was published in 1755) is amazing.
Three years later, Noah Webster, the American lexicographer, was born.
Noah Webster is the “Webster” in the Merriam-Webster dictionary (the “Merriam” part comes from the name of the publisher). Webster had very firm ideas about language and education – he believed that American students ought to learn from American, not British, books.
It was Webster who initiated a number of the differences between American and British spelling that we still see today – dropping the “u” from words like colour and flavour and changing “re” to “er” in centre. I do not know whether he was responsible for changing “doughnut” into “donut” (I will never accept this spelling. It is pointless and makes no sense), but he did apparently try to change “tongue” into “tung”. Fortunately it never caught on.
Webster genuinely believed – and lets face it, he had a point – that the rules of English language spelling were far too convoluted and could do with simplifying. He also seems to have wanted not only to definitely distinguish American English from British English, but to create a standardised language for Americans. In addition, he added new words that were unique to America. When Webster’s dictionary was published in 1928, it was big enough for two volumes and contained seventy thousand words – almost thirty thousand more than Dr. Johnson’s version.
What I find fascinating about Webster’s dictionary is that it was written as a means to an end – the author had these stated goals that he hoped his dictionary could achieve. Dr. Johnson occasionally stuck a few hilariously snarky opinions of his own into his dictionary definitions (see “Oats: a grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people”, or “Monsieur: a term of reproach for a Frenchman”) but there’s no sustained effort to make the reader subscribe to Dr. Johnson’s opinions – on language or anything else. Which is why, while Johnson’s dictionary is more fun to read (as far as you can call reading a dictionary fun), Webster’s is fascinating for showing clearly that even dictionaries are not ideologically innocent. And once you’ve figured that out, language becomes much more fun to play with.

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