Archive for January, 2011

January 20, 2011

Piracy and privilege and property and publishing and other things that begin with P

Apparently people are talking about this again. This isn’t so much a post as a way of directing people who are interested to fantasyecho’s collection of links (which I found via Shweta Narayan).

Also to quote this, from qian’s first post there, because it is so familiar*:

“Order it from Amazon!” It takes a million years for the book to arrive, you pay a swingeing amount**, it’s held up at the post office and you have to drive out and pay taxes to collect it, and all the while you’re aware that it cost you four times the amount it cost an American to buy it. The worst insult? In almost every case, the author is not even contemplating that somebody like you will be reading it. You quite simply do not exist in their world.

*It’s not quite as bad as this in India anymore, because we’ve had a few really good online bookstores (Flipkart!) start up in the last few years. Plus there always have been a few good bookshops that could surprise you, if you lived in one of the major cities.
** “But the book depository has free worldwide delivery!” Here is the list of countries they ship to. I appreciate them and the work they do, but I really think they need to remove that “worldwide” from all over their site.
January 15, 2011

Some things I am reading

Yet in fact Strongbow was spending very little time on botany. Instead, unexpectedly, he had turned his vast powers of concentration to the study of sex, an endeavor that eventually would bring about the fall of the British Empire.


There, there, they sit and cerebrate:
The fervid Pote who never potes,
Great Artists, Male or She, that Talk
But scorn the Pigment and the chalk,
And Cubist sculptors wild as Goats,
Theosophists and Swamis, too,
Musicians mad as Hatters be—
(E’en puzzled Hatters, two or three!)
Tame anarchists, a dreary crew,
Squib Socialists too damp to sosh,
Fake Hobohemians steeped in suds,
Glib females in Artistic Duds
With Captive Husbands cowed and gauche.

January 15, 2011

Not knowing better and other thoughts about books and race and words

Some theses on books and race, not directly related to but inspired by some of the comment that these new edits of Huckleberry Finn have caused. Feel free to apply these (in modified forms obviously) to sexism, or most other forms of discrimination. I repeat, none of this is directly related to Twain’s book. I haven’t read Huckleberry Finn. (For actual Huck Finn commentary, see here,here and here).

Thesis 1: Racism was not invented in the Twentieth century.
Things which were not perceived as racist when they were written may still have been so at the time; they did not magically come to be that way after someone proposed this revolutionary idea that we should treat all people like human beings. It also means that things a lot of us consider completely innocent now will likely be looked upon with horror in a few decades. As long as we’re moving in the direction of being nicer to a greater number of living beings, this is a good thing and does not cause me too much concern.

Thesis 2: Most of the time, they did know better.
There’s a particular defence of racism in literature that I find insulting to pretty much everyone involved. That is that people living at a particular point in time simply didn’t know better than to be racist. This is patronising to start with – “s/he doesn’t know any better” is not the sort of remark you make about someone you’re treating as an intellectual or moral equal. But it’s also only varying degrees of true. At most points in history there have been plenty of people suggesting that certain forms of behaviour were not okay – it’s one of the ways we’ve gotten to (at least) this point. I’m not suggesting that it doesn’t take effort, or that it isn’t far easier to believe what your society and the structures that make it up make it easiest to believe. But, particularly in the twentieth century, the means for knowing better have always been there, and people who chose to have had the opportunity to seek them out. To suggest that this is not the case does a tremendous disservice to all the people and movements in history that worked so hard at taking those first steps and making those thought processes available.

Thesis 3: Things that are critical of colonialism/slavery/other things associated with racism may still be racist in and of themselves.
Three words: Heart of Darkness. Strongly anti-colonialist. Frequently very beautiful (subjective, I know. But I think it is and so do many other people). Racist. I’m not a huge fan of people who dismiss it entirely for that last characteristic, but I prefer them to the sort of people who believe that because of its anti-colonial stance it simply cannot be racist and the rest of us are all just missing the point.
[Corollary: “The author once said this thing that was really progressive” is not a particularly strong defense of a work of literature.]

Thesis 4: Fraught words are fraught.
And thus we descend into lolcat speak. I’m against removing words from books. I think we need to keep them there and confront our pasts. And this is a viewpoint I’ve seen in a lot of commentary on the Huckleberry Finn debate. It’s well-meant, and to a point I agree with it. But I’d like to do this with the understanding that making those decisions for everyone is a tricky issue. No one has a right to mandate individual responses to words – certainly not in situations where the fraught histories of those words have generally been to the disadvantage of the individual whose response you are attempting to mandate. This has all gotten very convoluted.

Thesis 5: Replicating the racial politics of the forms you emulate is still racist.
Certain Tolkien Scholars, no one cares how many medieval texts you cite to prove that the portrayals of certain groups of people were *only* that way so they’d echo his literary tradition. Missing the point. Stop now.
I suspect this is an ongoing list. What else would you add?
January 6, 2011

Talbot Baines Reed, The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s

My regular column about out of copyright books, for Kindle magazine (whose decision for this issue to do a huge Assange-glorifying story without mentioning the charges against him is one I’m not too pleased with). I cheated a bit – The Fifth Form at St. Dominic’s is one of the books I covered in my thesis and so pontificating about its relationship to the genre was all too easy. Still.


It is generally believed that the first school-story was Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays. I’m not sure I agree. Origin stories for genres are tricky. Genres don’t just spring fully formed as from the head of some writer or the other – tropes from books get used and reused until they coagulate into a particular form.

If there is such a thing as the first book in a genre, perhaps it ought to be the first book that knows it is being written within a genre. By that argument a strong contender for the first real school-story is Talbot Baines Reed’s The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s, published in 1881.

Before Baines Reed, a young reader in England might have read Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), the story of how young Tom grows up and becomes a credit to Rugby school. It’s sometimes preachy, but it has its moments. This hypothetical reader might also read Dean Farrar’s Eric, which tells of the prolonged downfall of a sinning schoolboy. It would be terribly depressing were it not so heavy-handed. A few decades later Kipling’s Stalky & Co. would mock the book for its ridiculous sentimentality. With The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s, things changed.

The book tells the story of the Greenfield brothers at St. Dominic’s school. Stephen, the younger brother, is a new student. Oliver is in the fifth form of the title, and is taciturn, honourable, and a good sportsman (the stuff literary heroes are made of). As Stephen negotiates the difficulties of public school life for the first time, Oliver finds himself falsely accused of wrongdoing and shunned by his classmates. Meanwhile, led by the magnificent Anthony Pembury, the members of the fifth have created a wall magazine in which they mock the doings of the sixth form.

As a school-story fan it’s fascinating to see how much Baines Reed borrows from his major predecessors. The long descriptions of sports matches, the ragging of new boys, the idealized headmaster are all there. The downward spiraling of the real culprit is the sort of thing Farrar might write – though Baines Reed’s characters are allowed the possibility of redemption, rather than prolonged, gloomy deaths. But equally it’s interesting to see how closely the book corresponds to the pattern that most later school stories would follow.

Most importantly, it’s fun. Like most of Baines Reed’s work, The Fifth Form At St. Dominic’s was published in The Boy’s Own Paper. The good end happily, the bad are punished and the reader learns a Valuable Moral Lesson, but considering the tenor of a lot of his contemporary children’s writers, Baines Reed did a good job of not shoving that aspect of it down his young readers’ throats. It’s easier to see this book as a forerunner to the Frank Richards or Enid Blyton school stories than it is to imagine Tom Brown’s Schooldays in that role.

Perhaps the author’s greatest achievement of all was the inclusion of Anthony Pembury; sharp, funny, and no good at sports. Characters like this do not usually pop up in the school story, but one rather like Pembury appeared in 1909 in a school story titled Mike. The character’s name was Psmith, and the author was a young man named P.G Wodehouse.


January 4, 2011

Not the best books of 2010

As with last year I’m not going to do a “best books of 2010” list because I’m sure I’d think I was horribly wrong no matter what I wrote. So this is more of a most memorable to me personally list:

Edit: I knew I was going to miss something embarrassingly important. Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House was absolutely gorgeous and I can’t believe I didn’t put it on this list. (I blame the bout of food poisoning that has kept me home, awake, and oddly productive today.)

Skippy Dies, Paul Murray: This may not be a best books list, but if it was this book would still be on it. It’s certainly my favourite new book in a very long time. Partly because I know and love school stories so well, partly because it is just brilliant. It’s an Irish school story, but it’s also got science fiction and science science and drugs and love and druids and priests all thrown in, and it’s funny and over the top and always just about on the verge of collapsing under the weight of itself, and it makes me quite incoherent with glee.

Light Boxes, Shane Jones: I bought this purely on the basis of how pretty the cover was. I did worry that it seemed a little smug, but then I read it and adored it anyway. Strange and lovely and fable-like (fablesque? fabulous?) and gory and quite wonderful. Review here, and also a signal boost to the amazing Raven Books where I picked up my copy.

Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro: Seriously Funny Since 1983, Jai Arjun Singh: If this was a “best books” list I don’t know if this book would be on it. Certainly I’d feel a little odd about it, since Jai is a friend and I am obviously biased. But this is the first time someone I know has published a long work that is nonfiction and non-academic, and I was fascinated by how recognisable the person I know was; how his voice and the sort of things that interest him and concern him, came across in the book. Of course this is all a very personal reading of the book, but it was a new feeling to me, and so thoroughly enjoyable.

Jaclyn the Ripper, Karl Alexander: I started reading this on the last day of 2009, could only manage a few pages at a time (though it provided some drunken entertainment on new year’s eve) and eventually struggled to the end in 2010. I was supposed to review it, but after a long struggle finally gave up (I’m sorry, Niall!). In a year when I read multiple Indian 100 rupee novels and the occasional essay by an undergraduate, among other things, this book stands out as not only the worst thing I read all year, but the worst thing I have ever read full stop. Most memorable books of the year? I suspect this one is seared into my brain forever.

In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield: I bought this because a bunch of people with reliable opinions had said good things about it. As ever they were proved correct. This is an incredibly smart, atmospheric, historical novel. With mermaids. It has things like politics and court intrigue and a plausible history, but with all that it never gets worldbling-y, and it keeps that strange, elusive feel that is one of the reasons I first loved fantasy. The author also has an excellent blog, here.

Christmas Stories, Various: Brought out by Scholastic India – and here is a disclaimer: they employ me and that is why I don’t talk much about children’s books here anymore. This collection isn’t so much on this list for literary merit (though it has stories by some pretty great writers, including Mridula Koshy, Payal Dhar, and the epictastic Kuzhali Manickavel) but because it has a story by me in it. The story is about black magic, brothers and bicycle theft. It’s the first thing I’ve ever written for children, and I’m quite proud of it. I had another (for grown-ups this time) story accepted for publication this past year for an anthology with another publisher. Hopefully that will come out sometime in 2011 – but this is my first and it’s special.

The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks, E. Lockhart: As I said above, I don’t talk much about children’s books here because of possible conflicts of interest. But I have loved E. Lockhart ever since I read The Boy Book a couple of years ago. If I could make one book compulsory reading for teenagers (which would utterly defeat the purpose) I think Frankie Landau-Banks would be it. It’s got intelligent teenagers, and Bentham, and Foucault, and sexual politics, and sexual attraction and an ending that isn’t happy. I hurtled through it through the night, only stopping every few chapters to dance around the room.

All About H. Hatterr, G.V Desani: I ended up writing an entirely separate post about this one. But this was revolutionary – a bizarre, funny epic that made a point of not taking English seriously. I’m embarrassed I’d never read it before and thrilled that I finally have.

The Etched City, K.J. Bishop: A friend had been telling me for a couple of years that I needed to read this. When I finally got down to it this year my mind was quite thoroughly blown. Here’s a link to Paul Smith’s piece on it.

Kumari Loves a Monster, Rashmi Ruth Devadasan, Shyam, Jagan and Pritham K. Chakravarthy: I’m not sure what to say about Kumari… apart from actually describing it – it is a series of pictures of tentacle beastthings romancing pretty girls from Tamil Nadu. With a few lines of poetry in both English and Tamil for each scene. This should be enough, but Kumari Loves a Monster doesn’t just rest on the cool idea; it is actively adorable. It is also hot pink.

Wolfsangel, M.D. Lachlan: This book is two books. One is a huge Viking werewolf fantasy – it’s massive in scale, and feels meaty and real and generally good. The other is a quiet, thoughtful, dreamlike meditation on gods and magic and human interaction with myth. One book felt like The Long Ships (which I am reading), the other felt like The Owl Service. Wolfsangel was startlingly good, and I look forward to reading Lachlan’s next.

The Perplexity of Hariya Hercules, Manohar Shyam Joshi: I wish I’d read more translated work this year. I picked this book up for its marvellous title. I’m not sure what I was expecting; certainly not something quite this. A playful, postmodern romp – I wrote more about it here – and as far as I can tell, a very good translation.

The Thing Around your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: An author I’d been planning to read for a long time, and a collection of short stories. The Thing Around Your Neck was as dense and layered as I’d been led to expect, but I was unprepared for how direct and strongly felt it seemed. I will be reading her novels this year – and if you have not read her and need convincing, her wonderful TED talk ought to be enough.

Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees: A classic that I had (for reasons unknown) never read before. Outwardly very delicate and pretty and fable-like, but then it turns out to be full of murder and addiction and other unexpected things.

Glass Coffin Girls, Paul Jessup: I like stories, and therefore I like stories that think about stories. Jessup has very much the same sort of approach to genre and how it works as I do myself. This is a great, strange little collection of horror-ish stories based on fairytales. There’s an element of dream logic to many of the stories that somehow works really well. This collection (or one story in it) also has the distinction of being the only thing I read this year that made me feel actually, physically ill.

Honourable mentions: Turbulence, Reading Series Fiction, Zoo City, Super Sad True Love Story, Four British Fantasists, rereads of Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar books, Joan Aiken rereads, a Gormenghast reread, and the most recent Terry Pratchett. Adam Roberts’ gorgeous, ludic Yellow Blue Tibia was a joy to read, and I’m told that New Model Army (I have exercised great discipline in not buying it yet) is even better. Under My Roof, Nick Mamatas’ smart, hilarious post-9/11 novel. My gorgeous, Australian edition covers of Celine Kiernan’s Moorhawke books (along with Light Boxes these are the prettiest additions to my shelves in 2010) are tempting me to reread the first two as soon as possible. Alan Garner’s The Voice That Thunders and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed were both started in 2010 and will be finished in 2011 – both are promising to be pretty memorable.

Things I am looking forward to in 2011:
Anna Carey’s first book, The Real Rebecca. Anna is a good friend (disclaimer again) and a really good writer and a generally lovely person, so I’m expecting this to be amazing.
New Adam Roberts book, again with a three-word title. This man is alarmingly prolific.
The Popcorn Essayists, a collection of film essays by Indian writers. Apart from the fact that it’s edited by Jai, it’s got Manil Suri talking about being a cabaret dancer and Musharraf Ali Farooqi talking about (I think) foot-fetishes.
New China Mieville book. I was a bit disappointed in last year’s Kraken, but even Mieville’s more disappointing books tend to have plenty of meat to them. I’m hoping that this shift to what looks like a more traditionally genre-ish book (as much as that is ever likely to be the case with this author, anyway) will eliminate a number of the flaws I perceived in the last book.
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves is one of the best collections of short stories I’ve read in recent years. I’m very keen to see what Russell does with the novel form.
A Dance With Dragons. I read very few fantasy series, and this is probably a good thing. I am one of those awful people who cannot rest till I own the set – regardless of whether I actually like the books. At this point (this is probably very unflattering to GRRM and I beg his pardon) I’d be quite satisfied if someone would just give me a bulletpointed list of the major plot points till the end of the series. This is unlikely to happen. I shall read A Dance With Dragons and hop about impatiently for the next book instead.
Russians: I am reading them. It struck me this year (in part because of Elif Batuman’s The Possessed) that I had not read enough of the writers of whom she spoke. Since this is clearly something that needs remedying, I am making Russian literature something of a project this year. Suggestions for what I should read and when are more than welcome.

January 4, 2011

2010 Books

A complete list of everything I read up until June is available at the 2010 Books tag. Then work and life got a little overwhelming and now the thought of doing a detailed review of everything I read in the second half of the year is intolerable. But here is a list, at least.

M.D Lachlan – Wolfsangel
Julia Quinn – Ten Things I Love About You
Karl Kesel and Terry Dodson – Preludes and Knock Knock Jokes
Kit Whitfield – In Great Waters
Gwyneth Jones – Imagination/Space
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan – Confessions of a Listmaniac
Vishwajyoti Ghosh – Delhi Calm
K.J Bishop – The Etched City
Shane Jones– Light Boxes
Celine Kiernan – The Rebel Prince
Rama the Steadfast
(Penguin edition)
George Orwell – Books vs Cigarettes
Brian Lee O’Malley – The Scott Pilgrim series
Tishani Doshi – The Pleasure Seekers
David Foster Wallace – Consider the Lobster
Tom Shippey (ed) – The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories
Searle and Willans – The Molesworth books
Margo Lanagan – White Time
Terry Pratchett – I Shall Wear Midnight
Gail Carriger – Blameless
Jai Arjun Singh and Nisha Susan (ed) – Excess
Adam Foulds – The Quickening Maze
Pradeep Sebastian – The Groaning Shelf
Francisco X. Stork – The Last Summer of the Death Warriors
Richard Marsh – The Beetle
E. Nesbit – The Enchanted Castle
E. Lockhart – The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
Wrede and Stevermer – Sorcery and Cecelia, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician
Loretta Chase – Last Night’s Scandal
John Mortimer – Rumpole and the Angel of Death
Ian MacDonald – The Dervish House
Mervyn Peake – Gormenghast
Victor Watson – Reading Series Fiction
Michael de Larrabeiti – The Borribles
Sarah Caudwell – The Shortest Way to Hades
P.G Wodehouse – Ice in the Bedroom
Samit Basu – Turbulence
Kate Lawson – Mother of the Bride
Salman Rushdie – Luka and the Fire of Life
Paul Jessup – Werewolves
Walter Moers – The Alchemaster’s Apprentice
Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay
Zoran Zivkovic – 12 Collections and a Teashop
Kate Bernheimer (ed) – My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
Gary Shteyngart – Super Sad True Love Story
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City
Mark Gatiss – The Devil in Amber
Edmund Crispin – The Moving Toyshop
Josephine Pullein-Thompson – Pony Club Cup, Pony Club Challenge and Pony Club Trek
Rick Riordan – Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero
Jeff Vandermeer – Finch
Talbot Baines Reed – The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s
Antonia Forest – Autumn Term
JoSelle Vanderhooft – Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories
John Masefield – The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights

Also odd chapters from academic works, a bunch of regency romances by various authors, Pamela Cox’s sequels and fill-ins to the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books, and I lost the notebook where I list these things for a while in between, so I think I may be missing something. Probably not anything important, since I’d remember it if it was.

Not the most challenging year, judging by the quantities of fluff I read, but I think it was a good one.

January 3, 2011

DU and Hatterr

I was trying to write a short note on G.V Desani’s All About H. Hatterr (one of the best things I read last year) and then I began to digress and talk about my university syllabus and it all got very long and turned into a post of its own. So here it is:

I wanted to talk about a particular aspect of the Delhi University undergraduate English syllabus (of which I am mostly quite a fan). Most people (and I was one of them) have read very little Indian writing when they start the course, and the university has wisely included a compulsory Indian Literature module that introduces them to some of the better 20th century Indian literature. The only problem with this that I can see is that it is introduced in first year. The first year is when we’re also given Victorian literature to read, presumably because this the sort of writing with which we’re assumed (probably correctly) to be familiar. The Indian Writing course has some pretty impressive stuff on it, for all that: almost the first thing we read was Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”. There’s Jayanta Mohapatra, there’s Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal (which is marvellous even though I think we’d have appreciated it more if we’d read it a couple of years later when we were reading people like Dario Fo) and Mohan Rakesh’s Adhe Adhure (ditto but with Beckett) and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadowlines which, combined with a really good professor, was the text that really taught me how much a text gives you to play with.

Still, faced with a class of undergraduates recently come from CBSE/ICSE schools, I can imagine the university would leave out a few things as possibly being too much. If it was necessary to break us in with the Victorians (for the next two years the compulsory courses all followed historical chronological order), it was equally necessary to keep the Indian literature we did accessible and recognisable. And since this is the only reason I can think of for All About H. Hatterr’s exclusion from the syllabus, I think it’s best to assume that this is why.

There’s an Angela Carter essay where she talks about the enormous importance of James Joyce both to the English language as a whole and to her personally:

Nevertheless, he carved out a once-and-future language, restoring both the
simplicity it had lost and imparting a complexity. The language of the heart and
the imagination and the daily round and the dream had been systematically
deformed by a couple of centuries of use as the rhetorical top-dressing of crude
power. Joyce Irished, he Europeanised, he decolonialised English: he tailored it
to fit this century, he drove a giant wedge between English Literature and
literature in the English language and, in doing so, he made me (forgive this
personal note) free. Free not to do as he did, but free to treat the Word not as
if it were holy but in the knowledge that it is always profane. He is in himself
the antithesis of the Great Tradition. You could also say, he detached fiction
from one particular ideological base, and his work has still not yet begun to
bear its true fruit. The centenarian still seems avant-garde.

And that is what Desani could, should be for us. We are still angsting over the idea that English is a foreign language in this country – there are plenty of issues around our English usage to angst about (like the amount of power those of us who can speak it hold) but this, whether or not we are allowed to use it as if it belonged to us, should not be one of them. Desani owns English. He’s not afraid to dogear it or roll over onto it or do whatever he needs to to get the effect he wants. And the results are bizarre and musical and hilarious, but they also achieve a cadence that feels appropriately Indian even to someone like me who has major issues with that descriptor.

Desani’s approach to language is so far away from the way English is taught and experienced in Indian schools that it isn’t even, as with Joyce and the Great Tradition, the antithesis to it. The two bear no relation to one another; they exist in different planes entirely. And so I’d like to see what would happen if Delhi University undergraduates were to be exposed to All About H. Hatterr. In third year, perhaps– by then there’d be a certain amount of context to help them to make sense of him. Yet if an unsuspecting class of first years were to come across H. Hatterr it might be exactly what they needed for the next few years of college.