Archive for April, 2011

April 24, 2011

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!

My review of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! appeared in Saturday’s Mint Lounge.


There are all sorts of interesting things about Swamplandia! that couldn’t really be addressed in a review. I’m not generally that concerned about plot spoilers in a book. In this case, however, being spoiler-free was essential to my reading of the book. I think Swamplandia! allows for some very intelligent playing around with perspective and fantasy and reality – and it is very frustrating not to be able to discuss these aspects of the book when I think that (along with the fine prose) they’re some of its biggest strengths.

As ever, an edited version appears below.

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Karen Russell’s 2006 collection of short stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, was as notable for its odd, often fantastic take on growing up as it was for its memorable title. Last year Russell, who is now 29, appeared on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list of promising young writers who the magazine believed would be significant in the years to come. Swamplandia! is her first novel, and it recently achieved a place on this year’s Orange prize longlist.


Swamplandia! is an extension of one of the stories in St. Lucy’s Home… , “Ava Wrestles the Alligator”. As in many of her short stories Russell adopts the voice of the adolescent. The narrator of most of Swamplandia! is a teenaged girl named Ava Bigtree, daughter of Hilola Bigtree, the famous alligator wrestler. Hilola dies of cancer and Big Chief, Ava’s father, finds it difficult to keep up the family’s alligator-theme park, Swamplandia!, located in the Everglades of Florida. Matters are worsened by the advent of a big hell-themed amusement park not far away.
Ava and her sister Ossie are left alone on the resort. Ossie falls in love with a ghost and first she, then Ava, must embark upon a journey to the Underworld. Meanwhile, their brother Kiwi must deal with an underworld of his own; life on the mainland at the World of Darkness theme park. Once Kiwi has left Swamplandia! the book is divided in two – the chapters that follow Kiwi are alternated with Ava’s point of view sections. Kiwi’s journey parallels Ava’s own, yet the contrast between the two worlds is always clear. Where Ava must dive into the water with the alligators to prove herself, Kiwi must rescue a swimmer from a pool where the water is dyed red. Russell emphasises the contrast with her prose; the utilitarian language of Kiwi’s sections of the book could not be more different from the startling, lush account of Ava’s journey through the swamp.

Stands of pond-apple trees were adorned with long nets of golden moss and shadowed a kind of briary sapling I didn’t recognize. Air plants hung like hairy stars. We poled through forests. Twinkling lakes. Estuaries, where freshwater and salt water mixed and you could sometimes spot small dolphins. A rotten-egg smell rose off the pools of water that collected beneath the mangroves’ stilted roots.

The division of the book into ‘Ava’ and ‘Kiwi’ sections has its drawbacks, however. The contrast between the sterile World of Darkness and the Everglades may make sense, but compared to the over-the-top loveliness of Ava’s sections, the ones focusing on Kiwi fall rather flat. The middle child, Osceola, never gets a voice and is never a fully realised part of the story. In the central sections of the book, where Ossie’s relationship with the ghost develops, the pace slackens considerably. A long chapter giving the ghost a background story feels rather orphaned in the middle of the text, though it is a fine piece of writing in its own right.

Russell makes the question of whether this is fantasy or magical realism (or simply the characters’ own imagination) irrelevant. The writing shifts easily between the mythic and the real. Ava is in many ways still a child, and her age allows for this constant moving between registers. On at least one occasion this shift leads to a devastating revelation. The fantasy elements of the story are intangible and unsettling, but fit perfectly.

[T]hings can be over in horizontal time and just beginning in your body, I’m learning. Sometimes the memory of that summer feels like a spore in me, a seed falling through me.

I think something more mysterious might be happening, less articulable than any of the captioned and numeraled drawings in The Spiritist’s Telegraph. Mothers burning inside the risen suns of their children.

For all its strangeness, Swamplandia! is also the account of a family’s coming of age after a huge loss. As a family drama it is honest and moving and funny.

“I’m not going anywhere,” she told me that night. But until we are old ladies—a cypress age, a Sawtooth age—I will continue to link arms with her, in public, in private, in a panic of love.

Russell never quite manages to keep up the brilliance that shows for long stretches of this first novel. But these heights, when they are reached, are truly extraordinary. While Swamplandia! is very far from being a perfect book, it is the sort of book that makes you truly glad that the author is still at the beginning of her career.

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April 24, 2011

Julian Gough, Jude: Level 1

My most recent Left of Cool piece gushes rather embarrassingly about Julian Gough’s Jude: Level 1. A couple of things:

I was in Jaisalmer for a few days last year and rode a camel for the first time in many years. One thing I learnt on this eventful ride (it involved a thunderstorm, the village of the children of the damned, and some very dubious gin) was that to ride a camel is basically to perform a series of pelvic thrusts. I am not sure how much research Mr Gough did for this book, but the sex scene atop a camel strikes me as almost plausible.
The stealing of Will Self’s pig is in itself a brilliant act, but I wonder if I should not have mentioned it here. Gough’s book is good enough to stand on its own and the author should not have to stand in the shadow of his own felonious awesomeness forever. Still, here’s a link to a video of it.
Edited version below.
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“If I had urinated immediately after breakfast, the Mob would never have burnt down the Orphanage.” Julian Gough’s Jude: Level 1 manages an opening line that is bound to become a part of literary history. With luck it will lead at least some people to read this excellent book.

Julian Gough is an Irish novelist as well as the singer and lyricist for the group Toasted Heretic. Activities for which he has been famous in recent years include an attack on fellow Irish writers for failing to engage with modern Ireland (2010) and rather magnificently (and Wodehouseishly) stealing Will Self’s pig (2008). The pig in question was a Gloucester Old Spot, the prize awarded every year to the winner of the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse prize for comic writing. Jude: Level 1 had appeared on the shortlist that year, and had lost out to Self’s The Butt.

The plot is simple enough. At the age of eighteen Jude unwittingly causes the destruction of the orphanage (located in Tipperary, Ireland) where he grew up. In the process a valuable letter that might contain the secret of his parentage is destroyed. Jude travels first to Galway, then Dublin, spreading chaos and destruction in his wake.

Jude: Level 1 is a picaresque novel, with a title character who feels rather like a Don Quixote. Jude is a hapless innocent who falls unknowingly into adventure wherever he goes. In the course of his travels across Ireland he blows up a building, leads a group of anarchists to bloody revolution, is mistaken for Stephen Hawking, has plastic surgery to make himself look like Leonardo DiCaprio and (in unusual circumstances) obtains a second penis in place of his nose. He also falls in love, and spends a large part of the novel trying to locate the love of his life; a quest that leads him from fast food restaurants into the depths of Ann Summers and finally across the sea.

Humour can be difficult to sustain and Jude: Level 1 occasionally grates. The journey to Galway at the end of the first section and the long (long) pursuit of Angela across Dublin in the third can get particularly tedious, particularly if one attempts to read the whole thing at one go. But it’s hard to imagine why any reader would: there is so much to savour.

An extended joke about Apple products allows also for a Biblical gag that is terrible and wonderful at the same time. One scene, in which Jude loses his virginity on a galloping camel while leading a revolutionary army, would itself be a good enough reason to read this book even if the rest of it were terrible.

It isn’t all just silliness, however. Jude: Level 1 is a satire, and quite a serious one. It takes for its target a number of the features of Celtic Tiger era Ireland; its economy, its relationship with Europe, its relationship with England and with its own past, the role of the church, and so on. This may perhaps make the books a little less accessible than they would otherwise be – to a reader completely unfamiliar with the country’s history and politics things like the Charlie Haughey cameo and the references to Eamon de Valera might be meaningless. Yet humour throws up strange similarities across countries. I defy any Indian reader to read the account of a Fianna Fáil political rally at the beginning of the book and not find it both familiar and hilarious.

The promised sequel (to be set in England) still has not appeared, though I am trusting that it eventually will. But sequel or not, Jude: Level 1 is a ridiculous, brilliant piece of writing. Had I read it in 2008, I too would have been tempted to steal Will Self’s pig.

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April 19, 2011

Manju Kapur, Custody

I reviewed Manju Kapur’s latest book for TSG, here. Short version: I didn’t like it very much. Long, unedited version below.

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Raman Kaushik is a nice middle-class boy with IIT and IIM degrees, a job in a multinational soft drinks corporation and an extended family in East Delhi. Shagun is a very beautiful woman about whom we know little else. The two marry and live quite a happy middle-class life for a few years before things get rocky, Shagun falls in love with another man, and a long custody battle begins. Manju Kapur’s latest novel chronicles the various intricacies around the dissolution of a marriage and a family.

The end of this marriage is explored from multiple angles, with Kapur shifting from character to character, point-of-view to point-of-view. This makes for a nuanced rendition of the situation so that the text as a whole never allows an easy apportioning of blame. Raman’s rage and bewilderment are both understandable, but it is equally clear why any woman might not wish to stay married to him.
Unfortunately, this technique doesn’t make it any easier to sympathise with the characters – perhaps it was never meant to. Raman’s tedious self-righteousness grates and is only occasionally relieved by a flash of personality. Shagun all but disappears two-thirds of the way through the book and from this point onwards is mostly seen through other people’s reports and her own cringe-worthily banal letters to her mother.
Ashok, Shagun’s lover and (later) husband, comes off worst of the lot. Apparently a business school degree renders one incapable of thinking in non-business terms, and any sort of marketing job fills one’s head with cliché. He thinks of Shagun as “a perfect blend of East and West” and reflects that “[t]o woo her would thus be that much more difficult: he must first create a need before he could fulfil it. But he was used to creating needs, it was what he did for a living”. Later, he is exhorting her to think “out of the box”.
Of the four major adult characters in Custody it is only Ishita, the woman whom Raman later marries, who comes out of the book as much of a person at all.
One unfortunate result of Kapur’s jumping from voice to voice is that the book itself ends up having no voice of its own. Kapur has been compared to Jane Austen for her detailed, sharp depiction of a comparatively small section of society but here, at least, the comparison breaks down. Austen is always definitely herself; in Custody Kapur is not. So when, for example, the text describes the new India where “[a]nything seemed possible if you worked hard enough. India was becoming a meritocracy, connections were no longer necessary for success” it’s hard to tell if Kapur is for some mystifying reason imitating Ashok’s trite patterns of speech and thought, or whether the triteness is unintentional. And surely Raman’s thinking of a carton of mango juice (which he is supposed to be marketing) that it “swam insouciantly about in the pool of anxiety that lay at the heart of his working life” is supposed to be humourous?
The focus of the book is very much on the Indian middle-class, and it is not an entirely sympathetic one. Mrs Kaushik, Raman’s mother, is depicted as entirely awful, and Ishita’s marriage-mad mother Mrs Rajora is only slightly better. (This is where an Austen parallel could be drawn – these women are both slightly reminiscent of her Mrs Bennet). Yet Kapur’s portrayal feels very much like that of an outsider and her barbs are at the most obvious of targets.
The elder Kaushiks put a grille across the passage, black granite tiles on the walls and floor of their section of the corridor and hung a small chandelier with dangling crystal pendants in the middle… Rohini declared she thought she was living in a palace her new home was so grand…

The real Central Park, not the falsely named builders’ creation in Gurgaon.

“Beti, why did you listen to him? What is the need for all this secret-vekret?”

As seen above (“secret-vekret”, really?) the cadences never quite ring true. The set of values Kapur associates with her subjects also appears inescapable. Ishita, who appears the one exception, finds herself at the end of the book consulting astrologers, changing her child’s name for superstitious reasons, and even reflecting upon the irony of it all.

Custody is admirable for its balance, for its depiction of its central relationship, and particularly for the authentic-seeming portrayal of the two child characters. But none of these quite make up for its obviousness, its lack of a sense of direction or the blandness for which it can have no possible excuse.

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(Does anyone else have trouble writing the word “custody”? I always end up with “custory”.)

April 11, 2011

Lawrence Durrell, Stiff Upper Lip

My Left of Cool piece this week discussed Lawrence Durrell’s very silly Antrobus stories, collected in Stiff Upper Lip. I discovered these stories only recently, when my best friend came across a lovely old edition of the collection.
The column is at the newspaper’s website, here, or can be read below (including the footnote I carelessly left out of the website version. Despite what the headline on the site implies, I do not think Durrell’s Big Books are in any way pretentious.

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Most reasonably bookish Indians discover Gerald Durrell reasonably early in life. It’s only later that Lawrence Durrell appears on the radar. I’m not sure how many of them ever really discover Lawrence; books that look as if they’d take an effort to read are never going to be that widespread. But everyone knows that he exists, and it’s something of a shock to realise that the author of the Alexandria Quartet and the Avignon Quintet is the “Larry” of My Family and Other Animals.

The reader of My Family and Other Animals knows that (Lawrence) Durrell lived for some time in Corfu. During the Second World War he worked for the British embassies in Egypt and later for the British government in Yugoslavia. His stint in Egypt led to the writing of the Alexandria Quartet. His stint in Yugoslavia led to something very different: the Antrobus stories, of which Stiff Upper Lip is the second collection.

For a person who has not read them the defining characteristic of the Alexandria and Avignon books is that they are long. They are also complex and interlinked (Durrell preferred to use the term “quincunx” instead of “quintet” to describe the Avignon books, since the former term indicates a more linear progression).

Against these vast, rich works for which Durrell is known Stiff Upper Lip rather stands out. This is a slim volume of stories about life in the diplomatic corps, ably illustrated by Nicolas Bently. They are populated with people whose names range from the Dickensian (Dovebasket, Bolster, Wormwood*) to the Wodehousean (Polk-Mowbray, Butch Benbow, Mungo Piers-Foley). All the stories are narrated by Antrobus, a character who, like the Oldest Member of Wodehouse’s golf stories, seems to do very little but tell stories chronicling the follies of those surrounding him.
And such follies they are. That I have invoked Wodehouse twice already is a clue to the sheer silliness of Stiff Upper Lip. The English diplomatic corps faces multiple murder attempts (perpetrated by one jealous lover and one disgruntled writer), culinary adventures (the accidental consumption of both horsemeat and garlic – of which garlic is considered the more generally horrifying), Dutch poetry and jewel thieves. A diplomatic dog show goes horribly wrong when a villainous attaché blows a dog whistle for a prank. Of particular interest to the readers of this paper, perhaps, will be “The Swami’s Secret”, featuring the suave Anaconda Veranda who gives reincarnation lessons by post.
Not every story in the book focuses on these Eton-educated diplomats. Durrell democratically includes an account of the sufferings of Percy, the second-footman at the embassy in “The Iron Hand”. In “The Game’s the Thing” there is an attempt to appease the Italian Mission by inviting them to a football match and losing. In our modern, post-match-fixing-scandal times we have a tendency to assume that every match is fixed, an assumption that is perhaps born out of a belief that fixing a match is easy. It is not, we learn, even though “we British know how to lose gamely. Prefer it, in fact. We had all taken on that frightfully decent look as we puffed about, showing ourselves plucky but inept – in fact in character”. Unfortunately not everyone on the team possesses the sporting spirit and, predictably, things do not go quite as planned.
In the hands of a different writer, Stiff Upper Lip would not be quite so strange. Had Wodehouse or Evelyn Waugh written it one might have shrugged, reflected that it was not entirely in their usual style, and moved on. Silly and funny as it may be, its weirdness stems mainly from the incongruity of this author and these stories. This isn’t the Lawrence Durrell we know; but it is certainly recognisable as Gerald’s “Larry”.

*”Wormwood” is also a character in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. This character forms the inspiration for the name of the school teacher in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes series. This is one of those things people who quiz are very pleased about knowing. But that’s beside the point and doesn’t make the name any less Dickensian.

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I must get myself a nice copy of the Alexandria Quartet soon. Does anyone have any recommendations as to which edition?

April 5, 2011

Diana Wynne Jones

One of the best children’s writers we had died recently. There have been new Diana Wynne Jones books all my life, and I’m still not entirely reconciled to the fact that there won’t be any more. The night I heard the news I sat and reread Fire and Hemlock for the first time in many years. It turns out it’s still brilliant.

I wrote this tribute for the Sunday Guardian. It can be found on their site here This is a slightly longer version – longer mainly because in the absence of space constraints I couldn’t not include the whole of that quote.

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British writer Diana Wynne Jones died last week, at the age of seventy-six. She had written close to fifty books for children as well as a couple for adults; she had won awards (never enough) and been runner-up for several more; her 1986 book Howl’s Moving Castle had been made into a critically-adored Hayao Miyazaki film. By anyone’s standards she was a significant figure within children’s literature. She was already a name (though never as big a name as she deserved to be) when I first started to read. She had had fifteen books published before I was born and continued to write well into my adulthood – Enchanted Glass came out a year ago and a novel for younger readers, Earwig and the Witch, is set to be published posthumously in 2011.I cannot claim to have read half of her work, yet the thought of no more Diana Wynne Jones books is as unsettling as it is sad.

Her connection to the literary world went beyond her writing. The various tributes that have been written this week have brought up the most wonderful stories about her life. As a child she lived in the house where the children in Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books had lived, and managed to annoy Ransome himself. She also managed as a child to antagonise Beatrix Potter. At college she was taught by Tolkien and Lewis, and in later years would go on to exert much influence over the careers of writers like Neil Gaiman. As Farah Mendlesohn (the author of a book on Jones) notes in a tribute to the writer, Jones “had not just grown fans, she had grown writers”. She was still writing when writers who had read her books as a child had grown up, and written books of their own. The Harry Potter books have a lot to do with the boom in children’s publishing over the past decade (many of Jones’ own books were reissued for this reason) but most of these writers grew up on Diana Wynne Jones.

Her books were often quite disturbing. Many existed in a space between traditional children’s fantasy and realism. So a parent might not be an evil stepmother, but s/he could be self-absorbed or criminally neglectful – the title character of The Lives of Christopher Chant sees so little of his parents that he’s terrified that he might one day meet them in the park and not recognise them. The adult world might be a terrifying place, but a lot of the reasons for this terror were the same ones that any child would go through. For years I was reluctant to re-read the earliest pages of Fire and Hemlock, one of her finest books, not so much for outright scariness as a sense of deeply felt unease. And she wasn’t afraid to demand thought from her child readers; she never wrote as if she expected us to feel lost in her many-layered narratives. And if sometimes I did get lost it didn’t matter.

As serious as all of this sounds, all my memories of reading her books involve laughter. A lot of it was clever wordplay or absurdity of the sort that anyone would find funny. But the best parts, and the ones that I suspect were responsible for all the writers this author raised, were the bits about books. A lot of the humour in Diana Wynne Jones was directed at people who read and could therefore be assumed to understand exactly what she meant. Take the beginning of Howl’s Moving Castle, where she explains that “… it is quite a misfortune to be born the eldest of the three. Everyone knows you are the one who will fail first, and worst, if the three of you set out to seek your fortunes.” Or A Tough Guide to Fantasyland, an entire book of sendups of fantasy tropes. Or even the episode in Fire and Hemlock where a character writes a clichéd description of a back and is sent a corrective note:

Dear Polly,
Tom wishes you, for some reason I can’t understand, to consider the human back. He says there are many other matters you should consider too, but that was a particularly glaring example. He invites you, he says, to walk along a beach this summer and watch the male citizens there sunning themselves. There you will see backs – backs stringy, backs bulging, and backs with ingrained dirt. You will find, he says, yellow skin, blackheads, pimples, enlarged pores and tufts of hair.
This is making me ill, but Tom says go on. Peeling sunburn, warts, boils, moles and midge bites and floppy rolls of skin. Even a back without these blemishes, he claims, seldom or never ripples, unless with gooseflesh. In fact, he defies you to find an inch of silk or a single powerful muscle in any hundred yards of average sunbathers. I hope you know what all this is about, because I don’t. I think you should stay away from the seaside if you can.
Yours ever, Sam.

She laughed at the genres she wrote in, intelligently but lovingly, and in doing so made us think about books and how they worked.

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There’s a wonderful list of links to tributes at the Strange Horizons blog, here. Gaiman and Mendlesohn’s are particularly lovely, but there’s also a fantastic long essay by Rush That Speaks.
April 4, 2011

Susan Coolidge, Clover

Look, I’ve tried. I’ve read the three Katy books, I’ve read Clover, and I just don’t get Susan Coolidge. Clover was my out-of-copyright book for review at the Kindle Magazine this month.

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Most Indian children of my generation grew up reading English children’s books. This has changed to a great extent since. But even back in our time there were a few classics from North America that found their way into our libraries. Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, and Daddy-Long-Legs (discussed last month in these pages) were among them. Also in this little group of recommended classics were Susan Coolidge’s Katy books.

There were three Katy books: What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School and What Katy Did Next. I was not a fan of any of them.
What Katy does, if I remember correctly, is to go from being an absolutely normal child to a plaster saint. This is because she injures her back, and over years spent in the “school of pain” and unable to walk learns to be good and virtuous and motherly. When she goes to school in the next book, she continues to be a very good girl, and despite the inclusion of a few amusing side characters (I do not include the excruciatingly whimsical “Rose Red”) it’s all very dull. In the third book she is taken on a trip to Europe where she is once again good and cheerful, nurses a sick child, and attracts a husband by showing herself to be nicer than her more attractive cousin. This would be quite a satisfying story if Katy had any personality at all.
I only learnt recently that there were two more Katy books, Clover and In The High Valley, and that Clover (published in 1888) at least was considered better than the rest. Both were out of print and available for many years. Clover is Katy’s younger sister and the book focuses on her coming to terms with her sister’s marriage. A large chunk of the book is taken up with this wedding, complete with a visit from Rose Red plus one child who lisps in a way that the author probably thought was adorable (I cannot agree). One of Clover’s brothers falls ill and she accompanies him on his convalescence to Colorado where she goes sightseeing in canyons and accumulates suitors.
If Clover is better than the Katy books, the improvement is in the scenery. Coolidge seems to like Colorado, and some of the descriptions of trips are rather lovely. There’s also a strain of humour in the form of the passive-aggressive Mrs Watson who has been invited along to help Clover, yet seems to think things should be the other way around.
Unfortunately, Clover is even less of a person than Katy was. With Katy, one at least had a vague memory of her careless youth; Clover appears to have been saintly throughout. There’s nothing quite as unappealing as a flawless person.
I confess myself defeated where Coolidge is concerned. There must be something about her to make so many people claim to have loved the books in their childhoods, and certainly Clover is considered a particularly good example of her work among those who have read it. Clearly I am missing something, and if so I am missing it in all of Coolidge’s work. I don’t think I will be reading In the High Valley.

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If you’re deeply fond of Coolidge, do feel free to express outrage or explain why.
April 3, 2011

What I Didn’t See, Karen Joy Fowler

I’m pretty sure no one in India is going to read anything that isn’t cricket-related today. (Pause here for a moment to be overwhelmingly happy). But I have a review up at Global Comment of Karen Joy Fowler’s most recent collection of short stories. Short version: it’s brilliant; where can I find a copy of Sarah Canary?

Read here.