Archive for January, 2012

January 30, 2012

Caitlin Moran, How to Be a Woman and Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)

These are what I spent most of my time in Jaipur reading. Not much to say about Kaling’s book really (other than that it made me laugh out loud multiple times) but there’s quite a bit more to be said about my issues with Moran’s feminism – one does get the impression that she’s unfamiliar with most of the discussions that have been going on within feminism(s) over the last couple of decades. Which is fine, and I suppose this book could work as a useful introduction to feminism for someone reasonably first world (or third world but privileged in lots of other ways, perhaps). But it’s hard to imagine someone who would pick this book up in the first place needing to learn any of this stuff. Still; charming, funny, and as long as it isn’t regarded as any sort of feminist textbook, quite good.

This was in Saturday’s Indian Express. I haven’t seen a physical copy of the paper (household paper-getting politics are complex and often involve physical violence) but the version on the website has a major formatting issue that removes the line breaks and indents from the Kaling quote at the end of the piece and so mixes my words with hers. I’d be grateful if someone who does have a physical copy could check whether the print version also has this problem – not that I can do anything about it at this point.

 

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A few years ago, Christopher Hitchens suggested that women simply were not as funny as men. It seems facile and rather pointless to counter something so idiotic (and so objectively unprovable) with a list of funny women, but you have to wonder, at least, how many of those who idolised the man are now also big fans of Tina Fey.

In the few years since Hitchens’ controversial Vanity Fair piece we’ve had a wealth of women being funny. Kristen Wiig’s Bridesmaids, a movie that had its female characters getting drunk and behaving badly, being the victim of gross bodily functions, and in general just being more flawed and relatable than the women we’re usually allowed to see on the screen. There have also been any number of books by well-known female comedians – Chelsea Handler and Amy Sedaris among them. Of the various comic memoirs by women to come out in 2011 Fey’s own Bossypants was probably the most prominent. But we also had Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns).

Kaling is best known for her portrayal of Kelly Kapoor on The Office, the US sitcom based on the British show of the same name. But she is also one of the show’s writers, and previously co-wrote and acted in the successful play Matt and Ben.

Most of Kaling’s book functions as a memoir, with sections (divided roughly chronologically) on her time in school, what it’s like to grow up chubby, androgynous and Indian (“Kaling” is a shortened form of “Chokalingam”) and her early attempts to make it in the industry before the success of The Office and her newfound stardom. The tone throughout is rueful and self-mocking; on the subject of herself Kaling is often sidesplittingly funny.

The autobiographical chapters are interspersed with shorter observations on various aspects of life, relationships and the media, and these are decidedly hit and miss. “Types of Women in Romantic Comedies Who Are Not Real” pokes fun at the narrow range of women in the movies – beautiful klutzes (a flaw that makes a character palatable while allowing her to still be beautiful), sassy best friends and the like. “When You’re Not Skinny, This Is What People Want You To Wear” is a hilarious, infuriating take on the fashion industry. Unlike Fey and Moran, Kaling never actually mentions the word “feminism”, but there’s an implicit political stance in sections like these, and the book is all the better for them.  In “Roasts Are Terrible” she suggests that the modern phenomenon of roasting people on television is something we could all do without; and this too is a principled stance. “The self-proclaimed no-holds-barred atmosphere reminds me of signs for strip clubs on Hollywood Boulevard: “We Have Crazy Girls. They Do Anything!” We don’t have to do anything. Let’s bar some holds.”

On the other hand, a lot of these feel like padding and read like hurried blog entries (“Jewish Guys”, really?) and when the author begins to write defences of men’s chest hair and to wonder why they take so long to put on their shoes, you wonder how much she really has to say.

Unlike Kaling’s book, Moran’s is explicitly a feminist work. Moran is a British columnist, TV critic and Twitter celebrity. How to Be a Woman begins at the onset of her puberty (“Chapter 1: I Start Bleeding!”) and follows her through the perils of hair removal, high heels, love, reading Germaine Greer, encountering sexism in the workplace, and negotiating marriage, family, children, abortion and jobs.

Germaine Greer is a part of the problem with How to Be a Woman; she’s the only living feminist writer (unless you count, as you probably could, Lady Gaga) Moran mentions. The implication is that feminism stopped developing a few decades ago, when in fact it often looks like Moran simply wasn’t paying it much attention. It’s a little hard to take seriously Moran’s injunction to stand on a chair and shout “I am a feminist!”  when you’ve read enough to know that many groups who choose not to identify with the term (then again, Moran’s book is very obviously aimed at very mainstream white Western women) do so for reasons far more complex than anything in this book.

Yet this is easily forgiven because when Moran talks about herself she is utterly charming. I am all the better for knowing that occasionally food falls out of her mouth while she’s laughing at 30 Rock, and that she spent her late teens “like a sexed-up lady Pac-Man – running around flapping my mouth open and closed, gobbling up people’s faces”, just as I am for knowing that Mindy Kaling works out to elaborately plotted revenge fantasies.

As for the ‘are women funny?’ issue? Moran never mentions it, but it’s quite clear what her answer would be. Kaling does explicity mention it in an FAQ section at the end of her book.

 Why didn’t you talk about whether women are funny or not?

I just felt that by commenting on that in any real way, it would be tacit approval of it as a legitimate debate, which it isn’t. It would be the same as addressing the issue of “Should dogs and cats be able to care for our children? They’re in the house anyway.” I try not to make it a habit to seriously discuss nonsensical hot-button issues.

 So there.

 

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January 30, 2012

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies

I tend to think I’m not harsh enough on most things I review, but have recently been made aware that this is not an opinion shared by everyone. So for last week’s column I went with a book I could gush about – either from laziness or from a sort of see? see? I don’t hate everything! instinct.

 

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Perhaps there’s nothing quite as tedious as the enthusiast. I have pressed Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies into the hands of friends, accosted them and demanded to read bits out to them, and generally conducted myself in a way that would alarm anyone. Some of them eventually read it, cowed into submission, and have admitted that it is marvellous. But this is not enough. I still mutter angrily about its inexcusable exclusion from the Booker shortlist in the year in which it was published (it did make the longlist) and its failure to win the Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize for comic writing. It’s just not right.

During a doughnut-eating contest with his friend Ruprecht, Daniel “Skippy” Juster falls to the restaurant floor. He manages to write his last words (“tell Lori”) on the floor, using jam from a doughnut, before he dies.

The title of Paul Murray’s book reads like a massive plot spoiler (Skippy dies, Bruce Willis is a ghost, Darth Vader is Luke’s father) but the death that gives Skippy Dies its name takes place at the very beginning of the story.

Skippy and Ruprecht are students at Dublin’s prestigious Seabrook College school. Ruprecht’s main interest is science; Skippy’s is Lori, a beautiful, unattainable girl from a nearby school. Murray takes us through the last weeks of Skippy’s life and the fallout of his death. The book is divided into three volumes – Hopeland and Heartland focus on Skippy and on another character, the colourless history teacher Howard “the Coward”. Ghostland, the final volume, takes place entirely after Skippy’s death and focuses on Ruprecht’s attempts at dealing with the loss of his best friend. Skippy Dies is a school story (at least it draws on the genre) and a tragedy, but it’s something else as well;  a vast, weird story that brings together such disparate elements as string theory, druids, action figures, pop music and Pachelbel’s Canon in D Major.

It seems odd that a book about a death should have been nominated for a comic writing prize. But Murray delights in language and takes a particularly Wodehousean joy in metaphor. So we have Father Green (once known to his French –learning students as “Pere Vert”) who travels about with “two or three bodies’ worth of empty space around him, as if …accompanied by pitchfork wielding goblins”. As his title character lies dying, Murray tells us that “Doughnuts scatter the ground like little candied wreaths”.

There’s much about Skippy Dies that is joyful – the sex-obsessed schoolboys and the frequently-dreadful puns, and a masterful account of a school concert that literally brings the roof down.

And yet the book never forgets that it is about the death of a child. “The universe at this moment appears to him as something horrific, thin and threadbare and empty; it seems to know this, and in shame to turn away.”  Murray’s finest achievement is in how he balances the humour and the exuberant language with the tragedy of the horrifying incident that underlies the whole book. Often he shifts swiftly between the two registers, but he’s at his best when he somehow manages to access both at the same time.  An early example of this is a scene in Father Green’s French class in which a student is called upon to explain to the priest some explicit rap lyrics.  This ought to be hilarious and it is, for a while, until it dawns upon us that this boy is breaking down in front of us. Skippy Dies is brutal but never cruel – the concerns of these characters can be trivial or clichéd (Lori’s refuge in sugary pop music; Skippy’s dying wish to tell a girl he barely knows that he loves her) but they are always treated with respect.  We’re not allowed to dismiss these characters. It is this more than anything else that makes the novel emotionally exhausting – it’s also what makes it brilliant.

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January 25, 2012

People from literature

I’ve been at the Jaipur Literature Festival this week. I won’t be doing any sort of comprehensive piece on it, and my twitter followers are probably sick of my #JLF updates. But I think I’ll be using it as the starting point for a few other pieces, beginning with this one.

I attended two particularly good sessions on the Monday. The first was a discussion about adaptation, featuring Tom Stoppard, Richard Flanagan, Vishal Bharadwaj and Lionel Shriver, and moderated by Girish Karnad.

At the end of the panel when the floor was opened to questions, a woman stood up and addressed Vishal Bharadwaj. Bharadwaj had been speaking about his experiences with adapting Shakespeare to Bollywood (Macbeth and Othello to Maqbool and Omkara) – this woman said that “as a person from literature” she had disapproved of his adaptation of Macbeth and felt that it should not have been allowed.

Naturally I quoted this on twitter; Prayaag Akbar used it as the starting point for this humourous take on the festival and Angad Chowdhry suggested that “person from literature” (and subsequently  “person from the Internet” and other variations) be turned into a t-shirt. Prayaag and a couple of my other twitter followers suggested jokingly that “person from literature” might well mean a rogue character from a book roaming through the festival, trolling the panels. There’s a short story in there.

The second panel, “The Afropolitans”, featured Teju Cole and Ben Okri and was moderated by Taiye Selasi. “The Afropolitans” took its name from an essay on identity by Selasi – naturally the question “where are you from?” was discussed at some length during the session. Selasi suggested at some point that when so many of us have trouble answering that question (I’m a St Lucian-born, various-parts-of-England-bred Delhiite at the moment), perhaps we should stop asking it. Teju Cole said that he was from “a short story in the middle of Dubliners”; “Araby”. It only occurred to me a couple of days later that Cole was saying that he was a person from literature as well; if “where are you from?” is a question about identity, for many of us particular books (and movies, and other cultural products) are as valid an answer as countries and languages.

So I was born, I suppose, in Bashful the Clumsy Bear by Pat Posner, the first book I learnt how to read, or in a book whose title my family no longer remembers about dogs named Tippy and Trinket.I spent some of my teenage years with Antonia Forest, struggling through just how much of selfhood is performance, and my first crush that ended in heartbreak was The Owl Service. I opened Gormenghast in a school library and it was “oh. Oh”, and that was a coming home of sorts.  I cannot read Derek Walcott without crying and that ties into the geographical version of my identity too, and the birthplace I left before I could remember it.

All of this requires at least as long an answer as the purely cartographical version, and I can’t imagine Teju Cole would ever be satisfied with just “Araby”. And it clearly isn’t what the woman in the audience meant, but if someone were to make those t-shirts next year I think I would get one.

January 10, 2012

O. Douglas, Penny Plain

For the out of copyright books column I do for Kindle magazine, I chose last month to write about O. Douglas’ Penny-Plain. Douglas gets rather overlooked despite (or because of?) being John Buchan’s sister – her writing is never spectacular, but it’s charming, and gentle, and generous. I’d previously mentioned on this blog her Olivia in India – remarkable for being set in India, written during the Raj and still not annoying.

 

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Anna Masterton Buchan was the sister of the author John Buchan, who was famous for his adventure tales, particularly The Thirty-Nine Steps. His sister was considerably less famous, but published a number of books as O. Douglas, most of them novels of life between the wars.

Penny-Plain is her third book, set in a small town in Scotland. The Jardine family are well-educated but very poor. They live in a house filled with books, offer hospitality to anyone who looks like they’d enjoy it, and are all that is good and saintly within this tradition of novels. The head of the family (the parents are dead) is the oldest sister, Jean, who is also (predictably) unusual and attractive.

Two important people visit the town (on, predictably, the same train). The first is a rich, jaded old man with a terminal illness. Having spent his life accumulating wealth, he now realises that is has no one to whom to leave it. He resolves that it should go to the first person to unselfishly do him a good turn. He meets the Jardines – and then disappears for a good chunk of the book. Anyone who has ever read a book knows where this is going.

The second visitor is the Honourable Pamela Renton who, sick of town life, has taken lodgings in the cottage next door. Naturally she befriends Jean. Matters follow their natural course – Pamela’s titled brother falls in love with Jean, who nobly rejects him because of the disparity in wealth. The old man dies and Jean inherits his fortune; her suitor convinces her that he still loves her, and everything ends happily.

What makes Penny-Plain enjoyable is not its mundane plot, but the sheer warmth of the book. Only a few of Douglas’ works are in the public domain (her Olivia in India, an epistolatory novel, is particularly good) but in those that are accessible, no amount of cliché is enough to stop them from being likeable. She reminds me of no one more than L. M. Montgomery (the author of Anne of Green Gables) for her quiet humour and her feel for the intersecting lives of characters in a small community. And where even Montgomery could be cruel (see The Tangled Web, for example), Douglas is always charitable. Even the loud, annoying woman with vulgar tastes, who comes closer than anyone to being the villain of the piece, is rendered sympathetic.

Penny-Plain may on the whole seem completely apolitical, but the war is all over the book. Written in 1920, it is presumably set around the same time. This is made clear by the many characters who have lost someone – a husband, a son. Characters frequently discuss how the war has changed their lives and the ways in which they think, act, even the ways in which they read certain books. There may not be much space given to European power games, but the idea of how personhood itself is affected by an event so epochal is as least as worthy. Douglas is a marvellous writer, and it’s surprising that she should be so obscure.

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January 8, 2012

Kunal Basu, The Yellow Emperor’s Cure

Historical fiction that isn’t just historical fiction and isn’t necessarily set (when written by an Indian author) in India. There isn’t enough of it around. I like a lot of Basu’s earlier work, and I’m a big fan of how wide-ranging it is. But The Yellow Emperor’s Cure is not his best work.

I reviewed the book in Saturday’s Indian Express. An edited version below.

 

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At the end of the nineteenth century, Portugese doctor Antonio Maria discovers that his father is dying of syphilis, for which there is no known cure. Antonio is unable to accept the painful and ignominious (syphilis sufferers are social outcasts) death that awaits his father. He looks to China for a cure, placing all his hopes in the rumour that few Chinese have syphilis and in the Yellow Emperor’s Canon of internal medicine.

In China he is established in a part of the Queen’s Summer Palace, though the Queen herself is never seen. Antonio is placed under the care of a doctor named Xu who undertakes to teach him the whole of the Nei Ching school of medicine, since it seems that the cure for syphilis cannot be applied without knowledge of the whole.  He divides his time between the Legation, a nearby colony of Europeans, and the Palace where he rapidly falls in love with Fumi (for his own reasons, Xu seems to prefer to leave his student with his assistant).

Through all of this, larger political events are taking place in China. The Boxer rebellion is brewing through most of the novel, breaking out properly in its final third.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure looks back to a fascinating moment in history. The delicate equations between the great powers at the dawn of the twentieth century may not be the subject of this book, but they are ever present. This is particularly evident in the interactions of the various foreigners (Americans, Japanese and an assortment of Europeans) at the Legation. In addition, there’s a strong sense of an end to power in both of the novel’s main locations. Portugal’s colonial prominence is all but over, and in China the almost phantom Queen (never seen, though when Antonio trespasses into the forbidden parts of the palace there is the implication that she has only just left) does almost nothing to assert her power.

Portugal and China are also notable for being relatively unusual settings for English language fiction. This has its disadvantages though, and over and over again one gets the feeling that the text doesn’t quite trust the readers to keep up without being fed quantities of historical context. Particularly in the early stages of the novel, we are subjected to many scenes in which things are painstakingly explained. It’s hard to do such a thing without being awkward, and here Basu’s writing is at its least elegant.

 

Antonio’s perspective is another difficulty. His impressions of China are entirely in line with those one would expect from a nineteenth-century European man. The problem, however, is that many of these assumptions also colour a great deal of later literature which takes them perfectly seriously – we’re all too familiar with the “inscrutable” Chinese, or the European who bothers to learn his native servants’ names being morally superior to his fellow countrymen. At times it is easy to remember that Antonio’s vision is imperfect. The Legation scenes recognise this with deadpan humour. And when his internal narrative comes up with “lovesickness, a disease no less mysterious than the rarest of female disorders” or “the secret workings of the Chinese mind, how it went about solving puzzles and inventing things” we’re being invited to roll our eyes at him. But all too often in his interactions with the natives the only thing reminding us of this is a prior faith in Basu’s abilities as a writer. And the binaries the book sets up are predictable and uninteresting; in Xu’s words “Western doctors deal with simple cause and effect …the Chinese look for reasons that might even lie outside the body”.

The search for the cure that lies at the heart of this book is an elusive one. Syphilis, a disease associated with sin, comes to mean more than itself. “What if it was immortal?” asks Antonio’s friend Arees, speculating that syphilis is “the price we must pay to be alive”. Antonio himself connects the mystery of syphilis to that of his lover Fumi, “two symptoms both arising from the same condition”. Even the name of the disease reflects this endless deferral of meaning; the “French Disease” in Portugal, it is named after the Portugese elsewhere and in China is “Canton Rash” (historically it has also been “the German sickness” and “the Christian disease” among others). In the real world a cure for syphilis would be developed within a decade of the events of The Yellow Emperor’s Cure; within the novel, this seems almost inconceivable.

The Yellow Emperor’s Cure skilfully weaves together its various historical strands, resulting in an unusual, intelligent novel. Yet it is let down by its own simplicity in places, and (particularly when placed next to some of Basu’s earlier work) is eventually a little underwhelming.

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January 6, 2012

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar, Sita’s Ramayana

There’s lots of Ramayana-related literature coming out at the moment. The thing I’m most looking forward to is Zubaan’s Speculative Ramayana anthology (not least because I’m in it), but there are also Arshia Sattar’s book, the furore around the “Three Hundred Ramayanas” essay, various people angsting over Sita Sings the Blues, Sanjay Patel’s Ramayana: Divine Loophole (I don’t have this yet, but it looks beautiful), and others. I spent a big portion of my New Year’s Eve arguing for the Ramayana’s complexity – my interest in it has begun to feel proprietorial – and this flowering of derivative works is a strong argument in its favour. The pick of them so far (for me, at least) remains Sattar’s, but I think I’d have to write a separate piece on that later. For now, last week’s Sunday Guardian review of Arni and Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana.

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In Lost Loves, her collection of essays on the Ramayana, Arshia Sattar suggests that many retellings of the epic “are prompted by those aspects of the text that have made the tradition uncomfortable, for example, the times when Rama acts unrighteously and violates dharma.” This is a big part of the reason that there are so many feminist retellings of the epic – Sita’s fate is, by any yardstick, unjust. Following her husband into exile out of loyalty, she is kidnapped and held captive as part of a feud in which she has played no active part. Upon being rescued she is accused of being unchaste and even after proving herself pure (the idea that she should have been considered guilty if her kidnapper had raped her is itself vile) she is banished in order that her husband’s kingly status not be besmirched. Rama’s treatment of Sita may be the right thing to do for the kingdom, but at a personal level it is a horrendous betrayal.

Samhita Arni and Moyna Chitrakar’s Sita’s Ramayana opens at the moment when the pregnant Sita is abandoned in the forest. Lamenting her current plight, she tells the story of the events leading up to this point.

Sita is offstage for many of what we might consider the main events of the Ramayana – Rama’s search for his wife, the building of alliances and formation of an army, the journey to Lanka and the war itself. One result of shifting the narrative voice to Sita, then, is that these events are telescoped through multiple perspectives – first Hanuman, then Trijatha (Vibhishana’s daughter) fill in for Sita the gaps in her story. This often creates an interesting ambiguity. For example, in telling the story of the death of Valin and the crowning of Sugriva, does Rama’s devotee Hanuman really focus on Tara’s anger and grief at the loss of her husband and at being bundled from one king to another, or is this Sita’s extrapolation (bearing as it does some resemblance to her own fate)?

The extra layer of commentary that these multiple voices adds also allows the text to describe certain acts as outright wrong – the killing of Indrajit for example – something that might have been didactic were it not in the context of a centuries-old tradition of glossing over these sections in mainstream accounts. Though Sita is quite capable of making these judgements on her own; of the Surpanaka incident she claims that “an unjust act only begets greater injustice. Rama should have stopped him. Instead, he spurred him on”. Sita’s voice is a strongly feminist one, and throughout she empathises with the other victimised women in the story – Surpanaka, Trijatha, Tara, Mandodari. It’s a position that sometimes lacks nuance (the “war…is merciful to men” section quoted on the back cover is an example of this). But the polemic is a style in itself, and this one is, for the most part, handled with style.

Of course Sita cannot be the narrator of the whole of her story, since someone has to tell how it ends. When her story reaches the point of her abandonment in the forest (the point which forms the frame narrative for most of the book) it is taken up rather abruptly by a third person narrator. This narrator (possibly Valmiki himself?) tells of Sita’s refuge with Valmiki, the birth and education of Lava and Kusha, and finally the events that lead to Sita’s final encounter with her husband and her departure from the world. It’s hard to see how this particular narrative shift could have been avoided but it is a shame – this last section lacks the layered thoughtfulness of the earlier parts.

Moyna Chitrakar is the real star here. According to the afterword, Sita’s Ramayana was painted before it was written, and it’s obvious that the art is at the heart of the book. Chitrakar is unafraid to play with the panel layout, and often focuses on startling images. The entire book begins with an unusual dramatis personae. The sequence in which Sita arrives in Lanka and refuses to marry Ravana is told in three panels with no human (or divine, or rakshasa for that matter) figures – one depicting the waves of the sea, one the ornate architecture of the city, and one a tree in the palace gardens. Earlier, when Surpanaka gazes upon Lakshmana’s beauty, the artwork objectifies him with her, actually labelling those of his attributes that are most desireable.

In some ways, of our two great epics the Ramayana is even better suited to retellings than the Mahabharata. This is partly because the former has a more contained story to work with, partly because its protagonist is still held up as a moral ideal in ways the latter epic has been spared. Sita’s Ramayana is part of a strong tradition of feminist retellings, yet it manages to feel fresh and to stand up to them.

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