Archive for April, 2012

April 25, 2012

Thanhha Lai, Inside Out and Back Again

A couple of people had good things to say about this book recently – Requires Only That You Hate didn’t hate it, and Larry of the OFBlog thought well of it. So did I, evidently. As I think I say in the review, what makes Lai’s book so remarkable for me is the extent to which it centres Hà so that she’s never the one out of sync with culture, but American culture is out of sync with her.

A longer version of last weekend’s Left of Cool column



Sometimes it seems as if everything about the immigrant experience novel is a little too easy to predict. Displacement, contrast between the culture within the home and outside it, physical difference, amusing linguistic mix-ups (of which the English language provides several), and a general crisis of identity. There’s nothing to stop a writer from telling this story again, and telling it well, but there’s surely a limit to how much it can be done and still feel fresh.

And so it was difficult for me at first to be enthused by Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again when it was published last year. Lai is an American author of Vietnamese descent and the book, her first, is partly autobiographical. People began to pay attention to this book when it received the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature last year.

Inside Out and Back Again tells the story of one year in the life of a young girl. In 1975, Kim Hà and her family live in increasing poverty in South Vietnam. The war has not yet come to this part of the country, but its echoes are being felt. Hà’s own father has disappeared and been missing for many years now. Matters come to a head, and just as Saigon falls, the family boards a ship and leaves the country. This is the first third of the novel; the second and third parts take place first aboard the ship itself, then in Alabama, where Hà’s family must build a new life for themselves.

A large part of what makes Inside Out and Back Again unique is the style. The novel takes place over the span of exactly one year, starting and ending with Tét, the first day of the lunar calendar. The story develops over a series of what appear to be diary entries written by Hà, each of them carefully dated. But this is not a straightforward autobiographical narrative either – the entries themselves are in verse, and the verses themselves are often only obliquely related to what is going on in the plot. The effect of this is to give the words that make up this deceptively slim story a power that they could not otherwise have.

But I heard

on the playground

this year’s bánh chưng,

eaten only during Tét,

will be smeared in blood

(February 12)


But more than this Hà herself makes Inside Out and Back Again work. Because there is no identity crisis here – from the very beginning Hà knows exactly who she is and clings to that knowledge. She is no frail victim of circumstances. We learn that she was an occasional bully in her old school, and see her learn to defend herself in the new one. Where she feels rage and confusion it is not at her own inability to fit in, but the failure of her new country to accommodate her – the inferiority of America’s canned meats and imported dried papayas (she has her own tree at home); the ludicrousness of people who patronise her for being able to count and recite the alphabet when she has graduated to far more advanced literature in her own language; the English language itself. Within the text all of this only serves to make Hà a more engaging character; in the larger context of immigrant books in general this is practically revolutionary.


To make it worse,

the cowboy explains

horses here go

neigh, neigh, neigh,

not hee, hee, hee.

No they don’t.

Where am I?

(August 29)

She must have heard


as in funny ha-ha-ha.

She fakes a laugh.

I repeat, Hà,

and wish I knew

enough English

to tell her

to listen for

the diacritical mark

(September 2)


I mention above the cliches of immigrant fiction, and surely one of these is a difficulty with the new language. It’s less common in literary works, I think (unless you consider The Inscrutable Americans; let’s not)  but occasionally shows up in cinema, and is usually played for laughs. Particularly because so much of this fiction is either in English or directed at people who are familiar with English – we may laugh and agree that the rules of the language are strange and illogical, but we still know that what the supposed non-native speaker has said is incorrect (or is unfortunate innuendo; hilarious!) and in a sense that makes us insiders.

Hà turns the orientalising gaze of her peers (and of the book’s primarily white, English speaking audience) back on them. She plucks red hair from the arm of an American marine and doing so makes white bodies alien. Hà is the centre of her own world, and that is exactly as it should be.




April 25, 2012

Angela Carter, Wise Children

No, not telling you what the sentence is. It’s mine.

From last weekend’s column.



I read quite a lot, by most people’s standards. And I frequently come across bits of writing that awe me with their beauty; lush, dense things that I cannot help but read aloud. Yet only once have I ever looked at a sentence and thought “that’s perfect”. It will come as no surprise to those familiar with her work that the sentence in question was from an Angela Carter book.

Carter was a journalist, a novelist, a critic and a playwright, though she is perhaps best known for The Bloody Chamber, her collection of fairytale re-imaginings. Of her novels, the one with which most people seem to be familiar is Nights at the Circus, her fin de siècle circus fantasy. Her writing seems suited to this sort of setting – over the top, rich, anarchic.

Yet the sentence that stopped me in my tracks years ago was a quiet one, so unobtrusive that sometimes when I go back to look for it I have trouble finding it. For all her illusion of excess, her writing is ultimately controlled and precise.

Perhaps this is why of all her books my favourite is the most outwardly sober. Wise Children was her last novel, and unlike most of the others contains no element of the surreal, the supernatural or the science-fictional. In plot, if Wise Children resembles anything it’s The Bold and the Beautiful. The title comes from the saying “it’s a wise child that knows its own father”. Dora Chance, the narrator of the novel does know her father, but he refuses to acknowledge her in return. Dora and her twin sister Nora are the illegitimate children of the Shakespearean actor Sir Melchior Hazard. The main action of Wise Children takes place over a day – the twins’ seventy-fifth birthday which, coincidentally, is their father’s hundredth. Yet within this time frame we also get the entire history of the Hazards; a multigenerational family saga that begins with the twins’ grandmother Estella, herself an actress.

The novel begins with a reference to the Thames. London is “two cities divided by a river”, and the Chances are definitely from the wrong side of it. “We’ve always lived on the left-hand side, the side the tourist rarely sees, the bastard side of Old Father Thames” and Wise Children delights in the disreputability of its origins. If Melchior is a serious Shakespearian actor, the Chance twins are showgirls. Melchior might wish for a dignified old age; at seventy-five, the Chance girls wear make-up “an inch thick” and sexy underwear. The Hazard family tree has titled aristocrats; the Chances’ ‘family’ appears an agglomeration of strays and bastards. But then, among those the Chance sisters have taken in is Lady Atalanta Lynde, Sir Melchior’s first wife. In addition, Dora suggests that the eminently respectable Hazard family might also carry some suspicion of illegitimacy. And so though Wise Children might appear at first to be a contrast between high and low culture, high and low birth, the two sides of the Thames, the novel will soon unravel those differences completely. The lives of the Chances and the Hazards are completely intertwined, and any pretensions to superiority progressively reduced. Everyone’s a bit disreputable, and some are wise enough to be proud of it.

Because the wisdom in Wise Children is its favoured characters’ unflinching, amused acceptance of the truth. The truth of their birth is only the first example of this – that one thing that their father and his legitimate offspring refuse to admit.

Most of all, it is an absolute delight to read. “What a joy it is to dance and sing!” says Dora, and this exuberance fills the novel. Wise Children may not be as experimental as some of Carter’s other works but it is such a joyful, bawdy, lively thing.



April 22, 2012

Concerning pineapples

Today has been a day filled with pineapple-related delights. There were pineapples and papaya for lunch. There was (via Felix Gilman, whose books you should read) this amazing piece about the effects of pineapples and Pinkwater when applied to standardised tests.  And then.

I’m working on something that has necessitated my reading Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson. I say Wyss, but it’s more complex than that – see here for an account of the various additions and deletions that accompanied the text’s translation into English. I read this version on Project Gutenberg, which I think is largely based on the W.H. Kingston translation from 1849 – the foreword is worded in a way that makes this a bit confusing. This is a pity because my favourite thing about reading this book have been the occasional interpolations by the editor, whoever s/he may be. At one point the narrator of the book chastises his son for lying, even in jest (the son has pretended to have an unsuccessful hunt in order to give his family a surprise). When the narrator does something similar later, the editor complains, ” He has forgotten his dictum about truth even in jest”. But far better than this is our editor’s increasing frustration over the book’s misrepresentation of pineapples.

In chapter 4:

We forced our way through with difficulty, so thick and tangled were the reeds. Beyond this, the landscape was most lovely. Rich tropical vegetation flourished on every side: the tall stately palms, surrounded by luxuriant ferns; brilliant flowers and graceful creepers; the prickly cactus, shooting up amidst them; aloe, jasmine and sweet-scented vanilla; the Indian pea and, above all, the regal pineapple*, loaded the breath of the evening breeze with their rich perfume. The boys were delighted with the pineapple, and so eagerly did they fall to, that my wife had to caution them that there were no doctors on our territory, and that if they became ill, they would have to cure themselves as best they might.

* At this point the author seems to assume that pineapples grow on trees. They do not.

And in chapter 6:

`The ground is light and easy to dig hereabouts,’ she replied. `I have planted potatoes, and cassava-roots, there is space for sugar-canes, and the young fruit trees, and I shall want you to contrive to irrigate them, by leading water from the cascades in hollow bamboos. Up by the sheltering rocks I mean to have pineapples* and melons, they will look splendid when they spread there. To shelter the beds of European vegetables from the heat of the sun, I have planted seeds of maize round them. The shadow of the tall plants will afford protection from the burning rays. Do you think that is a good plan?’

* The author now thinks pineapples grow on vines. They do not.


Pineapples are only mentioned once more in the book and they’re on a plate, so we cannot know if the narrator would have eventually turned them into roots, and if this would have caused the editor to give up in despair.


April 20, 2012

Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook

Silly piece I did for the Left of Cool column last week.



Earlier this week a major newspaper published for its readers an illustrated guide to how to avoid being choked from behind by a pursuer with a rope or long cloth. This sort of choking could kill you, explained the paper, or be a prelude to a rape or mugging. But the first step in fighting back, should this happen to you, was to not panic.

I’m doomed, I thought.

I’ve learnt over the years that I am no good in an emergency. I freeze at the slightest hint of danger. Any advice whose first step is “keep calm” is wasted on me. This is a terrible pity, because in other circumstances The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook would be an absolute boon.

The first Worst-Case Scenario Handbook, edited by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht, was published a little over a decade ago. Since then it has inspired an American reality TV series and a number of specialised sequels that explored the worst things that could possibly happen to you while playing golf, on holiday, at a wedding and so forth.

The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Handbook therefore is able to copllect a huge variety of life-saving techniques; from escaping a stampede of giraffes (wade into a nearby body of water or climb a tree to escape their hooves) to delivering a baby in a taxi (both regular and breech births).

The book is handily divided into sections, featuring headings such as “Social Disasters”, “Great Escapes”, “Domestic Dangers” and “Animal Encounters”. One of the great things about this is that it allows you to fully appreciate the sheer range of terrors that even a normal life could easily throw your way. Reading up on how to free one’s leg from a bear trap or to foil an abduction by aliens (do not panic – this may cause the Extraterrestrial Biological Entity to act rashly) the casual reader might easily think that this is not the book for her. Many of the worst-case scenarios provided seem as if they would only be of use to a globetrotting adventurer – certainly most of us are unlikely ever to be stranded on a desert island or to have to cross a piranha-infested river. The chances of our experiencing plane crashes are perhaps a bit higher, but it’s still highly improbable that we will find ourselves landing a plane in the absence of anyone more qualified. And yet the book moves smoothly between these and other dangers that do sound familiar – dealing with a crying baby on a flight, sleeping unobtrusively through a boring lecture, identifying bad cafeteria food and fending off pick-up artists. The tips for escaping a meeting seem impractical and might have serious career consequences, but we have all felt that particular temptation at some time or the other. And “How to Thwart an Affectionate Costumed Mascot” will resonate with anyone who has ever been pursued by a man in a bunny suit.

One of the amazing things about The Complete Worst-Case Scenario handbook is how it forces you to reconsider what may at first seem flippant, or careless advice. For every moment where you think “no, that could never matter to me”, there’s another where you’re filing the information away for fuller use.  And so I have laughed at a number of the subheadings in the book, but I’ve also filed away the section on being unobtrusive about difficulties at a wedding, applying for a job one isn’t really qualified for, and, yes, escaping quicksand.

Another great book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (mentioned frequently in Douglas Adams’ trilogy of the same name) took “Don’t Panic” for its motto. The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Handbook mostly confines its scope to the Earth, but it is a useful reminder that there’s an entire universe of disaster out there awaiting us all. Now please stay calm.



April 16, 2012

From the reading while brown chronicles

Gail Carriger’s Timeless has, early on, a werewolf smelling someone unusual. “Something spicy and exotic and – he paused, trying to think – sandy”.

The character he smells speaks Arabic and is implied to be Egyptian. This is not a spoiler – the Sphinx and some pyramids are on the book’s cover.

There is a tradition of having exotic Eastern characters be associated with the smell of spices.

Sometimes Eastern writers do this to themselves.

Werewolves have an acute sense of smell so probably can smell the difference in someone used to a different cuisine.

Perhaps Egyptian werewolves think English people smell of tea. We don’t meet any Egyptian (or otherwise non-European) werewolves in the series, so it’s hard to be sure.

Sometimes I smell of cloves. That’s because of my anti-acne gel, so if you notice it it’s probably because my skin is having a bad week. It’s politest not to point it out.

I mentioned the werewolf thing on Twitter. I said “You know, I’d prefer it if the Egyptian character didn’t smell “sandy” and “spicy” to a werewolf…”. I rolled my eyes. I went on with the book.

I enjoyed Timeless. I have enjoyed all the Parasol Protectorate books. I especially like Professor Lyall. In my head he looks like Paul Bettany. No one agrees with me about this, though I have many long casting discussions about these books.

Some people who saw my twitter update said they were less interested in reading the series if this was the sort of thing they could expect. I said no, no it’s really good.

I thought – what a pity if such a small thing should turn someone off reading a book entirely.

English is the only language I am really comfortable reading. Most things I read growing up had moments that threw me out of the text.

Perhaps being able to dismiss a book for alienating you thus (because you always assume that you’ll find something else that doesn’t treat you as other) is easier if you belong to a group of people for whom books generally are more likely to be written.

Perhaps my willingness to overlook the spicy, sandy Egyptian and go on with the book is unhelpful and unlikely to lead to change.

Perhaps I can shrug off occasional, throwaway orientalism in a book because it’s easier on me.

I think the racism in, say, Rider Haggard is quite funny.

I have a strange, antagonistic relationship with the books I read growing up. I love them and I also like to tear them to bits. I think it’s made me a better reader. If it was a relationship it would be very dysfunctional.

I argue for greater diversity of characters and settings in genre fiction. I think genre fiction (and all fiction, but genre still feels like mine in some way) would be better for this.

I feel uncomfortable when well-meaning allies argue for greater diversity on behalf of the poor Brown/Queer/ThirdWorld child who grows up reading English language fiction and never sees herself reflected in any of this.

Do they see me as fundamentally broken as a reader because I grew up that way? I don’t ask.

I think there’s lots wrong with me as a reader (insufficiently critical; sometimes dismissive; too lazy; not smart enough; too lazy) but I don’t think I’m broken.

If I had sufficient critical rigour there would probably be a Homi Bhabha quote here.


April 11, 2012

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars

Before I watched John Carter last month I reread A Princess of Mars for the first time in many years. I realised I’d forgotten most of the plot but very little of the feel of the place – for all its problems (and they are legion) Barsoom is a truly epic setting.
Because I am a lazy person, this month’s short column for Kindle magazine was about A Princess of Mars.


For most of human history we have known very little about space – for that matter, we still do. Dreams of space travel once focused primarily on the moon, the heavenly body most visible to the naked eye. But then telescopes were invented and we began to learn more about the planets, our knowledge growing with improving technology.

In the 1870s the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli discovered a strange feature on the surface of Mars – the appearance of straight lines. He called these “canalli”, or “channels”. When Schiaparelli’s findings were translated into English the relatively innocent “canalli” was translated as “canals”, the latter word carrying the connotation that these lines were man- (or martian-) made. This was probably the reason behind the flowering of fiction about Martians at the turn of the twentieth century.

Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is one such work of fiction, published in 1912. It tells of John Carter, a former confederate soldier and now gold prospector who, while fleeing from savage apaches (racial sensitivity is not one of the strong points of this book) stumbles into a mysterious cave and, in an incomprehensible series of events, has an out of body experience and is transported/astrally projected to Mars.

Carter’s early hours on Mars do at least pay lip service to the fact that it would be difficult to survive on a planet other than one’s own. He has trouble adjusting to the difference in gravity, and does not speak the language of the natives – Mars, or Barsoom, is home to various species of alien but they share a common tongue. This state of affairs does not last for long. Soon enough he is adopted by the four-armed green Martians (known as the Tharks), and it seems a matter of days before he has mastered their language, and begun to rise in their ranks. If all this seems something of a cliché, it’s because A Princess of Mars is one of the founding texts of the genre. It’s also why Carter is the least interesting thing about this book. Things get a lot more fun when the titular princess, the humanoid Dejah Thoris of Helium, shows up. In what is a rather scattered plot, Carter and Dejah Thoris escape, bring down a rival ruler, and unite the green and “red” (humanoid) Martians.

Yet the plot isn’t really that important. What makes A Princess of Mars work is Barsoom itself – a dying planet with a failing civilisation. We’re told very little of the history of Barsoom. We learn that there were once more humanoid races; that, like Earth, Mars once had seas. We’re told almost nothing of the strange old men who operate the machinery that keeps the Martian air breathable.

It’s easy to see why in John Carter, Andrew Stanton’s 2012 adaptation of the novel, the director should have chosen to jettison most of the plot, cobbling together a new one and focusing on the visual depiction of the planet. Because A Princess of Mars isn’t really a very good book, but Barsoom? Barsoom is glorious.


April 11, 2012

A signal boost (with some added self-promotion)

Fabio Fernandes and The Future Fire have started a Peerbackers project to finance a collection of colonialism-themed SFF from outside the first world perspective.

Much widely distributed science fiction and fantasy is written by American and other Anglophone authors, and treats subjects close to the hearts of straight, white, English-speaking men. There’s nothing wrong with this sci-fi itself—we love lots of it—but there’s clearly something missing. Having white Anglo cis/hetero/males as (the only) role models is not an option any more. We aim to redress this balance, not only by publishing speculative stories by people with different viewpoints and addressing concerns from outside of the usual area (seeWorld SF), but also by explicitly including fiction that addresses the profound socio-political issues around colonisation and colonialism (see Race in SF). We want to see political stories: not partisan-political, but writing that recognizes the implications for real people and cultures of the events and actions that make up science fictional or fantastic histories, as well as our own history.

This looks like being an exciting project, and Fabio and Djibril are Good People. You can donate to the anthology here (where they also explain how much they hope to raise and how they plan to spend it). Hopefully some of you will also consider submitting work for consideration.


As for non-first-world sf that already exists, Zubaan’s Breaking the Bow, now has a cover which you can see here. This collection has been a long time coming – I’ve been suppressing my excitement about it for over a year now. It’s an anthology of speculative fiction based on the Ramayana and contains stories by Kuzhali Manickavel, Manjula Padmanabhan, Lavie Tidhar, Tabish Khair and Tori Truslow, among others, and is edited by Anil Menon and Vandana Singh (who also has a story in the anthology). There’s also a story by me; please do not read it though you may admire my name in the table of contents.

I’m still not sure when this is due out, except that it’s “soon”; but I get to share this because now that it has a cover it is a thing that exists.

Edit: I knew I’d forget something. The cover is by Pinaki De, who has been responsible for some of my favourite covers in Indian publishing over the last few years. 

April 8, 2012

Amit Gopalakrishnan, She Was My Dream Girl…..But She Was a Guy!!

Some years ago I wrote a few rather mean reviews of some of the new Indian campus novels. They were all posted on my blog (tagged “(sic)“) and people seemed to enjoy them, particularly some of the quotes. I took them down when I started working for a publisher, but today have put them back up again. This is mainly to provide context for the thing I am about to post.

As you know, I write a column and occasionally review for this paper. A few months ago we discovered that there would be an edition of the paper out on the first of April. The result: Jai Arjun Singh on the forgotten film Shaitani Anand; Deepanjana Pal on an exciting new app, Bhanuj Kappal on the Scammie awards, and this gorgeous extract from Siddharth Singh’s debut novel, Symphony of Meretricious Wounds. And my own contribution below.



One of the difficulties with (and therefore one of the most interesting things about) reading first person narratives is working out just how much the text itself endorses the opinions voiced by the characters. India has in recent years seen an explosion of such novels. These are romances or coming-of-age stories told in the first person by young male characters who are frequently college students. To the lay reader it can be difficult to sure of the relationship between the protagonist and the text – is the raging misogyny and homophobia ubiquitous in this genre endorsed by its authors, or is their presence merely part of a successful attempt to create authentic-sounding characters? Is the characters’ seeming lack of awareness regarding their own horrific behaviour something at which the text is attempting to poke fun, or is the reader expected to take it seriously? The distinction between author and character is further elided by the fact that in many of these books the two share the same name. The narrator of Pankaj Pandey’s The Saga of Love Via Telephone …tring tring…is named Pankaj, for example. And though the protagonist of Arpit Dugar’s Nothing For You My Dear Still I Love You….! is named Avinash, at one point a character addresses him as “Arpit”.

At a first glance, Amit Gopalakrishnan’s She Was My Dream Girl…..But She was a Guy!! appears no different from other books in the genre. Gopalakrishnan’s hero is also named “Amit”; he belongs to an engineering college and is unsuccessful with women; he falls in love. In the early chapters of the book he shows contempt for those around him, believing that his lack of social success is a result of the shallow people around him, rather than of his own failings. His retreat into the internet is a direct consequence of this. Here, he believes, he is finally able to vent his frustrations and truly express himself. It’s clear that Gopalakrishnan has done his homework – Amit’s internet postings, on various messageboards and then on Twitter, will feel utterly authentic to anyone who has ever ventured to read the comments on a major news site. The format of the book is innovative as well, with Amit’s internet activity depicted graphically so as to look like a snapshot taken of the website.

But it is with Amit’s forays into internet romance that the reader gradually becomes aware that Gopalakrishnan is trying something genuinely new. I mentioned above the apparent lack of awareness that many characters in the genre have with regard to their own actions and how they might appear to others. This is particularly true of their behaviour towards the women around them. Internet romances have been depicted in earlier books. In some, it is a comic subplot in which the objects of the romance turn out to be other than expected – unattractive, of the wrong age, or the wrong gender. In others, such as the abovementioned Saga of Love Via Telephone …tring tring…, it is entirely successful – in that book the main character merely keeps messaging the woman in question until she is forced to notice. Gopalakrishnan’s Amit, on the other hand, actually thinks about the ways in which he may be perceived online, and eventually rethinks a number of his attitudes. He begins to have feelings for Roshni, another commentor on a major website, but worries that she will find his pursuit ‘creepy’. Instead he creates a ‘female’ identity for himself, Aditi, and uses this to befriend her.

Of course, the twist in the tale has already been given away by the title of the book. It’s hard to decide whether this is a good choice or an unfortunate one – if we’re deprived of the moment of revelation, we’re also in a better position to appreciate the subtlety of the conversations that lead up to it. “Roshni” is really “Roshan”. To have one character enact such a charade would merely reiterate the tired old cliché about people on the internet not being what they seem; to have both do so allows for levels of gender play that Shakespeare could scarcely have bettered between “Roshni” and Amit, “Roshni” and “Aditi” and eventually Roshan and Amit. As a metaphor there’s something lovely about this serialised stripping away of fake identities, and the romance between the two boys has the happy ending we’re all rooting for.

She Was My Dream Girl…..But She Was a Guy!! is not perfect. Taking on his female identity forces Amit to reconsider many of his opinions, but his reformation is a little too pat. As is his immediate acceptance of his sexual attraction to a man, which feels rather rushed. But it feels churlish to complain when faced with a book this genre-aware and a love story this sweet.





This may be the only time I ever use the “fiction” tag on this blog.

April 3, 2012

March Reading

This month was mostly made of work and rereads.


John Berger, Hold Everything Dear: I’m not sure what to say about this collection of pieces (‘dispatches’, according to the book’s subtitle) in poetry and prose that examine various aspects of the post-9/11 world. There’s a lot on Palestine, there’s a lot that is intensely personal, there’s a section on desire that I found myself typing out. Because this is Berger it often teeters between being beautiful and being precious. On the whole, beauty wins.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars:  I wanted to reread this before I watched John Carter (which, for all that it couldn’t entirely escape the politics of its source text, was great fun) and so chose to write about it for my column in April’s Kindle magazine. The section of the book I remembered best is one that the recent movie omitted, and that would have little place in a sensible, well-crafted plot. It’s the bit where Carter meets an old man who runs the machinery responsible for keeping the Barsoomian air breathable. He then forgets all about this until the final pages of the book, where the incident suddenly becomes immensely important. I remember it because it seems weird and out of place – a moment of genuine strangeness.

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog: I reviewed this for The Sunday Guardian and will post a link or repost it on the blog when it is up. Briefly, though, I thought that it engaged less with the various schools of philosophy that it mentioned than I hoped it would, and the younger character in particular came across as less brilliant and more sulky than I think was intended. Despite this, it charmed me utterly – one of the funniest, most quotable books I expect to read this year.

Kiran Nagarkar, Ravan & Eddie: I was given a copy of The Extras to review and it seemed a good opportunity to reread Ravan & Eddie. I think I first read the book when I was in school or in the early years of college. I remembered that it was funny, but I was surprised, on rereading, to see that I’d forgotten how dark it also was. Still brilliant, of course.

Kiran Nagarkar, The Extras: Reviewed here.

Ursula Le Guin, A Wizard of Earthsea: Apart from skimming the Roke chapters (while I was writing my thesis about three years ago) I had not read A Wizard of Earthsea since my first year of college, which was when I bought my four-in-one omnibus edition. I had a piece on fantastic voyages to write (I’ll link to it here when it is published in late April) and remembered Ged’s pursuit of his shadow as having some of the loveliest prose. I wasn’t wrong:

With hand and spell Ged turned his boat, and it leaped like a dolphin from the water, rolling, in that quick turn. Faster than before he followed, but the shadow grew ever fainter to his eyes. Rain, mixed with sleet and snow, came stinging across his back and his left cheek, and he could not see more than a hundred yards ahead. Before long, as the storm grew heavier, the shadow was lost to sight. Yet Ged was sure of its track as if he followed a beast’s track over snow, instead of a wraith fleeing over water. Though the wind blew his way now he held the singing magewind in the sail, and flake-foam shot from the boat’s blunt prow, and she slapped the water as she went.


But he was not watching the ocean now, or not the ocean that Vetch saw, a waste of heaving water to the rim of the sky. In Ged’s eyes there was a dark vision that overlapped and veiled the grey sea and the grey sky, and the darkness grew, and the veil thickened. None of this was visible to Vetch, except when he looked at his friend’s face; then he too saw the darkness for a moment. They went on, and on. And it was as if, though one wind drove them in one boat, Vetch went east over the world’s sea, while Ged went alone into a realm where there was no east or west, no rising or setting of the sun, or of the stars.

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games: I’d wanted to reread this before the movie was released, and anyway had to write a piece on YA dystopias (posted here). I’m still very ambivalent about this series as a whole; while I think the universe is full of holes and the politics distinctly patchy, there are so many moments when Collins gets something exactly right and the whole thing comes to life.

C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader: I was writing the piece on fantastic voyages, I took this book out to find a particular quote, and then reread it over lunch. Of all the Narnia books this is most people’s favourite – in quality the only one that can compare, for me, is The Horse and His Boy, and that one is spoilt a bit by the rampant racism. But (and I’m sure I’ve said this before) am I really the only one who cannot help comparing the last bit of the journey to the end of Arthur Gordon Pym?

Tove Jansson, Finn Family Moomintroll, the complete comic strip (vol. 3) and Moominland Midwinter: Ekaterina Sedia started a #Moomin2012 hashtag on twitter, and I realised it had been a while since I’d read any of the books. My Moomin collection is very incomplete (which is one reason I’m not rereading the books in order), and I only really discovered Jansson as an adult. But there’s something so good about these books – and I mean that in a moral way as well as a judgement of quality – something fundamentally generous-spirited. But there’s also a complexity of emotion that occasionally pops up that you rarely see in books for adults, and I don’t think the comic does as good a job of conveying this as the books. Take this, from Moominland Midwinter: “Such things just are, but one never knows why, and one feels hopelessly apart.” Or “Too-ticky shrugged her shoulders. ‘One has to discover everything for oneself,’ she replied. “And get over it all alone.’” I’m rereading Tales from Moominvalley right now, and I suspect next month it’s going to be a struggle not to just quote the whole of Snufkin’s journey back home. I loved books as a child, but it was always startling to discover characters who had complex feelings that I understood and shared. It’s why I loved Antonia Forest; I would have loved the Moomins.

Jack Vance, Lyonesse: Suldrun’s Garden: As with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, I only meant to leaf through the book for a particular quote. But the Lyonesse books are a bit more substantial than Narnia, and I had to set aside a whole day for my reread. This was entirely worth it. I’m a huge fan of Vance’s high, ironic style, but with Lyonesse there’s also something childlike. I want to say it’s innocence but it isn’t that at all – terrible things happen, there’s murder, suicide, slavery, depression, rape, paedophilia. But there’s also a sense that all this is play – that we can pack up our toys and go home when it’s finished. If that sounds cruel, it probably is, but it also gives Lyonesse some of the soft-focus, golden-light quality of childhood memory. I’ll be rereading the other two books in the series this month; I’m not sure how I went so long without them.

Dorita Fairlie Bruce, Dimsie Moves Up: I’d only read a couple of the Dimsie books – the first, and then a couple of the later ones – and remembered being distinctly unimpressed. I liked this one better than any of them. Bruce occasionally breaks into an elevated, exclamatory tone that makes it appear as if she’s mocking her characters. It’s possible that I missed this in the earlier books I read (unless she changed style drastically for this one book) – I don’t know, but it makes the books more complex than they had previously appeared to me.

Antonia Forest, Peter’s Room: Those of you who were following my Antonia Forest readthrough will know that I took a break from them in December because I was too busy to continue. That isn’t entirely true – I could have continued in the last couple of months, but I was putting it off. I think Peter’s Room is brilliant; it is more nuanced than pretty much anything I expect to read this year. But there’s a moment midway through the book when it wrecks me. Those of you who have read it might understand – it’s Nicola hearing Patrick call Ginty “Rosina”. Peter’s Room is all about roleplaying, and in this moment she realises that her friend and her sister are playing without her. Later books (and fanfiction) will make Ginty and Nicola’s rivalry over Patrick at least partly romantic, but I don’t think it’s entirely that here – or not yet, for Nicola. This will seem like I’m going off on a complete tangent, because I’m going to talk here about the BBC’s Sherlock [spoilers ahead]. The first episode of the most recent season ends with John Watson learning that Irene Adler is dead, and trying to protect his friend (who he believes has feelings for Adler, and he may be right) from the knowledge. We then cut to Adler about to be beheaded in Karachi by men in robes, one of whom is holding a curved sword (seriously?) But then one of the men present is Sherlock Holmes in disguise and he saves her from the evil brown men with apparently medieval weaponry while she kneels and cries! Obviously on an intellectual level I have huge issues with this. But when I watched the show it just made me feel a bone-deep sadness because John didn’t know. That is my difficulty with Peter’s Room. There’s a betrayal of exclusion in both cases; I can’t think why this particular thing should upset me so, but it makes me utterly miserable.

April 1, 2012

Kiran Nagarkar, The Extras

Almost the best thing about reviewing The Extras was that it gave me an excuse to reread Ravan & Eddie and claim that I was working. I’m not sure if The Extras is ever going to achieve the sort of cultural importance that Ravan & Eddie has (I’m not sure it’s quite as good, even though that has no real bearing on the question of whether it will endure as well) but I wish everything I was given to review was of a quality as high as this.  My review of Nagarkar’s latest was published in this weekend’s Indian Express.



Before embarking upon Kiran Nagarkar’s The Extras I reread Ravan & Eddie, the book to which The Extras is a sequel. Ravan & Eddie is the story of two boys born and raised in a Bombay chawl. Precluded from ever being friends by an incident in early life (Eddie’s father saved the baby Ravan from falling to his death and in doing so lost his own life) the two boys nonetheless lead parallel lives; both are unsuccessful at school, both become enamoured of films, and both learn martial arts.

When The Extras opens, Ravan and Eddie are on the cusp of adulthood. Ravan has a brief career with a wedding band before becoming a taxi driver, while Eddie balances a job in a speakeasy with a band of his own. In time, both are drawn inexorably towards Bollywood, and they meet and form an uneasy alliance as extras (or “sub-artistes”) in the movies.

As a sequel to Ravan & Eddie, The Extras mimics much of the style of the earlier book. Here again are the droll, scattered essays on various aspects of Bombay (and Indian) life that pop up every once in a while. (One of these kindly tells the reader that she should feel free to skip it and return to the main story a few pages later). Here also is the careful, almost too obvious parallel structuring of the two main characters’ lives. If Ravan lies to his mother about his job with a band, Eddie pretends to be working as a car mechanic. Ravan is taken in by a conman who offers him a passport and a Dubai visa; at the airport he learns that Eddie has suffered the same fate. With a rather excessive bit of symbolism Nagarkar at one point has these aspiring movie starts dance as mirrored, chromatic opposites in an item number featuring Helen and titled “Black or White”.

The author takes things even further by providing counterpoints to events from the previous book – aspects of Eddie’s relationship with the “Aunty” who runs the speakeasy, and Ravan’s foray into Catholicism will both seem very familiar. Reading the books in quick succession it was hard, for a great deal of The Extras, to remember where one book ended and the other began.

The Extras really comes into its own in the latter half of the book. One of the major shifts is that the impersonal essays peter out, to be replaced with more personal accounts of the city in the form of letters from a powerful criminal with whom Ravan has become embroiled. The tentative friendship that is formed between the two young men is expertly done – there are no sudden revelations of blamelessness on either side – it is entirely organic.

The Bombay of the late 1960s is fully alive, corrupt, chaotic, horrifying, full of violence but also unexpected kindnesses. Nagarkar rarely romanticises the city, but he observes it in loving detail until the city itself is as big a presence as the main characters. We move from grim scenes of botched abortions in the red light district to comic set pieces, including one in which a character attempts to hide his venereal disease from the family who visit him in the hospital.

The Extras is subtitled “★ing Ravan & Eddie”. This brings up a recurring theme of the book – are Ravan and Eddie the stars of their own story, or are they merely the “extras” of the title? A conversation with a fellow “extra” late in the book raises the question again.

One of the strengths of Ravan & Eddie was that it did not give its titular characters the story arc of a protagonist, allowing the central conflicts of their lives to go unresolved. This is The Extras’ biggest departure from the previous novel. Here, Ravan and Eddie may be naïve, ignorant and prone to failure, but they can also be extraordinary. The latter half of The Extras is pure Bollywood- the meteoric rise to fame, a partnership involving (shades of Amar, Akbar, Anthony!) a Hindu, a Christian and a Muslim; one of the characters may even, in the face of religious difference and family opposition, get the girl in the end. Eddie stubbornly declares that he and Eddie can at least be the stars of their own lives and here, in the book not named after them, Ravan and Eddie come into their own.