Archive for March, 2013

March 26, 2013

Elsewhere

A short post at The Hooded Utilitarian about Jhangir Kerawala’s Timpa comics, here.

Possibly relevant, this post from last year about one of the weirder Tintin comics.

March 26, 2013

Karen Russell, Vampires in the Lemon Grove

I don’t think I’ve ever written about St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves on this blog, but a review of Swamplandia! is here.

I’m a little shocked that I managed to write an entire piece on Russell without spending half of it gushing about her prose; even now I’m tempted to quote favourite passages, but they’re never as overwhelming when dragged out of context as one would want them to be.

From this weekend’s Left of Cool column:

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Karen Russell was still in her early twenties in 2007 when her first book, St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, was published. A collection of odd, often fantastic short stories (the title story is about exactly what it says it is about), one of the things St Lucy’s Home … often returned to was the theme of childhood—of being on the verge of that transition from child to adult. Of finding one’s place in a world that is strange, not only because that is what adolescence is like, but because all of Russell’s worlds are strange. This space between child and adult is something that Russell seems to enjoy exploring. Her debut novel Swamplandia!, published in 2011, rests its shattering climactic moment on the cusp of innocence and experience*.

Childhood and its end come up several times in Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Russell’s second collection of short stories (and third book). “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” is about a summer in the life of an awkward young man, complete with family woes, unrequited love and worryingly intelligent seagulls. It’s a story that feels very much of a piece with those in St Lucy’s Home  and it’s unsurprising when the copyright page reveals that it was first published in 2009. “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” and “Proving Up” both have teenaged protagonists face horrifying things. And the idea of youth forms a part of “The New Veterans”, published in Granta’s Betrayal issue earlier this year. “The New Veterans” has a middle-aged massage therapist literally working the painful memories out of a much younger soldier and taking them upon herself.

If the line between child and adult is something that Russell often revisits, a number of these stories are also concerned with another form of transformation; the line between human and monster. The title story concerns Magreb and Clyde, two aging vampires who have lived lifetimes staving off their hunger for blood and the necessity of becoming the sort of monsters that stories make of them (as well as their vulnerability to such stories). “Reeling for the Empire” has young girls literally transformed into human-silkworm hybrids. And yet Clyde is never as vulnerable, or as human, as when he kills, and it’s as they become less and less human that the silk women unite and organise themselves against their exploiters. The teenaged characters in “The Graveless Doll of Eric Mutis” are simultaneously young and vulnerable, and capable of horrific things, and our hearts ache most for them when they’re at their worst. And surely there’s something sinister about Derek Zeiger in “The New Veterans”, once he has lost the awful memory of his friend’s death?

Then there are the US presidents transformed into horses in “The Barn at the End Of Our Term”, and marine food chains turned into spectator sports in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”. Russell usually shows respect for the fantastic elements of her stories. She resists the temptation to reduce them to metaphor—in these stories tattoos can have lives of their own; vampires who can change into bats really do exist; the genetically modified workers of “Reeling for the Empire” are not just ideas but have real, insectoid bodies described in often unpleasant detail.

The stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove span a period of about six years, and have all been published elsewhere before. As a result there’s no real sense of the collection as a unified whole, though Russell often revisits the same set of themes and ideas. This doesn’t work in the collection’s favour—it results in a sense of sameness that doesn’t feel deliberate or structured. It’s an odd complaint to make about a collection that is made up of a number of strong individual short stories, but Vampires in the Lemon Grove feels to me like less than the sum of its parts. Yet the flashes of brilliance, when they come, more than make up for this.

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* I allude to this moment in the Swamplandia! review I link to above, but I think it’s important to that book that it not be discussed prior to a first reading (and please consider this a spoiler alert). Part of the reason the book works as well as it does, at least from this angle, is that we know Russell as a writer of adolescents in sometimes-magical worlds. Swamplandia! is never outrightly magical but it’s always potentially so- it’s always possible that something supernatural is going on, that Ossie really is meeting with a ghost, but we don’t see this, we don’t know. And so as long as it is possible that the entrance to the Underworld is in the Everglades, and that the Bird Man is taking Ava there, it’s easy not to think of the other possibilities, particularly when they are possibilities that wouldn’t occur to our child narrator. And then that horrible climactic moment: the Bird Man has been lying, and the adult reader is reminded that there are other reasons a grown man might want to spirit a young girl away to an isolated spot. Ava is raped while the reader is still in her head; there is no magic or if it is it isn’t here.

All of which only goes to show that Russell should be in some ways considered a horror writer- that moment in Swamplandia! is one of the most viscerally terrifying things I’ve read.

March 20, 2013

Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, Tina’s Mouth

This was fun. From this weekend’s column:

 

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“To be honest, Sartre, up until last week I did not have the slightest interest in the meaning of my existence”.

Tina Malhotra is the youngest member of her family, and attends a prestigious, and expensive, school in California. “Prestigious” here means the sort of school where it is normal to take a class on existentialism. Philosophy isn’t that interesting to Tina, though, until a particularly disastrous period in her school life when her best friend grows overly absorbed with a new boyfriend and leaves her behind. Tina has no one to have lunch with, an unrequited crush, and has never been kissed. Perhaps writing a diary addressed to Jean-Paul Sartre will help her to figure things out.

Describing itself as “an existential comic diary”, Tina’s Mouth, by Keshni Kashyap and Mari Araki, chronicles the events of one semester in Tina’s life. These include the end of her oldest friendship, her first kiss, and varying degrees of family drama. The “comic” part of the equation (though it’s also frequently a very funny book) is provided by Mari Araki’s illustrations.

Like most people reading this, I have never attended an American High School. I have (again, I suspect, like most people) watched far too many teen movies, and read far too many teenage books, and recognise all of the tropes. So it’s sometimes hard to tell how far Kashyap and Araki’s depiction of Yarborough Academy is authentic and how far it is specifically intended to invoke these tropes. There’s certainly an awareness of, and a willingness to play with the tropes of the high school story; the cool teacher who smokes pot, the charming, unattainable crush, the terrible secrets and betrayals heard in the girls’ bathrooms, and the division of the student body into ridiculous cliques. So we have “hippies”, “cheerleaders”, and “skaters” (are there really still skaters?), but there are also “pseudo-intellectual-future-art-school-hipsters”, and anti-racism clubs featuring white boys with dreadlocks. The back jacket of the book describes Tina as a “wry observer” of those around her, and this is sometimes true. But often Kashyap’s satire is light-handed, allowing the reader to see the absurdity of things and behaviours Tina takes for granted. This is certainly true of the many sections in which Tina’s Indianness comes into play; when the mother of a friend refers to her as “my little six-armed goddess”, or the boy she has a crush on expects her to teach him about Buddhism, it’s far more effective than the more explicit list of silly questions people ask about her heritage that she provides at the beginning of the book.

One of the things that makes Tina’s Mouth work is the matter-of-fact way in which Tina’s Indian origins are merged with other aspects of her life. The book never makes a particularly big deal about the fact that Tina once had a crush on Lord Krishna, or that her sister, whose last boyfriend was a German architect, must fight off Pinky Aunty’s matchmaking her with doctors. An old story about Krishna’s mother Yashodha seeing the universe in her son’s mouth comes up over and over. No book deserves credit merely for avoiding a lazy stereotype, but so many books make this cultural difference the site of angst that this approach comes as a relief.

It’s probably clear from all of this that despite Sartre’s presence Tina’s Mouth is not a book that engages deeply with philosophy; though there’s a throwaway conversation about Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and a scrawled “Die Camus # ❤” on the last page. It manages not to be too precious with its references, which is really the most one could hope for.

Araki’s art is charming and detailed. In one scene, as an increasingly drunk aunt lectures Tina about feminism, philosophy, and the superiority of European (as opposed to American) men, Tina’s mother’s increasing disgust at the smoke from the aunt’s cigarette is never alluded to by the narrative, but becomes the focus of interest for this set of panels. These are real people, and the book never lets us forget that.

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March 16, 2013

Noel Streatfeild, The Painted Garden

This last few weeks I’ve been reading Karen Russell’s latest collection of short stories, Vampires in the Lemon Grove. One of the stories in this is “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979″, which features Nal, who is 14 and in love with Vanessa Grigalunas who is now dating his brother Samson whose ease with women is a constant source of wonderment to Nal. But it all ends happily; Nal, who (naturally) cares for Vanessa in much deeper ways than Samson can claim to, gets the girl.

I’m being more dismissive of Russell’s story than it deserves; Russell is a writer I love, and this is still a good story.  Except that I find whenever I’m called upon to get into the heads of awkward, quiet children and teenagers in literature (and I do, and I love it) they seem to be teenaged boys.

So I’ve been thinking about Subashini‘s fantastic post on Adam Kotsko’s Awkwardness and awkward women (I’ve had Kotsko’s book for a year now and have utterly failed to finish reading it, despite enjoying the sections I did read). That post is here – the comments are also very worth reading for links that expand that particular discussion. Of late, a friend and I have spent a lot of time discussing our need for a Gauche Girl Canon and what that would entail, and I’d love for this to become a wider conversation at some point (Suba?)

 

Not-entirely-relatedly, Deepa D recently posted a group review of Vacations From Hell, a collection of short stories by five young adult authors. I recommend it as a review because it is a hilarious takedown of the stories in question, but this bit (from the discussion of Cassandra Clare’s “The Mirror House” struck me:

I wouldn’t have thought any boy who looked like he did had interests outside maybe sports and girls, just like I never would have thought he’d have any time at all for a skinny, unpopular girl who wore unmatching socks and boys’ T-shirts because she didn’t know what she was supposed to be wearing anyway.

deepad: It’s always so convenient for the teenage girls to dismiss themselves as ‘skinny’ and supposedly unattractive, no? Heaven forbid fat teenagers get persuaded of their desirability through the power of golden shiny male teenage lust.

 

In teenage romance, in stories about protagonists learning that they are desirable, said protagonist will very rarely be fat; obviously her supposed ugliness must be the result of something that can be explained away so that she was conventionally attractive all along.

But (and I’m sure I’m conflating things that are completely unrelated here) even if it wasn’t a romance, even if it didn’t need to have a happy ending, how many books are there that allow us unattractive young women (because they’re not pretty, because they’re awkward, because they’re unpleasant) as their protagonists?

And so to this week’s Left of Cool column.

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I have a fondness for Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden that persists despite its unfortunate India-set opening scenes. The Secret Garden pleases me because its two heroes (we don’t count Dickon, who is more a nature god than an actual person) are so awful. Mary is spoilt and rude, and considered ugly by the sort of adults who apparently think that this is an acceptable thing to tell a child. Colin is angry and self-centred and unhappy. We’re never given the fiction that children in unhappy circumstances are going to be unbearably saintly (for that, see the same author’s A Little Princess). The corollary to this, unfortunately, is that when the circumstances change, so do the children. The magic of nature is such that it cures their various ailments and makes them happy (and one is happy for them, as far as one can be about fictional characters); but it also fixes them and makes them ‘normal’, ‘healthy-minded’ attractive children. Mary, it turns out, would have been as pretty as her beautiful mother all along if she’d only had the bracing English climate and a smile on her face.

So The Secret Garden is wonderful because it lets Mary be unattractive and disappointing because it can’t let her stay that way. But then there’s Noel Streatfeild’s The Painted Garden. Streatfeild is best known for her Ballet Shoes books (some of the characters make an appearance in this book), but I’m willing to argue that The Painted Garden is a far better work.

Jane is the middle child of three siblings. Her older sister is an exceptionally gifted ballerina, her younger brother an exceptionally gifted pianist, and both of them are unusually good looking. Jane doesn’t have a special talent. Jane is unattractive. Jane is over-honest, caustic, frequently mean or petty, and has no close friends other than her dog. One of the things that I like most about The Painted Garden is that it legitimises Jane’s feeling of ill-use; her mother really does seem fonder of (and more at-ease with) her older sister, and her mother’s companion is the sort of person who says things like “we can’t all be equally talented” while openly berating her because jealousy isn’t nice. On some levels this is openly a novel of wish-fulfillment; the world around Jane is exactly as unfair as she thinks it is, and we’re sucked into hoping, with her, that something will happen to show them all how special Jane is.

And something does happen. Jane is cast in a movie production of The Secret Garden, simply because her contrary ways and unattractive face make her look like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s heroine. But The Painted Garden doesn’t give us the Cinderella story—the overlooked sibling doesn’t become the centre of attention, loved by all. Acting is difficult and unglamorous, and Jane is no better at making friends in Hollywood than she was at home, simply because that is not the sort of person Jane is.

Her relationships with her co-stars in part parallel those in the book (David, who plays Dickon, has a similarly fascinating way with animals) but only to a point. It is part a re-enactment of the book and part not, part superficial and part not. Just as the painted garden on set is half-painted and half-made of real plants.

Streatfeild isn’t wholly unsympathetic to the rest of Jane’s family, and The Painted Garden accepts their flaws as willingly as it does Jane’s. But at the end of the book everyone is pretty much the same person they always were. And this is where the book is at its strongest, because it lets Jane be grumpy and unattractive (and perhaps a little happier now that she’s proved her point). Steatfeild doesn’t try to fix Jane, and in doing so she suggests that sometimes it’s okay for heroines of books to be less than ideal. In a literary tradition where grumpy, awkward, petty, ugly girls are somewhat thin on the ground, this is such a relief.

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March 12, 2013

While on the subject of Angria/ Gondal (Ankaret Wells, Firebrand)

It occurs to me that while I’ve read a lot about the Brontës’ magical worlds, I’ve read very few of the stories set in them. I’m working my way through this book at the moment, and these stories are very … very. Their veryness is their chief characteristic. I’m charmed, but also I’m so glad you moved on to other things, Charlotte.

The Tiptree Award for 2012 was announced earlier this week, along with its regular Honour List. Winners and honour listees are here, and I’m intrigued by many of them. But I was particularly interested in Ankaret Wells’ Firebrand. I’ve loved her fanfiction in the past (she’s one of a very small number of people who sometimes writes Antonia Forest fic and does it well), and this looked excellent. I’d managed not to read any reviews other than the bit on the Tiptree list, so it came as a complete surprise that the story was set in a version of the Angria universe. But with steampunk.

[There may be spoilers]

Firebrand is a romance novel in a steampunk, fantasy setting (is this gaslamp fantasy? I’m never sure). Which means that its focus is those elements of the story that are pertinent to the romance. So we take for granted the existence of the weird, magical creatures known as the warplings, and the particular negotiations with them that Kadia makes- in a different genre this, not her relationship with the Duke, would be at the centre of things. What are the consequences of Micah Ellrington’s theft? How does religion work in this setting? How vast is Zashera’s spy network in Cordoza, and is it used for purposes other than to split up the Duke and his new fiancée? In a fantasy novel these could be failures of worldbuilding and I’m not entirely sure they aren’t here. But it makes sense for Kadia as a character (she’s not particularly observant, either of the people around her or the mechanics of the world) to drift through this setting without telling us much. Plus, it makes sense for the romance novel to focus on the two people at its centre without much regard for the world around them. Particularly when the whole thing is told in first person.

It doesn’t always work, of course. There’s a kind of suspension of judgement I think a lot of us commit when we’re reading certain parts of a romance novel; outside that very specific reading experience such things as intense sex scenes are often just really funny. Wells writes them better than many other authors. But the first person narrative means we’re also being forced to reconcile romance-novel-narrator Kadia with the Kadia of the rest of the book, who is funny and caustic and never mawkish.And Kadia’s voice is the best thing about Firebrand. I laughed out loud in public places.

Since this book is on the Tiptree honours list, it’s probably worth talking about how it deals with gender. One of the things that Firebrand does is to present us with a world in which it isn’t surprising (despite the semi-historical setting) for women to be engineers, traders or lawyers. It’s also a book that allows for relationships between women: at least as sisters, friends and stepmothers-in-law, though the stepmother-stepdaughter relationships aren’t all one could hope for. And it’s a book that takes for its heroine an adult woman who has lived through two unhappy marriages; though I don’t think we’re ever told Kadia’s age.

But it’s still a world in which gender inequalities exist, and are perpetuated even by the  “good” men whom we’re presented with. Zashera, the Emperor, takes raping women as his right. But he has a good side! I’m not sure if I loved this section for tearing that particular argument apart, or was disappointed in it for spelling it out:

“But — my God, Kadia, he saved my life. Is that supposed to count for nothing?”

A spattering rain-shower starts to blow past us, striking the battlements and turning the granite slick and wet. “I’m sure it would make me feel better about him, if I wasn’t a woman. Or if I had never cared about a woman. Or never met a woman. Or if I wasn’t born of a woman, but made of bones dipped in flesh in some kind of experimental furnace.”

[...]

“I think he’d take you gambling and throw a parade for you in the streets of New Trinovantium, and when he tried to steal your airship he’d argue to himself that all’s fair when you’re fighting a worthy equal.” My eyes feel hot and itchy with tears, but I’m too angry to cry. “Whereas he calls me my sweet delight and threatens me.”

 

If Firebrand is mostly good on gender, I have mixed feelings about how well it deals with race. There are certainly people of other races present in the two states– including a “copper-skinned lady with angular eyes” and a General with a bevy of beautiful daughters including one with “tight dark curls held back with a ribbon from her ebony brow”. What it doesn’t do (and am I contradicting myself, after offering excuses for the book’s not fleshing out its own world?) is give us more on the subject of its Empire, its colonies, — anything about this history of colonisation that doesn’t consist of bemoaning being regarded as wild colonials by the Home Archipelago.

And there are the Warplings, or ingenii, who do stand in to some extent as an Other race. We’re told very little about the warplings. Their physical appearance is strange but seems to be individually so; we’re not given particular physical markers that are common to the entire race. Everything around them is mysterious, except that somehow they or the warplands themselves seem to have the power to change humans as well.

“Some places the Home Islanders went to, and either enslaved the people who already owned the place or got outsmarted by them. Here, they fell asleep in the warplands and woke up to discover that some of their companions had changed in the night.”

I’ve written before of my discomfort with aliens as nonwhite race stand-ins. And the power imbalances here don’t make sense to me; apparently most of the human characters think it is completely acceptable to cheat the ingenii in financial transactions, to rob their graves, and to banish them from their houses– yet the ingenii appear to have supernatural powers that these human characters cannot comprehend. It’s the X-Men problem; in giving your supposedly oppressed class superpowers you justify and validate the fear in which the majority who is oppressing them holds them. Equally, I can’t help thinking (because they’re one of my pet subjects) of all those magical colonial monsters (mummies! The Beetle! She!) that popular 19th Century literature was so obsessed with. Which makes this particular plot element appropriate for the steampunk-ish setting as well as for the Brontës.

I’m also not sure what I think of Kadia’s cousin Isabel, who is part-warpling, particularly after Aliette de Bodard’s recent excellent post about mixed-race/half-human characters in fantasy. Certainly Isabel can (mostly) “pass” and the ability of some part-warpling people to pass is important to the plot. And she has mysterious powers inherited from the warpling side of her family, and uses them to faithfully defend her fully-human relative.

Having said all of which, I mostly loved Firebrand, enough that I’ll be reading Wells’ science-fiction duology soon. And I’d love to read more of her writing set in this world, possibly fleshing it out and tackling some of the trickier parts.

 

March 7, 2013

Peter’s Room (AF5)

(A year and a half later, the fifth in my readthrough of Antonia Forest’s Marlow series)

It’s been over a year since my last Antonia Forest reread post. In that time I’ve re-read Peter’s Room three times and I’m still astonished by it.

Peter’s Room takes place in the Christmas holidays following the events of End of Term. Peter, the younger Marlow brother, has his holidays start earlier than those of his siblings, and so spends the first few days alone. During that time he takes possession of an old building (called “the Old Shippen”) on the property, used to store wood and potatoes. There’s an upper storey, and here he finds a number of his cousin Jon’s (whose death in Falconer’s Lure is the reason the Marlows now live at Trennels) childhood treasures. He also finds family records that tell of an ancestor named Malise who, during the Civil War, had gone against the rest of the family and declared for the king. Which is the sort of glorious, doomed romantic gesture that the Marlows (and I suppose many of their readers, including myself) are attracted to. [Having strong opinions about the Civil War seems to have been a thing writers of and characters in school stories did; see some of Farah Mendlesohn’s work here.] There’s a rather lovely moment in which Peter remembers having strong opinions of his own as a young boy at school:

For a long time the lists and bills and household accounts yielded nothing; and then, at the foot of an unfinished receipt, the crabbed whisper became a voice: The Eighth Day of May, 1645. The Sixteenth Birthday of my Second son, Malise. This forenoon he rode away as he has so many times sworn to serve the Man of Blood Charles Stuart. O Absolom my son my son.

He bit the ball of his thumb, remembering that once, ages ago, in his first term at prep school, it had mattered tremendously whether you were for King or Parliament. (A very small Royalist had been stuffed into the water-butt and, as reprisal, an even smaller Parliamentarian locked in the potting-shed at the end of the kitchen-garden where no one ever came: he’d forgotten all that for years, but now, sitting in the lamplight, there came a vivid memory of the terrible panicky feeling that no one would ever hear him or come and let him out ever.)

 There are other things  going on; the Old Shippen is said by locals (the Marlows don’t count, having only been here a few months) to be cursed and the site of a sighting of the devil; Peter suspects this is true when a bag of “sovereigns” he unearths turns out to be only a collection of new pennies. Meanwhile his sisters have come home, Ginty (Virginia) is doing a project on the Brontës’ Angria and Gondal stories, and between them the family (reluctantly, in Nicola’s case) and their friend Patrick Merrick decide that Peter’s new den would be the perfect spot for some “Gondalling” of their own. And from this point the book tells two parallel stories- the doomed mission to Angora by the young king of Exina (with frequent interjections and arguments from the roleplayers) and that of the Marlows and Patrick’s winter holidays. Holidays which, incidentally, include fox-hunting, parties in houses with actual ballrooms, and the selling of an heirloom tiara in order to buy a couple more horses for the family. This is going to make the “too poor to afford boarding school fees” subplot of The Cricket Term look very silly.

If there’s an overarching theme to the Marlow books it has to be the ways in which people interact with stories and how this facilitates or hinders their relationships to other people and to the world. In that sense Peter’s Room is probably the most important book in the series. I think it’s fascinating that, in a series where people’s instinctive storifying of their lives is generally seen as natural human behaviour, Gondalling is seen as so terribly dangerous. Karen’s dismissal of the Brontës is one thing; the reason we really know that something is wrong is because Nicola instinctively recoils from it, and because it nearly ends in tragedy.

And I’m still not sure what the book’s position, if it has one, is on Gondal. Karen thinks that the Gondal and Angria fixation was a waste of Emily Brontë’s talent as well as dangerously self-absorbed; imagine creating an entire world and telling stories within that world forever (I know the Marlows have read Lord of the Rings, I’m pretty sure they have not read The Silmarillion). Ginty admires it precisely for its futility (glorious lost causes again) and her own love of romanticising herself, Lawrie always enjoys throwing herself into stories (and possibly as a result is the least affected of them all). With Nicola, the only objection she ever puts into words is this—

… we don’t know each other well enough […] Not for pretend games. I couldn’t say Land ahoy skipper and things like that with Patrick there. I’m not even sure I could with Gin.

 Putting herself into other roles, then, is personal to Nicola – and she is in any case a very private person throughout the series. It is something she will do, when she’s alone, as in the sections where going out to look after Sprog is made easier by pretending to be an arctic explorer. Nicola never talks (or thinks, as far as Forest shows us) about her Gondal character as the others do; he’s inauthentic. Her roleplaying, when it happens, will be private and honest. And again, I’m not sure if the text is explicitly saying anything about writing yourself into other narratives unless it’s that we all do it, and that it’s possible for it to go horribly wrong, and that it’s possible to do it wholeheartedly and still retain a sense of self.

 

There’s also a (I think?) separate thing from roleplaying, and that is a sort of empathy that comes from imagining others in your position or yourself in theirs, or knowing that they have faced what you have. Nicola’s holidays have been blighted by the Brontës, but when her bird Sprog dies she and Emily are joined for one moment in a sort of shared community of grief.

Instantly, at the unguarded thought, tears flooded her eyes, and furiously she blinked them dry. If she was going to behave like this every time she thought of him, it was going to be simply ghastly. In a way it would have been better if it had happened at school; it was so miuch more difficult to cry there. But already Trennels had come into view, a pattern of lighted windows against the dark morning, and she stood still deliberately thinking Sprog until the name was just a bruised sadness—so if she could manage it so that she didn’t tell anyone till tonight, better still tomorrow, she ought to be alright —–

A sentence wrote itself across her mind: Our poor little cat is dead. Emily is sorry. She thought it again as she went on towards the house, and the clenched, wrung feeling inside her began to slacken. She couldn’t have said why Emily Brontë’s long-ago sorrow should have been comforting, but it was: probably that Charlotte had told her it was wrong to care too much about animals, just like Ann always said it to her, Nicola, too.

Peter’s Room as a book:

I think one of the clever things that Peter’s Room does is to have its characters constantly looking for a narrative for their own holidays as well as the one going on in the story they’ve created. Peter’s attraction to the idea that the Shippen is cursed seems to die down while he’s enjoying the roleplaying but comes back when he learns that the historic Malise (whose name he’s adopted for his Gondal character) betrayed his cause. By the end of the book he’s back to considering

how oddly things had—had transmogrified themselves. The sovereigns had become farthings; Malise had turned from hero to villain: even the holiday itself had changed from what he’d planned into this Gondal nonsense: whatever Mr. Tranter might say, it did look as if Ted Colthard’s grandfather had—well—you never knew——

Meanwhile Ginty desperately wants to see significance in the world that would legitimise their Gondalling. An epistle read out in church, a similarity between something she’d made up and the account of an explorer.

… she told herself, as she had in church, that by some side-stepping chance they had come, unaware, to another dimension in which, it might be, Crispian and Rupert and the rest were true—and they themselves were only acting out something which had once been real. It could happen. It did happen … and always provided one didn’t say it aloud (especially to Nicola) it was gloriously convincing …

There are other ways in which the book serves to remind me of its book-ness, though perhaps these are less deliberate. There’s Nicola’s insistence that she will not read books in which animals die—whereupon Forest turns this into such a book with the death of Nicola’s merlin Sprog.

And then there’s Ann’s remark that in Gaskell’s writing on the Brontës she likes Charlotte best, immediately countered by Karen’s pointing out that Gaskell is writing from Charlotte’s point of view and one is supposed to like her best. Perhaps I’m reaching here, but in a book which consistently confirms Nicola’s distrust of the game at its centre, perhaps this is a reminder that we are reading a book, and that it’s one in which we’re supposed to like Nicola best?

 

Patrick and Ginty:

Before the beginning of the roleplaying game there are already signs that Patrick is attracted to Ginty, and that Ginty may be interested in Patrick. But then they begin to Gondal, and the two are cast, first, as Rupert-and-Crispian (best friends, but Ginty compares them to Nisus and Euryalus so there’s a strong romantic undercurrent as well) then as Rupert-and-Rosina (doomed lovers). What this does is to cast a massive weight of story upon their relationship that will have awkward consequences in the future. To be Patrick-and-Ginty will always disappoint them now; in (I think) The Attic Term Patrick will find it difficult to tell Ginty he “loves” her unless he is being Rupert and she is being Rosina. At the end of the book both are mourning Gondal and comparing its loss to “that ghastly long thing of Wordsworth’s about fading into the light of common day”. In the light of common day, Patrick and Ginty might not, eventually, have enough between them.

 

…and Nicola:

We’re meant to love Nicola. I love Nicola. And Patrick is Nicola’s friend, even if it’s not a romantic relationship at the time, and Ginty comes along and “steals” Patrick by being older, and more beautiful, and more interested in the thing in which he is interested over this few weeks. We have read stories and we know how they work; this has become a love triangle whether Nicola likes it or not, and Ginty is the corner that must be got rid of. Even though Patrick in this book and those that follow it will be frequently insufferable, the sense that this is the way things are supposed to happen is hard to resist.

The thing that always makes me reluctant to reread Peter’s Room is how miserable Nicola is for most of the book. She’s alienated by her dislike of the game from all of her family (all that is her own age, at least) and her merlin dies. And Patrick’s betrayal comes in stages; his having a separate relationship with Ginty, his choosing Ginty to share things that that would normally have been shared with Nicola (“the geese should have been hers”), and worst of all the bringing of his “Rupert” face into ordinary life so that he quite literally becomes a stranger. At one point Patrick, jumping a fence, almost brings his horse down on top of Nicola; instead of stopping to see if she’s okay he rides off with his Rupert face on. Things are never going to be quite right between them again, no matter what the later books (Forest’s books, Sally Hayward’s sequel, various people’s fanfic) may imply. We want this to be okay, but how can it be?

Peter’s Room begins with Peter’s point of view and bears his name but it rapidly turns into a Nicola book, almost as if Forest can’t help herself (and I wonder if it’s a coincidence that in the next book in the series, The Thuggery Affair, Forest has the character be completely absent the whole time). Nicola returns from school, gets unwillingly caught up in a situation that makes her uncomfortable, is unhappy. But then there’s the chapter with the hunt, which is awful because it’s a chapter about foxhunting (the fox lives, at least), but it’s also perfectly written in ways that are astonishing to me. This is where we really see how alienated Nicola has felt all these holidays—during the hunt she remains physically separate from her family throughout. There’s a not-quite-real quality about this entire section that feels to me to make it significant somehow, in a book that is so much about the blurring of the real and the fantastic. And then the high point, when she (who isn’t a good rider, this is something we’ve known about her for some time) and her elderly horse Buster accidentally jump “the Cut”, a feat whose significance Nicola herself doesn’t recognise but everyone else does. This is, for me, the book’s turning point. Things have been terrible, but now they can be good again.

“Then you did jump the Cut!” Something in Patrick’s face told Nicola that though she’d had no intention of doing anything memorable and though it was all Buster’s doing anyway, this jump had put her so One Up that Patrick would never be able to be rude about her riding again. This being so, it also, though Patrick didn’t know about that, avenged the geese. And she bit into her last sandwich with renewed appetite.

Everything doesn’t magically get better after this. There’s still that moment when Patrick turns around and Nicola doesn’t recognise him. But the text doesn’t dwell on this, she meets a fox and has a much better end of the hunt than anyone else. Circumstances prove her to have been right all along when, soon after, the children’s Gondalling nearly leads to a death; an unloaded gun that Patrick planned for ‘Rupert’ to shoot himself with turns out not to have been empty after all, and Nicola finally has the strength to leave.

“But it’s four to one,” hectored Lawrie.

“I don’t care if it’s a billion to a quarter,” said Nicola, discarding family democracy at the same time as she put on her mackintosh. “I think the whole thing’s quite mad. And I think those Brontës of Gin’s must have been absolutely mental, still doing it when they were thirty, nearly!”

 

March 5, 2013

Anjali Purohit, Ragi-Ragini

I picked up Anjali Purohit’s book at the Yoda Press stall at this year’s Delhi book fair. It turned out to be nothing like what I expected, in a mostly very good way.

From this week’s column:

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There’s a lot going on in Ragi-Ragini. Subtitled “Chronicles from Aji’s Kitchen” the book appears at first to be, and is at least in part, a collection of recipes that use ragi (or nachani, or kelvaragu, or finger millet) as their base interspersed with personal accounts of life with the grandmother from whom most of them were learnt. Recipes for laddoos or savoury porridge are scattered with little personal interjections; Aji would add salt here; this custard is named after Ragini herself because she likes it so much. In an introduction to the book Ragini explains her own connection with ragi recipes and some of her choices for the book itself (such as the use of verses by the poet Bahinabai Choudhari to begin each section of the book). It would be a completely ordinary introduction were it not for the fact that this is not the autobiographical work it projects itself as. Ragi-Ragini is a story by Anjali Purohit – “Ragini” is a fictional character.

In the gaps left between the recipes themselves we are also given the story of Ragini and the women who raised her. Ragini’s mother, we are told, was a disappointment to her wealthy, sophisticated in-laws, and crowned her iniquities by giving birth to a sickly girl-child and dying soon after.  Ragini was raised by her maternal grandmother and aunt, who kept the weak child alive with ragi-based recipes and shared stories of the mother she never knew.

Ragi-Ragini is very much a book about women’s spaces. Men occasionally enter the household upon which the book is centred as friends, but Ragini’s grandfather is barely present even before his death. In a short author’s note, Purohit dedicates the work to her grandmothers and mother. And the very format of the recipe book as memoir is another example of shared women’s space; not because women have any particular predilection for kitchens (Ragini describes herself as a reluctant cook at best) but because it has for centuries been such a social space. Bahinabai’s poems are in the “ovi” metre, traditionally sung by Maharashtrian women doing traditional women’s work ; Ragini claims to have learnt the songs as she poured grain for the two older women to grind into flour. A constant theme in Bahinabai’s poems is that of the maher, or maternal home. Marriage and career do not weaken the bonds these women have with their mother’s home; at the end of the book Ragini too has decided to return to her Aji’s village to work, along with two children who we can only assume are her own.

There are three parallel stories of women’s lives running through Ragi-Ragini. One of them is Ragini’s own, another, the story of her mother Shanta as told through her grandmother’s words. And the third, in a way, is Bahinabai Choudhari’s as she develops from the young bride of the first poem to the wife of a household that has fallen on hard times to a grief-stricken widowhood.

The book’s big flaw for me, though, is that it’s sometimes poorly executed. It’s hard to tell whether it’s Ragini or Purohit herself whose prose is so overly effusive in some sections — I’m inclined to blame the fictional character, since this style seems so completely at odds with the book’s clever structure. At times it reads uncomfortably as if Purohit is parodying a particular cliché of food writing, particularly when we’re asked to leave something roasting until “it starts giving out a fragrance so heavenly that you begin to hear violins”. Then there’s the unfortunate moment where the book jokingly casts Aji’s insistence on putting salt in laddoos in Hegelian thesis-antithesis-synthesis terms and then, not content with having made a weak joke, repeats it twice.

Yet Ragi-Ragini is structurally ambitious, women-centric and interesting in ways that few books dare to be. It’s easy enough to forgive such a work some over-written recipes, particularly when said recipes promise laddoos.

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March 3, 2013

February Reading

My reading this month was determined by reviews, the Delhi Book Fair, and Delhi Comic Con, as will probably become clear.

Jhangir Kerawala, The Adventures of Timpa: The Red Hooded Gang, Operation Rescue, The Golden Horn, The Legacy of the Gods: The Timpa comics were inspired by the Tintin series, but set in Calcutta. Timpa is a teenaged? possibly? boy who solves crimes with the help of his very trusting policeman father and a grumpy grandfather who always seems to get things wrong. I’m writing a longer piece on them elsewhere, but for now know that I thoroughly enjoyed them.

Mridula Koshy, Not Only The Things That Have Happened: My review should be appearing in The Hindustan Times in the near future. When Koshy’s book of short stories came out a few years ago most of the Indian critical establishment was raving about her style. I somehow managed not to read If It Is Sweet but I think I will have to. At the level of the individual sentence Koshy is better than most writers I can think of. Not Only The Things … is a book whose plot sounds potentially very annoying and Indian Literary Fiction-y, but it manages simply by being playful and nuanced and gorgeously written to avoid that awful fate. I really, really liked it.

Roma Singh, The Magic Feather: Part of my bookfair loot. I talked about it here.

Francesca Xotta, Owl Ball: See above.

Dr Zakir Husain, Samina Mishra, Pooja Pottenkulam, The Bravest Goat in the World: See above.

Mark O’Connell, Epic Fail: An exploration of bad art gone viral. I wrote a column about Epic Fail here. It’s clever and personal as well as being very funny, and I really enjoyed it.

Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time: A reread, in honour of current events. I wrote about it here.

Gwyneth Jones, Divine Endurance: I can’t remember when I last bounced off a book so badly. I’ve enjoyed Jones’ writing, both fiction and nonfiction, before, and while I was wary of a book by a British author set in postapocalyptic Asia I was quite looking forward to engaging with the set of issues that that raised. But I could never enter the book even that much; it’s possible other people will enjoy this, but to me it felt like running repeatedly into a brick wall.

Anjali Purohit, Ragi-Ragini: I wrote about this for the column and will post it on the blog soon. Ragi-Ragini is a fictionalised memoir disguised as a recipe book, but the memoir parts do not only tell the story of “Ragini”, but (second-hand) that of her mother; and the whole is interleaved with poetry that traces the life of yet another woman. It’s a bit stilted or overwritten at times but it is also doing a number of things and it’s a lovely, warm book about female communities and some of the recipes look quite tasty as well.

Gail Carriger, Etiquette and Espionage: Reading the first pages of Carriger’s new series (set in the same universe as her Parasol Protectorate books but some years earlier) I had a sense of deja vu; surely we’d already seen our young heroine, a Disappointment to her Family, have a dessert-spillage related incident as our introduction to her? It’s possible that the series will pick up, but I found this first book weak. Plus, it is almost criminal to have 19th century fictional boarding schools for girls and boys to teach them things like espionage and hand-to-hand fighting (and curtseying) and not make use of that fantastic 19th century school story genre that already exists for you to play with. In short, I was underwhelmed.

Christian Morganstern, Sirish Rao, Rathna Ramanathan, In the Land of Punctuation: I loved this, and wrote about it here.

Vidyun Sabhaney and Shohei Emura, Mice Will Be Mice: I first discovered Sabhaney’s work in Blaft’s Obliterary Journal last year. Mice Will Be Mice has a more conventional narrative than her piece in that (about an exploding donkey); a lab experiment goes wrong, there are giant mice, there are some funny visual jokes and the solution is surprisingly simple. There isn’t much to it that I can see, but I enjoyed it anyway.

March 1, 2013

Poets use soap too

While we’re still (sort of) on the subject of William McGonagall. The thing I find most disappointing about this advertisement for Godrej soap featuring Rabindranath Tagore (via Oculus on Twitter) is how dull it is. I mean, you’re a well-known poet and playwright, a Nobel laureate, surely your selling out ought to be more spectacular than this?

Compare Tagore to McGonagall, who was committed enough to not only write a five-verse poem about his soap of choice, but to (free of charge, one assumes) compose his further correspondence with the company in verse as well. I know whose work ethic I’d pick.

 

March 1, 2013

A solution to Susan

A few years ago, I read Alan Garner’s Elidor and was struck by a number of similarities with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books. This is not to say that I think Garner was doing a conscious rebuttal of Lewis in his own work, necessarily (that disclaimer applies to this post as well). Portal fantasies with “chosen” children were, I think, a reasonably established trope by the time Garner’s earlier books were written, as were fantastic unicorns and books that began with train journeys (see for example practically every school story ever). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that all of these, along with other tropes, come into play in Elidor, but that’s because Elidor works as an inversion of exactly that type of fantasy.

It’s probably also a coincidence that both writers write of girls named Susan; there are a number of Susans floating about mid-twentieth century children’s literature. Still, reading both the Susans together is potentially illuminating.

Lewis’s Susan Pevensie first appears in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as the concerned older sister. She tries to mother the younger ones, is sensible, is rescued by her brother, grows into a good archer and a beautiful woman.Skimming the book again I see that the being sensible part remains constant; at the end of the book Susan is the only one of her siblings to suggest not taking the path that will (though they don’t know this at the time) send them back to their own world with no way of coming back. In The Horse and His Boy, which is set during the Pevensies’ time as rulers of Narnia, she’s an adult, capable of desire and contemplating marriage to a Calormene prince (who turns out to be evil, as most brown people are). There’s no sign, either here or in the final pages of LWW, that any of the children spend much time thinking about where they came from or contemplate returning– though at the end of The Horse and His Boy Aravis and Shasta hear Lucy telling the story of how the Pevensies came to Narnia, so at least at this point they still remember. And while I find this a little creepy, the implication is that these characters’ lives are here.

And so to Prince Caspian, the last book in which Susan appears. I’m indebted for my reading of Susan in this book to Ana Mardoll’s ongoing chapter-by-chapter deconstruction of the series, all of which can be found here, but I want to particularly focus on these two posts. Ana Mardoll sees Susan as deeply vulnerable, and strongly affected by being hauled in and out of Narnia; and it’s a situation that is potentially traumatic. We’re never shown how Susan feels at being told at the end of Prince Caspian that coming back is no longer an option for her, but it’s quite conceivable that she’s less accepting of it than her brother.

Within the series’ internal chronology, that moment when Susan walks through the door in the air and back to “our” world is the last time we see her. We will see her siblings, and fellow Narnia-adventurers in The Last Battle though:

“Sir,” said Tirian, when he had greeted all these. “If I have read the chronicle aright, there should be another. Has not your Majesty two sisters? Where is Queen Susan?”

“My sister Susan,” answered Peter shortly and gravely, “is no longer a friend of Narnia.”

“Yes,” said Eustace, “and whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’”

“Oh Susan!” said Jill. “She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up.”

Critiques of Lewis tend to focus on that “nylons and lipstick and invitations” line, and while I find it rather indicative of Lewis’ politics in general, I find what Eustace says to be more interesting. Susan says Narnia doesn’t exist at all, and within the logic of the series this doesn’t make sense because obviously it does exist and this is the real problem.

Back at the beginning of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, the Pevensie children had found Lucy’s insistence that she had entered a magical land through a wardrobe alarming, and had asked Professor Kirk for advice. His answer:

“There are only three possibilities. Either your sister is telling lies, or she is mad, or she is telling the truth. You know she doesn’t tell lies and it is obvious that she is not mad.”

This is a version of Lewis’s trilemma, and let’s ignore for the moment all the things that are obviously wrong with it as an argument. Lucy is not in the habit of lying and is “clearly” not mad (how likely is it that the Professor’s degrees are in anything related to the field of mental health?) so we have to assume she’s telling the truth, against all laws of time and space as the children know them.

Within the logic of Narnia’s universe (which I am respecting much more than the Professor does that of the real world) Susan is not telling the truth when she says Narnia does not exist. Is she in the habit of lying, then, or is something much more serious going on here? I notice that the dismissive comments that the ‘Friends’ of Narnia make about Susan do not come from her family. Polly, Jill and Eustace all have negative things to say, but of those who know her best, Peter is short and changes the subject, and Edmund and Lucy are silent.

 

 

One of the reasons I suspect no one expected a third book in Alan Garner’s Weirdstone of Brisingamen series is that it ends so very well. In The Moon of Gomrath Susan briefly rides with, and feels a strong kinship with the Daughters of the Moon. She has further reason to feel like she belongs with them; the Mark of Fohla, given to her by Angharad Goldenhand. We see Susan’s desolation at the end of the book twice, through her own eyes and her brother’s, as they leave her behind.

The Einheriar paled, their forms thinning to air and light, and they rose from her into the sky.

“Celemon!”

But Susan was left as dross upon the hill, and a voice came to her from the gathering outlines of the stars. “It is not yet! It will be! But not yet!” And the fire died in Susan, and she was alone on the moor, the night wind in her face, joy and anguish in her heart.

The hoof-beats drew near, and the earth throbbed. Colin opened his eyes. Now the cloud raced over the ground, breaking into separate glories that whisped and sharpened to skeins of starlight, and were horsemen, and at their head was majesty, crowned with antlers, like the sun.

But as they crossed the valley, one of the riders dropped behind, and Colin saw that it was Susan. She lost ground, though her speed was no less, and the light that formed her died, and in its place was a smaller, solid figure that halted, forlorn, in the white wake of the riding.

 

It’s a horrible moment.

And you have to wonder how much of the awfulness of those final moments of Elidor has to do with the terrible thing that has just happened (the death of Findhorn) and how much of it is the horror of return to the mundane world:

… for an instant the glories of stone, sword, spear, and cauldron hung in their true shapes, almost a trick of the splintering glass, the golden light. The song faded.

The children were alone with the broken windows of a slum.

These children cannot skip unconcernedly back and forth between worlds without consequence or thought for what they must now do without. There’s magic, then it’s gone, and they are bereft.

And so to Boneland*, Garner’s 2012 conclusion to what we now know is a trilogy. This is a darker book, an adult book. It works outside the realm of children’s fantasy and in some ways is not fantasy at all. Susan is not present in this book, any more than she is in The Last Battle. Here she is not even named. And Colin cannot work out where his sister has gone; for much of the book he can’t even be sure he had a sister. The siblings are separated, either because one of them has managed again to access the world of fantasy from which the other has been cut off, or by death, or (as is the case in The Last Battle) the two are the same thing anyway. Susan is not the one left behind this time, she has moved ahead into whatever it is she has moved into. Boneland is all about Colin’s fractured psyche that is partly (in one of several possible readings of the book) a result of his childhood adventures. In a sense, then, if we accept Mardoll’s reading of Susan (I do, though I’m reasonably sure Lewis would not) with Boneland Garner may provide us with a solution to the problem of why Susan is no longer a friend of Narnia. I wonder how Colin would answer if asked whether the events of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen were “real”.

 

 

 

* I reviewed Boneland here, and Maureen Kincaid Speller has some detailed notes here that are especially helpful in placing it in the context of Garner’s larger body of work. And see also this lovely snippet about girls who went back (by Atilla/atillariffic on tumblr, based on art by Helen Green/dollychops).