Archive for August, 2013

August 31, 2013

George Saunders, Fox 8

From this week’s column.

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The perspective of the outsider is a useful tool for social commentary, satirical or otherwise. What would an alien think if she (or he, or they, or whatever gender alien lifeforms do or don’t have) were to observe the human race, what conclusions would she come to about our lives and what we value?

Then there’s the fate of the innocent thrust into society. The same rules apply; her observations as an outsider about how we function are still enlightening, but we know that disaster is coming. We know that by not understanding how people are, she is in danger of becoming a victim.

Lots of literature, much of it for children, has anthropomorphised animals falling victim to the human world without ever really understanding what is going on. The rabbits in Watership Down foresee the destruction of their warren by humans and leave to seek a new home. The Animals of Farthing Wood has a group of woodland creatures also left homeless as humans build housing over the wood.

And so it’s natural that the foxes in George Saunders’s Fox 8 should be curious and worried over a sign that says “Coming soon, Fox View Commons”. Luckily, one among them can read the sign. The eponymous Fox 8 has learnt to speak “yuman” by eavesdropping on a mother telling stories to her children; from them he learns that humans have misconceptions about bears and chickens, but that they are capable of “luv”. Unfortunately, he does not learn what a “mall” is.

So much could go wrong here. Humans destroying animals’ natural habitats is a well-worn theme, and with a mall to additionally signify crass capitalism this has all the signs of a polemic. And Fox 8’s misspellings and misconceptions about the English language could so easily become twee, Particularly since Saunders has said elsewhere that it was initially intended for a children’s book. And yet.

Much of Fox 8’s humour comes from its language and the things that Fox 8 has misheard. Saunders takes full advantage of the potential for wordplay that this offers. “Whoa was us”, Fox 8 describes the shocked and mourning foxes as their forest is dug up. He speaks often of “the Curator” and “all of Curashon”. The spelling does not become less atrocious as the story progresses, but far from grating it begins to feel organic. Clearly this is not how a hypothetical fox who learnt to read from listening to children’s bedtime stories would speak, but it’s how Fox 8 would speak.

And for all its humour, Fox 8 is tragic. Because our narrator never really stops believing that human beings are capable of providing him with a reasonable explanation for the awful things that have happened to him. At every stage he is far too willing to give us a chance, and at every stage the reader knows we’re going to fail him. “It made me feel gud, like Yumans cud feel luv and show luv. In other werds, hope full for the future of Erth!” he says, of mothers kissing their children.

That hope is almost completely eroded by the end.

“I know life can be gud. Most lee it is gud. I have drank cleen cold water on a hot day, herd the soft bark of the one I luv, watched sno fall slow, making the wuds kwiet. But now all these happy sites and sounds seem like triks. Now it seems like the gud times are mere lee smoke that, upon blowing away, here is the reel life, which is: rok hats, kikking, stomping. Every minit with no kikking and stomping now seems like not a real minit.”

Yet even now the whole story is framed as a letter to humanity. Fox 8 still thinks we might have an explanation.

Is all of this shamelessly exploitative, like putting the death of a puppy into a movie? Probably. “A gud riter will make the reeder feel as bad as the Yuman does in there Story”, explains Fox 8. And at that, Fox 8 is incredibly effective.

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August 30, 2013

Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards

In case you missed it, the winners were announced on the award’s website a couple of days ago. I thoroughly enjoyed my first time judging anything (except the one time I had to judge a children’s poetry competition and my co-judge liked all the most conventional things with the dullest rhyme schemes and I was very unhappy the whole time), and I’m very pleased with the final list.

(Only talking about the novels here, but my approval of Karin Tidbeck is documented elsewhere, and I thought the rest of the shortlist was very strong also)

Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City is the thing I’ve most enjoyed reading so far this year, and will probably continue to be so. It’s just so clever, in the sort of way that had me pacing the room and scribbling things on things. It’s clear about its inspirations, about the literary tradition to which it belongs (Calvino, Borges, Eco all get namechecked) but it also felt to me strongly individual, very much of its place and time and (as I said in that press release) definitely political. The translation is excellent as well–particularly in its negotiation of the Cantonese bits of the text (the rest of the book is in Mandarin). The introduction’s a fine piece of writing in itself, and it’s clear that author and translator worked in close collaboration. In short, this is great and I’d love for more people to read it.

Belka, Why Don’t You Bark took a little longer to absorb me. It’s an odd, rough book about generations of war dogs that, it gradually dawns on you, is neither rough nor about war, though it certainly is odd (and about dogs). But I found myself thinking about it long after I read it, and championing it. It’s everything Kari Sperring and Martha Hubbard say about it in the awards press release. I suspect it was a particularly difficult work to translate, too.

Kaytek the Wizard is a great children’s book in many ways– a large, unpredictable, world, body and powers that its protagonist must learn to control, genuine terror. For an adult reader it’s a lot more poignant than that, though I was occasionally jarred out of it for some of the attitudes towards race and gender (it was written in 1933).

Roadside Picnic was the only one of these books I’d read before (in a different translation)–though unlike many of the other judges I didn’t remember enough of the previous translation to really compare this one with it. James Morrow says in the link at the beginning of this post that this one restores parts of the text omitted in the earlier translation–which by itself would be enough reason to ascribe value to it. But it’s also stylistically wonderful, and if most of these plot elements have showed up in later SF, they don’t make it seem less fresh.

Of the other books on the shortlist, I was particularly fond of Rosny ainé’s Three Science Fiction Novellas, all three of which play with ideas in a way that feels (and is, obviously) very early SF, but in doing so reminded me of why I read this sort of thing. I share this reviewer’s annoyance over the quality of the introduction and the critical commentary, but the stories themselves are great. And The Time Ship is delightful, and a bit of genre history that ought to be (and hopefully will be, with this translation) more widely known.

 

August 24, 2013

Also

(I should have mentioned this in my last post, but I was half asleep at the time) Larry from the OF Blog is doing a series of posts in which he tortures with fiendish rodents interviews people who blog about books. His interview with me is over here; I recommend some children’s literature, extol the virtues of mocking and abusing books, and say a number of things about Indian publishing that are probably completely wrong.

August 24, 2013

Pride and Platypuses

Not the latest Austen mashup, or not that I know of. The nice people at Duckbill books are having a Pride and Prejudice celebration week on their blog. I’ve written a little P&P timeline thing for them, which you can read here.

The John Kessel story I mention is here.

Persuasion is still better, though.

August 19, 2013

Samantha Shannon, The Bone Season

I don’t understand this book.

I understand why a lot of bad books exist–they may not be original or show any writerly skill, but they’re still frequently joyful, interested in their own story, convinced of their own worth.

There isn’t even that much to criticise about The Bone Season–it’s utterly predictable and its characters are undeveloped, but that’s true of lots of books. But its by-the-numbers-ness and sheer lack of conviction just wore me down and made me so unhappy.

This review appeared in Mint, and is on their website here.

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Somewhere in the mid-nineteenth century, things changed. Certain human beings developed the power of clairvoyance, enabling them to commune in various ways with the spirit world. Samantha Shannon’s debut novel, The Bone Season, is set two hundred years into this alternative timeline. In the London of 2059, clairvoyance can get you arrested and it’s in your best interests to hide it as best as possible. The city is under the control of a security force called Scion and members of the criminal underworld, like nineteen year old Paige Mahoney, are in constant danger. Then Paige is captured, and learns just what has been happening to those clairvoyants who have been arrested over the past two centuries.

Shannon’s novel has been greeted with a certain amount of hype—as a seven book fantasy series by a new author (and published by Bloomsbury, no less), the Harry Potter comparisons were all but inevitable and the publicity around The Bone Season has taken full advantage of this. But the comparison was invalid from the moment it was made. The debut author of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone would never have presented the world with a close to five-hundred page tome (the superstar writer of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix could, but that’s a different matter). Shannon clearly has plenty to say, but the thought of wading through six more books of this size is more alarming than enticing.

Worldbuilding is a sometimes-contested aspect of fantasy literature. It’s one thing to create a substantial and fully realised setting in which your story is to take place—but how much your reader needs to know about the world is a separate question. Do we need notes on the grammar of its fictional languages, family trees for its major characters, and detailed maps? Sometimes we do, and sometimes these genealogies and grammars can be as absorbing, or more so, than the stories themselves. But sometimes these additions merely seem an easy alternative to thinking about and fleshing out a setting. Shannon begins her book with a chart of the various types of clairvoyant and a map of her fictional Oxford and ends it with a glossary, but none of these add much to the text itself. Despite all this information, often served up in long sections completely separate from the plot around them, the whole thing feels curiously sparse. There’s little sense of the past two centuries’ history that makes this world so different to our own, or of characters’ complex feelings towards their own powers. Perhaps all this extraneous information will come in useful in later volumes in the series. I’m particularly intrigued to learn whether Shannon’s use of Hebrew words (“rephai”, “sheol”) will have greater significance., but to dedicate a first volume entirely to set-up seems rather ill-judged.

In the absence of a particularly interesting setting, we’re forced to pay attention to character and plot. And there’s plenty here that could be potentially absorbing—we have shades of dystopian fiction, revolution, slavery, romance, a powerful and terrifying government. But Shannon’s characters, like her setting, all lack depth. Early on, Paige is faced with a difficult choice between betraying a friend and her own survival. The choice is quickly taken away from her, leaving her morally untainted. Our heroine is brave and kind, defiant and possessed of amazing powers (even in this world of people with supernatural powers). Our villain is entirely evil (if she had a moustache she would doubtless be twirling it). When Paige is given into the care of “a Rephaite creature with dark honey skin and heavy-lidded yellow eyes. He is her master. Her trainer. Her natural enemy” we know exactly where this is going. Can she trust this beautiful man or not? (You already know the answer.)

Fiction doesn’t necessarily have to be original to be satisfying. A well-worn plot populated with interesting characters can often make for a great read. But once the setting has been put into place, The Bone Season slips into a sort of by the numbers samey-ness that it never manages to break out of. There’s no joy here, little to absorb or fascinate or terrify. It is almost oppressively predictable.

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August 18, 2013

Lavanya Sankaran, The Hope Factory

I did this short review for The Hindustan Times (on their website here). As is probably obvious, I wasn’t very impressed by Sankaran’s novel.

 

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Lavanya Sankaran’s The Hope Factory explores the intersecting lives of two people in Bangalore. Anand, a Mysore boy who now owns a successful factory, needs more land to expand the business but wants to acquire it in the most above-board way possible. Kamala, Anand’s domestic help, struggles to provide her intelligent son with the sort of future he deserves.

Despite the vast gulf between their situations, Anand and Kamala’s lives parallel each other in a number of ways. Both are proud of their exceptionally clever children, both face difficulties related to the rising cost of real estate in their shared city. The whole book is told from the perspectives of these two characters and as a result we’re given the impression that they are both kind, honest, proud and a little too good for the people around them. Kamala is unfailingly nice to the frequently unpleasant women with whom she works, and Anand is the patient husband and polite son-in-law to a selfish wife and her overbearing father.

The problem with this is that the book itself rarely challenges these perceptions. As a result neither the main characters nor most of those around them achieve any particular depth or complexity. Anand’s wife Vidya comes off the worst here. To Kamala she’s a spoiled and capricious employer. To Anand she’s a figure of contempt; we’re not allowed to believe that anything she does, from attending a music concert to taking an interest in social work, is done sincerely.

There’s something rather Dickensian about all of this; we know from the start who is good, who is bad, who is worthy of our sympathy and who of our mockery. Harry Chinappa, the controlling, blustering socialite, is bad. Anand’s property agent, who evinces a genuine love of the land is good. The corrupt politician’s henchman is bad. The widowed mother whose only interest in life is her son is good. And so forth. The book’s adherence to the narrative of honest man in corrupt world comes close at times to validating Anand’s father’s belief that People Like Us (a belief that, in context, seems to be as much about caste as anything else) are not cut out for such dirty undertakings as ‘business’.

Sankaran does partially salvage things with occasional flashes of irony, and a comic understanding of people in conversation. This is clearest in some of the interactions between Anand and his friends and co-workers. And Bangalore itself is evoked occasionally through cliché (its traffic, its Pink Floyd fans) but manages to feel like a real city, even if few of those in it are real people. The Hope Factory is, in the end, an effective book about a changing city; I only wish its characters didn’t feel so incidental to it.

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August 14, 2013

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night

An excess of feelings in this weekend’s column.

 

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There’s an episode towards the end of Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family where her protagonist, the teenaged Nicola Marlow, travels alone to Oxford. She has never been to the city, but she has read of it; her first experiences of Oxford are filtered through the lens of one who has read Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey books; particularly Gaudy Night, which is set entirely in Oxford. Nicola is not the only one to love those books—a mention of “Wimsey of Balliol” soon after sparks a friendship between her and her new brother-in-law.

But Gaudy Night is one of those books that can feel like admission to some sort of special club, because so many people love it so much. There’s no reason to think of it as obscure—if its status as a mystery novel hinders its being considered a true Classic it still shows up regularly on “best detective story of all time” type lists. Antonia Forest can assume her readers know it; so can Connie Willis who alludes to it in To Say Nothing Of The Dog. It’s not obscurity that leads readers to want to reach out to other people who have loved it with that “you too?”; it must be something else.

Gaudy Night sees Harriet Vane return to Oxford, where she spent her student years, to investigate a crime under the pretext of doing some research on Sheridan Le Fanu. Members of the fictional Shrewsbury College are receiving cruel anonymous letters, and it seems likely that the perpetrator is a member of the Senior Common Room.

This isn’t really a Peter Wimsey book; it’s a Harriet Vane book, and perhaps part of the reason people feel so strongly for it is that it is such a personal, interior work. A return to her old college also means a revisiting of her own past. A large part of the book is the working out of her feelings about Wimsey, and the possibilities that that relationship holds. And while their romance exists in very specific circumstances (in an earlier book he saved her from being convicted for the murder of her former lover) it’s also strongly tied up in the gender politics of its own time—what forms will relationships take in a world where women as well as men are educated, and acknowledged to be as capable of intellectual achievement, as well as of vocations to which they can be completely dedicated? This is also where the “romance” plot (if you can call it that) intersects with the crime plot. There may be no brutal murders, but the ramifications of the college coming into disrepute are far wider than the individual careers of its academics; this is all part of a struggle for women’s education, a struggle in which, historically, Sayers herself was deeply involved. The Author’s Note at the beginning of the book contains a barbed “apology” to Oxford as a whole for perhaps including more women than the regulations of the time permitted, and even the college’s name, Shrewsbury, has a gendered (Shakespeare, but with less “taming”?) feel to it. As a result the whole thing becomes a meditation on gender roles in a changing world; one that is both intensely political and deeply personal. Women often still struggle, nearly eighty years later, to have our intellectual and academic pursuits prioritised to the same extent. If Gaudy Night feels personal to us it’s because its subject still is.

And so it’s important that Peter and Harriet both have Masters degrees, it’s important that at one point he accidentally puts on her scholar’s robes and they fit him (as his would fit her); it’s important that his final proposal to her is in Latin, explicitly refers to her education and comes with a symbolic offering of all of Oxford and what it means to both of them. A partnership of equals, an implicit promise that she should never subsume herself in him, an unending right to a life of the mind. It’s far more touching than a single phrase in a dead language has any right to be.

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August 13, 2013

3 ways of looking at Chennai Express

Trying to make sense of it all. I’d warn for spoilers, but I’m not sure you could spoil this film.

 

1. Deepika Padukone is not human. Okay, not entirely human. If the film is to be assumed to be set in the human world, she’s existing on a slightly different plane to everybody else.

I don’t mean this as an insult. Pretty much every review of the film I’ve seen has talked about how surprisingly good (“surprisingly”, because what she has to work with is a pretty terrible plot and a ludicrous accent) Padukone is–far superior to pretty much anyone else in the movie. One piece of evidence that she isn’t quite of this (the film’s) world comes shortly after the interval. SRK’s Rahul and Padukone’s Meena have convinced the innocent and morally pure inhabitants of a village that they are legally married and on the run from the bride’s angry family, and they are offered a room to stay in with only one bed. Comedy ensues, as the conservative southern girl does not want to share a bed with this man she barely knows, and man she barely knows asks if she thinks she’ll be unable to keep her hands off him. It turns out Meena actually has a pretty solid reason for not wanting him in bed with her — at night she is possessed by some sort of spirit that manifests itself in making her sway and mutter at him not to come near her and kick him out of bed. This sudden intrusion of the supernatural into the film’s world is never addressed, beyond a quick joke towards the end about a future in which she keeps kicking him out of bed.

But this moment is enough to suggest that there’s something not quite normal about Meena. In an earlier scene, Rahul suggested that Meena was some sort of harbinger of doom–that since her arrival into his life everything had gone horribly wrong. While this is probably unfair to her (his character is so irritating as to deserve all that happens to him) perhaps it’s another indicator that she exists on some level outside the film itself. In a later scene, an old woman tells the couple they’re destined to be together for seven lifetimes. Meena looks miserable. Perhaps this is because she’s doomed to be aware of all seven, perhaps it’s because she knows she’s going to spend a lifetime shoving a man old enough to be her dad out of bed every night. Meena spends most of her exchanges with Rahul gazing at him with a sort of fascinated disgust that makes perfect sense in context–but it works just as well if you see her as a sort of superhuman, semi-outside-the-text figure. We who are also outside the text can easily understand her pain.

 

2. Chennai Express is a film about the breakdown of language. One of the things that interested me about the film were the ways in which Rahul’s lack of knowledge of Tamil played a role. Rahul is our narrator, and much of the film is shown to us from his perspective. We’re not shown subtitles when those around him are speaking Tamil; we’re expected to share his incomprehension and hope that Meena (who he calls “miss subtitle”) will translate. At one point the film addresses this directly–yes, yes, Rahul tells us, he knows we don’t have a clue what’s going on either.

I’m not a Tamil speaker, but I’ve grown up around people who are and I generally understand what they’re saying. If this was made somewhat difficult by Rahul’s voiceovers occasionally cutting over what the other characters were saying, it was interesting to know that I was, in this very basic way, not a part of the film’s intended audience. Except, of course, that it is releasing in Tamil Nadu as well, and people are presumably going to watch it.

There’s an utterly bizarre scene about midway through the movie where Rahul is walking alone in a forest and comes across a dwarf sharpening a knife. This man, it turns out, speaks neither English nor Hindi, but communicates in a series of clicking noises. He and Rahul bond over their mutual inability to understand one another (or Rahul does- we’re not told what the other man thinks they’re bonding over), and how they’re both too old to have to learn new languages. Then they part.

On the surface there’s no point to this scene (a friend who was watching the film with me wondered if this was some sort of Tom Bombadil-ish digression), and that’s without even getting into the “a little person! How hilarious!” undertone that is apparently supposed to pass for comedy. The only possible function I can see in it is as a reference point for the end of the film, when Rahul’s voiceover reminds us that India has many languages, but that love has only one (the second half of this assertion is patently untrue). We’re all doomed to keep misunderstanding one another, to understand only a small fraction of what the rest of our countrymen are saying. Communication is an impossible mess, we’ll keep hearing “teri ma ki” when people are asking us “Tamil terima?” (or “monkey” when people are saying “teri ma ki”, as Harbhajan Singh’s defenders would claim). What “bakwaas” dictionary is Rahul operating from, asks Meena early on in the film. Indeed, what bakwaas dictionaries are we all relying on?

 

3. The patriarchy will reassert itself over and over and over and over and … Meena is running away from her family (by trying to catch a train that will take her to her ancestral village?) because her father is trying to force her to marry another man. Meena doesn’t want to marry, she explains to Rahul, before using him as a decoy fiance so that she can escape once more. Rahul having been introduced as Meena’s (supposed) preferred partner, he’s still expected to fight her previous fiancee to prove his own worth.

In many ways, Rahul is the opposite of the sort of man Meena has had chosen for her. He’s physically smaller and weaker than Tangaballi (though who isn’t?), from the other side of the country, and of a lower social class–for some reason she cannot get over the fact that he is a halwai. In embracing her fake (and later real) relationship with him she’s choosing a different set of values to the ones she’s expected to embrace, and a relationship in which she has at least as much power as him–though at present this power is derived from her facility with the local language and his fundemantal hopelessness more than anything else.

But first religion, then patriarchy (and the two are strongly intertwined here) pop up as obstacles. Rahul “proves” himself to have unexpected quantities of upper body strength when he carries her up 3000 steps to a temple to humour the innocent villagers among whom they have fallen; and Meena immediately begins to gaze dreamily at his sweaty face. When the two of them escape Tangaballi (again) by the sensible act of running away, she begins to hint heavily that he should marry her, sulking when he refuses to take the bait. For all that Meena has claimed she doesn’t want to marry, she doesn’t seem to have given thought to what she does want to do. Her options appear to be to lurk in a friend’s house in Pune, lurk in Rahul’s house in Bombay, or go home and marry. In the universe of the film, women with careers don’t seem to exist.

All this is moot though, since Rahul decides without Meena’s permission to take her back to her village. Meena has tried to escape the parameters within which her family and society seem to demand that she live her life; Rahul autonomously decides that no, he must win her freedom within those parameters, and face her father on his (her father’s) terms, not hers. An embarrassing speech (by Rahul, who has apparently transcended the language barrier and therefore rendered Meena unnecessary to this discussion about her rights) on the position of women in an India that has been independent for 66 years, leaves the listeners … unmoved. The patriarchy doesn’t care about your fine speeches. The patriarchy will only accept Rahul as Meena’s suitor (and Rahul has already accepted for Meena that the patriarchy’s acceptance is required) when he has proved himself on its terms–by beating the shit out of every man present. Rahul wins, he and Tangaballi shake hands; Meena has run away from the guy who wins women by beating up other men into the arms of the guy who … wins women by beating up other men. Her radical choice has been entirely co-opted into the system she wanted to escape. It’s so sweet how women think they might get some control over their lives.

 

I suppose there’s also 4. Arvind Kejriwal’s Epic Road Trip Across South India, 5. LOL, Madrasis, and innumerable others, but I refuse to do more. I watched Chennai Express with a devoted SRK fangirl and after a point even she couldn’t take it anymore. It’s utterly dire.

 

(Beth Watkins is far, far nicer to the film here)

August 6, 2013

Junuka Deshpande, Night and Bhajju Shyam, Gita Wolf and Andrea Anastasio, Alone in the Forest

I read some children’s books.

(From this weekend’s column)

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Fairy tales would have it that one of the more reliable ways of disposing of children is through the simple expedient of dumping them in a wood somewhere. This is what the parents of Hansel and Gretel do; it’s also how the Huntsman in the Snow White story reconciles his duty (he has been ordered by the queen to murder the girl) and his conscience. Both of these stories have happy endings—Snow White befriends and is helped by a group of dwarves, Hansel and Gretel are first enslaved by, then kill a powerful witch with an edible house. A story that does not have a happy ending is that of the Babes in the Wood in which children abandoned to die in the forest do actually die in the forest. Various versions of the story have them being tended to by robins or carried up to heaven, but whichever way you look at it it’s not a happy story. A child lost in a forest might have reason to be afraid, even if the more obvious dangers did not exist, had she been brought up on these tales.

Musa is the protagonist of Bhajju Shyam, Gita Wolf and Andrea Anastasio’s Alone in the Forest. We’re not told which stories he was brought up on, but as a boy living on the edge of the forest he’s probably aware of its various dangers. One day Musa volunteers to fetch firewood for his mother. He sets off into the forest quite happily, but some loud noises unnerve him. He ends up hiding in a hollow tree for a long time, all the while convinced that something awful is about to happen to him.

Alone in the Forest is a convincing account of fear as it might be experienced by a child or an adult. Publishers Tara Books frequently draw on folk traditions for their art, and Bhajju Shyam has adapted his Gond style to a number of high profile books in the past few years. Here, the style works perfectly. Colour is important; early on a two-page spread shows Musa about to enter the forest. All around him is light blue daylight. In contrast, the forest is dark and dingy. Darker, more muted greens, browns and maroons are used for all the forest scenes. Musa’s imagination, however, is in technicolour, with backgrounds of reds and oranges against which the dark purple wild boar stands out. Of course Musa reaches home safely and here again we have the colours of daylight and sunshine, with the domestic image of the cow and her calf (familiar to urban Indians as it’s painted on the back of every other truck).

By contrast, everything about Junuka Deshpande’s Night is muted. Deshpande’s book also has two children walking through a wood in the dark, but that is where the similarities between the two books end. Deshpande’s illustrations are entirely in black, white and grey with small patterns used to differentiate between different layers or textures. Here there is no underlying sense of fear—the two girls have arrived here by bus and will presumably depart that way, and there are cars on the nearby road. Instead the book looks with a sort of quiet awe at the sights and sounds of the forest at night; the “tap-tap” (or “khat-khat”; Tulika have presented the Hindi and English text side by side) of the woodpecker, the rustle of dry leaves, the stillness of deer and the glow of fireflies and the eyes of owls. Even when a tiger shows up there’s no panic; Deshpande’s style gives the whole a sense of unreality so that, no matter what, the girls are always safe.

Alone in the Forest evokes sympathetically a child’s terror of what might be out there. Night does the opposite, creating a quiet, safe world where we are free to wander and observe, lulling fear (this is a hushed, bedtime sort of book) to sleep.

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August 3, 2013

July Reading

This was a good month.

 

Marie Brennan, A Natural History of Dragons: I loved this. Clever, self-reflexive, and full of references to one of my favourite periods in historical fiction. I wrote half a column about it here.

Matt Kaplan, The Science of Monsters: This received the other half of the column I mention above. It was fun to read, but I wasn’t entirely impressed by its scholarship or its insights.

Bama, Harum-Scarum Saar and Other Stories: Short stories, often angry, often funny. I wrote about them here.

Georgette Heyer, Friday’s Child: A book that would be vastly improved if its hero and heroine were eliminated altogether, and we focused on the wonderful supporting characters instead.

Rumer Godden, Black Narcissus, The Peacock Spring: I mentioned a month or two ago that I was reading through Godden’s India books for a piece. I discovered Godden this year and I have very mixed feelings about her work. Gorgeously written, incredibly incisive on the subject of character, and yet so comically orientalist! I’m also fascinated by the apparent publishing trend of getting white women to write the introductions to these books– I’d love to see what an Indian woman (other than myself, obviously) had to say.

Stephanie Burgis, Kat, Incorrigible, Renegade Magic, Stolen Magic: A trilogy that I suppose would be categorised as middle-grade? Very silly, very fluffy, very why won’t these people talk to each other so they all know what the problem is? I read all three over two nights, and they were great fun.

Robert Galbraith/J.K. Rowling, The Cuckoo’s Calling: Reviewed here, ranted about cover here.

Ajay Navaria, Unclaimed Terrain: Wonderful collection of short stories about caste in India. I should be doing a review for Himal soon.

Pradeep Sebastian and Chandra Siddan (ed), 50 Writers, 50 Books: Reviewed for Time Out, so presumably it will appear in the magazine soon. An odd mix of essays, from the very dry to the very personal, but on the whole I really enjoyed it.

Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds: Long, long rant.

Stephanie Laurens, The Taming of Ryder Cavanaugh: It’s a Laurens book, it’s like just about every other Laurens book. There’s attempted murder, there’s people not talking about their feelings, love happens.

Courtney Milan, The Heiress Effect: I have complex feelings about this book. At one level, it’s everything I want my fluffy romances to be. Our heroine is fat, though this is something that is mentioned once at the beginning of the book and not shown to intrude upon her life in any way. She’s also completely gauche. There’s a character with epilepsy, one with (I think) agoraphobia, there’s political discussion and people have interests and priorities beyond marriage. And then there’s Anjan Bhattacharya, and it’s clear that the author has done actual research here and hasn’t LibbaBrayed it. And it’s also clear that she means well. She means so well. And I’m still trying to wrap my head around what about the sheer, well-meaning whiteness of this book threw me out of it so completely, and I’m second-guessing myself because if I don’t want writers to make an effort and put some thought into Indian characters when they write them, what do I want and how can white western authors ever win, and isn’t this terrible unfair?

Mary Balogh, First Comes Marriage, At Last Comes Love, A Secret Affair: Amusing.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah: I wrote about this here.

Junuka Deshpande, Night: Wrote about this for a forthcoming column. It’s a children’s book in English and Hindi, has some lovely art, and I liked it very much.

Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night: I have so many feelings that a separate post may be needed to hold them all. This is one of the best books in the world, that is all.

Patrice Kindl, Keeping the Castle: Slight, but very entertaining.