Archive for March, 2016

March 20, 2016

Of Interest (20 March, 2016)

Unsorted:

Nisi Shawl’s crash course in Black SF history.

Supriya Nair interviews Sunil Khilnani about his new book, Incarnations.

I’ve come to Doreen Massey’s work very recently (I wasn’t expecting space/landscape to play as big a part in my research as it has come to do); here’s “Landscape/space/politics“.

Sharanya Manivannan on the Karaikal Ammaiyar approach to existing in public.

Look at these glorious freshwater crabs. Look at them all colourful and smiley.

John d’Addario on Gran Fury. Via Chapati Mystery.

A Helen Oyeyemi interview (with Lauren Oyler) in which she continues to say good things. Via Aaron Bady.

Eric M. Gurevitch on Handsome Nanda, the Therigatha, and empathetic criticism, feat. a Very Long Footnote. Via Nilanjana Roy.

Amit Chaudhuri on Rhodes Must Fall.

Fandom Following’s Wendy on Personal Favourite White Boys and Problematic Faves. Via Rukmini Pande.

Ramzi Fawaz on diverse mutants and superheroes, the hollowness of some current “diversity” discourse, and a much more nuanced reading of Umapagan Ampikaipakan’s infamous column than most of the outraged responses I’ve seen. Via Niall Harrison.

And via Fawaz’s piece, this good thing, by Alexandro Segarde.

Vinay Lal on Godse, the RSS and the murder of Gandhi. Via Bhuvi Gupta.

China Miéville on social sadism.

I meant to link to this weeks ago: Aman Sethi on the Jat agitation, water and the economy.

(Finally a self-plug) Here is a roundtable on South Asianness, folklore, etc., featuring Arun Jiwa, Suna Dasi, Vajra Chandrasekera, Laila Borrie, Shveta Thakrar, Sukhbir Cheema and me.

March 16, 2016

No Time For Goodbyes/Split

 

Andaleeb Wajid, No Time For Goodbyes

A friend finds it deeply annoying when trilogies (or books otherwise in series) fail to indicate the fact somewhere on the cover (front or back). I’m less hardline than him on this subject, but that there’s no hint anywhere on or in Wajid’s book that this is the first of a trilogy seems an odd choice on the part of the publisher (Bloomsbury India). I genuinely wouldn’t have known had I not looked the book up online.

No Time For Goodbyes is a time travel romance. Tamanna, just out of school and about to begin college, finds an old polaroid in her attic and is sucked into the past; the early 1980s Bangalore of her mother’s schooldays. Appearing in her grandmother’s house with no way of explaining what has happened to her, she pretends to be the Australian pen pal of the boy next door—Manoj, whose scientist grandfather created the camera responsible for her predicament. Naturally Manoj and Tamanna fall in love; naturally Tamanna returns to her present just as things are getting interesting; naturally it appears the two are destined to be tragically torn apart.

One doesn’t particularly want scientific rigour from this genre, and critique from that angle is therefore a bit pointless. But I want to pick at threads—why would Tamanna’s mother name her daughter after the weird Australian who showed up at their house and was rude about their clothes (and refused to buy any of her own) and made her friend sad; why has she not noticed that her daughter looks identical to said weird Australian; has no one given the Christ College library a decent spring clean in three decades? (Okay, that last one is plausible.) And there are things I find jarring about its engagement with pop culture—the determined, awkward references to the Harry Potter books, to the friend who likes the Twilight films (Tamanna, of course, has nothing but scorn for them).

I mention this awkwardness in part because while Tamanna herself often thinks longingly of the comforts of the 2010s (better ice-cream flavours, better YA fiction, not having to wear Mirinda orange dresses, the internet), none of these are particularly deeply-felt arguments for the present, as they might be presented (um) by one who lives here. I’m speculating, obviously, but it rather feels as if someone sat down and tried to think of reasons a teenage girl might like to live now, but wasn’t convinced by their own arguments (and do teenagers in the 2010s see enough of Mirinda for it to exist in their consciousness as a colour the way Digene pink was for my unfortunate generation?). Underneath it all the book seems far more convinced by its nostalgia for the Bangalore of the past, where there were more trees, less crowded public transport and affordable cinema tickets (all good things, don’t get me wrong, though I have questions about the public transport thing). Perhaps people with a greater connection to the city might find this less trite than I did, but I imagine reading a similar take on my own city and I cringe. And if a girl from the future came along and told me she liked my world because it was “quaint”, I don’t think I’d be falling in love with her (Manoj is clearly a nicer person than I am). For a teenage romance, its notion of the present sounds suspiciously like it was written by someone who also writes letters to the editor (the editor of The Hindu).

I’m not really a reader of time travel romances so I hesitate to generalise about the appeal of the genre. But it seems to me that a big part of the point is the impossibility of a happy ending (until, of course, there’s a happy ending but then often there isn’t). And as much as I dislike this book’s treatment of time and change, it often does manage to invoke the bleak impossibility of this couple’s getting together. The choppiness of Tamanna’s movements between times is genuinely discombobulating, the lack of explanation given to the device makes the characters seem helpless in the face of an enormous, unknowable universe. There’s enough there to make me curious about the next two books in the trilogy (both published in 2014, though I haven’t yet obtained them).

 

Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan, Split

This is a more recognisable (to me) version of teenage romance. Noor is part of the group of popular girls at school, and has an ideal-sounding home life with cool parents with cool politics and tastes. But her mother has fallen in love with someone else and moved to Paris, and Noor finds herself unable to tell her friends (incidentally, this is done in emotionally believable ways that made perfect sense). Forced to go to an after-school support group she finds herself lying to and drifting apart from her older friends and socialising with children and nerds. She also meets A Boy who is funny and nice and from Bombay, but has not been previously vetted and declared acceptable by her popular friends.

I say “recognisable” above for a couple of reasons. Firstly because the book is rooted in a very specific (in terms of class, gender, geography, family) South Delhi milieu, one which is relatively close to my own upbringing; though separated by 15 years and a bit more privilege. Which I’ll come back to, but the other reason it feels familiar is that it’s a lot closer to high school narratives that we’re mostly familiar with through literature/TV/film. So obviously football players can be regarded as acceptable boyfriends; boys with glasses are a bit iffy; the head of Noor’s little clique is more than a little Regina George-ish. (This isn’t Mean Girls; Madhavan takes much of what that film suggests about teenage friendships for granted, but shows a lot more empathy for her popular girl characters, and manages to write them as vulnerable children.) This isn’t really the space for musing about how high school romances as a genre inflect the lives of teenagers who are exposed to the genre, but I think both forms of recognisableness are interlinked and sustain one another in complex ways.

I don’t know if it’s a feature of the book (the author’s about my age) or a feature of me that I spent the whole thing thinking how young and vulnerable everyone was.

But. The book is, as I say, fixed in a very particular milieu, and it is very much Noor’s own. We’re seeing through her eyes, and it’s not always clear where the split between book and narrator lies. Which is fine to an extent–as we cringe at her bigoted grandmother, or learn with her to appreciate the younger, poorer girl with the looped, ribboned plaits,  and so on (some visible assumptions are being made here about the sort of reader the book expects). A corollary of sorts is that you sometimes wonder if Noor’s prejudices are in fact the book’s–the fat girl from West Delhi who has no taste but they keep her around for the money, and whose inferiority is left unquestioned? (Not the only example, but one that irritated me with how blatant it was.)

Split is good at the inside of a (certain sort of) protagonist’s head, then, but I have some reservations about how it has said characters interact with the world.

March 13, 2016

Of Interest (13 March, 2016)

Unsorted links about SF and empire and race:

 

Debbie Reese collects responses to J.K. Rowling’s “History of Magic in North America”.

Roz Kaveney in the TLS is insightful about Tolkien and also voices some of my frustrations with much of the Tolkien criticism I’ve read.

Phenderson Djèlí Clark has some fantastic black history and SF essays on his blog (and you should read them all, obviously), here’s one on SF and racial terror.

Esther Wang on the appeal of fictional worlds where everyone is white. (I feel this essay so hard.)

Vajra Chandrasekera has a new column at Strange Horizons, of which this is the first installment, and it’s great (and advocates blowing things up; I do like this man). His recent review of Binti is also fantastic.

K2 on colonial settlers in The Revenant. (Fun fact! Apparently Grace Dove wasn’t invited to the Oscars.)

Sofia Samatar’s “Notes Toward a Theory of Quantum Blackness” is beautiful; the things it links to and references are vital.

Rega Jha on only one of a long history of atrocities perpetuated on Indian culture by our colonial overlords. Via Sunny Singh.

Andrew Yang on Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings.

Dr. André M. Carrington, whose book I’m very eager to read, interviewed here by Noah Berlatsky. Via Matthew Cheney.

The Ramayana in Persian (an extract from a book by Audrey Truschke), and a Persian Mahabharata (Yael Rice, via bint battuta)

Aaron Bady on A. Igoni Barrett’s Blackass.

March 2, 2016

February Reading

Stella Gibbons, Pure Juliet: Deserves a longer piece of writing, though it’s far (far) from being a good example of a Stella Gibbons book. Nice to have things to add to the Gauche Girl Canon though.

Frances Hardinge, The Lie Tree: I am writing about this for elsewhere and will link when it is up– I liked it and am glad it won the Costa award, and books about Victorian crises of faith (and dinosaurs) are always going to win me over. But does it have the emotional depth of Cuckoo Song? (I don’t think it does.)

Ken Liu, The Grace of Kings: Okay, so big sweeping epic empire/revolution story with multiple viewpoints is probably a good thing; I like that this book is written as a history; I like that its gods are familiar and that its humans make foolish mistakes for probable reasons (that too feels like history, except maybe not the gods bit). But why is it so LONG?

Ayesha Tariq, Sarah: The Suppressed Anger of the Pakistani Obedient Daughter: This is a graphic … novel, I suppose, though it’s not really; novels imply plot and progress and part of Tariq’s point is precisely a lack of those things. And so our protagonist continues to deal with unthinking sexism, attempts at arranged marriage, men who expect her to cook for them in the middle of the night, a general lack of freedom, gropey uncles. And it’s all well-observed, though full of clunky things like people earnestly telling other people “we live in a male-dominated society”. Obviously there’s no reason to assume that the target audience is roughly the same age as the protagonist, but it does feel surprisingly young–and for a book about suppressed anger, it feels rather insipid.

Samit Basu and Sunaina Coelho. The Adventures of Stoob: Testing Times: I’ve written about this in more detail here.

Ranjit Lal, The Tigers of Taboo Valley: See above.

Elizabeth Goudge, The Little White Horse: Reading this in the context of other recent things, I’m astonished no one’s ever written a substantive piece comparing it to Alan Garner’s The Owl Service. The bare bones of the stories—children in a secluded valley trying to come to terms with horrible events in their histories; particular interpersonal relationships that keep going wrong, generation after generation, in a cycle that needs to be broken—are close to identical, though their resolutions, and their tones, could not be more different. I was a little disappointed by Goudge’s book, though; though there are glimpses of wider, deeper tragedy and joy, they are only glimpses for me (meanwhile the idealised valley itself felt rather too bucolic). Kari Sperring writes here about Goudge’s work and liminality, and I wish I had a stronger sense of that in this particular book.

Shabnam Minwalla, The Strange Haunting of Model High School: I’ve written about this in more detail here.

Geeta Dharmarajan and Ludmilla Chakrabarty, On the tip of a pin was …: see above.

Sowmya Rajendran and Satwik Gade, Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why: see above

William Mayne, The Member for the Marsh: Lovely in mood and character, and everyone just matter-of-factly enters into each other’s own particular games and interests, and there’s a dragon but not really, and a dog has probably died, but is mourned and moved on from. It’s good, but A Swarm in May was published the year before it, and A Grass Rope the year after and in that context it is very much Lesser Mayne.

Robin Stevens, The Case of the Blue Violet: I don’t know that this counts as a “book” (it’s very short, probably under 5000 words) but I bought it separately and it exists as a unique entity in my kindle library, so there we are. It’s enjoyable, though easily solved; I was more interested in the extract from the next book which made up about a third of this. [Note: there’s an older Wells and Wong short story here.]

Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow: Over the past year I’ve seen this book recommended several times to readers who like Robin Stevens’s series—the commonality, presumably, being “Edwardians + mystery!” It is actually completely different, and does completely different things—rather than the interiority, the humour, and the complex characterisation of Stevens’s books Woodfine gives us a much more straightforward adventure story in a really sumptuous, visual setting. Both authors are intertextual, though in different ways; Woodfine has a major character with a deep devotion to Boy’s Own adventures of the sort that we’re reading. Plus her protagonist’s background is very A Little Princess; a wealthy young woman whose dead father’s fortune was made in the (by now former) empire (in South Africa) has been mysteriously denied her inheritance and is forced to work. Presumably we’re going to discover more over the course of the later book/s in the series. For now, this was enjoyable, if rather superficial.

Snigdha Poonam, Lady Singham’s Mission Against Love: Only a separate “book” for the reasons the Robin Stevens book mentioned above is one; though if anything, this is longer. It was one of the runners up for the Bodley Head essay prize, published in its own little ebook (as were the other runner up and the winner). I love Snigdha Poonam’s writing–it’s observant and restrained and generous–and I’m looking forward to the book of which I’m told this is a modified extract.

Anil Menon and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya, Manikantan Has Enough: Available in its entirety here. What I like about this is that in a small space it really effectively dramatises a particular childhood frustration (i.e. a frustration you don’t admit to as an adult); people keep nagging at you and going on and on and on and also there are elephants and pakodas and Periyar, of which I have fond memories.

 

 

March 1, 2016

Bhimrao Ambedkar, The Boy Who Asked Why/The Strange Haunting of Model High School/On the tip of a pin was …

Sowmya Rajendran and Satwik Gade, Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why

This was one of the picture books on the Hindu/Goodbooks shortlist, and has text by Sowmya Rajendran, who’s generally reliable.

20160301_232322-1I think, considering the title, that it’s interesting that at no point during the book is Ambedkar shown to ask “why”. In fact, apart from asking his parents when he can go to school, at the beginning of the book, and telling a station master that he and his siblings are Mahars somewhere in the middle, he doesn’t speak at all. I don’t (I think) mean to suggest that the book silences him—no one else speaks either, and the whole thing feels more reported than anything else. I don’t know what the effects of this might be. But if Ambedkar isn’t shown asking the question, the book itself does—at various points as the text and art (by Gade) depicts a bad situation in its protagonist’s life, there’s a big “WHY?” across the page. I wonder if, going by the title, you could make a case that the book’s identification with Ambedkar is so complete that its whys are his own. (I’m reasonably sure you could not.)

I like to think of children who are learning to read being exposed early on to an abridged life of Ambedkar, but I’m not sure this is the best or most artistically interesting of those I’ve seen. But then, I don’t really know how to talk about picture books, so it’s possible that I’m missing obvious, wonderful things.

 

Shabnam Minwalla, The Strange Haunting of Model High School (illustrations by Svabhu Kohli)

[Full disclosure: the publishers are my former employers; I don't know who the editors were but it's possible that they're friends and former colleagues.]

I had a gleeful yay school story! moment when I started reading this one. I know Jai liked it, and I mostly do too—it’s set in a well-regarded girls’ school in Bombay, and features a production of Annie, ghosts, attractive boys from the school next door, and an evil teacher scheming to take over from the current principal. There are annoyances—one of the protagonists tends to burst into song at random (like Lord of the Rings, it’s usually best to skip over these moments); there’s a class Fat Girl; some of the prose is questionable (emotions “slosh” around the insides of the characters; and why is everyone wearing multiple leotards?). But then there’s Mrs Rangachari.

Mrs Rangachari is both fantastic in her own right and a general symbol of what this book does particularly well. She’s larger than life and evil, in the way that, say, Dahl’s Miss Trunchbull is evil (and without the underlying gendered badness of that depiction). She hates happiness, she’s greedy and vindictive and power hungry, she’s willing to scheme and indulge in ridiculous, over the top plots to get what she wants (power). And yet, her evil is expressed in familiar, knowable ways—the excuses she finds for her anger are based in class (how dare Lara be poor and clever and successful) and Indian Culture (the delighted horror at the girls she wants to get in trouble befriending boys). (Tangentially, you should read Amulya Gopalakrishnan on auntyhood.) And the (or one) result of this is to remind you that this is a school where, as is true of so many well-regarded schools in Indian metropolises, skirts and tunics “must be worn three fingers below the knee” (true of my own old school, before it was decided that skirts of any length were too dangerous to our morals) , fraternising with boys is strictly discouraged, and everyone but Lara is rich.

There’s a moment early on, immediately after we’ve learnt about the skirt length rule, when we learn that “Monitors can conduct the finger test at all times”. Probably any connection between this three finger test and the much more notorious two finger test is a bit of a stretch,  and I don’t (entirely) mean to suggest that the book is a scathing indictment of the ways in which culture and tradition and class are used in schools to target girls and systemically harass, slut shame, and generally make the world a lot worse, but more than in most books set in schools I think those ideas are present.

 

Geeta Dharmarajan and Ludmilla Chakrabarty, On the tip of a pin was …

Not really that recent—the first edition of this picture book was published in 2009. But it describes itself on the back as “sci-fi”, and I was never not going to read it. Like How to Weigh an Elephant (also by Dharmarajan, also published by Katha) it ends with a child-friendly description of the science involved.

The plot is rather incoherent—there20160301_231951-1-1‘s a village on the tip of a pin (Pintipur, obviously), populated by children, and also by a group of animals. All of the animals have their faults, but worm, for reasons that are unclear, is the worst. She “had races with herself to see if she could dig the deepest, the longest, the straightest holes … across the village and over the moon and the stars and the sun and the clouds”. And so she keeps disappearing in space and time and annoying everyone. Until they discover the village on the head of the pin (Pintopur), and learn that wormholes mean travel to other worlds, which is cool. Then everyone has space adventures.

I don’t know if any scientists were involved in the making of On the tip of a pin was …, and I don’t know that it’s so much SF as it is surreal. Which is fine, probably—adventures in time and space should be weird and incoherent and fractured and disproportionately sized (Goat, one of the animals, seems to cause solar and lunar eclipses on a regular basis because he’s so large) and it all feels perfectly reasonable and a far better explanation for wormholes than the explanation at the end.