March 6, 2015

Romilly and Katherine John, Death by Request

A column from ages ago, first published here. I’ve been having unoriginal thoughts about narrative a lot lately.

The book itself was bought only because I like the Hogarth Crime books and their particular shade of purple, and I was in Barter Books and it seemed like a good use of my time.  I doubt I’ll be rereading, alas.

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One of the detective fiction conventions established by the Detection Club, a group for British mystery writers that included Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie and Baroness Orczy and G.K. Chesterton and other genre greats, was that of “fair play”. Information was not to be withheld from the readers, who ought to, if smart enough, have a chance at solving the crime themselves. There were to be no bizarre twists, the solution could not be a supernatural one, unforeseen identical twins or doppelgangers could not suddenly be revealed to have existed the whole time. The detective must not commit the crime, and the thoughts of the ‘Watson’ figure must not be hidden (the rules were “codified” by Ronald Knox in 1929– after the publication of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd).

The importance granted here to giving the reader a chance to figure things out suggests that the detective novel is considered a kind of activity book, which in practice it often is. But it also renders the world of the book fundamentally solvable, and understandable. Everything makes sense, at a basic level, the police may not be as good at their jobs as aristocratic amateur detectives, but justice is eventually served (and we know what justice is) and order is restored. For a world full of random murder, it is nonetheless very soothing.

But in the real world, things are often concealed from us, the narratives we’re offered are occasionally manipulated by the people responsible for terrible things, violence is random and unexpected and things don’t fit together and the  truth, if we have it, makes things messier and more complicated.

Two recent reads have reminded me of this, and of the fact that Fair Play or not,  the world of these books is not always a comfortable one. The first of these is a reasonably well-known classic, Josephine Tey’s 1946 novel Miss Pym Disposes, in which an amateur psychologist spends some time lecturing at a women’s physical training college. When an unpleasant girl is found dead in the gym it is assumed to be the result of a tragic accident, and no one but Miss Pym has any reason to suspect murder. But justice is complicated and perhaps nothing can be gained by ruining another life, and she chooses to let the murderer go because it is a person she likes and admires. And as the book ends we’re given reason to think she might be wrong.

Romilly and Katherine John’s 1933 Death by Request is less known—I only picked it up at all because it was a part of Hogarth’s crime series. It’s so packed with genre tropes to be almost a cliché; the small village, the country house filled with illustrious guests, the sinister butler, the handsome lord who is found dead in full evening dress, the blustering colonel, the amateur detectives who solve the case. The whole thing is narrated by the local vicar, an elderly man who is sometimes comically shocked by the current generation, sometimes dryly funny. The whole is set in an oddly brutal world, full of bullying and infidelity, and it seems of a piece with the awfulness of everything else that the amateur detectives should prove their case by setting a trap that kills the murderer. But as with Miss Pym Disposes, we discover soon after that perhaps even the brilliant amateurs are wrong about the identity of the killer and his motive (I do not wish to give the ending away, but the true killer has one of the best motives I’ve come across in the genre).

Even in something as groundbreaking as The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, justice is served, the murderer found and exposed. Tey and the Johns offer us a much more sinister world; one in which the real culprits might be left free, innocent victims destroyed by fallible detecting methods; where the detective can be wrong. 

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March 5, 2015

February Reading

A slightly better month than January, anyway.

 

Jennifer Marie Brissett, Elysium: I’ve been writing a longer piece about post-catastrophe fiction and my feelings around it and I’m hoping to unpack my thoughts on Elysium as part of this at some point in the near future. But it is very, very good, and also you should read this brilliant review by Niall Harrison (I am biased because I edited it, but it really is.)

 

Robin Stevens, Arsenic for Tea: Stevens’ first book, Murder Most Unladylike, might have been written for me. School stories? Murder mystery? Queerness? General inter-war-ness? Non-white readers of English popular fiction? Come on. Arsenic for Tea is not set in a school and is almost entirely heterosexual (or is it? I know who I was shipping) but despite these flaws it is wonderful–it continues that uncomfortable, strong relationship between Daisy and Hazel, will never allow you a comfortable ending, will make its most loved characters as monstrous as it needs them to be. It’s a funny, cosy crime story, but it’s ruthless in places that are crucial to it.

 

Julia Quinn, The Secrets of Sir Richard Kenworthy: I feel like the whole Smith-Smythe series has been a bit of a letdown after the glorious heights of What Happens in London and Ten Things I Love About You. I’m aware that the form requires some terrible thing to come in between our main characters, but in this case I think it may have been too big a thing, and the fallout felt rather phoned in. Meh. (Edit: I managed to mistitle this and strip Sir Richard of his title. Clearly it did not make a big impact upon me)

 

Leela Gandhi, Affective Communities: I don’t plan to list books read for the PhD here, but Affective Communities turned out to be all but irrelevant to my thesis, and very relevant to everything else. People who have spent this time with me will probably find it hard to believe that I’ve spent the last few months feeling very grateful for community and the sort of allyship that is born of ethics, and people who see imbalance without having to be talked around to it, and for all those reasons Affective Communities ended up being important and moving–and this sounds trite, but it wasn’t. Also there’s the thing where Gandhi is just very enjoyable to read.

 

Sheila Ray and Stella Waring, Island to Abbey: Survival and Sanctuary in the Works of Elsie J. Oxenham: Really interesting overview of Oxenham’s books, grouping them chronologically and tracing particular unifying themes in each distinct period. I think it may be time for a new critical study of Oxenham though–it feels like Auchmuty has said everything that needs saying about communities of women but maybe not?

 

Mahesh Rao, The Smoke is Rising: I have a column about this that will be posted once it has been published, but three things: 1. Rao’s prose is gorgeous. 2. Sambhar is ruined forever. 3. I want the sequel to this book that is set in Heritageland and is outrightly SFF or horror.

 

Samita Aiyer and Garima Gupta, The Last Bargain: I’m a bit biased here because Garima Gupta illustrated one of my work projects from a few years ago, but she really is brilliant. This is a short children’s book about a rat named Chooheram who makes one bargain too many and it would be an ordinary morality tale (don’t overreach, kids) if not for the fact that the rat is just mildly downcast after his adventure; the princess (there’s a princess) just goes home and is like I married a rat, it was weird, meh; and the art is gorgeous and features many cows.

Gupta Chooheram

(Many cows.)

February 10, 2015

“The sky, if you can call it a sky, is the colour of a bruise.”

Nandini quoted some Angela Carter on twitter and I found myself reading bits of Shaking a Leg again, as you do. And so I found myself rereading this, and it was just as I had started reading Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium (which is great, incidentally), and I’d forgotten how strongly it had resonated with me as an SF fan (and as someone whose apocalypse nightmares are always quiet). From “Anger in a Black Landscape”, originally published in Over Our Dead Bodies: Women Against the Bomb in 1983.

 

One of the most curious phenomena of the postwar period has been the growth of fictions about the blissfully anarchic, tribal lives the lucky fifteen million survivors are going to lead in a Britain miraculously free of corpses, in which the Man with the Biggest Shot-Gun holes up in some barbed-wire enclave and picks off all comers. (Polygamous marital arrangements are often part of these fantasies.) The post-nuclear catastrophe novel has become a science fiction genre all of its own, sometimes as warning — more often as the saddest and most irresponsible kind of whistling in the dark.

Have you seen Goya’s “black” pictures in the Prado, in Madrid? You go through several rooms full of sunlit, happy paintings — children at play, beautiful young men and women dancing, picking grapes, a world of sensual delight — and, then, suddenly … paintings in black and ghastly grey and all the colours of mud, where swollen, deformed faces emerge from landscapes incoherent with devastation. The most awful one, that most expressive of a world of nothingness, shows a dog’s head peering over the side of a mound of slurry. The sky, if you can call it a sky, is the colour of a bruise. And you know, from the infinite desolation of the scene, he is the last dog left, and, from the look of him, he’s not going to last much longer.

Impossible, in that appalling room, to escape the notion, that Goya, in his famous despair, in his hatred of war and human folly, saw further than most people; there is something prophetic in these pictures, that have the look, not so much of paintings, but of photographs taken with some time-warped, heat-warped camera, of a Europe in a future that remains unimaginable … a wreckage of humanity, a landscape from which all life has been violently expelled … unimaginable; but not impossible.

[...]

Yet the iconography of such catastrophe is, surely, familiar to us all, by now! Anyone who reads this book will have her or his own private nightmare of pain, loss, annihilation; my own private image is not a violent one. It is of a child crying in the dark, and there will be nobody to come, not ever. Which is the worst I can possibly imagine.

 

Also relevant to my unformed thoughts here is Matthew Cheney on apocalypse stories.

 

February 10, 2015

Janice Pariat, Seahorse/ Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners/ Mhairi Mcfarlane, It’s Not Me, it’s You

In the last few months I’ve been in London a bit, in Delhi a bit, in Newcastle a lot. I have read some books set in those places. The real theme of this column (from a few weeks ago) is this: there are times when I miss Delhi so much.

 

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A recent read, Mhairi Mcfarlane’s It’s Not Me, It’s You, is a romance novel set partly in the city in which I now live. I’ve become very fond of Newcastle very quickly, and want to see it in fiction. And yet as I read the local sections of the book I rolled my eyes a lot; I found every reference to a specific place jarring, as if it were trying to draw too much attention to itself. Certainly when the action shifted to (the much more often written about) London, everything felt a lot smoother. I’m not sure whether this had anything to do with the book itself, or whether the shift to a less familiar (to me) setting was what changed; but I’m now struck by the idea of Londoners reading the thousands of books set in their city with the same feeling with which I read this one.

They must be used to it though, when it’s all so written-about. I’ve recently returned to Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, in which West Indian immigrants to the UK carve out homes for themselves in a London that is so much a part of their culture that every street is fraught with meaning. “Jesus Christ, when he say ‘Charing Cross’, when he realise that is he, Sir Galahad, who going there, near that place that everybody in the world know about (it even have the name in the dictionary) he feel like a new man,” thinks one newly-arrived young man.

When Nem, the protagonist of Janice Pariat’s Seahorse, moves to London friends congratulate him on being able to live there while young. “it stays with you, for London is a moveable feast”. “That’s about Paris,” objects Nem, before discovering that “all these cities were identical, cloaked with the same shiny, glittering appeal; pronounced with reverence, like a hushed prayer. [Nem] found that London was filled with old light”.

I don’t know if Nem’s “old light” is the same thing that Selvon’s ‘Sir Galahad’ refers to when he visits landmarks so significant as to be part of the language itself, but I think it might be. Selvon’s narrator later describes the importance of being able “to have said ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Piccadilly Circus is my playground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world.” Everything is saturated with significance. Here is a place whose name is in the dictionary; there is the place where T.S. Eliot once worked. Perhaps it does not seem jarring to speak of these landmarks, because they are already so spoken of. Perhaps residents of that city do not sit grumpily reading books set there and complaining that the setting feels forced, that the author is trying too hard. Perhaps old light even comes with the assurance that a place is worthy of being written about.

This column is about a city that I don’t know well, and another city that I’m beginning to know and love. But there’s a third city, always, that is home. Pariat’s Nem spends a significant part of the novel in Delhi; it’s there he falls in love, goes to university, finds his first few jobs. In “Golf Links, Panchsheel, Defence Colony, Neeti Bagh […] previously unfashionable Lado Sarai and industrial Okhla,” and a few pages later “in the newly trendy Hauz Khas Village, in front of Humayun’s Tomb, the Red Fort, […] Paranthe-wali gali.” Nem’s relationship with Delhi, like most people’s is not entirely positive; even those of us who love the city deeply have trouble doing so unreservedly.  But homesick and a continent away I can see how a mere list of landmarks can begin to be important; how they can cease to be a mere attempt at local colour and become talismanic.

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February 4, 2015

January Reading

As I said in my post about my reading in 2014, I’m not counting rereads (unless they’re for writing-about or mark a big shift in how I’ve read them) this year, and I’m interested in seeing what that does for my reading stats.

Unfortunately, by these criteria I read all of two new books in January. I was travelling, attending a funeral, attending a wedding, marking papers, writing half a draft chapter, and crime rereads were all I could manage. I read some Sarah Caudwell, some Edmund Crispin (including the title below, which I hadn’t read before), I started and did not finish Jill Paton Walsh’s Dorothy Sayers continuation (it did not work for me at all) and Jennifer Cruisie’s Faking it; started and plan to finish Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman.

 

What I did read:

Edmund Crispin, Beware the Trains: Collection of short stories, feat. Fen or Humbleby. I’d read a couple before, in other places. All quite good, but I don’t find detective fiction satisfying in short story form.

Shandana Minhas, Survival Tips for Lunatics: I read this on Sridala’s recommendation and because there were extinct and fantastical creatures on the cover. Changez and Timmy are camping with their parents, things go horribly wrong and suddenly they’re walking across a Balochistan that is suddenly peopled by velociraptors and literary-critic dragons, and trying to get home. It’s very silly and funny and just thoroughly endearing.

 

January 11, 2015

Himanjali Sankar, Talking of Muskaan/ Payal Dhar, Slightly Burnt

This was a bit uncomfortable to write, and I’m not even sure how objective I can be (one author’s a friend, both books were edited by friends), but there you go.

(Published column here)

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A couple of weeks ago saw the anniversary of December 2013’s Supreme Court decision overturning the Delhi High Court’s ruling that Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional. It felt like an important occasion, particularly since I was at the time reading two recent YA novels, both of which structured themselves in part around that moment in our recent history.

Himanjali Sankar’s Talking of Muskaan has been heralded as India’s first queer YA novel. The action opens on the day after the Supreme Court ruling, which is also the day after the title character has attempted to kill herself. The narrative then shifts to a few months earlier, and through the voices of three of Muskaan’s teenaged classmates (best friend Aaliya, clever-but-poor Shubhojoy, spoilt, rich Prateek) we piece together the events leading up to this moment.

Komal, the narrator of Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, is another teenager who is shocked to discover that her best friend Sahil is gay. Even as she is absorbing this new information, the news about Section 377 breaks, forcing her to confront the levels of intolerance that still exist around non-normative sexualities among her friends and family.

Komal’s initial reaction to Sahil’s coming out is far from ideal—and perhaps this is realistic. She feels uncomfortable with his sexuality, resentful of his lack of normalcy, betrayed because he is not who she thought he was. So shaken is she that she must go to the school counsellor for advice on how to process things. Dhar doesn’t entirely indulge her in her discomfort—the counsellor gently, and the internet less gently, remind her that Sahil is probably suffering more than she is.

But this doesn’t change the fact that Komal’s discomfort, and the process by which she overcomes it, are the story of Slightly Burnt. Sahil probably is going through a lot, but we don’t see it directly. Sankar’s book too is talking of, about, around but never by, or to, Muskaan.

Dhar and Sankar’s choice of (mostly) heterosexual narrators makes sense in a way, and the references to Article 377 form a part of this. We’re reminded over and over that all non-heteronormative sexualities (it’s to both books’ credit that they do not erase bisexual, transgender, or other queer identities) are the subject of ignorance and prejudice, and that people need to be educated about them or risk causing unimaginable harm to vulnerable people. Komal’s change of heart comes when she reads up on LGBT suicide rates; Aaliya’s comes after her best friend nearly dies. There’s a sense in which the reader too is being educated along with the characters.

Both books, for all that they adopt the idiom of contemporary YA, are very much in the tradition of the teenage “problem novels” of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which brought their protagonists face to face with a social issue, and over the course of their pages educated, unpicked said issue, and generally promoted tolerance. In a country where the sex lives of consenting adults can be criminalized and queer youth must constantly be reminded that they are “unnatural”, education and tolerance can only be a good thing. And yet.

As an (admittedly very lucky) young adult, I didn’t think of my own feelings as a burning social problem. I looked for myself in poetry, in romance, in tensions simmering under the radar; not in novels that explained me and the harmlessness of my tastes to the world. Both of these books assume a heterosexual reader who needs to be educated past her prejudice and reflexive (both books seem to assume that this is inevitable) disgust, not a queer teenager trying to find herself in fiction.

“At some point it has to stop being about you,” says Usha, Komal’s counsellor. Perhaps as long as this law exists that point cannot be reached. For now, queer readers will have to resign ourselves to reading books about, not for us.

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January 9, 2015

2014 in books (and stats, and angst, and possibly resolutions)

Firstly, the Strange Horizons reviewers’ picks for 2014 are up here. My section is right at the end, and I recommend books by Ghalib Islam, Kuzhali Manickavel, Jenny Offill and Megan Milks. They’re all brilliant, and the highlights of a year that included some very good things. There are other things I read and loved in 2014 but they weren’t necessarily speculative; most of them I’ve written about in some form or another on this blog.

A quick count through my monthly reading posts suggests that in 2014 I read:

  • 200 books total
  • 140 books by women
  • 40 books by POC*

All of which, particularly the last, are numbers that need unpacking. I don’t feel like I read 200 books this year, and I’m pretty sure that is in large part because most of them were rereads–children’s books for the thesis, and romance novels for downtime. I’m toying with the idea of not counting rereads at all in 2015 unless they mark a huge change in how I read the book in question. Particularly since cutting out my romance novel and school story rereads might also provide a less flattering account of the number of books by women I read in any given year.

But more importantly, I’ve somehow managed to read less books by people of colour in 2014 than I did in 2013, and that is unimpressive. I have a bunch of excuses lined up: I read a couple of awards shortlists, which tend to be pretty white; much of my reading was for my thesis (though the fact that I’ve chosen to study white-men-who-wrote-series-fiction is a pretty poor defense); I read a LOT of Diana Wynne Jones; but still.

So, plans for 2015?

  • Read less. Too often I’m lazy and don’t want to waste effort on something new and go back to something I’ve read a million times before that I can race through. I can’t need this many comfort reads. Genre series fiction (across a range of genres) is a major culprit here.
  • Bow out of SFF. Recent events have made this feel necessary; I’ll still be involved with the community aspects of Strange Horizons, as well as editing some of the reviews (here and here are some great recent book club discussions I’ve participated in), but other than very occasional reviews (I thought about giving this up as well but as all editors whom I owe things know, it wouldn’t really be very different), I don’t see myself being active in the community as a whole. No cons, no reading awards shortlists or arguing about things that clearly are not going to change, significantly less twitter. I’m looking forward to the extra time this is going to give me.
  • I will read the Carnegie shortlist, probably.
  • I committed to doing the South Asian Women Writers Challenge a couple of years ago, and suspect in 2014 I failed it. In 2015 I’m planning not to.
  • Maybe write some thesis, even.

 

* Disclaimer: given that some books are by multiple authors of various genders and races, some are by authors and illustrators, and people’s race or gender identities are not obvious (“poc” and “women” may not be very useful categories at all and “queer” would probably be impossible), these numbers are of necessity only approximate.

January 7, 2015

December Reading

Late, because I went on holiday without my laptop and consequently did a reasonable amount of reading. I have left out my ritual Christmas eve reading (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, a bit of The Sword in the Stone) because my feelings on these are known. I’ll be doing a round-up post about my year’s reading at some point in the next few days.

 

Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists: For work, and I really didn’t like it. It’s almost tick the boxes literary fiction: war, memory, nostalgia (thesis: the presence of nostalgia is what makes litfic litfic?), a postcoloniality that doesn’t feel very challenging, and that annoying thing where it keeps telling you what it’s doing. My students also did not like it, but for very different reasons.

Alan Garner, Elidor: Still really powerful. I happened to attend a paper on haunted technology a few days after I read it, also, which made me read the static electricity sections in a completely new light.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, T.H. White: I’ve been planning to read Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk for a while now, and thought a good way to do this would be to also read T.H. White’s The Goshawk and STW’s White biography first. I don’t know whether these are really going to affect Macdonald’s book for me, but this is a good biography of a writer who fascinates and confuses me.

T.H. White, The Goshawk: This made me cry, as it always does.

Leslye Walton, The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender: I came to this after a couple of people who I trust raved about it. It’s a little bit Chocolat-era Harris, a bit Angela Carter, and is odd and lyrical and whimsical and it … did nothing for me. I’m missing something, clearly. Meanwhile, I’m waiting for someone to write the essay on Maleficent’s sheared-off wings and Ava Lavender’s climatic scene.

Karthika Nair and Joelle Jolivet, The Honey Hunter: This is gorgeous. I read the earlier version; it seems in the wake of the Sunderbans oil spill the authors are reworking the book. And that is fascinating in itself.

Janice Pariat, Seahorse: A thing that Pariat succeeds in capturing both here and in her earlier Boats on Land is this sort of hazy, adolescent-ish atmosphere that I find really compelling. I have other thoughts about this book–its use of the DU English syllabus (did Nem only do the third year modernism paper though?), its use of myth, its cast of multiple bisexual characters; I liked it a lot, in short.

Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran, Mayil Will Not Be Quiet: I suspect other people have spoken about this book in great detail, and I haven’t got much to add, but it is SO good.

Niveditha Subramaniam and Sowmya Rajendran, Nirmala and Normala: Will write about this at length soon. It is hilarious, but surely there has to be a happy medium between literally living a movie-star life and having to settle for a Chetan Bhagat-reading engineer?

Michael Rosen and Quentin Blake, Michael Rosen’s Sad Book: My grandfather died a couple of weeks ago, and this was one of the things I turned to (other things: poetry, though not complete books’ worth of it, some Terry Pratchett, which features heavily in my January reading). It’s quiet and truthful and I love it.

Judith McNaught, Almost Heaven: I was on a plane, it was okay.

Himanjali Sankar, Talking of Muskaan: I am not really in a position to review this, as Himanjali’s a friend and former colleague, but I did write a column about it and Payal Dhar’s Slightly Burnt, which I’ll be putting here on the blog soon.

Payal Dhar, Slightly Burnt: (see above)

Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird: I love Oyeyemi’s work, but I did not love this. Of the three main characters Boy was the only one that really worked for me (the first part of the book, narrated only by her, is excellent); the climax is massively problematic (a character is revealed to be transgender; Boy does not react well, which might be understandable, but the real problem is in the book’s portrayal of this character–his transition is a response to rape, and his belief in his own masculinity becomes an enchantment that needs breaking.), but also structurally throws the book off balance to me. I’ll be discussing this at length elsewhere, but it was deeply disappointing.

Katherine Addison, The Goblin Emperor: Partly because of the column, partly because of other things, I rarely read genre fiction that isn’t doing something unusual or spectacular, but I’d heard good things of this particular book. I genuinely enjoyed it- towards the end I was worriedly checking how many pages were left because I was having a good time and didn’t want it to end.

Jai Undurti and Harsho Mohan Chattoraj, Hyderabad: A Graphic Novel: You know how when you’re a teenager and discover Foucault’s Pendulum and the world is full of all this cool stuff and you want to know all of it and talk about all of it? That is this book. It’s me at sixteen, it’s every quiz-attending, funda-loving boy I ever had a crush on, and I suspect what it would have benefited most by would be a cynical friend to occasionally ground it a bit. Some of the art is gorgeous, though.

December 15, 2014

Manuela Draeger (trans. Brian Evenson), In the Time of the Blue Ball

What a glorious thing this book is.

(From last weekend’s column):

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Are the three Manuela Draeger stories in In The Time of the Blue Ball: Three Post-Exotic Tales, set before or after the end of the world? It’s hard to tell. Meteors rain down upon the earth; the police have disappeared; fire hasn’t quite been invented (though everyone knows what it is) but electricity and marshmallows have.

Approaching In the Time of the Blue Ball in translation (the translator is fantasist Brian DraegerEvenson) means that those of us who do not read French come to it without much context—the publisher’s note that provides some of this context is placed at the end of the book. So it’s only after the un-spoiled reader has read to the end that she learns that these are three of the (so far) ten Bobby Potemkine stories, that in France they are published in separate volumes for adolescent readers. She also learns that Draeger, as the book wonderfully puts it, “belongs to a community of imaginary authors”. She’s a pseudonym for Antoine Volodine, who is himself a pseudonym (or a Pessoa-style heteronym) for an unknown writer.

I was not an entirely unspoiled reader, but there’s something very appealing about taking these stories on their own terms.

Bobby Potemkine is this world’s version of a private detective. In the title story he and his dog Djinn investigate the disappearance of Lili Soutchane, the woman who invented fire. They do this with the help of the battes, insolent flying creatures (on one of whom, Lili Niagra, Bobby Potemkine has a crush), and an orchestra of flies.

There’s an emptiness about the world; a sense that it has been lived-in but then abandoned. Everyone is cold. Factories have been shut down and towns and houses appear un-occupied. The railway station has been destroyed by a meteorite and lies in ruins, still smoking. Children have become increasingly rare. Bobby Potemkine’s world has a past, but it’s impossible to imagine what that past might be.

And yet there is newness everywhere that speaks of beginnings, not endings. In “North of the Wolverines” Bobby Potemkine and his companions must rescue Auguste Diodon, one noodle among many on every plate, indistinguishable from them except for the fact that he has a name and that there’s something not quite right about eating something with a name (though “it can happen to anyone to be eaten by someone or to eat someone. It’s strange, but that’s how it is.”) In “Our Baby Pelicans” (translated by Brian and Valerie Evenson) baby pelicans appear across the city but display no sign of life. Not that our characters think of them as dead; Bobby Potemkine carries his around, strapped to his chest, and speaks to it reassuringly—to no response. It turns out the baby pelicans are merely waiting for their mothers to be invented and thus come into being—which they do when Soraya Gong, a creature who from Draeger’s description I imagine as a gigantic mass of foam, transforms into a mother pelican. Noodles and foam may come to life, living creatures may turn into other things (Lili Soutchane turns into a batte); nothing is fixed in this world and everything has potential.

Volodine/Draeger’s larger project is something he (?) describes as the post-exotic, a concept he’s written on at length in various venues, most of which remain un-translated. But it is a literature of estrangement, one in which things have gone badly wrong, one which treats French as if it too were a foreign language. All of that is visible in these three stories, but so are other things—like kindness, and hope and possibility. A friend compared them to Jansson’s Moomin books, with their small, kind stories against a vast bleak backdrop (“Everything’s happy, yet you feel like everything is destroyed.”) Yet the comparison that sits most comfortably in my head is with Kipling’s Just-So Stories, for their sense of being told, and of being of a time when the world is being set into shape. Volodine again describes the post-exotic as “a literature of elsewhere, from elsewhere, headed elsewhere,” and in In The Time of the Blue Ball I think we may have the Just-So Stories of another world.

 

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December 8, 2014

Douglas Gresham and Pauline Baynes, The Official Narnia Cookbook

Still in the middle of the Narnia section of my thesis, and trying to convince myself that reading things like this counts as work.

It doesn’t.

From a column a couple of weeks ago.

 

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The literary cookbook feels like it ought to be a recent phenomenon, another example of a marketing tie-in. But literary cookbooks have been around for a while—I’ve read, for example, a copy of the Chalet School Cookbook (first published in 1953) in which the characters of that series attempt to create a recipe book for a friend who is about to be married. Not all of the recipes that emerge look particularly tempting; though the book’s take on Chinese food might provide for interesting historical perspective.

Of the hundreds of literary cookbooks that now exist, many have only a tenuous connection with the literary works that inspired them. It’s possible to hunt down foodstuffs eaten in the novels of Jane Austen or the plays of Shakespeare, of course, but arguable whether food is really central to the ways in which we feel about those works.

But then there are the books where food is really a part of the experience. For fans, a big part of the pleasure of reading George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (or watching Game of Thrones, the TV series based on the books) is in the world these stories exist in—one in which food plays a significant part, and it’s no surprise that a blog, then a book, based on the food mentioned in the series should have become a major success.

And then there’s children’s literature, in which food is everything. Like every postcolonial, English-reading child I grew up reading foods that seemed to come from an alien world—as removed from us by time as by space. It’s a cliché that Indian children grow up not knowing what kippers are and are disappointed by scones when we finally encounter them—what’s more interesting is that the picnics, and not the plots are what we remember the most.

C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books are not only filled with descriptions of fantastical meals, but assign food (like everything else, to be fair) great moral import. In the first book within the series’ internal chronology, the not-eating of an apple (Lewis is not subtle in his religious references) is an important plot point. In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Edmund Pevensie gorges himself on tainted Turkish Delight from the evil White Witch and is so unable to appreciate the wholesome fried fish and boiled potatoes offered to him by the good beavers shortly afterwards.

In The Official Narnia Cookbook Douglas Gresham claims that Turkish Delight is (un-ensorcelled) also a common Narnian treat. I rather suspect this is not the case; to me it seems clear that the exotic Eastern-ness of it forms part of the contrast with Mrs Beaver’s properly English marmalade roll. This is part of the usefulness of Narnia, and of so many other fantasies; that it can be familiar and strange, self and Other, as required. Even the mud in Narnia is desirable; in a scene in Prince Caspian we see dryads eating different sorts of loam and Lewis makes it somehow appealing.

This might not be the case with the Official Narnia Cookbook, however. Recipes for sherbet and Turkish Delight sit here next to others for sausage rolls and porridge, and those in turn are next to boiled potatoes and scrambled eggs. Distance flattens out difference; Gresham’s book is clearly pitched at American children who are young enough that cooking itself is new, so that things like boiling potatoes might need instructions. And the British food of 1950s children’s fiction is as far removed from them as lobster patties and sherbet might have been to Lewis’ original audience.

It’s this that makes the whole thing rather unappealing to an adult. There’s so much to do with food in the Narnia books—and a lot of it relies on a reader with some level of knowledge. In assuming a reader who knows very little (and perhaps those behind the book are right, though it’s hard to see why such a reader would want such a cookbook) the Official Narnia Cookbook leaves itself little to do but give us recipes for egg and cheese sandwiches.

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