February 21, 2014

Rakesh Khanna and Rashmi Ruth Devadasan (ed), The Obliterary Journal Vol 2: Non-Veg

When I reviewed the first installment of the Obliterary Journal a couple of years ago, I described it as (among other things) “spectacularly ill-conceived”. To my amazement, Blaft have chosen not to put this on a blurb anywhere.

Last weekend’s column, on meat, literature of, and also emus.

 

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Consider the first war of Indian independence, commonly associated with angry sepoys protesting against being forced to consume cow and pig fat. In the aftermath of the recent events in Khirki, a local man explained to a reporter that he had heard that African immigrants ate all sorts of meat, even human. Consider the ways in which racists justify their dislike of people from the North-East of the country by claiming that “those people” eat dogs. Consider the ways in which the question of what forms of meat one does or doesn’t eat is used to keep neighbourhoods free of particular communities. And also, I suppose, consider the uncle downstairs who was always cooking fish, and the smell floated into your bathroom so that you were never rid of it. Meat is inherently political as well as emotive.

Blaft’s second, meat-themed, Obliterary Journal recognizes this. Its portrayals of meat are delicious and disgusting, exploitative and egalitarian. Ali Sultan’s photo-essay “Butcher, Butcher: Lahore” and Somdutt Sarkar’s infographics about animal slaughter (interspersed with pictures of PETA protests) provide some of the realities around the meat we eat, while Madhurya Balan’s “Livestock” and Appupen’s “The Hunters” are among a few pieces that imagine what it might mean to be prey. Nazeer Akbarabadi’s “Mouse Pickle”, translated here by Musharraf Ali Farooqi and illustrated by B. Anitha, Anil Kumar and Michelle Farooqi, is comically gross.

On the other hand there’s Meena Kandasamy’s “How to Make a Bitch Give Up Beef”, with art by Samita Chatterjee. Kandasamy collects some of the personal attacks employed against her in the wake of the 2012 Beef Festival in Hyderabad. There’s occasional lightness in the wordplay (“Plan Nine” is followed by “Plantain: Promote Vegetarianism”, for example) but since the “strategies” enumerated include threats of rape and acid attacks, it’s hardly a pleasant piece, made worse by the fact that it’s true.

Tarun Padmakumar’s “Jamalpur” has friends coming together over a shared love of meat, and the brilliant Prabha Mallya in “On Making Wet Food at Home for Your Growing Kitten” chronicles the lives and loves of four people with completely incompatible food choices. Nochikuppam Fisherwomen Comics, by Ratzzz and X. Kumar and starring Ilavarasi and Kala, is wonderful, with its two fisherwomen turned into superheroines and vengeful goddesses.

“The Legend of U Thien” (Kynpham Sing Nongkynrih and Aratrika Choudhury) and “The Stepson’s Meat is in the Kitchen” (Dukhushyam Chitrkar and Megha Bhaduri) are both translations of folk stories; a Khasi legend and a tale from Bengal. Women do not come out of either of them well, as is the case with far too many folk-tales, but I particularly liked Chitrkar’s Patua-style art and the fact that his story is clearly meant to be recited, not read, and thus particularly relevant to this collection.

The standout of the collection for me remains Aneesh K.R’s “The Past and Future History of the Emu” which begins with the bird’s evolution and traces it through the emu farming bubble in 2000s Tamil Nadu (and surely there are entire books about that just waiting to be written?) and continues into a plausible future in which only the combined efforts of India, Pakistan, China and Nigeria stand between the human race and a cyborg emu apocalypse.

In both volumes of this journal Blaft have tended to prioritise idea over execution and while this can be a problem (though perhaps this concern with execution is another of those things the obliterary journal is supposed to obliterate?) it is better than the alternative. Blaft continue to provide one of the few venues in which one can write emu-centric SF or Star Trek fanfiction (in the form of Gurjot S. Mamik’s “They Came From the Stars”) and this collection is a useful reminder of the important space that they are.

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February 12, 2014

The Krum Theory (or burblings about fanfiction and authorial … authority?)

J.K. Rowling said the end of Deathly Hallows was about “wish-fulfillment” and I had some thoughts. Again, very sparse; I’d love to hear of more examples of authors who have written fanfiction set in their own universes.

From this weekend’s column.

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One of the difficulties of a book or television series that generates a great deal of fanfiction is the possibility that while we wait for the next installment, the (unpaid, non-professional) fan writers are doing it better. I spent much of the most recent series of the BBC’s Sherlock series comparing it (usually to the actual show’s disadvantage) to other, fan-produced works. But this is hardly the only instance in which a ‘real’ author’s work has reminded me of fanfic.

The last of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, came out in 2007. Like what felt like most of the world at the time, I read it the day it was released. It was all going so well until we came to the book’s epilogue. Here was a piece of writing that had all the characteristics of a particular sort of fanfiction, the kind that generally isn’t very good. The neat pairing off of everyone with everyone, the weird and wonderful names given to the characters’ offspring; it was uniformly dreadful. Years later, the movies would drive this point home further by fake-aging their actors to film this scene, thus making of it something truly unsettling.

I reread this unfortunate chapter recently, after Rowling herself admitted to the wish-fulfillment nature of it all. More importantly, she suggested that having her character Hermione Granger end up with the gormless Ron Weasley may not have been the best idea, and that Harry Potter himself might have made her happier.

Naturally this has pleased a section of her fans who always thought that Hermione and Harry were meant to be, and others who simply thought she could do better. Some of us grumpily asked why she needed to be paired off with a man at all when there were so many other options available to her. She could be Minister for Magic. She could be queer. She could have a torrid affair with Bulgarian Quidditch player Viktor Krum, before choosing career over personal life and inventing something world-changing. She  could work towards the inevitable house-elf revolution and be reviled among polite wizard society for her supposed treachery.

But that is one of the things fanfiction allows us to do—to take characters, and imagine that they have an independent existence outside the text, and explore the possibilities they offer us. It’s one of the luxuries afforded to fans of a work, and I’m sure that all of these (and thousands of other) potential futures for Hermione have been explored by writers who are more willing to put in the effort than I am.

But Rowling isn’t a fan of the Harry Potter books, or at least not a typical one, and I find myself intrigued by the implications of an author thus elaborating upon or rethinking events set in the world she created. If Rowling reveals ‘facts’ about the characters that were not stated in the books (as with her assertion some months after the series ended that Professor Dumbledore was gay), are they necessarily more canonical than my own belief that Luna Lovegood is right about the Nargles (admittedly, there’s more textual evidence for the first of these theories than the second)? If Rowling were to write a ‘corrected’ version of the final book with a very  different version of that last chapter would we accept it as the ‘real’ sequence of events? What are the limits of story, to what extent do the millions of people who have already read the book own the plot, so that it cannot now be changed?

All this is hypothetical, since Rowling has shown no sign of wanting to correct her books. And while her pronouncements on the series will presumably always be listened to more seriously than those of her fans, I suppose it would be unfair to ban her from playing with her own creation.

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February 9, 2014

Two hair stories

When I wrote this, about ten days ago, I was also following a number of twitter conversations around hair (sparked by Laurie Penny’s rather too universalising piece about the politics of short hair on women), and contemplating a haircut myself. And had just bought the first of these two books (as readers of this blog know, I acquired the Aiken collection through a criminal act more than twenty years ago). Hair seems to have been a theme of this month.

A slightly longer version of last weekend’s column.

 

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I spent most of my childhood alternately wishing for straight hair and defiantly proclaiming the superiority of curls. As an adult I’ve become reconciled (and quite proud of) hair which when caught in a strong wind has been known to accost strangers in the street. I still grit my teeth when shocked hairdressers suggest straightening it (or refuse to cut it as short as I would like) but I’m aware that my hair-related troubles are much less strenuous than those of thousands of other women.

Because hair is an intensely political issue; whether it is long or short, allowed to turn grey, dyed (and what colours of dye are allowable is another issue entirely), left natural or artificially treated, even the sorts of hairstyles we choose; all of these have wider ramifications that we cannot entirely control, and work together to affect us in ways that are both far too common and intensely individual and personal. Black women in particular all too frequently come up against racist assumptions around what is and is not acceptable hair. Your hair can be something you take joy in; it is also often a catalyst for angst, worry, exhaustion.

Parineeta, the princess in Komilla Raote’s The Princess with the Longest Hair (illustrated by Vandana Bist) takes very little delight in the beauty of her hair. It is her parents who engage a hundred maids to oil, wash and make it beautiful. For another long-haired heroine of fairy-tale, Rapunzel, long hair proves the method of her rescue; for Parineeta this is not the case. When she sits at the window of the topmost room of the palace and lets her hair down, it is not escape but further entrapment that is inevitable—when her hair grows long enough to touch the ground the king and queen will choose a prince for a marriage Parineeta doesn’t want.

Joan Aiken’s collection of short stories, The Last Slice of Rainbow, contains another instance of a princess whose hair is more curse than blessing. “The Queen with Screaming Hair” introduces us to Christina, princess of Laurestinia, who in a fit of childish mischief snips off the whiskers of her fairy-godfather. Disappearing until he can grow them back (a process which will take nine times nine thousand hours) he curses Christina; until he returns her hair will scream and taunt her constantly. Attempts to cut it all off prove futile as it immediately grows back, and so Christina must live with a perpetual chorus of voices belittling her; voices that almost no one else can hear. Worse, her parents’ ship has hit an iceberg and to the ordeal of merely getting through the days is added that of running the country.

But Christina uses her hair for good. She donates her hair to the citizens of her country; it is used to make mats and hammocks for those who have to live in the marshes, and to save her people from rampaging bulls and icebergs bigger than the country itself. Parineeta, when she finally escapes the palace, also uses her hair well. It provides a blanket for a nursing mother and her freezing child, nets for fishermen, and a woven roof for a cowshed.

Both stories have the advantage of fine illustrators—Bist and Margaret Walty (illustrator of my edition of Aiken’s short stories) both produce delicate, detailed art that seems to give us every strand of hair. And then Bist and Raote do something that shouldn’t be unexpected but somehow has so much visual impact—they show us Parineeta, bald, walking out of the story and into her future.

“Without the burden of her heavy hair, Parineeta felt as light as the rays of the morning sun that were turning the sky blue. She hurried towards the mountains.”

Growing up in India, most images of bald women one sees are sanyasins. And Parineeta gives up everything (even her body, it seems, as she disappears into the distance) to her kingdom; the last few pages of the story suggest that her absence has become a kind of constant presence, that she’s in the trees and the river (as in the illustration above). I’m sure you could make an argument that teaching young girls to renounce things is not the greatest idea, but there’s something powerful and spiritual about this picture.

Aiken also ends her story by rewarding Christina with a voyage of discovery (and a potential partner to share it with) but Parineeta, lightened of her worldly duties and walking lighthearted into oblivion, is perfect.

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Perhaps it’s a little worrying that two of my favourite Indian children’s books in the last few years have ended in the protagonist’s noble death?

February 5, 2014

January Reading

I spent the second half of January being thoroughly on holiday, much of it in a garden overlooking a lake. Much of my reading this month has been holiday-ish (the first half of the month was spent producing many thousands of thesis words and I read very little as a result) as a result. It has been a good month.

 

Mhairi MacFarlane, You Had Me At Hello: There’s so much about this book and its characters that is charming and likeable, and then there’s the thing where grand romances are easier if the wife of your beloved is a bitch.

Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs: I read this on a plane. It begins with a children’s literature scholar travelling to England, on a plane. And having a relationship with England and English literature that is  uncomfortable and familiar. And some other stuff happens, but the real point is this is my future and that is terrifying.

Georgette Heyer, The Reluctant Widow: Not one of her best, but I found myself appreciating it more on this read than on previous ones.

Shoma Narayanan, The One She Was Warned About: Wrote about this here.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Redheads at the Chalet School: Which is actually a meta-commentary on fictional worlds including but not limited to Brent-Dyer’s own. I can totally prove this.

Adam Roberts, The Riddles of The Hobbit: I don’t plan to list things I read for academic purposes in these posts, and I’m quite sure I’ll be citing this particular book a few times because there are parts of it that are very useful to me. But I’d have read it even if I was studying something completely unrelated because I enjoy Roberts’ criticism and I love The Hobbit. I have a whole rant about What’s Wrong With Tolkien Criticism (it is full of generalisations but I am willing to perform it for anyone who will listen) and I read this book during a month when I was drowning in it, and it was exactly what I needed. Sometimes I need to be reminded of how much criticism allows you to do with a book. This was a good reminder.

Anna Katharine Green, The Affair Next Door: Wrote about this here.

Patricia McKillip, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld: I seem to remember thinking that the Riddlemaster books were great and find that I remember nothing about them. This book has made me think they need a reread; not much happens but it’s very good anyway.

E.J. Swift, Osiris: I feel like I need to think about this one a lot more, but I also think I liked it.

Edmund Crispin, The Glimpses of the Moon, The Long Divorce: The Long Divorce contains possibly the least convincing romance I’ve ever read—shy, attractive man and reserved, attractive woman’s eyes meet across a murder (in a manner of speaking) and they Just Know. But there is a crime that is vaguely solvable for once (I can never solve a Gervase Fen mystery, and hours after reading one have usually forgotten who the criminal was and how they did it and that’s okay) and there is a cat who sees Martians and everything is delightful. Glimpses of the Moon is one of the weaker mysteries, but it’s hilarious. With this I’ve read all the Fen books, and I am rather sad about this and I wish there were more.

Anoushka Ravishankar, Jerry Pinto, and Sayoni Basu, Phuss Phuss Boom: Three excellent short stories about farting. I was a little concerned, reading Jerry Pinto’s introduction to his story, that he thought some creatures were more deserving of having their eyes farted out ( … spoiler?) than others; I was happy to find that that was not the case.

Courtney Milan, The Governess Affair, The Duchess War, The Countess Conspiracy, The Heiress Effect: Reread The Heiress Effect for a post I’d been wanting to write for a while (coming soon, hopefully, along with another post about Milan I didn’t think I was going to write), and therefore read the others in the series for context + completion. Milan really seems to like pitting her hero and heroine against one another in situations where their aims come directly into conflict: see Selina’s attempts to bring down the Duke vs Hugo’s need to keep the Duke afloat for his own payoff, Robert’s inciting the workers vs Minnie’s hiding her past, Oliver’s political aims vs Jane’s need to remain oblivious for her own (and her sister’s) protection. A thing that is good about this: Milan’s characters are always people with lives and concerns outside of their romances. A thing that is annoying about this: if you read them all at once it’s hard not to notice their sameyness of plot.

Nadifa Mohamed, The Orchard of Lost Souls: I read this for a review, which I should maybe get around to writing.

Nicholas Blake, The Sad Variety: I think I’ve also read all the Nigel Strangeways books now, and while some of them have made me angry or unhappy, I’m genuinely sorry I’ll never have another. This one is very much Of Its Time—published in 1964, with frequent references to the revolution in Hungary, the horrors of communism (the villains are communists—though when Blake has characters argue its benefits he generally comes down on the leftier side of things), nuclear fission. There is not enough Clare, there’s one tragic Motherhood Is Everything figure who the other characters seem to think belongs in Greek tragedy but to me belonged in Agatha Christie, and there’s a precocious child with adorably bad spelling. It’s also not so much a detective story as a thriller; Nigel does very little detecting. I enjoyed it anyway.

Shalini Srinivasan, Vanamala and the Cephalopod: This is so good. It reminded me a bit of Valente’s The Girl Who books, a bit of China Mieville’s Un Lun Dun, even a bit of Kipling’s Just So Stories. There may be an H.P. Lovecraft reference. Our heroine calls all older people mama or mami, whether they be god, underwater dictator or local grocer. I’m still not entirely sure what a Boopy is.

Jeanette Winterson, The Daylight Gate: This is awful. It’s not Winterson-y at all, which is fine, there’s no reason why she shouldn’t branch out into other things. But it is actively, (objectively?), bad.

Beatrice Alemagna, A Lion in Paris: Gorgeous, though I find myself wanting to read it alongside a mummy story I read in December. Which is not something I was expecting.

Geeta Dharmarajan and Wen Hsu, How To Weigh an Elephant: Is a Women in Science book, and I think I must write a column about it sometime. This, and the books above and below it on this list, were the result of a visit to the children’s sections of various bookshops to see what I’d missed. A lot, apparently.

Komilla Raote and Vandana Bist, The Princess with the Longest Hair: Lovely, and I’ll put my column that is mostly about it on the blog soon.

 

February 3, 2014

Bulletpoints: Dedh Ishqiya

 

  • There’s a moment in the second half of Dedh Ishqiya where Arshad Warsi’s Babban drags Huma Qureshi’s Muniya into a corner to discuss their future (travelling the world, apparently). Babban has so far failed to grasp the obvious–that Muniya has no interest in sharing a future with him– and so she makes it clear with some well-timed shaming. These men keep confusing sex for love, she says; she slept with him, but that was it. It’s funny for a moment because it’s a reversal, because so often in stories like this it’s the men for whom casual sex is casual, the women who are portrayed as clingy and over-attached. But then Babban, rejected and humiliated, reacts by beating her, shoving her against the wall; her sounds of protest become increasingly panicky, and we’re shifting uncomfortably in our seats.
  • It’s a scene that is all the more striking because we know that violence isn’t that serious in this film. Babban may be at the mercy, temporarily, of a gang lord; Khalujaan may be shot while escaping with the jewels, Jaan Mohammed’s men may occupy our heroes in a standoff that lasts all night but most of these have no real consequences (and the last ends in comedy). Violence takes place in a sort of golden world where nothing truly bad can happen, and where we can guiltlessly enjoy the picaresque adventures of the main characters without feeling uncomfortable about some of their crimes. Even the film’s title, which to me echoes the dhishkiaaon of the overexaggerated bollywood bullet, signals this. It comes as a shock, then, to realise that there are forms of violence that are violent and I like the film better for subjecting us to it, and for making one of its loveable heroes the perpetrator.
  • Gender isn’t the only source of violence though. The villain of the piece is Jaan Mohammed, the local MLA who is in love with both Madhuri’s Begum Para and the life that she represents. But he is also unfitted for that world–unlike Khalujaan, who seems to have the sort of background that allows him to believably fake “nawabiyat”, Jaan Mohammed has to kidnap a real member of that class to write his poetry for him. But Nawab Italvi escapes and now the law (in the form of honest Malayali cop and his minions) is on his side, as indeed it should be on the side of kidnap victims. But once the force of the law has been brought to bear upon him we see Jaan Mohammed stripped of his shirt, beaten and bleeding as Italvi viciously reminds him that he’ll always be an outsider to Italvi’s own world.
  • The world Jaan Mohammed so longs for is a romanticised version of that inhabited by upper-class Muslims decades ago–I’m not sure it even exists anymore. There’s been some fantastic commentary on the ways in which Dedh Ishqiya uses Urdu not just as a language (though it is a film that revels in wordplay) but as signifier to a whole culture. We’re encouraged to view the haveli through a haze of romance. It’s almost a fairytale.
  • And if it’s a fairytale, Madhuri Dixit is its princess. There’s something fairy-talish anyway about the idea of the swayamvar, princes competing to win the hand of the woman they all desire. One of my favourite things about Dedh Ishqiya is the way it uses the iconography of Madhuri Dixit almost as much as it uses the actress herself–when she appears to greet the participants in the mushaira she’s lovely and remote and gracious and unattainable, more symbol than person.
  • Except of course that she is a person, with a life and love that none of her admiring suitors expects. Begum Para in her private life is worried and nervous and affectionate and physically close to Muniya. Late in the first half of the film Khalujaan/Iftekaar convinces Para to dance again, as she used to when she was younger (and how nice to see multiple, untroubled references to the fact that a beautiful woman is growing older). It’s all a pretty blatant excuse to give us Madhuri dancing onscreen, but while it happens we see a series of men watching through windows: Iftekaar and Babban in the present, Iftekaar’s younger self in flashback. They are all on the outside; it’s to Muniya that Para turns to share her joy in this gift that she has got back.
  • By now it’s not a spoiler that the film features what is pretty evidently a queer romance. There’s a direct reference made by one of the characters to Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”, but the film also borrows from that story for the histories of its own characters. Para is the beautiful Begum, married off to a Nawab who much prefers the company of young men; Muniya is the faithful servant who nurses her back to health. Chughtai’s story is told from the perspective of a child who finds the whole relationship sinister, and there’s an incident where the Begum appears to take an interest in the child. I love many things about “Lihaf” (most of all the mere fact of its existence) but this moment in which same sex attraction is shown to be predatory has made me uncomfortable since I read it. (Here‘s a piece that goes into some of this, and that also provides a translation of the story) Dedh Ishqiya strips these aspects of the story away, and substitutes Rabbu’s jealousy with Muniya’s demonstrative protectiveness, and leaves us with a loving, joyful relationship between two women.
  • I think it’s that joy that makes this film feel *important* — independently of the ways in which it is otherwise smart and funny and happy-making. I have friends whose reaction to the film was to be thrilled at seeing people like us onscreen and happy; that’s not really how I react to film, but I know that it matters. And it’s just thrown out there and accepted immediately by at least one of our main characters (I don’t think Babban has read Chughtai) and Khalujaan continues to treat the Begum with the same almost courtly love as before.
  • My screening of Dedh Ishqiya did not have subtitles as I’m told others did; it did have an interval during which one of the two trailers (the other was for something titled One by Two) was for Gulaab Gang. My feelings about this movie are more wary than anything else (though I hadn’t realised how much my 90s-Bollywood-watching childhood self craved evil Juhi Chawla) but I was rather pleased by how neatly some of the scenes in the trailer echoed others in the second half of the film I was watching. I’m now convinced that having driven off in their car and started a dance school, Begum Para and Muniya turn her students into a militant feminist group.
  • I do miss Vidya Balan though.

 

 

January 30, 2014

Shoma Narayanan, The One She Was Warned About

Rather scrappy; this feels like notes towards a larger and better piece about desirability in the romance novel and how both names and tropes (the bad boy, the uptight businessman, the … man with unwitting mafia connections trying to make good?) act as signifiers within that framework. Or something. Anyway. This week’s column.

 

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Perhaps the most romance novel-ish of Georgette Heyer’s considerable body of work is The Nonesuch. The title character is as much of a paragon as his nickname implies; he’s fabulously rich, good at sports, attractive, dresses well without looking like he’s trying too hard, has perfect manners and charms everyone around him. Faced with all of this perfection it’s understandable that our heroine (nobly impoverished, clever, attractive) suspects that he has a dreadful secret and that he is out of her league. She turns out to be wrong on both counts—the terrible secret only makes him look even more noble, and he is deeply in love with her. There’s only one drawback- His name is Waldo.

Fashions in names change, of course, as do the traits we assign to particular names. A casual observer of this romance in Regency England might not find Waldo a particularly incongruous name for a romantic hero. And obviously people named Waldo do have romances and find love and hopefully happiness. Our belief that certain kinds of stories happen only to people with certain sorts of names is irrational. Presumably this is partly why early attempts at fiction by Indian schoolchildren so often feature characters with names out of Enid Blyton—we have absorbed the idea that certain sorts of literary adventures only happen to middle-class, mid-twentieth-century British kids.

When major romance publishing houses first broached the idea of books set in India, many people (myself among them) found the idea rather amusing. Romances involving American cowboys, Greek tycoons, various members of minor European nobility and Sheikhs of fictional countries all seemed, if not realistic, at least familiar—the prospect of these plots featuring men and women with names like our own was faintly ridiculous. The first India-set romance novel I read was indeed awful, less because of its protagonists’ names than because the author had decided to imitate the sexual politics of the 1950s.

But in the few years since, things have changed; there’s enough Indian romance that one is able to read individual books on their own merits. My copy of Shoma Narayanan’s The One She Was Warned About proclaims on its cover that the author is an international bestseller.

The One She Was Warned About features Shweta, an engineer-turned-MBA (of course) with an uneventful personal life and dubious taste in clothing. She runs into childhood classmate Nikhil, who since getting expelled from school has started a successful business and hangs out with movie stars. Naturally, romance occurs, though Nikhil’s complicated family affairs must be sorted out before any sort of Happily Ever After can be achieved.

Genre romances often fall back on a finite set of well-worn, yet effective plots: men and women are attracted to one another; there’s some serious obstacle or; everything works out in the end. Narayanan’s book is a bit unusual in that the misunderstanding (and by implication, the romance?) is between Nikhil and his family; the relatively uncomplicated Shweta becomes something of a bystander in her own romance.

Too often the complications of a plot could easily be solved simply by the protagonists actually listening to one another for once. Narayanan goes a step further in just about eliminating conflict altogether. The disapproving prospective father-in-law doesn’t disapprove, the bad boy hero hasn’t actually been a rebel since he was a teenager. In a way this only adds to the wish-fulfillment aspect of the whole thing; no parent would ‘warn’ its child about this wealthy, successful businessman; Nikhil has all the romance-novel appeal of the rebel with none of its considerable disadvantages. In a story that must somehow come to a happy ending no conflict must be too hard to solve. Unfortunately in this instance it results in all plot being squeezed into a chapter or so at the end of the book.

By now it’s a bit of a cliché to suggest that the hero is the most important aspect of the romance. It’s an idea it’s possible to take to extremes—in The One She Was Warned About Shweta is barely present. But at least Narayanan manages to make Nikhil Nair sound like a reasonable hero-name.

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January 9, 2014

Anna Katharine Green, The Affair Next Door

This is what I was reading while almost everyone else in the country was watching the first new Sherlock (she said smugly. And then Sherlock was available to watch online and then I did almost immediately so please feel free to mock any further smugness).

On the subject of Miss Marple’s greatness, I’m fond of this piece by Sarah Rees Brennan.

A version of last weekend’s column.

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The question of who wrote the first detective novel, like all questions of genre-origins, is one that probably isn’t worth answering, though it’s always worth discussing. Edgar Allan Poe’s 1841 “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” is often given this credit (Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone is sometimes cited as the first English language detective novel), and it’s as good a place to start as any. Poe’s Dupin is a genius, the sort of person who is regularly consulted by the police, and has an admiring audience at any time in his companion, the narrator of the piece. It’s a convention that shows up in later detective stories as well—Holmes and Watson, Poirot and Hastings being particularly well known examples. It makes sense; a story narrated by Holmes or Dupin would verge on incomprehensible (and probably quite annoying) without someone more like the reader to interpret. Agatha Christie takes it further and provides in Hastings a narrator whose words generally make the reader feel considerably more on top of things than Hastings himself. I love all of these fictional detectives but a thing in common they have is an assumption that they will be listened to. The very presence of their narrator-companions attests to this; these men exist within the books as listeners, their presence is proof that there is something worth listening to. And yet I prefer the ordinary witness who has to struggle to be heard, who cannot take for granted a world in which her opinions are immediately worthy of respect; the detective who doesn’t look like one. I am suspicious of an Agatha Christie reader who prefers Poirot to Marple.

Long before Christie (and before Conan Doyle) there was Anna Katharine Green, the American author of a number of nineteenth century detective stories. Most of Green’s stories focused upon another great detective, Ebenezer Gryce. But her hero is fallible, and in The Affair Next Door Green introduced Amelia Butterworth, a nosy, middle-aged woman who manages to out-deduce even Gryce.

It’s not easy to be a woman and be taken seriously in nineteenth century New York, and Amelia is very aware of this. Modesty is not an option; only a very strong sense of self-worth can survive her constant setting-aside. Amelia may not have had the opportunities for experience that her male counterparts have had but, she says, “though I have had no adventures I feel capable of them”. She must constantly be on the alert lest compliments she receives have a patronising tone, she changes her name to one she thinks sounds more sensible, she is ridiculed as a busybody. And yet it is she who finds the vital clues, she who proves Gryce wrong and saves two innocent men from wrongful arrest.

The Affair Next Door is wonderful because Amelia is wonderful. She is exactly what she seems to be—a woman in her fifties, concerned with appearances (she purposely feeds two young guests poor meals so that she won’t appear to be trying to impress them), far too nosy and unaware of how ridiculous she often appears. But it’s okay that she is all of these things, and these traits help her, and we’re never allowed to forget that she’s more than that. She’s acerbic, prejudiced (“I don’t like young men in general” she informs us), worried about her writing style (“Excuse the metaphor; I do not often indulge”). In some ways she reminds me of Miss Marple; the two women are vastly different in temperament, but in neither case are appearances deceptive. Whether it is Miss Marple’s gentle Victorian demeanour, or Miss Butterworth’s pushy society spinster, these women’s greatest strengths are exactly the things for which others dismiss them. By the end of the novel Amelia Butterworth has won Gryce’s respect (she collaborates with him in two more mysteries) but we’re under no illusions. With or without his support, she will still have to push to be heard, every time.

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January 4, 2014

2013 (in reading and in bulletpoints)

(That up there is a zeugma)

 

Things I did in 2013:

  • Moved to another continent and started a PhD.
  • Became a parent. [Okay, not really. Ollie the puppy a) is technically my grandparents' dog and has my grandfather's surname b) is no longer a puppy. But I did the important staying-awake and saying "no!" a lot bits, and at some point I started saying things like "mummy's hair is not for chewing!" so I guess that's me. Mummy.]
  • Was forced to autograph a book.
  • Helped judge an award.
  • Won a prize for knowing about pigs.*
  • Started writing about movies in bulletpoint form but I don’t know why.
  • May have done some other things also.
  • Read 186 books. I’m not counting academic books because that would just get complicated.
  • I’m also not counting short stories, for the same reason.
  • Read 114 books by women (as a subset of the 186 above, I mean).
  • Read 57 books by non-white writers.
  • (The above stats are a bit off –I can’t always be sure what race or gender particular authors identify themselves as, and in things like multi-author anthologies I just go with the editor. But still, it’s nice to have a broad idea)
  • Was in a book.

 

Things I did not do in 2013.

  • Too many and too disappointing to name.

 

This time last year I was looking at reading stats that suggested a mere 10% of the writing I read was not by white British and American authors. I’ve graduated to almost a third, but that’s still something that I should be doing better at. Luckily there’s some fascinating stuff coming out this year, and … we’ll see?

*Here is a picture of a small piglet. It played a major role in getting me through 2013; I hope everyone’s 2014 is peaceful and pig-filled.

January 3, 2014

Excuses

Over Christmas I did not read much. And I did not write a column about The Once and Future King. This is that not-column. It is a bit silly.

 

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December is the cruellest most stressful month. Year’s Best lists loom, and if you’re not racing against time to finish your own list of things to read before January, you’re reading other people’s recommendations and adding to your own impossible task. Every year in late November I panic and start trying to schedule my reading for the coming month; this year I convinced myself that reading a book every evening would keep me on top of things. (I entirely failed to achieve this.)

This obsession with reading things on time is probably silly in the larger scheme of things, but matters a great deal at a particular moment. Thousands of books are published every year; a few dozen (more, depending on where you look) get talked about a lot. Very few of those books are destined to be enduring classics. To some this might seem like a good reason to read less, not more. But there’s a point at which reading, and talking about books, extends further than you and the page; it is to participate in a wider conversation (or several conversations, if your tastes are wide-ranging enough). If you don’t read the big books of the moment (and perhaps that moment went by a lot more slowly before the internet, but perhaps the conversations were also different) you may not need to read them at all, but you certainly will never get the chance to read them like this again.

And yet. It’s December, and it’s cold, and winter and all that comes with it (particularly Christmas) makes me want nothing more than to revisit old, familiar things—ideally from under a blanket. I have my Christmas reading rituals—books that must be read every year, books that must be read aloud, books that can only be read when it’s cold outside and I can fully appreciate the sheer indulgence of them. This year I’m away from home with access to only one of my regular Christmas reads, so I’ve gone and made a new one. I’ve abandoned all thoughts of a book a day; for the last few evenings I’ve been rereading, in tiny, joyous increments, T.H White’s The Once and Future King, a book that in my childhood felt perfect. (As an adult I can see it isn’t, but I only love it more for that.)

January is the proper time (assuming we’re all following the same calendar, which we’re probably not) for resolutions and grand ambitions. My new year’s resolutions are always contradictory and impossible; I vow each year to read more new things and more old ones, to read slowly so that I’ll have more time to do each book justice, to read more quickly so I can fit more in. More classics, more poetry, more bestsellers (because if one is going to write about books perhaps they should be the books people actually read). More rereads, because rereading is so often the best part of reading. In January I will look back on what I read in 2013 and I will inevitably be disappointed in myself.

But 2014 is some days away still, and while I could spend what time I have left desperately trying to do the impossible, I don’t think I will. January is for reckoning, and counting things and making resolutions and (inevitable, disproportionate) guilt. For now I’m going to enjoy the luxury of reading something I love, and tell myself that there’s some deep human urge behind all this, some need to retreat into a private space in the darkest, coldest days of the year and to warm ourselves with things we know and love, and to wait for spring.

It’s a better excuse than most, anyway.

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January 2, 2014

December Reading

I’ll do a proper round-up of my reading in 2013 (with numbers and everything!) in a day or two, but for now, this is what I read in December.

 

Nicola Griffith, Hild: Was excellent.

Ioanna Bourazopoulou, What Lot’s Wife Saw: Was excellent.

Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things: Was excellent in some ways, and less so in others.

Manjula Padmanabhan, Three Virgins: This needs a longer post–Three Virgins collects some of Padmanabhan’s recent short fiction along with a few older pieces and the results are a bit odd, but also frequently really good.

Jared Shurin (ed), The Book of the Dead, Unearthed: I’ll have a review of these (mostly of the first) in Strange Horizons at some point in the near future.

Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels, The Last Hellion: Fluff, happy fluff. Everything is quotable and delightful, though as I’ve said before, regency protagonists who attempt social work tend to be a bad idea.

Nicholas Blake, Minute For Murder: Someone murders someone and it’s all very clever and (spoiler!) it turns out to all be the fault of a frigid intellectual woman (who is not the murderer) because bitch, I guess? Yeah. Bitch. At least the murderer had a warm and loving heart!

Georgette Heyer, Powder and Patch: I will always love this for the way it treats the heterosexuality as an elaborate game (I recommended it to an ex-boyfriend a few years ago; he did not appreciate this aspect of it) and its condemnation of Phillip’s unthinking dismissal of this; whereas I’m made really uncomfortable by the later parts of the book, in which Cleone is caught in an impossible situation and the general reaction of those around her is that she asked for it and must be brought low.

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: Still great.

Elinor M. Brent-Dyer, Kennelmaid Nan: Wholesome, healthy girl who is no good at exams learns to be kennelmaid, has rival in bad girl who spends too much on beauty products. Bad girl turns out to be in love with a criminal … who is bribed to marry her in the end because being saddled forever with someone who steals, cheats and doesn’t love you is presumably better than being dumped by such a man.

Garth Nix, Newt’s Emerald: Magical regency romance with crossdressing. Not a big fan of the ugly, sinister maid actually being evil, but the rest of it was nice.

T. H. White, The Once and Future King: Perfect.

Dylan Thomas, A Child’s Christmas in Wales: Perfect.