Archive for ‘personal’

January 25, 2012

People from literature

I’ve been at the Jaipur Literature Festival this week. I won’t be doing any sort of comprehensive piece on it, and my twitter followers are probably sick of my #JLF updates. But I think I’ll be using it as the starting point for a few other pieces, beginning with this one.

I attended two particularly good sessions on the Monday. The first was a discussion about adaptation, featuring Tom Stoppard, Richard Flanagan, Vishal Bharadwaj and Lionel Shriver, and moderated by Girish Karnad.

At the end of the panel when the floor was opened to questions, a woman stood up and addressed Vishal Bharadwaj. Bharadwaj had been speaking about his experiences with adapting Shakespeare to Bollywood (Macbeth and Othello to Maqbool and Omkara) – this woman said that “as a person from literature” she had disapproved of his adaptation of Macbeth and felt that it should not have been allowed.

Naturally I quoted this on twitter; Prayaag Akbar used it as the starting point for this humourous take on the festival and Angad Chowdhry suggested that “person from literature” (and subsequently  “person from the Internet” and other variations) be turned into a t-shirt. Prayaag and a couple of my other twitter followers suggested jokingly that “person from literature” might well mean a rogue character from a book roaming through the festival, trolling the panels. There’s a short story in there.

The second panel, “The Afropolitans”, featured Teju Cole and Ben Okri and was moderated by Taiye Selasi. “The Afropolitans” took its name from an essay on identity by Selasi – naturally the question “where are you from?” was discussed at some length during the session. Selasi suggested at some point that when so many of us have trouble answering that question (I’m a St Lucian-born, various-parts-of-England-bred Delhiite at the moment), perhaps we should stop asking it. Teju Cole said that he was from “a short story in the middle of Dubliners”; “Araby”. It only occurred to me a couple of days later that Cole was saying that he was a person from literature as well; if “where are you from?” is a question about identity, for many of us particular books (and movies, and other cultural products) are as valid an answer as countries and languages.

So I was born, I suppose, in Bashful the Clumsy Bear by Pat Posner, the first book I learnt how to read, or in a book whose title my family no longer remembers about dogs named Tippy and Trinket.I spent some of my teenage years with Antonia Forest, struggling through just how much of selfhood is performance, and my first crush that ended in heartbreak was The Owl Service. I opened Gormenghast in a school library and it was “oh. Oh”, and that was a coming home of sorts.  I cannot read Derek Walcott without crying and that ties into the geographical version of my identity too, and the birthplace I left before I could remember it.

All of this requires at least as long an answer as the purely cartographical version, and I can’t imagine Teju Cole would ever be satisfied with just “Araby”. And it clearly isn’t what the woman in the audience meant, but if someone were to make those t-shirts next year I think I would get one.

December 30, 2011

Irresolutions

I did not keep a record of what I read in 2011 – a decision that arose mostly out of laziness. I regret this now. I’d decided at the beginning of the year that I would Read the Russians, and in the event utterly failed to do so. I’m choosing not to see this as a personal failure because my reading habits opted of their own accord to make books about readers the theme for the year. It meant some great books, so I’m in no position to complain.

I did set myself more minor goals: to read/reread my way through Mervyn Peake and Flann O’Brien’s works because it was their birth centenary. I managed this, though in both cases I failed to blog about most of it. I also set myself to reading Samuel Delany’s The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and again failed to blog about it. I began a series of posts on Antonia Forest’s Marlow series, and am about four books in. This will continue into the new year.

In 2012 I plan to finish my Antonia Forest reread. I’ll also (since his new book is rumoured to be coming out this year) be rereading my way through the works of Alan Garner with these fine people. I’m also planning to read my way through Gramsci’s prison notebooks. I’ve only read exerpts before, and those were excellent.

By now it is probably clear that I’m not doing a best books of 2011 list. But I’ve been thinking about it, and am reasonably sure that were I to write such a list, Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! would top it.

August 13, 2011

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw Notes (Chapter 1)

 

Note: unstructured notes and things ahead. Not a real post or a review. 

 

 

 

I’m (along with some other people) reading my way through Samuel Delany’s collection of essays The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. Putting my short notes here seems a convenient way to do this (and you get to mock me for things I hilariously misunderstand) so here is most of what I wrote while reading the first essay in this edition (the 2009 one, with an introduction by Matthew Cheney), “About 5,570 Words”.

——————-

“About 5,570 Words”

Delany starts with the meaninglessness of style vs content arguments: “Is there such a thing as verbal information apart from the words used to inform?” I get the feeling this is something he will be referring back to a lot in subsequent essays, and it’s close enough to my own position (if I have one) that I’m willing to accept it as a premise.

Chapter one seems to be all about the relationship between words in a text -> a word as a sound-picture, and each subsequent word modifying that picture: thus a 60,000 word novel is a picture corrected 59,000 times. (This is where the title of the chapter begins to make sense to me).

He moves on to subjunctivity, which is something I’ve never been entirely clear on (I have only a year of lit theory classes and scraps I’ve read to fall back on here). Delany defines it as “the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between (to borrow Saussure’s term for ‘word’) sound-image and sound-image. The example he gives  if this- something is presented to us as reportage, thus “[a] blanket tension (or mood) informs the whole series: this happened. Which is to do with context, but also, I think, why I’ve been wanting to study rasa theory in connection with genre for some time now.

Delany then discusses the subjunctivity of various genres – naturalistic fiction, fantasy, before elaborating on SF.

SF (events that have not happened) as distinct from events that could have happened (most naturalistic fiction)* or events that could not have happened (fantasy).

‘Events that have not happened’ can include ‘haven’t happened yet’, ‘will not happen’, ‘have happened in the past’ (alt-hist).

Thus there are both a huge degree of subjunctive freedom and a strong corrective process at work here because even as a startling image is presented to the reader, between it and the next words hover a number of possible explanations, and so SF must provide not only the imagery but some sort of explanation for how we got there.

 

*Though he (also in a footnote) makes a case for most fiction to be a form of unverifiable alt-history, and therefore SF.

July 30, 2011

On the many perfections of Jack Langdon

I’ve been recuperating from illness with the help of tea and romance novels. During the course of my treatment I have discovered that the most restorative romance novel in the world is The Devil’s Delilah by Loretta Chase.

In part this is because it is a Loretta Chase book. I don’t always love Chase – there have been books of hers that I never finished (Captives of the Night), and others that I finished but was disappointed by (The Sandalwood Princess). Yet she’s one of the first romance writers I recommend to people who ask because when she’s good (Lord of Scoundrels) she’s so very good. The Devil’s Delilah is her under-appreciated masterpiece, and this (the masterpiece part, not the under-appreciated part) is mostly because of Jack Langdon.

Langdon is the Regency version of a geek. He really, really likes books and learning and the like – it seems completely normal to those around him that he should be reading about (or babbling enthusiastically on the subject of) the difference in skull shape of different ancient civilisations, or horticulture in Greece. He’s less good at real life; he’s unhappy and anxious in social situations, and he’s particularly awkward around women. He’s also vague and (when his valet isn’t around) very scruffy.

Langdon appears in two of Chase’s books – Viscount Vagabond and The Devil’s Delilah. He’s a minor character in Viscount Vagabond, where he still gets some of the best moments.

 

The probability of finding Jack Langdon in a boxing saloon was approximately equivalent to that of encountering the Archbishop of Canterbury at Granny Grendle’s—though the odds were rather in favour of the Archbishop.
“What the devil brings you here?” the viscount enquired of his friend.
Mr. Langdon stood for a moment looking absently about him as though in search of something he’d forgotten. “Not the most pleasantly fragrant place, is it, Max?” he noted in some wonder. “Odd. Very odd. I count three viscounts, one earl, a handful of military chaps and—good God—is that Argoyne?”
“Yes. One duke.”
“All come, it seems, for the express purpose of letting some huge, muscular fellow hit them repeatedly.”
“So what’s your purpose?”
“I suppose,” Mr. Langdon answered rather forlornly, “I’ve come to be hit.”

 

In The Devil’s Delilah  Jack falls in love with and is fallen-in-love-with and it is all very wonderful. Here are some of the reasons for Jack’s amazingness.

1. He’s genuinely nice. He’s not a ‘reformed’ rake, he doesn’t need to learn over the course of the book to treat other people with respect. He just goes through the book being fundamentally decent.

2. When he protects women he does so geekily. How would you stop someone from making snide remarks about your beloved at a party?

Before Lady Jane had time to counterattack, Jack leapt into the fray.

“Really, it is most gratifying to hear the ladies speak so knowledgeably of Benthamite philosophy,” he said hurriedly. “In order to be good, according to them, the object examined must be useful. The object, of course, refers to the matter under discussion, whether it be an abstract quality or a physical fact.”

Apparently oblivious to the bafflement of most of his audience, Jack soared into the empyrean realms of the most abstruse philosophy, citing Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine and others with no regard whatsoever to relevance or coherence, and with a great deal of Greek and Latin thrown in for good measure. He continued in this vein for at least a quarter hour, at the end of which time most of the company had withdrawn from the battlefield to less mystifying conversations.

Yes.

3. When he does lapse and do something Regency-hero-ish, like kiss the heroine without her permission, he is very penitent. That this is remarkable says a lot about the genre, but it’s nice to have a hero who at least theoretically believes consent is a necessary thing.

4. He can write. Without giving the plot away, it requires him to display considerable literary skills. He also has considerable intelligence

5. We’re told that he’s awkward around women, but that seems to be to do with social situations rather than women as a gender. He has genuine, mutual-respect-and-understanding friendships with some women, while characters who we’re told are good with women seem not to know how to do anything but seduce them.

6. I just like scruffy, vague, gentle, geeky men. And in a genre that spends most of its time depicting them as powerful, suave, etc., Jack is unique.

 

There are plenty of reasons to love this book other than its hero. The fact that the heroine is allowed to kiss other men and enjoy it; that Jack’s rival is allowed genuine feelings; that Delilah’s father is a bit like a less snobbish version of Justin Alastair. But it is the greatest of modern regencies, and its recuperative powers rank right up with Georgette Heyer.

March 30, 2011

About books about books

I planned to read more Russians this year, and I’m still hoping it will happen. But a number of other factors (including a larger project that I seem to have let myself in for) have coincided to make sure that my reading thus far has had a different theme – that of books about books. I’m not counting literary criticism here (since that is necessarily about books) but I’m thinking of characters in books who read and think about what they read. So far this year these books have included Jo Walton’s Among Others, Diana Wynne Jones’ Fire and Hemlock, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, and Francis Spufford’s The Child That Books Built. I’ve also read the most recent Karen Joy Fowler collection and Charles Yu’s How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, both of which engage with other works of fiction though not as directly. I’ll certainly soon be rereading Junot Diaz’ The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Antonia Forest’s The Ready-Made Family. I might even reread Northanger Abbey, since I haven’t visited it in a few years.

But: what next? What am I missing that has a protagonist’s reading as a major part of its plot? I need recommendations, internet.
January 4, 2011

2010 Books

A complete list of everything I read up until June is available at the 2010 Books tag. Then work and life got a little overwhelming and now the thought of doing a detailed review of everything I read in the second half of the year is intolerable. But here is a list, at least.

M.D Lachlan – Wolfsangel
Julia Quinn – Ten Things I Love About You
Karl Kesel and Terry Dodson – Preludes and Knock Knock Jokes
Kit Whitfield – In Great Waters
Gwyneth Jones – Imagination/Space
Meenakshi Reddy Madhavan – Confessions of a Listmaniac
Vishwajyoti Ghosh – Delhi Calm
K.J Bishop – The Etched City
Shane Jones– Light Boxes
Celine Kiernan – The Rebel Prince
Rama the Steadfast
(Penguin edition)
George Orwell – Books vs Cigarettes
Brian Lee O’Malley – The Scott Pilgrim series
Tishani Doshi – The Pleasure Seekers
David Foster Wallace – Consider the Lobster
Tom Shippey (ed) – The Oxford Book of Fantasy Stories
Searle and Willans – The Molesworth books
Margo Lanagan – White Time
Terry Pratchett – I Shall Wear Midnight
Gail Carriger – Blameless
Jai Arjun Singh and Nisha Susan (ed) – Excess
Adam Foulds – The Quickening Maze
Pradeep Sebastian – The Groaning Shelf
Francisco X. Stork – The Last Summer of the Death Warriors
Richard Marsh – The Beetle
E. Nesbit – The Enchanted Castle
E. Lockhart – The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks
Wrede and Stevermer – Sorcery and Cecelia, The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician
Loretta Chase – Last Night’s Scandal
John Mortimer – Rumpole and the Angel of Death
Ian MacDonald – The Dervish House
Mervyn Peake – Gormenghast
Victor Watson – Reading Series Fiction
Michael de Larrabeiti – The Borribles
Sarah Caudwell – The Shortest Way to Hades
P.G Wodehouse – Ice in the Bedroom
Samit Basu – Turbulence
Kate Lawson – Mother of the Bride
Salman Rushdie – Luka and the Fire of Life
Paul Jessup – Werewolves
Walter Moers – The Alchemaster’s Apprentice
Suzanne Collins – The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay
Zoran Zivkovic – 12 Collections and a Teashop
Kate Bernheimer (ed) – My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me
Gary Shteyngart – Super Sad True Love Story
Lauren Beukes – Zoo City
Mark Gatiss – The Devil in Amber
Edmund Crispin – The Moving Toyshop
Josephine Pullein-Thompson – Pony Club Cup, Pony Club Challenge and Pony Club Trek
Rick Riordan – Heroes of Olympus: The Lost Hero
Jeff Vandermeer – Finch
Talbot Baines Reed – The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s
Antonia Forest – Autumn Term
JoSelle Vanderhooft – Steam-Powered: Lesbian Steampunk Stories
John Masefield – The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights

Also odd chapters from academic works, a bunch of regency romances by various authors, Pamela Cox’s sequels and fill-ins to the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books, and I lost the notebook where I list these things for a while in between, so I think I may be missing something. Probably not anything important, since I’d remember it if it was.

Not the most challenging year, judging by the quantities of fluff I read, but I think it was a good one.

January 3, 2011

DU and Hatterr

I was trying to write a short note on G.V Desani’s All About H. Hatterr (one of the best things I read last year) and then I began to digress and talk about my university syllabus and it all got very long and turned into a post of its own. So here it is:

I wanted to talk about a particular aspect of the Delhi University undergraduate English syllabus (of which I am mostly quite a fan). Most people (and I was one of them) have read very little Indian writing when they start the course, and the university has wisely included a compulsory Indian Literature module that introduces them to some of the better 20th century Indian literature. The only problem with this that I can see is that it is introduced in first year. The first year is when we’re also given Victorian literature to read, presumably because this the sort of writing with which we’re assumed (probably correctly) to be familiar. The Indian Writing course has some pretty impressive stuff on it, for all that: almost the first thing we read was Ismat Chughtai’s “Lihaf”. There’s Jayanta Mohapatra, there’s Tendulkar’s Ghashiram Kotwal (which is marvellous even though I think we’d have appreciated it more if we’d read it a couple of years later when we were reading people like Dario Fo) and Mohan Rakesh’s Adhe Adhure (ditto but with Beckett) and Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadowlines which, combined with a really good professor, was the text that really taught me how much a text gives you to play with.

Still, faced with a class of undergraduates recently come from CBSE/ICSE schools, I can imagine the university would leave out a few things as possibly being too much. If it was necessary to break us in with the Victorians (for the next two years the compulsory courses all followed historical chronological order), it was equally necessary to keep the Indian literature we did accessible and recognisable. And since this is the only reason I can think of for All About H. Hatterr’s exclusion from the syllabus, I think it’s best to assume that this is why.

There’s an Angela Carter essay where she talks about the enormous importance of James Joyce both to the English language as a whole and to her personally:

Nevertheless, he carved out a once-and-future language, restoring both the
simplicity it had lost and imparting a complexity. The language of the heart and
the imagination and the daily round and the dream had been systematically
deformed by a couple of centuries of use as the rhetorical top-dressing of crude
power. Joyce Irished, he Europeanised, he decolonialised English: he tailored it
to fit this century, he drove a giant wedge between English Literature and
literature in the English language and, in doing so, he made me (forgive this
personal note) free. Free not to do as he did, but free to treat the Word not as
if it were holy but in the knowledge that it is always profane. He is in himself
the antithesis of the Great Tradition. You could also say, he detached fiction
from one particular ideological base, and his work has still not yet begun to
bear its true fruit. The centenarian still seems avant-garde.

And that is what Desani could, should be for us. We are still angsting over the idea that English is a foreign language in this country – there are plenty of issues around our English usage to angst about (like the amount of power those of us who can speak it hold) but this, whether or not we are allowed to use it as if it belonged to us, should not be one of them. Desani owns English. He’s not afraid to dogear it or roll over onto it or do whatever he needs to to get the effect he wants. And the results are bizarre and musical and hilarious, but they also achieve a cadence that feels appropriately Indian even to someone like me who has major issues with that descriptor.

Desani’s approach to language is so far away from the way English is taught and experienced in Indian schools that it isn’t even, as with Joyce and the Great Tradition, the antithesis to it. The two bear no relation to one another; they exist in different planes entirely. And so I’d like to see what would happen if Delhi University undergraduates were to be exposed to All About H. Hatterr. In third year, perhaps– by then there’d be a certain amount of context to help them to make sense of him. Yet if an unsuspecting class of first years were to come across H. Hatterr it might be exactly what they needed for the next few years of college.

November 8, 2010

Read This Now, or Little Light is magnificent


This is not about self-esteem. This is not about self-help. This is a moral issue. This is an issue of the basic liturgy of human interaction–because it is our daily rituals that define the four corners of the world and the arches of the sky, it is our stories that tell us how to recognize our own faces, and we have been denied our place in the human liturgy for far too long and it is long past time to erupt up from the landscape that conceals us and demand, not just our rights, but the basic essential core of worth and decency that makes us people and therefore worthy of rights in the first place. We have been denied this and we have been told we are the problem.

October 12, 2010

Garner love

For many months now I’ve been promising myself a reread of Alan Garner’s magnificent book The Owl Service (and a rewatch of the very good BBC adaptation alongside). I’ve written about Garner on this blog, though never enough to express quite how vital he has been to me, and to how I read.

Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (which I only read quite recently, in 2008) is now fifty years old, and The Guardian have an interview with him up here. And though I’ve linked to it before, here is an essay by Garner that I am particularly fond of.
August 24, 2010

English has failed me

Does the English language have a way of addressing an email or letter to someone whose name, gender or designation you don’t know that isn’t “sir/madam” or “to whom it may concern”? These are situations where you can’t casual, but you don’t want to be stiff.

If English does have a better option , feel free to mock me here for not thinking of it (but tell me what it is as well, please).

If not, it really, really needs one.