Archive for ‘personal’

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.


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.

May 15, 2010

Storyfinding help?

There is a (fantasy) short story that I read years ago and recently I’ve been thinking I’d like to read it again. The only problem is that I cannot remember who it was by. It was in an anthology of some sort when I read it; I’ve skimmed through some of the fantasy anthologies I own but haven’t found it (which doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t there). A title and author would help.

Here is what I remember: a brother and sister arrive (by ship) at an island, and there is a creepy but strangely attractive flying boy. There is possibly a cave as well.

That’s all I remember. Does anyone recognise this? I get the feeling it’s by someone at least reasonably famous.

April 10, 2010

Practically Marzipan: An Obituary

I discovered last week that William Mayne was dead and had been for about ten days. The reason it had taken me so long to find out was that hardly anyone had reported it – the Darlington and Stockton Times had a story here, and that was the only mainstream publication to have mentioned it at all. Since I wrote the column last week there have been a few more mentions of his death – Locus has a bit here, and links to this bit in the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction, and I’ve discovered this two line obit in the Times. There’s a nice, long piece by Julia Eccleshare in the Guardian too. Which probably makes this column unnecessary. Still, though.

I suspect I made this more about me than was strictly warranted.

[An edited version of this was published in today's New Indian Express]


This must be how the Michael Jackson fans felt.

When Michael Jackson died last year and various people were writing obituaries, I was a little disturbed by friends’ refusal to confront the child sexual abuse allegations. It wasn’t their conviction that he was innocent of the charges that was bothersome (everyone has the right to weigh the evidence for themselves and believe what they choose) – it was the complete dismissal by people who would normally take such allegations very seriously, just because they happened to be fans of the accused. That’s the easy way out, of course; it’s harder by far to acknowledge that an artist whose work you love and admire may have had serious flaws or committed crimes. There were obituaries that did just that, and those must have been difficult to write.

Fans of British children’s writer William Mayne do not have the comfort of wishing the bad parts away. Mayne was charged with the sexual abuse of young female fans. He pleaded guilty (though he later retracted this statement) and was convicted in 2004. He was imprisoned for two years.

I discovered Mayne’s writing only last year, and as an adult. I had heard him spoken of in connection with other children’s writers I liked, and around this time last summer invested in secondhand copies of A Grass Rope (which won a Carnegie Medal in 1957) and A Swarm in May (which was filmed in the 1980s). And I was overwhelmed; this was phenomenal writing. Not quite real, not quite fantasy, deep and introspective and uncomfortable and lovely. When I look back and try to remember my childhood (which wasn’t that long ago) Mayne’s books feel achingly familiar.

And this is not just my opinion. Mayne was widely acknowledged as one of Britain’s finest children’s writers. In addition to all the critical acclaim, he was quite popular. In addition to the movie of A Swarm in May, a five-part television series adaptation of another of his works, Earthfasts, was shown on the BBC in 1994. By anyone’s standards he ought to be considered at least a reasonably well-known writer.

Mayne was found dead in his home on the 24th of March this year. He was 82, and he seems to have died alone. Only one newspaper (and not a particularly big one) has reported his death. As of this date (almost two weeks after his death) none of the major papers have made mention of it. I don’t know why that is; whether it has anything to do with his crimes (and as I said before, such an obituary has to be hard to write) or he has just been forgotten.

Mayne was one of the greatest writers of the last century. His writing thrilled me when I first discovered it, and it continues to delight me. His actions in his personal life on the other hand upset and anger me. It’s a contradiction that we should all be used to handling by now (so many great artists have been less than ideal as human beings), yet somehow it’s still hard.

But I’m writing this column because Mayne deserves some sort of memorial, somewhere. He was brilliant, he was loathsome, but he mattered, and it would be shameful to let that knowledge die.


Also (and I wish I could have hyperlinked this in the column itself) here is the Guardian’s report of Mayne’s trial. The quote from Mayne there enrages me.