Archive for March, 2008

March 29, 2008

Age appropriate reading

In my last year of school there was a child in class one who would sit at the front of the school bus and read. He lived near me and ours was the last stop in the afternoons, and once when his mother couldn’t come to pick him up I’d offered to take him home. He refused and walked on ahead of me in a very dignified manner so I followed behind and looked like I had nothing to do with him till I’d seen him safely inside his house. But yes. So he was six years old, and I never asked what he was reading but once someone else did and it was a Famous Five book. Which didn’t seem (to me) particularly startling reading for a six year old, but it did to a group of slightly older children who grabbed the book out of his hands and demanded that he tell them the meaning of a few randomly selected multisyllabic words till he’d “proved” to their satisfaction that he was in fact capable of reading the book. Because they hadn’t been able to read those books when they were six. He told them the meanings of the words in an appropriately dignified manner and returned to his book. I liked that kid.

March 27, 2008

Fantastic histories, religion and our place in the universe

I’ve finally started to read Mortal Engines, the first of Philip Reeve’s quartet. Sleep and class and other such things got in the way, but I’m about halfway through the first book and really enjoying it.

So far, I’m reminded in many ways of M. John Harrison’s Viriconium. Not stylistically, but both create universes where the far superior technology of the past has been lost and is only retrievable (scavenged for, in fact) in patches, and cobbled together. Bricolage, of sorts. (Then of course both have resurrected men/zombie things, improved air travel and a major character called Cromus/Cromis. I’ll stop now.)

Between them, Reeve and Harrison have got me thinking about fantasy universes and their pasts in general.

In China Miéville’s (I know he’s a Harrison fan, at least) city of New Crobuzon, there’s a gigantic (fossilized?) ribcage just…lying there. It is immense; it towers over the city, and one of the city’s boroughs, Bonetown, is built around it. Yet we’re not told why it’s there. Obviously at some point in the distant past, utterly humoungous creatures have populated this world, and we know nothing about them. The only information one actually receives about The Ribs is this (from Perdido Street Station) –

 

She could orient herself by the Ribs. She looked up and found them above her, shoving vastly into the sky. Only one side of the cage was visible, the bleached and blistered curves poised like a bone wave about to break over the buildings to the east…
The Ribs rose from the earth at the edges of the empty ground.
Leviathan shards of yellowing ivory thicker than the oldest trees exploded out of the ground, bursting away from each other, sweeping up in a curved ascent until, more than a hundred feet above the earth, looming now over the roofs of the surrounding houses, they curled sharply back towards each other. They climbed as high again till their points nearly touched, vast crooked fingers, a god-sized ivory mantrap.
There had been plans to fill the square, to build offices and houses in the ancient chest cavity, but they had come to nothing.
Tools used on the site broke easily and went missing. Cement would not set. Something baleful in the half-exhumed bones kept the gravesite free of permanent disturbance.
Fifty feet below Lin’s feet, archaeologists had found vertebrae the size of houses; a backbone which had been quietly reburied af¬ter one too many accidents on-site. No limbs, no hips, no gargan¬tuan skull had surfaced. No one could say what manner of creature had fallen here and died millennia ago. The grubby print-vendors who worked the Ribs specialized in various lurid depictions of Gigantes Crobuzon, four-footed or bipedal, humanoid, toothed, tusked, winged, pugnacious or pornographic.

Which tells us very little. Miéville’s universe has also had a nuclear holocaust of sorts in the past, as well as whatever circumstances (we aren’t told, as far as I recall) that lead to the existence of the ‘scar’ (in The Scar), a massive wound in reality.

Another recent series I’ve really enjoyed, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards books are set in cities where unknown ancestors made gorgeous towers out of unknown substances. And so on.

[At this point I read the first two Reeve books and am halfway through the third. Okay, back to post.]

In all these books there’s a complete break from the past. I mean, characters may know something of their world’s pasts (though often they don’t) but there’s very little actual continuity between one civilization and the next. Apart from Viriconium, I wouldn’t classify any of these as being in the Dying Earth genre. Most of them are thriving civilizations, built over the ruins of others. But they all accept the possibility of apocalypse, of ending, of (and this is what I think is important) not being central to the history of their worlds.

And when I contrast these with the fantasy worlds in the epics, or even with someone like Tolkien, it is this that strikes me as the main difference. In the classical epics, it’s always man at the centre of the universe. With Tolkien, even though you have history divided into three ages and multiple races, there’s still this feeling of continuity, a place for everything and everything in its place. The races we’re made to identify with are still at the centre of everything. And significantly – Tolkien’s universe has a God.

(In the real world, of course, the dinosaurs existed and became extinct, great civilizations have risen and fallen and left hardly any trace of themselves, evolution happened and is happening and I’m not the centre of the universe, and that’s okay. This is, I assume, the worldview that most readers of this blog subscribe to*. I do not include the crazier faction of religious people who have Serious Dinosaur Issues.)

And while I certainly don’t think that all religious people fly in the face of science and history to believe that man is the centre of everything, ever, I’m wondering if you have to be religious in some way to be able to see worlds as that connected, with everything so tidily in its place that it inevitably hints at intent.

I’m not sure where I’m going with this, so please assume that rocks have fallen and that I have died, and that therefore this post is over. FSM knows it was long enough.

*Though if any you want to think I’m the centre of the universe, hey. Feel free.

March 25, 2008

Spleen

I’m a lovely person, but I do think some occasional shaming of baboons is right and necessary

I was just trawling the internet for interesting posts by Indian bloggers in order to do my duty by Blogbharti. I’ve often discovered interesting blogs this way, and it can be a lot of fun. Today, though, I discovered someone named Visithra.

This is Visithra on March 7:

So you tell me doesn’t this blatantly scream RACIAL PROFILING????????Private companies practice RACIAL DISCRIMINATION on a daily basis and what are these so called avengelers doing about it? NOTHING! Reality is INDIANS ARE A MINORITY – no matter who is in power, you will feel the pinch, you will be discriminated. The key is to excel in your own fields, work had and smart.

This is Visithra two weeks later on March 21:

And why are black/ africans so up front and persistent. Don’t they understand the word NO? These aren’t the first time I’ve had problems with them.

Sigh. Internet, you never fail to throw up winners, do you?

March 15, 2008

Dancing

I do not dance, as I have said here before. I sit/stand in corners with groups of people and make scintillating conversation (for I am a scintillating conversationalist) instead.
A friend just directed me to this post on Stephen Fry’s blog for this gem:

I hate dancing more than I can possibly explain. I hate doing it myself, which I can’t anyway, but I loathe and resent the necessity to try. I hate watching other people do it. I hate the way it breaks up conversation. I hate the slovenly mixture of sexual exhibitionism, strutting contempt and repellent narcissism that it involves. I hate it when it is formless, meaningless bopping and I hate it (if anything even more) when it is formal and choreographed into genres like ballroom or schooled disco. Those cavortings are so embarrassing and dreadful as to force my hand to my mouth.
If I listen to music, I like either to do it completely alone, so that if I am taken by the desire to move my feet and body (which is inevitable with so much music) I can do it unwitnessed, or I like to LISTEN to it, to hear the line of it, to follow the lyrics and to allow it work inside me. I do not want to use it as an exercise track for a farcical, meaningless, disgusting, brainless physical public exhibition of windmilling, gyrating and thrashing in a hot, loud room or hall. I do not want to use music as the medium for a mating or courting ritual. No one would ever select me as a sexual partner on the basis of my ability to froth, frolic and gibber in time to music anyway, and nor would I ever choose a partner by such desperate and useless criteria.
I can’t dance. It may well be true that guilty feet have no rhythm, but it is also true that perfectly innocent feet can also be unable to move persuasively or happily to the beat. I can’t dance and I SO do not want to. Or is it that I don’t want to because I can’t? No, I don’t think so. I can’t play football, golf, cricket to anything like a human standard and I want to desperately. Desperately. It really isn’t a question of being truculent and captious about it. I really, really, really hate dancing and have not the slightest milligram of envy for those who can do it. If there is such a thing as ‘being able to do’ the kind of dancing people routinely engage in. Not so much an accomplishment as an affliction.
The unhappy self-consciousness of the adolescent on the dance floor at school, or in the village barn dance or local disco is too well known a standard hero of rueful dissection for me to need to describe myself in that guise in too much detail. Here were boys and girls my age twisting, spinning and jumping at each other and they all seemed to know what they were doing. Had I been confined to the sick room with an asthma attack the day disco dancing was covered in the syllabus? How did they know which way to move,when to fling up a hand, when to spin, when to jump? When to look into their “partner’s” eyes, when to look at the floor? There was nothing written down, did it accord to some chord change or eight bar measure that I, in my hot discomfort and pop illiteracy simply could not hear?

I do love that man.

March 8, 2008

Women’s day, superwomen and some subversive linkage

When the Indian edition of Good Housekeeping came out it was promoted on TV with an ad featuring an attractive young urban mother who had no difficulty in balancing working from home, spending quality time with her child, doing domestic duties (shopping, cooking, etc) and still being pretty and put together and so on.

And I remember an awful episode of The Big Fight (the one with Dia Mirza and Rakhi Sawant on it?) when the editor of one of the big women’s magazines said happily that today’s woman wanted the face of Aishwarya Rai, the heart of Mother Teresa and the brains of (I forget who, but I think it was) Indira Nooyi. And apart from the obvious eyerolliness at the cliché, I was thinking wait, what? This is supposed to be a good thing?

And when I see how the media celebrates International Women’s Day (which is today, by the way ) it seems that a lot of the time that is the image of women that we’re supposed to be celebrating. So there’ll be the occasional news story about a woman in rural India who has done something special, and perhaps an interview with an elderly woman who has had an interesting life, and the rest of it is all directed at that attractive young multitasker who is superwoman. Isheeta tells be she has seen coupons for free facials being given out to celebrate this day. And I’m thinking maybe setting even higher and more impossible standards for women is not a great way to ‘celebrate’ them. I’d far rather people read Octo’s excellent Strategic Incompetence post and worked at not doing everything perfectly for once.

Also, I’ve been meaning to link to The Seam of Skin and Scales for a while now and this seems as good a time as any. I suspect the people who made the billboard above would disapprove quite strongly.

Or you could read the Blank noise project blog, where something useful is usually done on women’s day.

I myself celebrated the day by buying books with friends. This too is a good course to follow.

March 8, 2008

Loot

Spoils of today’s trip to the Calcutta book fair, with her and her and her.

Prose:
The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales – Bruno Bettelheim
Flesh in the Age of Reason: How the Enlightenment Transformed the Way We See Our Bodies and Souls – Roy Porter
Lights Out for the Territory – Iain Sinclair
At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien (I’d benevolently given away my copy last year so I was thrilled to find another. Vintage, in good condition too.)

Poetry (all Faber and Faber editions, if you’re interested in that sort of thing):
Electric Light – Seamus Heaney
New Selected Poems 1966-1987 – Seamus Heaney
Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis – Wendy Cope
Collected Poems 1937-1971 - John Berryman
Omeros – Derek Walcott

Carrying things back to Delhi is not going to be fun.

March 3, 2008

Thoughts on Noughts & Crosses

I was caught up in a hurricane, with all the noise and madness whirling around me until my head was about to explode.
“Stop it! Just stop it!”
Nothing.
STOP IT! YOU’RE ALL BEHAVING LIKE ANIMALS!” I shouted so hard my throat immediately began to hurt. “WORSE THAN ANIMALS – LIKE BLANKERS!
The sounds of the crowd slowly died away. “Just look at you,” I continued. “Stop it.” I glanced down at Callum. He was staring at me, the strangest expression on his face.
Callum, don’t look at me like that. I didn’t mean you. I’d never mean you. It was just for the others, to get them to stop, to get them to help. I’d never mean you…

I’ve just finished reading Malorie Blackman’s marvellous Noughts & Crosses (and the novella An Eye for An Eye included in this edition) and I was completely blown away. This is by far the most complex treatment of race in a YA novel that I’ve ever come across. It is in many ways a fictionalized history of the Civil Rights movement (in Britain? I’m more familiar with the American movement so I associated it with that but Blackman is British), but with the colours reversed – the “Crosses” (capitalised throughout), the race in power, are black; the “noughts” (no capitals here) are white. Plus it’s dealing with present day issues of race and power as well – like language and education and economics.

“D’you know what they call a nought with all the money in the world?” I asked.
Rob and Gordy shook their heads.
“A blanker,” I told them.

Blackman says she chose the title because Noughts and Crosses is “…one of those games that nobody ever plays after childhood, because nobody ever wins”. I love this, and it makes a lot of sense in the context of the book. Blackman’s characters so often seem stuck – the racial divides that they’re trying to overcome are so deeply embedded that they’re checkmated at every step.

Lots of Big Issues are tackled – the involvement of the male members of the McGregor family in a violent liberation organisation* makes the family home the site of a number of arguments about what makes a terrorist, violent rebellion, means versus ends, freedom fighters versus terrorists (familiar, but far more interesting than in the CBSE modern Indian history textbooks), while somewhere in the background is a Martin Luther King/Gandhian figure who wishes to bring about change through peaceful means. Interracial relationships. Abortion (my thoughts on the book’s treatment of it would take up another post, so maybe later.)

Ultimately though, Blackman’s biggest achievement is in her portrayal of the numerous seemingly minor things that go into racial constructions. Possibly my favourite moment in the book is when Persephone (whose name is of course significant) notices the conspicuous plaster on Shania’s head and realizes that even bandages are designed based on the assumption of “Cross” skin. Beauty constructs are built up around Cross superiority. So is religion. History books celebrate Cross contributions to history. In one chapter a list of great Cross scientists and pioneers is given, and Blackman’s note at the end of the book tells us that these were real people, African-American innovators whose names have been written out of history. And it all comes back to that huge overturning of assumptions right at the beginning of it all because the Crosses are black and the noughts are white. I’d once quoted Ursula LeGuin on the political importance she attached to not making most of her Earthsea characters white, and I see something very similar here.

Also, there’s a lovely little bit at the end where Callum daydreams about a society where the whites instead of the Crosses were in charge. “…no more discrimination, no more prejudice, a fair police force, an equal justice system, equality of education, equality of life, a level playing field…”

I’m amazed that this book hasn’t caught on more in India. It was published in 2001 and it’s pretty big in the UK, and books that achieve that level of popularity abroad generally get here eventually. But I’ve only seen this in one Indian bookshop (where I bought it) and no one seems to have heard of it. If you do get a hold of it, avoid reading it in public – I completely humiliated myself by sniffling all over it while on a plane seated between two staid men in suits. Had I been at home I would have bawled.

*I’m not sure what to think of the gendering here. Later in the book we do have a pretty kickass female freedom fighter, but a) she’s also hot b) she dies.

March 3, 2008

The Future

I’m not generally a huge fan of Margaret Atwood but she is a fine, sometimes startlingly good writer. I’m reading Moral Disorder (very slowly – something embarrassing like a chapter a day) and was thrilled with this:

Poor Drumlin used to prowl the house at night, yowling in an unearthly fashion. Nothing gave her solace: she was looking for something she’d lost, though she didn’t know what it was. (Her mind, in point of fact, if cats can be said to have minds.) In the mornings we’d find small bites taken out of tomatoes, of pears: she’d forgotten she was a carnivore, she’d forgotten what it was she was supposed to eat. This has become my picture of my future self: wandering the house in the darkness, in my white nightdress, howling for what I can’t quite remember I’ve lost. It’s unbearable. I wake up in the night and reach out to make sure Tig is still there, still breathing. So far, so good.

March 2, 2008

The Difficult Lives of Corporate Spouses

As the flatmate and I partook of late night biscuits, we discussed the (undoubtedly competitive) chocolate biscuit industry and its advertising. A certain biscuit company has an advertisement supposedly set in Italy in which a sadly unintelligent baker’s boy (named, inexplicably, after an Italian city) is taught how to bake cookies by a young woman who comes to him late at night and proceeds to initiate him into the ways of adulthood.

What worried us at first was that the woman seems to give away the recipe in the process. Surely that is a bad idea, we fretted. Neither of us has any experience with running a business, but we’re both sure that giving out a secret as vital as your biscuit recipe to all and sundry is a pretty basic mistake.

Till we realized that this was not the entire recipe. Flour, butter and chocolate in unspecified quantities do not a good biscuit make. Obviously between the adding of the chocolate and the baking some secret ingredient had been added that was supposed to raise these biscuits above all others. In the context of the advert, this can only have been what are scientifically known as sex juices.

Which led, unavoidably, to the question of where they were getting this steady supply of said juices that allowed them to continue making these biscuits. We can only assume that company employees are given those little plastic sample collection cups to take home with them.

For biscuits, no sacrifice is too great.

March 1, 2008

Political Propaganda

Near our house: