Archive for February, 2013

February 28, 2013

Mark O’Connell, Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever

Epic Fail was the sort of book that sparked off so many thoughts in different directions that I barely scratched the surface of what I wanted to talk about in last weekend’s column. This is a bit unfair for a book this short, but I found myself involved and implicated and prone to go off on tangents. But perhaps that is best avoided.

It’s also a very, very funny book.



William McGonagall was a Scottish poet who never really gained the kind of critical success he would have liked. This is true of many writers, and it doesn’t explain McGonagall’s fame. And he is famous; Spike Milligan wrote and starred in a movie about him (also starring Peter Sellers as Queen Victoria), J.K. Rowling named one of her more competent professors after him. An unpublished poem by him is to be auctioned off this summer and is expected to fetch thousands of pounds. Terry Pratchett’s fictional Nac Mac Feegle clans feature a “gonnagle”, a bard whose battle tactic is to drive away his enemies with the sheer force of bad poetry. Because McGonagall wasn’t just so bad that no one but he himself could fail to see it; he was persistent. This is a man who walked across the country to Balmoral to read his work to Queen Victoria (he was turned away at the gates). He would recite his work in public undeterred by the crowds who came to throw things at him. And the crowds came, because it is so entertaining to watch people fail.

In Epic Fail, Mark O’Connell discusses the phenomenon of people gaining viral fame simply by being very bad at what they do. It’s a phenomenon those of us who use the internet a lot know well. We’ve all seen Rebecca Black’s “Friday” video, or the artistic efforts of an elderly Spanish lady whose attempt to restore a church fresco produced something more simian than saintlike. But this isn’t limited to the internet; as anyone knows who has watched the audition stages of a reality TV show, or attended a dramatic reading of Fifty Shades of Grey. O’Connell traces the history of this kind of mocking of bad art, and explores why other people’s public failures continue to fascinate us.

One source of this fascination is the fact that sufficiently bad art may not only expose itself, but also lay bare the pretensions of good art. In a chapter on the Irish novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros, O’Connell describes the writers prose as so bad as to “expose the whole endeavour of making art out of language as essentially and irredeemably fraudulent—and, even worse, silly”. Likewise Tommy Wiseau’s legendarily awful film The Room might be considered to subvert (inadvertently) the conventions of cinema, and the hilarious (intentionally) “Pyramus & Thisbe” meta-play in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream might be said to make the plot of Romeo & Juliet ridiculous.

But far more crucial to our interest is the figure of the artist herself; the presence of a misguided person whose understanding of their own competence is so tragically wrong. It’s this “paradoxically humanistic and cruel constitution of the Epic Fail” that Epic Fail is really interested in. What are we doing when we participate in this form of humour; how important is it to the spectacle that the artist be unaware of her own failings; how much of our laughter is based in the knowledge that this could be us; at what point does it tip over into cruelty and bullying?

And it’s this that makes Epic Fail such a familiar, uncomfortable read. What we laugh at and why is about as personal a subject as there is. This makes it a hard book to discuss in isolation, when the experience of reading it is so closely tied up in the ways one is oneself implicated. O’Connell’s willing to make it personal for himself as well—the last chapter is in part an account of a cruel joke in which he participated. He’s also willing (with the kind of self-reflexiveness that makes it unlikely that we will ever be the subject of such viral fame) to (over-)examine that response; is it self-flagellation, is it overcompensation? Epic Fail manages to be introspective and uncomfortable while all the while remaining fully aware of the inherent funniness of the art objects whose fetishisation it questions.


February 25, 2013

Delhi Comic Con ’13

Delhi’s comic con was held earlier this month, and I ended up doing a story on it for The Hindu’s Sunday Magazine. This was rather weird for me, because The Hindu is the paper my grandparents (and most of the older members of my extended family) read, so it felt a little like I was explaining comics to my own thatha.

It’s a long-ish piece (reproduced below) about how while there’s a lot of fantastic work being done in Indian comics, I think we’ve reached a point where we need to think about developing communities and having discussions, rather than continually being introduced to the work.

Things that happened that I do not mention in the article:

  • I bought many things and bankrupted myself.
  • A well-known TV personality and book thief stole my copy of this.
  • My friend Deepa and I got mansplained at by a young man at the Campfire stall, who explained that Deepa’s opinions on the art in something she liked were irrelevant because he knew a lot about comics and was a professional critic.
  • I got blue icing from a Batman cupcake stuck in my hair because I haven’t yet learnt to eat like a grown-up.



On an ordinary day Dilli Haat, a crafts bazaar in South Delhi, is a good place to buy handloom saris, pashmina shawls, perhaps stop by the food section for momos and fruit beer or (if it’s that time of the year) kahwa. Had you been there last weekend you might still have done all of these, but with some unexpected fellow-shoppers; the venue was playing host to the Delhi leg of India’s Comic Con, a celebration of Indian and international comics. A large area at the back was given over to a stage and a number of stalls displaying or selling comics and comic-related merchandise.

One thing that was immediately clear was the sheer diversity of the ways in which the comic form is being used in India’s nascent industry. Vimanika Comics and Holy Cow Entertainment’s Ravanayana series both draw on Hindu mythology, as do many of Campfire’s titles. Campfire also reinterprets a number of literary classics in graphic form. Some comics spoof or play with classic superhero tropes. One of these is Munkeeman, created by Abhishek Sharma and written by Anant Singh, which takes up a Delhi urban legend and runs with it. Singh also collaborated with illustrator Abhijeet Kini on the animal fable Chairman Meow and the Protectors of the Proletariat. Vidyun Sabhaney and Shohei Emura’s Mice Will Be Mice has the subject of a failed science experiment go on the rampage, with multiple references to Frankenstein and King Kong. Prominently displayed at the Popculture Publishing stall were the Timpa books, created by Jhangir Kerawala and featuring a young, Tintin-like hero who solves crimes in Calcutta. A stall put up by Chennai-based publishers Blaft displayed prominently Kumari Loves a Monster (with a special pre-Valentine’s day discount) in which short poems in English and Tamil describe the love between a series of beautiful women and monsters. But a large section of the hall was devoted to World Comics, whose aim is to use the medium to disseminate information, and whose display table featured a number of anthologies and posters. Sufi Comics used the comic form to educate people about Islam. Ari Jayaprakash and Anisha Sridhar’s Kuru Chronicles, a vast project that includes some stunning artwork, drew attention . In a panel on the art of writing comics, Campfire’s Jason Quinn declared that India would shortly be outstripping the West in the quality of the comics it produced. It was rather too obviously a crowd-pleasing statement, but the amount of talent on display at events like these is heartening. Sharad Devarajan, the Co-Founder and CEO of Graphic India and Liquid Comics, is convinced that India “has the potential to become one of the biggest creative exporters in the years ahead”.

Despite all this there were some conspicuous absences. Among the missing were Level 10, creators of the excellent Odayan series, and Libera Artisti whose comic Autopilot was one of my favourite finds last year. Also missing were the prodigiously talented team from Manta Ray.

A great deal of the art shown here wasn’t in the form of comics at all. A booth from B.I.T displayed sample prints of its students’ artwork, including a miniature pair of superheroes and a wonderful image of Krishna plaiting Radha’s hair. Elsewhere, a number of interesting t-shirts were on sale. On offer at the Chimp stall were a confused Batman at the crease and a veshti-clad “Supermaniam” (of which my father is now the proud owner). At the Popculture publishing stall one saw a growing stable of superheroes, desi versions of their Western counterparts. SuperKudi, WonderBai, WolverAnna and SuperMummy don’t seem to have starred in any in stories yet, but they can be found on a range of mugs, cushions and similar merchandise. One counter even offered superhero cupcakes. In many cases the products seemed aimed less at comics fans in particular than at people who simply followed popular culture; at least two stalls were selling t-shirts based on popular internet memes.

In earlier iterations of the Comic Con there appeared to be at least as much of an effort to market the event to children as to adults. Last year in particular the Chhota Bheem theme song seemed to provide an inescapable and often irritating soundtrack to the festival. There were still a number of children present this year –including a girl in a purple tutu and Spiderman t-shirt, and two small superheroes sharing a dosa outside the Tamil Nadu restaurant – yet things seemed far more geared to the adults who accompanied them. The t-shirts that were on offer in many places came in adult sizes only, and even the hugely popular Amar Chitra Katha stall seemed less crowded than in previous years. Last year’s event also included big promotional displays for forthcoming movies from Disney and Marvel. These were missing this time.

What all this seems to indicate is that the convention’s organisers and participants are beginning to feel more confident that there already exists an audience of adult comic book fans who are willing to come out and participate in events like these. Graphic India’s Ashwin Pande, who has attended the comic con for the last three years, notes that it has become “nerdier and more fan-friendly with each successive Con”.

That this is true is clear from the sheer number of people crowded in to the Random House and Hachette stalls (these two publishers distribute DC and Marvel comics respectively in India). It’s clear from the growing number of international publishers at the event – this year saw display booths from Top Cow, Drawn & Quarterly, Fantagraphics, First Second, and Vertical.

And it’s certainly clear from the cosplayers. The first Indian Comic Con, held in Delhi a few years ago, could boast only a very few people in costume, and those who were there were dressed as relatively mainstream characters. This year saw a conspicuous lack of Batman and Superman costumes; though there was, as always, a full complement of Batman villains. Instead, we had Lady Loki and Spider Jerusalem, Doctor Who and a number of manga and anime characters (the city has also played host to an Anime convention for quite a few years now).

But a convention implies much more of a sense of community than is easily felt at the event in its current form. At the moment there’s little space for fans and artists, or for fans and other fans to interact with one another.

In part this may be because of the venue. Dilli Haat is, after all, designed as a series of small stalls, whether they are selling papier-mâché boxes or superhero mugs.  In the last couple of years the convention has moved to other cities; Mumbai has had two comic cons, and Bengaluru’s Koramangala Stadium hosted a “Comic Con Express” in September 2012. It’s possible that in different venues the imbalance between comics and merchandise sorts itself out;  As Swati Moitra, a fan, pointed out, this year in Delhi “the merchandise seemed to outnumber the artists presenting their work”.  Fans might adjourn to the food court for friendly conversation, but the crowds there, at least on the weekend, were more conducive to blood feuds than to the creating of communities. The single stage might provide a focus for initiating discussion, but it was rarely used for this purpose. A panel on the Friday, during which writers Samit Basu, Anant Singh and Jason Quinn discussed the art of writing comics was one of a few exceptions. The majority of the stage events seemed purely informative, allowing writers, editors and artists to introduce their work on the assumption that they were speaking to an audience unfamiliar with their work. In most cases this was true, particularly for the upcoming Indian artists. At the moment the goal of the convention seems to be to showcase the work that is being done; it’s only when we get past this stage that we’ll be able to have exciting panel discussions about the role of women in Indian comics, or even see fans costumed as Munkeeman or SuperKudi.

And yet it was also clear how many of those gathered at Dilli Haat wanted to find and develop a community. People looking over the shoulders of strangers to comment approvingly on the books they were buying; people screaming and running up to cosplayers who were just as excited to have their costumes recognised. As crowded as many of the stalls were, artists and writers still seemed thrilled to have the opportunity to talk about their work with people who knew where they were coming from. Fans will find each other and forge a community for themselves even in the most harrowing of situations, but the con could give them a little more help than it is currently providing.

India’s Comic Con is something of a hybrid beast at the moment, suspended halfway between a fan convention and a family outing. And while there’s something rather nice about being able to wander off in the middle of a talk about superheroes and look at saris, I suspect at some point the organisers are going to have to pick a side and move on, possibly to a more conventional (no pun intended) venue. But the work that the comic con has already done for the fans and the industry is wonderful, and I have a pile of new things to read.


February 21, 2013

South Asian Women Writers Challenge

Some of you will remember that I wasn’t very impressed with my reading stats from last year. I did read more women writers than men, but only a tenth of the things I read were by writers who weren’t white, and I have a worrying suspicion that the number of romance novels and school stories I reread made the gender balance look more impressive than it really was.

So I’d planned to fix that this year, and I like to think I’ve already made a good start. And then a couple of days ago my friend Aishwarya G (with whom I am proud to share a first name) suggested a writing challenge along the lines of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

So we spent some time trying to work out how many books people read per year on average, arguing over whether we wanted to focus on Indian writers or not, and finally came up with what seem like a comfortingly liberal set of guidelines. An introductory post is here; there’s a twitter account here, there’ll probably  be a facebook page soon (Aishwarya has done most of the work so far). Join in, read things.


For my own challenges: I will not be counting books I am asked to review professionally as part of the challenge, but I will count books I choose to review for my column. I don’t want to commit to a number (though I hope it will be more than 10 at least) but I will review at least half of the books by South Asian women that I read.

February 21, 2013

Christian Morgenstern/Sirish Rao/ Rathna Ramanathan, In The Land of Punctuation

The art is probably the best thing about this book, so I recommend Rathna Ramanathan’s post about her work here.

From last weekend’s column:


Recently the webcomic xkcd drew many people’s attention to a minor storm brewing on the internet as Wikipedia users hotly debated whether or not the first letter of the third word of the forthcoming Star Trek film Star Trek Into Darkness should be capitalized. Was it Star Trek: Into Darkness? Star Trek into Darkness? A number of people saw one or the other side of this debate as something genuinely worth fighting for, a fact which could either seem heartening or a little scary.

It can be surprising, and a bit alarming, how passionate and how inflexible people can get about punctuation. Wars have raged over the Oxford comma for years: does it bring much-needed clarity to a statement (as in the famous “we invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin” example) or obscure it? Punctuation is important; it can change meaning drastically. Most pragmatists will just go with what is least likely to cause confusion.

Perhaps the most abused form of punctuation there is is the poor semicolon. Most people do not seem quite sure how to use it and so this useful mark is often neglected or replaced, incorrectly, with dashes or commas. Its most frequent use, I suspect, is in the manufacture of winking smiley faces  [;)]. Semicolons have been on the decline for a while now, but it seems unlikely that someone writing a century or so ago could have predicted this ignominy.

But in 1905, the German poet Christian Morganstern published “Im Reich Der Interpunktionen”, or “In the Land of Punctuation”. My copy of the poem is a translation by Sirish Rao, in a beautiful hardback edition published by Tara Books with illustrations by Rathna Ramanathan. Set in a world inhabited by punctuation marks, Morganstern’s poem tells the story of how the other marks declare war upon the semicolons. It’s a war fable that is eerily prophetic of the violence that would follow in Morganstern’s own country within a few decades.

The semicolons are declared “parasites” and slaughtered by the other punctuation marks – all but the cowardly question marks, who manage to escape. The commas, who had been among the first to condemn the semicolons, find themselves the new targets. The nation now devoid of comma-like objects (apostrophes appear not to exist) all that is left is to bury the dead with a brief sermon.

Rathna Ramanathan’s illustrations for the book are in ominous black, red and white, and are made up entirely of punctuation marks. The first spread shows a comparatively peaceful scene, with buildings made of hyphens and slashes and trees of question marks. But “The Peaceful land of Punctuation / is filled with tension overnight” and from then on all is violence. “And then the captured creatures freeze / imprisoned by parentheses / The dreaded minus sign arrives / and – slash! – ends the captives’ lives”. One spread has the black dashes charging against the red commas, the two meeting in a mingled black-and-red diamond at the crease. It’s a reminder in part that for all their significance to meaning, punctuation marks are fundamentally just shapes.

Morganstern too reminds us of this, when he has the dashes slice through the commas so that, in Rao’s translation, “[they] cut across the commas’ necks / so that the beheaded wrecks / (the dashes delight in gore) / as semicolons hit the floor”. This is brilliantly done; the revelation that a “beheaded” comma actually would look a bit like a semicolon, but also an underlying sense of the grotesque, frankensteinian perversion inherent in butchering one thing to make it look like another. It’s a moment that is characteristic of the book as a whole. It’s all very clever and darkly humorous, but there’s an undercurrent of repulsion to it. There’s something horribly bleak about that last couplet:

“Then through their comma-form free nation
They all march home: dash dot dash dot”



February 19, 2013

A Clever Pun About Leaving

The January issue of The National Geographic Traveller contained the last of my Paper Trails columns; for the immediate future, at least. Here it is, feat. Georgette Heyer, Tolkien, Douglas Adams and Jerome K. Jerome.



Packing for trips I’m always envious of the heroes of Georgette Heyer’s historical romance novels. Heyer’s characters (most of them superlatively rich) never pack for themselves. There are servants for that, and the need to be well-dressed at all times trumps the need for keeping your luggage light and easily transported. Your valet will fret if you don’t carry a dozen spare cravats, and you can always hire an extra carriage or two to take the excess baggage. The hero of These Old Shades is happy to send his long-suffering valet back and forth between England and France for any small thing he has forgotten. In Devil’s Cub a character finds a few dozen bottles of good wine in a French inn and immediately arranges to hire a coach or a boat to transport it home to England.

For most of us, packing to go travelling is a little more difficult. Without a retinue of servants and with the added tyranny, if flying, of luggage restrictions, we’re obliged to somehow fit everything we need into the smallest, lightest possible bag. Magazines in their summer issues offer tips for doing this, none of which seem in the least bit practical. Before us all is dangled the mystical figure of the seasoned, sophisticated traveller who is somehow able to dress appropriately for every occasion and meet every travel emergency with the contents of a small, stylish backpack. If we were sophisticated, seasoned travellers too, is the implication, we wouldn’t be lugging around these overloaded suitcases and heavy laptop bags. And so (because rushing around airports and train stations and hauling baggage wasn’t stressful or unpleasant enough) we have to worry about looking stupid as well.

It’s at times like this that I turn gratefully to the various fictional characters who are even worse at this packing thing than I am. Perhaps the classic example is the group of incompetents who make up the title of Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). The early chapters of Jerome’s book are taken up with planning and preparations for the trip, and at first they seem to have things well in hand. The three men manage the arduous tasks of making lists and gathering the items on them, and all that is left is to put them into the bags. Naturally, things go horribly wrong. Whole suitcases have to be unpacked and repacked, and many of their food supplies are inedible by the end of it. It’s particularly comforting to know that the narrator of Three Men in a Boat is the sort of person for whom the mere packing of a toothbrush is a challenge:

I dream that I haven’t packed it, and wake up in a cold perspiration, and get out of bed and hunt for it.  And, in the morning, I pack it before I have used it, and have to unpack again to get it, and it is always the last thing I turn out of the bag; and then I repack and forget it, and have to rush upstairs for it at the last moment and carry it to the railway station, wrapped up in my pocket-handkerchief.

I’ve been there.

I’ve also had nightmares about oversleeping on the morning of a journey. The three men (and dog) do just this, and start hours after they’d planned to. Another traveller who oversleeps is Bilbo Baggins, title character of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Waking up mere minutes before he is due to meet the dwarves who are his fellow travellers (they, incidentally, have woken up on time) at a nearby inn, poor Bilbo rushes out of the house and is well on his way before he realises that he hasn’t even packed a handkerchief and isn’t sure he wants to go on this adventure in the first place.

But then, Bilbo’s bad luck with luggage is unparalleled. He and his travelling companions have their supplies refurbished at multiple points during the journey – and each time, some catastrophe befalls them. After a visit to the friendly half-Elf lord Elrond, both their bags and their mounts are stolen by goblins. Beorn, a strange man who can turn into a bear, offers them supplies to sustain them as they travel through the forest of Mirkwood, but the food soon runs out and they are forced instead to carry an unconscious (and very heavy) friend around. And finally, when the people of the town of Dale provide them with food and ponies on their journey up the Lonely Mountain, they are forced to abandon most of their luggage and their ponies are eaten by a dragon. It’s unsurprising that by the end of all of his adventures Bilbo (though substantially richer) seems less concerned with material possessions – he’s used to losing them in pressing circumstances.

I suppose there’s a lesson to be learnt from all of this, unpleasant as it may be. Those of us who can’t be as superlatively rich as Georgette Heyer characters will just have to learn to travel as light as possible. The characters in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy manage interstellar travel equipped with only a towel; surely the rest of us can at least aspire to a well-organised backpack?


February 13, 2013

Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time

Because if you can use something that’s happened in the news as an excuse for a reread, you should.

Column as it appears in the paper here, or reproduced below.



Perhaps it’s because England is a small-ish country, but it does seem to bury its significant historical figures in awkward places. There have been rumours for years that Queen Boudica is buried between Platforms 9 and 10 of King’s Cross Station in London (possibly Platform 9 ¾ then). And yesterday the bones dug out from under a Leicester parking lot were declared to be “beyond reasonable doubt” the remains of King Richard III.

As far as he has registered at all, Richard III has always featured in my head as associated with things he did not do—he probably did not, as Shakespeare would have us believe, cry out “my kingdom for a horse”. Nor did he, as Josephine Tey (among others) vehemently insists, murder his two nephews in order to seize the throne of England.

Tey’s 1951 nove, The Daughter of Time is a detective story, if it is an unusual one. At the beginning of the novel Alan Grant, a police inspector, is in hospital and thoroughly bored. A friend who knows him well brings him a stack of portraits of famous historical figures, all of whom have some sort of mystery attached to them. Grant has a particular interest in human faces and when he sees the portrait of Richard III has trouble reconciling the monster from the history books with this rather nice looking man. Intrigued, he commences an investigation into the past, demanding that his various visitors supply him with as much information as is available about the former king.

It’s a terrible cliché to say that history is written by the victors, but it’s one most of us know to be true. The Daughter of Time is an exploration into the ways in which history is constructed. In Tey’s hands every piece of evidence against Richard III becomes circumstantial or illogical—he becomes a gentle, benevolent, family-minded individual whose reputation has been unfairly savaged by the Tudors and their pet historians. With the help of an underemployed American researcher Grant soon constructs a new theory, according to which the nephews were illegitimate anyway, and no threat to Richard himself. The real villain of the piece, Tey implies, is Henry VI.

How far any of this is the truth is open to debate. There exists a long tradition of scholarship, going back centuries, that denies Richard’s role in the murder of his nephews. Most of us are unlikely to access the original historical sources for ourselves, and even if we did the evidence appears to be inconclusive. But for the duration of The Daughter of Time, it all feels convincing. All this despite the fact that Grant’s methods are somewhat dubious, beginning with his conviction that a man who looked like Richard III simply cannot have committed the crime of which he is accused. Physiognomy (judging people’s characters by their physical features) as a concept was certainly out of date by the time the book was written, and personally I’d feel very uncomfortable with a criminal justice system whose enforcers took it seriously.

Even if it’s all true, the novel cites a number of instances of attractive lies that flourish, even when those involved know them to be false (though it’s hard not to notice that all those Tey cites involve powerful people being unfairly blamed for atrocities against the comparatively powerless). Even if Grant’s enthusiastic scholar friend publishes his book on the subject there’s no reason to think he’ll change the general perception of the incident.

The existence of this proposed book is a nice nod to the fictionality of Tey’s own, since young Carradine plans to write the investigation as the story of Grant’s boredom. Earlier in the book, Tey has Grant refer to a play she herself wrote under another name.

In one instance at least the recent findings have proved Grant wrong—Richard did indeed suffer from scoliosis. For the rest, we’ll probably never know, and most of us won’t really care. Except for the duration of this novel, when it is suddenly of vital importance.


February 11, 2013

Two Owls and a Goat.

I’m never looking for anything in particular at the Delhi Bookfair, which is why my purchases always feel (to me) so unexpectedly entertaining. Among those I picked up this year were three Indian children’s books the covers of which featured, respectively, an owl, an owl and a goat. I like owls and goats.

The first was The Magic Feather by Roma Singh, published by Tulika Books. The owl on the cover is slightly misleading — though it plays an important role in the book it has very little screentime and no speaking lines. A little girl is looking for her friends. She tucks a fallen owl feather into her hair, and from then on, whatever she places in her hair leads her to a wonderful land. Eventually she reaches the land of books, where she finds her friends and they all read things.

What makes this is the art, which is a mixture of papercraft and simple, drawn-on colours, which makes for a sense of overlapping textures leaping off the page. The little girl’s hair is made of long strips of curling print, and birds, clouds, leaves are varieties of patterned paper. Some of the paper still bears text,  so that on the owl’s wings or the belly of a frog it is possible to read part of an article about construction work. It is so very pretty.

Owl Ball by Francesca Xotta was published by the National Book Trust and was not half as attractive as (though a fraction of the price of) The Magic Feather. The NBT can be frustrating if you like children’s books– there’s so much potential for greatness wasted for lack of funds and perhaps lack of care. I’d work for them (part-time only) for free if it meant better-edited books.

So, Owl Ball. It’s about an owl who lives in a park where children regularly dump junk food. Our protagonist eats these unhealthy things and grows fat. This causes the other animals in the park to bully him and call him names, including “kumbhakarna” and “football”; it becomes clear that in calling him “Owl Ball” the book is doing something similar. Owl Ball is too weak to defend himself from the bullies until he meets a little girl. She tells him he must become physically strong in order to stand up for himself. A strict programme of exercise follows but this is not enough. She must “turn Owl Ball into a normal owl … his behaviour also needs reformation”.

Now that he is strong, does Owl Ball defend himself from the bullies? Well, no, because they are impressed by his newfound slim handsomeness and do not taunt him anymore. Instead they all become friends. What Owl Ball has learnt is that his new friends are really a bunch of bullies to whose ideas he was forced to conform “excess of everything is bad”. Owl Ball  is a story about how children can protect themselves from being bullied by getting rid of whatever traits about them the bullies fixate upon — and that these bullies make desirable friends. And that being fat is the worst thing in the world. It was published in 2009.

The last of the three books was The Bravest Goat in the World, a story (incredibly) by former president Dr. Zakir Husain, translated by Samina Mishra and with illustrations by Pooja Pottenkulam. It’s published by Young Zubaan, and I bought it mainly for the combination of the title and this illustration, reproduced on the cover:

(Note: the goat in question does not have seven legs. That is merely her coat, though various people on twitter suggested that they might be udders).

Chandni is a goat, owned by a lonely man named Abbu Khan who keeps goats for company. All his previous goats have escaped and run to the mountains, as mountain goats cannot abide being chained; Chandni yearns to do the same. Eventually she breaks free, lives the life of a real goat, falls in love, and (spoiler warning!) … is killed by a wolf.

Which is the point at which in many books we’d learn that Chandni shouldn’t have left her nice safe home. Instead, The Bravest Goat in the World actively validates her choice. We’re told that she had lived “like a mountain goat”, that in fact “it was Chandni who had won in the end”. What we have is a book that upholds an idea of personal integrity as more important than anything else– certainly more important than safety; as far as morals in children’s books go this is one we really don’t see enough of. Our former president. There’s rather too much text on each page to make for perfection, but between the unusual, gory morality of the story and Pooja Pottenkulam’s adorably silly illustrations, I was completely charmed.

February 8, 2013

Richard Jefferies, After London

Some Victorian post-apocalyptic fiction. After London is (obviously) out of copyright, and it’s on Project Gutenberg here.

Below is a longer version (read: I wrote the column, then added a bunch of extra thoughts to this post) of this weekend’s Left of Cool column.


Like many people, I suspect, I first encountered Sara Teasdale’s poem “There Will Come Soft Rains” in the Ray Bradbury story based on it. Bradbury tells of a far future in which human technology continues to go through the motions even as the humans these actions are for are long gone. Teasdale’s poem, though, describes a future in which, humans having wiped our species out through war, the world carries on existing barely noticing our absence.

What makes “There Will Come Soft Rains” rather startling is that it was published in 1920. Literature contains many pessimistic accounts of the future of the human race. The Victorians in particular seem to have been plagued by a general sense of doom–whether by means of the empire striking back in “yellow peril” novels, evil feminists or alien invasions of the H.G Wells variety. But until the invention of the atom bomb, rarely did they envision the wiping out of all, or even most, of the human race.

There are exceptions, of course. As early as 1826 pioneering science-fiction writer Mary Shelley wrote The Last Man, in which a plague has killed off most of mankind. M. P. Shiel’s The Purple Cloud (1901) is another work in which most of the species has been wiped out.

And then there’s Richard Jefferies’ After London, first published in 1885. We’re not told what terrible events caused the total destruction of London, wiping out most of England’s population and causing huge changes in the topography of the country. The first section of the book, titled “The Relapse into Barbarism” is told from the perspective of a scholar in the far future of this world, attempting to reconstruct events from the little material evidence that is still available to him, and in argument with other theorists. For all its lack of scientific fact this account of the end of human civilisation has a sort of narrative logic to it. But what it really is, and where it recalls Teasdale’s poem for me, is an account of nature quietly taking over and continuing to exist around and above, and with total disregard for, the remains of human existence; of wilderness coming to the city and domestic animals running wild, of unharvested crops feeding rodents or fertilising the ground for the next year.

Jefferies was primarily a nature writer, and this section of the book, almost devoid of humans except as objects for anthropological study (but do they have anthropology after the apocalypse?) is gorgeous. But what interests me, about After London, the Teasdale poem and the Bradbury story, is the ways in which each frames humankind’s relationship with the rest of the world.

Because Bradbury’s story isn’t really a straight adaptation of the events of Teasdale’s poem. Bradbury has  highly technologised house, adapted to the needs of the humans who once lived there, continue with its routine for those humans, unaware that they are gone. And so mechanised mice keep things clean to human standards; nature is kept away.

Until this day, how well the house had kept its peace. How carefully it had inquired, “Who goes there? What’s the password?” and, getting no answer from lonely foxes and whining cats, it had shut up its windows and drawn shades in an old-maidenly preoccupation with self-protection which bordered on a mechanical paranoia.

It quivered at each sound, the house did. If a sparrow brushed a window, the shade snapped up. The bird, startled, flew off! No, not even a bird must touch the house!

This isn’t a world where humans are forgotten- if the house carries on unaware it’s because the house isn’t sentient. Those whining cats, the dog “once huge and fleshy, but now gone to bone and covered with sores”, they know that the humans are gone. Domesticated animals have been domesticated; humans have altered the world. “Robins will wear their feathery fire / Whistling their whims on a low fence-wire” says Teasdale. But sparrows in Bradbury’s future cannot brush against windows undisturbed. Humans have left a mark on this world that is, if not indelible, going to take a long time to erase. Teasdale’s humans barely seem to have changed the world. I wonder how much of this is because Teasdale’s writing in that space between humans being terribly insignificant (the end of the nineteenth century, evolution) and terribly significant (atomic weapons, discovering just how much destructive potential we have).

And Jefferies? He’s somewhere in the middle–civilisation crumbles quite easily, but whatever it is that we did to cause the catastrophe, its awful effects continue for centuries after.

The second part of After London, “Wild England” is a more straightforward story set in this world. Jefferies never tells us to what extent this disaster has affected the world outside England, and in a sense, for the book the rest of the world has ceased to exist. Things are infinitely smaller. Humans have reverted to a sort of feudal system, with small kingdoms that have very little interaction with one another. Felix, the brainy, unpopular son of an impoverished baron, sets out to explore the great lake that now exists at the heart of the country, hoping in the process to win his fortune and be worthy of the woman he loves. If this sounds like a classic fantasy adventure it is; Jefferies’ wild England is so far away from our own world as to be considered wholly fantastic. It’s also episodic; Felix encounters new groups of people, has adventures, escapes and continues his journey. This pattern is somewhat interrupted when he stumbles upon the ancient city of London, wholly destroyed, filled with buildings that are still standing but crumble when touched and skeletal outlines in the dust, and still emitting an evil miasma that drugs him and gives this entire section of the book a surreal feel.

“Wild England” will swerve away from the traditional fantasy story once again when we leave Felix, his story unresolved and his true love as yet unobtained. I suppose it’s fitting that the story should feel so incomplete, when the book itself isn’t any one definable thing. Part pastoral, part science fiction; it’s hard to know what to think of After London. It’s thoroughly strange, and frustrating, and compelling.

February 5, 2013

January Reading

Not the most impressive month, in terms of the numbers.


Abby McDonald, Getting Over Garrett Delaney: YA romance. Or anti-romance, really, since this is all about Finding Oneself (or at least admitting that one hasn’t already achieved this) and does not end in a relationship, only the potential for one. There was nothing really remarkable about this, but it’s mostly well done. I’m interested, though, in YA authors using Kerouac-fandom as a sort of shorthand for a certain sort of teenage boy- this is the second time I’ve seen it in the last few months (the other was Anna Carey’s Rebecca’s Rules) and it makes me wonder how many of us have been thus afflicted.


Evelyn Smith, The First Fifth Form: The only thing by Evelyn Smith I’ve read. I liked this, it was both funnier and more character-driven than a lot of school stories. I bought this for the kindle- I’m hoping with this (and GGBP’s recent adoption of ebooks, though not in the most efficient of ways) internet publishing is going to mean things like out of print school stories are made more easily available.


Mayank Austen Soofi, Nobody Can Love You More: I wasn’t a fan. Review here.


Suniti Namjoshi, The Fabulous Feminist: I was a fan. Review here, quotes here.


Keith Ridgway, Hawthorn and Child: I don’t know if this book became the darling of the whole internet this last year or if I just happened to be aware of (many of) the sort of people who embraced it. I finally read it this month and it’s as good as was promised, wonderfully clever and frustrating. I’m going to read it again, and I think it deserves a separate post, but for now, know that it is good.


Antonia Forest, Peter’s Room: I have about 2000 words on this and will be adding more before I unleash it upon the internet. This is probably Forest’s best work, and you all know how much I admire her.


Musharraf Ali Farooqi and Michelle Farooqi, Rabbit Rap: I was not a fan. Review here.


Jash Sen, The Wordkeepers: I’m working on a long-ish piece about Indian fantasy that bases itself in Hindu myth, and have belatedly realised that this will mean reading a number of books I really don’t like. Next, Amish Tripathi.


Simon Crump, My Elvis Blackout: Reviewed for the column. As I say there, I’m not sure how far I can talk about enjoyment with a book like this- but it’s very well done. Sincere respect, then.


Georgette Heyer, The Unknown Ajax and The Convenient Marriage: We have adopted a puppy. His name is Oliver, he’s tiny, and he’s only now becoming comfortable in his new home. Heyer kept me company on a few long nights of new parent panic/ puppysitting. I have nothing new to say about these books though; I’ve read them too many times before.


Richard Jefferies, After London: Reviewed for the column, and will be on the blog in a few days. This was nothing like I expected it to be but I think I really liked it.


Stephanie Laurens, The Perfect Lover: The good thing about Laurens is that one can read her very quickly by skimming past all the sex. If you do this, and ignore the main couple who have both independently decided to marry (he because he’s inherited a house and wants a family to put in it, she because she craves children) it is a country house murder mystery. Kitty Glossop, the flirty, flighty young wife of the eldest son of the house, is found strangled in the library. Kitty has a habit of flirting with all the men (who are disgusted, of course, by this behaviour), and is pregnant with a child that is definitely not her husband’s. To everyone’s amazement, it turns out that the one young man who the text does not encourage us to think wonderful and noble is the culprit (I was unamazed).

The thing that really annoyed me about The Perfect Lover is the set of ways in which the text demonised Kitty. We’re told over and over that all the heroes of these books have had multiple affairs, often with married women. Here we see them recoiling in horror from the idea of this particular woman cheating on her husband … because they know him and he seems nice? Meanwhile, our heroine is shocked to hear Kitty complain that her husband is pressuring her to “give him children”; our heroine, being a proper woman, knows that being a mother is the best thing ever. What possible reason could any woman give for not wanting children? The text gives Kitty one – pregnancy will make her fat and men won’t want her anymore. Because not only is she an unnatural creature who doesn’t want babies and a raging slut, but she’s letting her raging sluthood get in the way of babies. And I’m not even going to talk about our heroine who can quote Virgil but doesn’t know how to get herself a man, or some of the evasive half-truths that lead this couple to sex. In conclusion, fuck this book.


February 4, 2013

Suniti Namjoshi, The Fabulous Feminist

From Saturday’s Hindustan Times.

Incidentally, if anyone who reads this has a copy of The Mothers of Maya Diip that I could borrow I’d be very grateful. I’m a little horrified that there exists an Indian feminist spec-fic-ish novel that I had never heard of until this past month.


For many readers of my generation Suniti Namjoshi is one of those writers more often seen cited than read. We’re vaguely aware of her importance in any late-20th century history of Indian writing in English, but the bulk of her work has been out of print and hard to access for a very long time.

Hopefully that will change with the publication of The Fabulous Feminist. This collection contains extensive extracts from Namjoshi’s fiction and poetry to date, from 1981’s Feminist Fables up to her recent, and as yet unpublished work.

Namjoshi’s works often take on and respond to already-existing narratives and are replete with allusion; Aesop, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Virginia Woolf are all invoked here. The fable may be a moral-centric form of storytelling, but in the fables that give the collection its name Namjoshi’s morals are complex and biting.

Another feature of Namjoshi’s work that is much in evidence here is a willingness to examine and even to gently mock her own background and identity politics and how they intersect with her feminism. The Conversations of Cow* is a satire on earnest lesbian feminists (Namjoshi confesses to being among their number) but also about being brown in a white-majority culture. Goja contains an honest exploration of class privilege and the question of how far it is possible for a writer in Namjoshi’s position to speak for or about working class women. Each section is prefaced by a short introduction by the writer, illuminating and littered with personal anecdotes.

But all of this brings up the question of editing. The Fabulous Feminist is subtitled “A Suniti Namjoshi Reader” but there’s no evidence of any editorial selection beyond that of Namjoshi herself. It is rather unusual for an author to edit a reader of her own work; to decide, effectively, which parts of a large body of work are the most significant. Some of these choices aren’t entirely felicitous, as when we get three chapters from the middle of her work of speculative fiction, The Mothers of Maya Diip. These longer books are ill-served by the editorial decision to extract from all of the author’s works.

Despite these occasional hiccups, though, The Fabulous Feminist is a joy to read. In an ideal world this book would trigger a Namjoshi revival and we could hope to see all of her work in print again; for now, this is a wonderful substitute.



*Because I am lazy, the review I sent in, and which got published, had this as “Conversations of Cow”. Apologies.