Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Alexander McCall Smith - The Sunday Philosophy Club

I had long wanted to read something by Alexander McCall Smith having had positive recommendations for the writer famous for his No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series.

Isabel, the protagonist of the series would probably note, isn't a recommendation positive to begin with? Isabel Dalhousie lives in Edinburgh, is in her early forties, is reasonably wealthy and edits The Review of Applied Ethics.  Edinburgh is a quaint town to the south-east of Scotland.  It is famous for its old buildings. Parts of it has been declared a World Heritage Site.  It has a temperate climate which makes it a very good place to live in.  McCall Smith's descriptions of the place are so affectionate and warm that it makes you wish you lived there.  Isabel's age is perfect too.  She is not a giddy youngster skidding through life, she is more settled and more apt to observe and mull upon what she sees.  She does this also because she is a philosopher. Her job brings her in contact with philosophical tracts that she has to edit for the journal - Review of Applied Ethics.  Her comfortable circumstances and single status also give her a freedom to follow her heart.

She is old enough to be an old fashioned girl.  She likes the telephone to be answered in a certain way, she adheres to certain routines and likes good manners in people.  She likes to be very moral and is constantly mulling over whether a certain act is morally right or not. She is also young enough to sometimes forget her own philosophy of life and be rash, outspoken and imprudent.  In fact she usually does something 'wrong' right after she has debated the issue in her mind, which makes it all the more funny. At one time, she does not shy away from following an unpleasent man who is dating her neice, just on a curious impulse.

And, oh, of course, each book solves a mystery.

I read Friends, Lovers and Chocolate first, which is second in the series.  I was a bit undecided about the book, but picked it up anyway.  This is the beauty of a borrowing books from a library.  If you don't like the book much or find it tedious, you can just return it half read. This makes you pick up a book more indiscriminately than you would if you were to buy it.  I read the book as fast as I could, it was that good. It also made me buy the first in the series - The Sunday Philosophy Club.

Isabel and a group of fellow philosophers used to run the Sunday Philosophy Club.  The name of this series is ironical, as the Sunday Philosophy Club is now defunct.  Isabel would like to revive it, relishing the idea of discussing philosophical issues with her friends, but as her two close associates - her neice Cat, and friend Jaime - note, Sunday is not an easy day on which to meet.

The story moves at a gentle pace and is full of delightful descriptions that is reminiscent of Jane Austen. A lady mystery solver is reminiscent of Agatha Christie.  Like Agatha Christie, the mystery is not always earth shaking.  The first novel deals with a possible murder, but the second one deals with visions that a person has. However, unlike Agatha Christie mystries, the mystery itself does not seem central to the plot, nor is Isabel always commissioned to solve the mystery. The mystery seems almost like a sideplot. It is Isabel's philosophical musings that take the centre stage.

It is the general drift of Isabel Dalhousie's life that is so charming.  Her laidback lifestyle, her appreciation of the arts, her tendency to philosophise over even mundane events, her sharp observations, her close friends, all these lay a grip on you and you want to read more and more about her. Isabel is close to her neice Cat, who runs a delicatessan.  Jaime is a musician and a close friend um, pretty pretty close.  Her housekeeper Grace is full of surprises and Isabel finds it edifying to consult her on several matters at hand.  Lovely Edinburgh is always in the background.  It is all these that make the series so captivating. I am listing the books in the series here to prevent you from hitting the wikipedia page, which is shamefully full of spoilers.

1.The Sunday Philosophy Club (2004)
2.Friends, Lovers, Chocolate (2005)
3.The Right Attitude to Rain (2006)
4.The Careful Use of Compliments (2007)
5.The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday (2008)
6.The Lost Art of Gratitude (2009)

The last book came out in 2009 as we can see.  I hope the author continues with the series which would surely delight me.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Jonathan Stroud - The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Jonathan Stroud
These books are strictly for fantasy fiction fans.  Bartimaeus is a djinni with a formidable lineage.  He is ancient, 5000 years old.  Here is what wikipedia has to say about him:
The title character, Bartimaeus, is a five-thousand year old djinni, a spirit of approximately mid-level power. There are five basic levels of spirits; in order of increasing strength they are: imps, foliots, djinni, afrits and marids. Above these levels exist even more powerful entities, who are rarely summoned. Human magicians use spells to compel these spirits to perform feats of power.
Bart loves to hang out in the Other Place, where can while his time away in nothingness.  The earth is NOT his favorite place, he seems to dislike humans who can summon him through spells and incantations.  If he were to have his way, he would like to spot a mistake in the spells and gobble up the upstart who dared to disturb his peace.  It is merely because the spells are so binding that he is forced to do the bidding of his master.

At the start of the story, Bartimaeus finds himself pulled back to earth (London, to be specific) by a very correct pentagram and proper incantations by Nathaniel, a very young magicians apprentice.  He is give the difficult job of stealing the Amulet of Samarkand.  Soon we learn all about the precocious Nathaniel.  His parents gave him away to be trained as a magician ever since he was a little child.  He was taken in by Arthur Underwood as an apprentice.   Nathaniel is gifted, but his overbearing master is not in a hurry to teach him, hence he takes to educating himself, by reading books.

The place he lives in is London, but apart from the some shared geography and history, Stroud's London is a different place, peopled by magicians and commoners, djinns and spirits.  It is a tumultuous place,  ready to burst into a revolution, as the commoners are weary of the ruthless and ambitious magicians (politicians?).

Nathaniel is an unlikely hero, bumbling at times and a bit of a prig.  He is overambitious too, and Bartimaeus is an unlikely sidekick.  There is barely any love lost between them, or so it seems.  Bartimaeus is anything but a fawning or a supportive helper.  He is acerbic and loves bringing Nathaniel down a peg or two. Not exactly a Batman-Robin kind of a situation, we see.

Jonathan Stroud takes this unlikely team and gives us a trilogy that is funny, imaginative and full of all the things that we love in a fantasy, an alternate world, lots of magic and magical creatures.  The dangers that the major characters face are huge and seem real.  I don't know if the word 'funny' is enough to explain the humour in these books.  If you like British humour, Jane Austen, PG Wodehouse and all that, you will just love Stroud. In fact, if this magical world had been real, Stroud's books would have been described as a satire.  As the magicians play the role of a politician, I am not sure if it really IS a satire.

The Trilogy comes in three parts:

1. The Amulet of Samarkand :

 Here the story starts with a very young and scared Nathaniel summoning the ancient djinni Bartimaeus and sets him a task to steal the Amulet of Samarkand.  What starts as a prank to teach a fellow magician a lesson, turns into an adventure that seems clearly beyond the scope of Nathaniel.  In this book we get introduced to several characters that we will meet again during the rest of the trilogy.

2.  The Golem's Eye:                                                                            

A couple of years have passed, Nathaniel is more ambitious than before.  He is no longer the child he was.  But yet he finds himself facing troubles for which he can think of no other ally than his old acerbic friend, Bartimaeus.  Kitty, a character we meet in the passing in the first book has a larger role here.  She is the part of Resistance, the commoners' answer to the atrocities committed by the ruthless magicians.

3. Ptolemy's Gate:

The grand and the satisfying finale to the trilogy.  Kitty, Nathaniel and Bartimaeus find themselves facing a kind of danger they could not even imagine.  The solution has to come from ancient history, which is very painful for Bartimaeus.  Nathaniel must quit his supercilious ways if he is to spot the truth.

Comparisons are inevitable with Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series, but really, how can you compare?  Lord of Rings is in a class by itself.  It is an epic.  Harry Potter is, well, very popular, very different, it is more like a whole franchise.  Perhaps in scope, Jonathan Stroud's series is not as vast, but it is very sure.  There is no misstep anywhere, the humour in his books and the world weary Bartimaeus are the USP of the series.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Colleen McCullough The Independence of Miss Mary Bennet

This is not the first time we have encountered an Austen derivative.  I loved  the movie Clueless which is a modern re-telling of Emma.  Gurinder Chadha's movie Bride and Prejudice was colourful and interesting, if not a favorite.  A couple of book sites on my bloglist regularly come up with reviews of books on some aspect of life of Mr. Darcy or some other Austen character.  At one time I looked high and low for a book called 'The Jane Austen Book Club', to be sorely disappointed by it.

This book came highly recommended by a book site I subscribe to, and it is written by Colleen McCullough, the author of Thorn Birds which is supposed to be the Australian Gone with the Wind. I have read the Thorn Birds and loved it, not as much as GWTW, but well enough.

The book begins with the death of Mrs. Bennet.  Mr. Bennet died a couple of years after Pride and Prejudice ended. Elizabeth and Jane are safely ensconced in their homes as Mrs Darcy and Mrs Bingley.  Kitty is a rich and merry widow thanks to an advantageous marriage.  Lydia is in shambles, Wickham is at war and she is an alcoholic and sex crazed.  Mary has spent the past 17 years (since the big wedding between Darcy and Lizzie) caring for her mother and keeping her away from causing any further embarrassment to her daughters. Mary is no longer the ugly duckling, but rivals Elizabeth in handsomeness.  She has spent her exile reading books and developing a mind, and now, with her mother gone, she is looking forward to doing something with her life.  All this information is stuffed into the first chapter, just like Jane used to do.

The first time I picked up the novel, I dropped it in disgust because Mr Darcy was addressed as Fitz.  I am not sure if even Elizabeth would have deemed it proper to address her husband as anything but Mr. Darcy, let alone his sister-in-law.  If I remember correctly, even Elizabeth's father referred to his sons-in-law by their surname, Wickham, Bingley, Darcy.

Anyhow, the novel gathered dust for nearly a year. A week back I picked it up again and this time, expecting the worst, read it through.  Jane is still her sweet (cloying?) self and popping babies.  Elizabeth and Darcy (no Fitz for me) have troubles.  He is back to being the stiff and starchy one, she is disappointed in him because among other things, ahem .. he is a beast in bed.  Wooo, I say, bring him on.  On top of this, their firstborn, a son, is allegedly effeminate.  Kitty and Lydia are marginalized in this novel too.  Mary gets the center stage here, sort of.  (Even now, Elizabeth and Darcy cannot be shoved into a corner.  At times it seems as if the novel is more about them). Mary is on a mission to write a book about the British poor. Cough. She has some hair raising adventures, the rest of the family also gets pulled into it.

The story is interesting enough on its own but there is nothing Austenian about it except the characters, that's for sure.  People use four letter words and foul language as if they lived in nastier times.  There is even ess ee ex .. phew !   It messes with the kind of an image you have of the characters and the times.  What I like best about Austen's books is its faithful rendition of life in her times.  The leisurely walks, the formal way of addressing each other, the dresses, the balls, the MEN.  The way the ladies and the gentlemen spent their times.  Even though the books are really romances, they are also a mirror of their times.  I hate this book for shattering that beautiful image.

Even Jane's worst critics admit that she had a faultless style.  I am amazed to say this of the author of Thorn Birds, but I found that lacking woefully.  There were many repetitions of phrases and words, which rankled.  Did Ms. McCullough have a bad editor this time round?  No, as an Austen sequel the novel failed badly.  Not surprising really, which sequel has worked?  The sequel to Gone With The Wind, Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley  was awful. Mrs De Winter by Susan Hall was a terrible sequel to Rebecca. While one can understand the itch writers get to try to imagine 'what happened afterwards', one wishes they desist, if this is all they have to offer.

Spoiler Spoiler dirty Spoiler :  In case you don't want to read this novel and are wondering what really happens to Mary, she does not write that book, but settles down with a rich Scottish newspaper owner in the vicinity of Pemberley. Spoiler Ends.

As if you expected a Bennet girl to do anything different - now that is so Austenian 

Super Spoiler: She has sex with him before marriage - GASP! Super Spoiler ends.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Haruki Murakami - After Dark

After I read Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, I picked up Norwegian Wood by the same author. Norwegian Wood was a sad love story about a young frail girl Naoko, whose high school boyfriend commits suicide. She falls into deep depression after that and has problem fitting in with life. Her boyfriend's best friend, Toru, befriends her and falls in love with her. However, her depressed state prevents her from forming any relationship and she leaves for a mental asylum. Toru meets Midori and they are drawn to each other. But with the shadow of Naoko hanging over him, Toru is unable to move on. It is a good book but I was fresh from the magic realism of Kafka on the shore and the book was kind of depressing.

Last Saturday, I picked up After Dark by Murakami from the library along with other books. I saved After Dark for the last, wanting to savour it.  A couple of days ago, the other stock exhausted, I opened this book.
Eyes mark the shape of the city.
The first line read. And I knew I was hooked. It is a slim book, mere 200 pages of the small size.
The novel delivers gloriously... Inventive and alluring
says David Mitchell of Guardian, on the blurb. Ditto, say I.

The novel is about what happens to people after dark. In the few hours from midnight to 5 AM when the world sleeps peacefully, there are some who choose to stay awake. Why do they do that? What is behind their wish to spend the night waking?

Mari chooses to spend the night waking as she seems to have missed the last train home. She sits in Denny's with a cup of coffee and is hunched over her book, reading with deep concentration. She is disturbed by Takahashi, a trombone player who knows her and more particularly, her beautiful sister Eri. Takashahi is here because he plays with his band in a nearby basement and is at Denny's for a midnight snack. Later he sends over the manager of a Love Hotel called Alphaville. A Chinese girl has been hurt and they need someone who knows Chinese to talk to her. All this time, Mari's beautiful sister Eri sleeps a sleep that is too perfect to be true.

At the root of everything is the troubled relationship between the beautiful Eri and the homely Mari who chooses to drown herself in studies. Takashahi has a troubled past too. He is an orphan who has been brought up by his criminal father and a stepmother. He is at a crossroad, having to choose between a career in Law and Music. He is very fond of Five Spot After Dark which made him learn how to play a trombone.

It is a night full of happenings and conversations and introspection which will transform the lives of Mari and Takashahi, and Eri's too, perhaps.

Murkami's magic is all over the book. You hear the music the characters talk about, you feel what they feel. He has this ability of making you see right into the soul of people.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Ashok Mahajan - Goan Vignettes and other Poems

My blogger friend Ashwin Baindur of The Butterfly diaries has often adorned his blog with nature poems. It was on one such post that I came across a poem by Ashok Mahajan. I was instantly smitten by it, and begged him for details. The poem was taken from Goan Vignettes and Other Poems which was sadly, out of stock on book sites.

A flurry of emails on the issue followed and at the end of it Ashwin kindly scanned the images from his copy of the book, converted it into a PDF, copied it into a cd and mailed it to me.

In doing so, Ashwin has gifted me a handful of diamonds. Thank you, Ashwin.

I don’t think I will be ever able to find appropriate words to describe these poems. (I thought of something very clever to say about them when I was driving yesterday, but have forgotten now.) They are indeed little vignettes of life in Goa and other places. If you are fortunate enough to read a few, you will realize that the Author has the knack of using just the right word for the right thing. So I will beseech you to look up the words you do not understand, I promise that your understanding of the poem will multiply hundredfold when you look up the meaning.

On reading the poems, I get the sense of a ruminative poet who looks at the world and sees things that lesser mortals like us do not. Maybe we do, but we do not remark on it; we have no talent to freeze the moment forever in a perfect little poem.

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour
(William Blake)

These are the lines that best describe the poems of Ashok Mahajan. It is time for me to vanish and present some poems of the author that struck me particularly. Click on the images to enlarge them. If you want more, send me your emails and I will send them to you.

To start with I will quote a small poem here called metamorphosis. I have kindly (thank me) provided the meanings so you (philistines) may better appreciate this picture.

But a week ago
This hill that was
A rugged
Topaz of dry grass
Is now a nowy
Smaragd of green.

Nowy Smaragd = new emerald

Sunset at Colva is the poem I would pick as a favorite if pressed. It is evocative and creates a perfect picture of a sun slowly slipping, red and resplendent, into the sea.

Estaminets=A small café
Incarnadine=red color


(An aubade is a poem or song of or about lovers separating at dawn.
Aubade has also been defined as "a song or instrumental composition concerning, accompanying, or evoking daybreak)

This comes next because of a leisurely and detailed listing of things we see if we stroll out at daybreak for a dozen eggs. The author does not shy away from listing scenes that are not pretty. Dhobi’s boy taking a dump on the roadside is as assiduously noted as the pretty rhododendron sun. You can see a further example of this if you check out the poem featured on Ashwin’s page

I picked Channo’s Tandoor because it reminds me of summers in Delhi when we used to pick up rotis from a tandoor nearby, to save our ladies the bother of making endless rotis and also because we loved the crispy earthy taste of real tandoori rotis. Again, the poem paints a perfect picture of the Tandoor which is turned into a community centre in an instant.

Majorda Jaycees Princess. I knew one such Veronica Dias; she won a minor beauty contest, and thought she was too good for our little town.

Grandmother is such a lovely look at a crabby old lady, I could cite several ladies who could qualify for this portrait.

Truck Driver gives you a peek into the world filled with machismo and vulnerability. In a few deft strokes you get the picture of a life condemned to greasing palms and easing loneliness with a bottle of the local brew.

Vasco Da Gama takes a cynical look at that renowned adventurer. Ah, how many heroes of yore are the result of good publicity agent? How many real heroes have passed on unsung?

All I wish is that this lovely slim little volume were illustrated. I know, it is much better to get a picture into your head, but like Alice, I like a book with nice pictures. A set of drawings by one of those renowned Goan illustrators would have been like a cherry on a yummy layered black forest choclate cake.

There are a few glimpses into the goodies that Ashok Mahajan has presented to us in his lovely book. As I said earlier, the full feast is but an email away (or maybe some kind soul will teach me how to upload large file on some sites like rapid share so that many more people may have access to his poems).

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Totto-Chan, The Girl in the Window, Tetsuko Kuroyanagi

What do parents do when they realize that their child can not fit into a normal school? Where is a child to go if he cannot be affiliated to a school or college? What will children do if they do not score good grades? What kind of a life will they have when they have to be on their own?

Surely these questions have plagued all parents, especially when they see that their child is not in the top bracket. Some parents try to turn their children into machines, forever at their books. Children are scolded if their grades are not up to the expectations of their parents.

What does a child feel when faced with all this? When they find themselves being forever pushed to do what they are unwilling to.

On the other hand, aren’t children the flower of this earth? Shouldn’t they be allowed to grow and prosper at their own pace?

The most important question of all is what is more important, knowledge or education?

Many educated people will agree that knowledge is more important, it is more important to let a child learn at his own pace, that material possessions are immaterial. But how many people have the courage to let their child tread on a path of his own making. When faced with the crucial issue, it is easy to wish that one’s child lands a place in a prestigious university, taking up a course that will lead to a cushy job.

We have seen this issue under a scanner in movies like Taare Zameen Par and Wake Up Sid. But before all this came a lovely little book called Totto-Chan

The heroine of this book is a little child called Totto Chan who is expelled from first grade because she keeps disrupting the whole class. The worried mother hears of a school run by eminent educator Sosaku Kobayashi, which is different. Instead of foisting its system on the child, it adjusts to the need of each child. This is a school where the personality of the child is what matters, everything else is secondary. Totto-Chan’s mother hopes her child will be accepted here, and is able to get some education without the stigma of being expelled. What she forgets is that the child should like the school too.

When she saw the gate of the new school, Totto-chan stopped. The gate of the school she used to go to had fine concrete pillars with the name of the school in large characters. But the gate of this new school simply consisted of two rather short posts that still had twigs and leaves on them.

"This gate's growing," said Totto-chan. "It'll probably go on growing till it's taller than the telephone poles!"

The two "gateposts" were clearly trees with roots. When she got closer, she had to put her head to one side to read the name of the school because the wind had blown the sign askew.

"To-mo-e Ga-ku-en."

Totto-chan was about to ask Mother what “Tomoe” meant, when she caught a glimpse of something that made her think she must be dreaming. She squatted down and peered through the shrubbery to get a better look, and she couldn't believe her eyes.

"Mother, is that really a train! There, in the school grounds!"

For its classrooms, the school had made use of six abandoned railroad cars. To Tottochan it seemed something you might dream about. A school in a train!

The windows of the railroad cars sparkled in the morning sunlight. But the eyes of the rosy-cheeked little girl gazing at them through the shrubbery sparkled even more.

“I Like This School!”

Here is how Totto Chan’s interview with her headmaster went.

With a hasty bow, Totto-Chan asked him spiritedly "What are you, a schoolmaster or a stationmaster?"

Mother was embarrassed, but before she had time to explain, he laughed and replied, "I'm the head-master of this school."

Totto-Chan was delighted. "Oh, I'm so glad," she said, “because I want to ask you a favor. I'd like to come to your school.”

The headmaster offered her a chair and turned to Mother. "You may go home now. I want to talk to Totto-Chan."

Totto-Chan had a moment's uneasiness, but somehow felt she would get along all right with this man. "Well, then, I’ll leave her with you," Mother said bravely, and shut the door behind her as she went out.

The headmaster drew over a chair and put it facing Totto-Chan, and when they were both sitting down close together, he said, "Now then, tell me all about yourself. Tell me anything at all you want to talk about."

"Anything I like?" Totto-Chan had expected him to ask questions she would have to answer. When he said she could talk about anything she wanted, she was so happy she began straight away. It was all a bit higgledy-piggledy, but she talked for all she was worth.

Never ever was Totto-Chan’s hyperactive behaviour, which got her expelled from her first school, mentioned. Rather, every time the headmaster encounters Totto-Chan he pats her on the head and calls her a good little girl.

The children are allowed to study in the order that they like. They are not punished for being inattentive, and are not required to follow a curriculum. They are encouraged to learn more by practical means. If they have to learn about botany, what better way than to spend a day in the fields with the farmers and grow something of their own? Sports day’s are organized in such a way that the handicapped children win prizes. Children take turns to speak on a topic every day after lunch. There are ballet classes too. They are organized in such a way that the children feel these are fun events instead of a burdensome chore.

Totto-Chan grew up to become a famous TV personality Tetsuko Kuroyanagi. She attributed her success to the valuable lessons she learnt in this school. The book was her tribute to her beloved old teacher, Sosaku Kobayashi. The book became a huge bestseller and Tetsuko instituted a Totto-Chan trust out of the proceeds that undertakes education of deaf children.

Our children are our most precious thing. In our eagerness to produce a clone of several other successful models, don’t we push them to alter their personalities? It would be so much better to have children with distinct personalities who lead happy lives doing things they love.

It is absolutely imperative for every parent to read this book once.

Tomoe School is a wonderful school;

Inside and out, it's a wonderful school!