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The Small Pleasures of Life‘ was highly recommended by Emma from ‘Book Around the Corner’ and I have wanted to read it for a long time. I finally got to read it today.

The Small Pleasures of Life‘ is a collection of short essays, most of them two or three pages long. In each of these essays Philippe Delerm meditates on one of the little things in life, that we take great pleasure in. There is one essay on shelling peas in the morning after breakfast. There is another on the fragrance of apples. There is another on getting up early in the morning and going to the bakery when the air is still fresh and crisp, enjoying the fragrance of the freshly baked bread, and buying delicious croissants and having them on the way back. There are other essays on the first sip of beer, the pleasures of a banana split icecream, reading on the beach, a trip to the cinema, reading a newspaper during breakfast, the mobile library. There is even one on Agatha Christie. There are thirty four essays in all.

The Small Pleasures of Life‘ is a beautiful little gem. Each essay in it is a delight. My favourites were the one on shelling peas, and the one on buying croissants. But I really loved them all. I wish I had been able to read the book in French – I think it would have been even more delightful. It is a beautiful book to take out with you to the garden, taking in the cool, pleasant spring air, watching the butterflies glide around, while dipping into the book and enjoy reading about these little pleasures, while indulging in one or two of them yourself, like sipping a cup of delicious tea, or scratching your dog or your cat behind her ears. If you can read it in French, it will be even better.

I wasn’t sure whether share a few favourite passages from the book or one full essay. I opted for the latter, so that you can enjoy the delights of a full essay. Happy reading!

Helping Shell Peas

It always happens at that low ebb of the morning when time stands still. The breakfast leftovers have been cleared, the smell of lunch simmering on the stove is still some way off and the kitchen is as calm as a church. Laid out on the waxed table-cloth: a sheet of newspaper, a pile of peas in their pods and a salad bowl.
Somehow you never manage to get in on the start of the operation. You were just passing through the kitchen on your way to the garden, to see if the post had arrived, when …
‘Is there anything I can do to help?’
As if you didn’t already know the answer. Of course you can help. Just pull up a chair. Soon an invisible metronome will lull you into the cool hypnotic rhythm of shelling peas. The operation itself is deliciously simple. Use your thumb to press down on the join and the pod instantly opens itself, docile and yielding. For reluctant peas who disguise their youth with shrivelled skin, use the nail of your index finger to make an incision that will rip open the green and expose all the moisture and firm flesh beneath. You can send those little green balls rolling out at the push of a finger. The last one is unbelievably tiny. Sometimes you can’t resist crunching it. It tastes bitter, but fresh as an eleven o’clock kitchen where the water runs cold and the vegetables have just been peeled – nearby, next to the sink, naked carrots glisten on the tea towel where they’ve been left to dry.
You talk in little snippets of conversation, the words welling up from the calm inside you, and again an invisible music seems to be at play. Occasionally you raise your head at the end of a sentence, to look at the other person; they, of course, keep their head lowered – it’s all part of the code.
You talk about work, about plans, about feeling tired – steering clear of anything psychological. Shelling peas isn’t a time to explain things, it’s a time to go with the flow, in a detached sort of way. You’re looking at five minutes’ worth of work, but the pleasure lies in rolling up your sleeves and making the moment last, slowing down the morning pod by pod. You plunge your hand into the contents of the salad bowl and let the peas trickle through your fingers. They’re delicate as liquid, all those contiguous round shapes in a pea-green sea, and you’re actually surprised to discover that your hands aren’t wet. A long, fulfilled silence, and then: ‘Right, all we need now is someone to go and get the bread …’

Have you read ‘The Small Pleasures of Life‘ by Philippe Delerm? What do you think about it?

I have wanted to read Raymond Queneau’sExercises in Style‘ for many years. I finally got around to reading it today.

Raymond Queneau was one of the founders of the literary movement called Oulipo. Writers who were members of this movement, experimented with the structure of the novel and extended it into new territory. In ‘Exercises in Style‘, Raymond Queneau tells a story in the first page in two short paragraphs. Then, in the rest of the book, he tells this same story in 98 different ways. So there are 99 different versions of the same story here. While retelling these stories in those infinite different ways, Queneau plays with perspective, with prose, with language, with grammar, with literary form. In some versions of the story, the differences between the new version and the original version are so stark, that it is fascinating. There are, of course, some versions that I liked more than the others. You can read some of my favourites in the pictures below.

Matt Madden took inspiration from Queneau’s original idea, and created a one-page comic, and then retold the same story in 98 different ways and compiled them into a book called ‘99 Ways to Tell a Story : Exercises in Style‘. In principle, it is a book which is similar to Queneau’s, but because Madden adopts the comic form, it is also very different and fascinating in its own way. I have shared some of the stories in the pictures below so that you can experience them for yourself.

The third thing I wanted to write about was that Margaret Atwood did something similar many years back. She wrote a story in one paragraph. Then she wrote different versions of it and each version was very different and very fascinating. The whole thing was called ‘Happy Endings‘. I am sharing that too in the pictures.

Raymond Queneau’s book was pathbreaking because he was probably the first to do something like this. It is so hard to believe that it came out in 1947, because it feels so modern, and it is still quite fascinating to read. Matt Madden’s book will appeal to modern audiences because it employs the comic form. Margaret Atwood’s version is an education in the art of storytelling. I loved all three.

Have you read any of these books / stories? What do you think about them?

I finally dipped into the first volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic ‘My Struggle‘. The English translation of the first volume is called ‘A Death in the Family‘. I have been reading it for the past twelve days and finally finished reading it yesterday.

My Struggle‘ is probably classified as auto-fiction. So the story and the events described in it are probably all inspired by what actually happened. So the narrator in the book is Karl Ove Knausgaard himself, his wife is called Linda and the characters appearing in the book are all probably real people. I didn’t do my research to find out whether there are any imaginary characters in the book. So why call it fiction? Why not call it a memoir or an autobiography? The only reason I can think of is that the author wanted to embellish some events with his own imagination, and also wanted to avoid being sued, if a real person making an appearance in the book took offence. Calling a book ‘fiction’ and putting a disclaimer on the first page takes care of all that.

The book starts with a long meditation on death, which is quite insightful and beautiful. Then the story starts when Karl Ove was a boy and then it moves back and forth and flits through multiple time periods. In many places, Knausgaard talks about one thing, and then goes back into the past to describe a related thing, and before we can blink, we have entered a rabbit hole, and we are immersed in the past, and when we come up for a breath of fresh air, we discover that thirty pages have gone and we are still in the past, and we wonder what happened to the present event he was describing, and before we know the story flits back seamlessly into the present. It is quite fascinating. I loved these digressions. However, it is not everyone’s cup of tea.

The book alternates between long contemplative passages and pages, and moving the story forward with events and dialogue. The concentration of the contemplative passages is more in the first half of the book, and the second part has more dialogue and events. I liked both aspects of the book, but I liked the contemplative parts more. I read many of those contemplative passages and passages many times, and at times I didn’t want to move forward and kept reading those pages again and again. They were beautiful and insightful and thought-provoking and delightful to read. Knausgaard talks about every kind of topic under the sun – art, books, music, football and an infinite variety of other things – and there is something in these pages for every kind of reader.

What about the story itself? The story is interesting and the narrator talks about every kind of close relationship we have with our family members. The narrator’s views and insights are honest and frank and unflinching and sometimes we might even find them uncomfortable. But they are always deep and thought-provoking. The characters are complex and well-developed and real. I loved the characters of his mother, grandmother, and the brother Yngve, but there are lots of characters, they are all fascinating.

Knausgaard’s book was highly acclaimed when it first came out. Zadie Smith said, “It’s completely blown my mind.” Another reviewer said that it “has strong claim to be the great literary event of the twenty-first century.” But there are other fascinating, insightful thoughts too. For example, you can find Lisa’s (from ‘ANZ Litlovers’) review here and Jacqui’s review here. You can also find Melissa’s (from The Book Binder’s Daughter) thoughts on auto-fiction here, which compares Knausgaard’s book with others.

From my perspective, I loved the first part of ‘My Struggle’. I loved reading those contemplative passages many times. Some readers feel that the second part is even better than the first part. I can’t wait to get into it.

I’ll leave you with one of my favourite passages from the book.

“When I was at home on my own every room had its own character, and though not directly hostile to me they were not exactly welcoming, either. It was more as if they did not want to subordinate themselves to me, but wanted to exist in their own right, with their own individual walls, floors, ceilings, skirting boards, yawning windows. I was aware of a deadness about the rooms – that was what made me uncomfortable – by which I mean not dead in the sense of life having ceased, but rather life being absent, the way that life is absent from a rock, a glass of water, a book. The presence of our cat, Mefisto, was not strong enough to dispel this, I just saw the cat in the yawning room; however, were a person to come in, even if it were only a small baby, the yawning room was gone. My father filled the rooms with disquiet, my mother filled them with gentleness, patience, melancholy, and on occasion, if she came home from work and was tired, also with a faint yet noticeable undercurrent of irritability. Per, who never ventured further than the front hall, filled it with happiness, expectation and submission. Jan Vidar, who was so far the only person outside my family to have been in my room, filled it with obstinacy, ambition and friendliness. It was interesting when several people were present because there wasn’t any space for the sway of more than one, at top two wills in a room, and it was not always the strongest that was the most obvious.”

Have you read the first part of Knausgaard’sMy Struggle‘? What do you think about it?

Today’s post for ‘Black History Month‘ is about Viv Richards.

Viv Richards is my alltime favourite cricketer and my boyhood hero. For many boys from my generation, he was a hero, he was the cricketer we all wanted to be. Young people played with tennis balls and rubber balls, on the streets and in the rice fields, and dreamed of batting like Richards. Viv Richards was not tall for a West Indian cricketer, but he was dark and handsome. The sight of Viv striding into the ground at the fall of a wicket, twirling his bat, chewing gum, with his maroon cap on, with an expressionless face, was a majestic sight to behold. He was cool and style personified. Then he went to the crease and took guard – it was nearly always a leg stump guard, a middle stump guard was for chickens – and looked at the bowler. Some fans say that he glared at the bowler, but I don’t remember ever seeing him do that. By that time, the bowler had given up hope (atleast from the point of view of us, fans) and the magic began.

Cricket fans from across the world loved watching Viv play – the great love that fans had for him transcended national boundaries. He was adored by his fans from his hometown of Antigua of course, an island which has a population of around 96,000 people, and the cricket stadium there is named after him, but his international fans outnumbered the fans from his own island – he was like Pele or Federer.

Viv was an attacking batsman, one of the best that there ever was. Watching him play was like watching a master at work on his art. When he was playing his natural, flamboyant, stylish game, playing the ondrive, or his famous, majestic hook, or his legendary inside-out shot in which he stepped outside the leg stump and drove the ball over long off for a six (he played that shot off the final ball in the 1979 World Cup final), it was thrilling to watch. When he played a defensive game – yes, he could rein in his attacking instincts and do that too, his innings on square turning pitches were legendary – it was amazing to see how he adapted to the situation and to his team’s needs. Whether he was attacking or defending, he did that with style, and it was a pleasure to watch.

Featured in the first picture below is the cover of Viv Richards’ autobiography. It is beautiful to read. Featured in the fourth picture is Viv and his great friend Ian Botham – it is so hard to believe that these two played for the same team. Envy those Somerset fans so much!

Viv started playing for the West Indies cricket team in the middle ’70s and he retired in the early ’90s. He won every award and every trophy there is, and was highly respected and admired by his contemporaries. He held many world records. As his great contemporary Michael Holding once said, if Viv had wanted and if he had been selfish, he could have set many more records which would have been beyond the reach of players of the next few generations. But he was a person who didn’t care about records and statistics and always played for his team. He captained his team with distinction and he retired with an unbeaten test record. After he retired he was awarded every honour there is and he was knighted. It is appropriate to call him Sir Vivian now. But to old fans like me, he’ll always be Viv, the Master Blaster.

These days, Viv is in his sixties, and and is enjoying a second innings as a cricket commentator. He is funny and humorous as a commentator and is a pleasure to listen to. He also mentors T20 teams and is active on Instagram sharing his thoughts with old and new fans.

There have been many great cricketers who have come on the scene since the great Viv retired. But in my opinion, he was the greatest. That majesty, that style, that cool, that intensity – we will never see the likes of him again. For me, he was the one and only.

Frank Keating once wrote about his favourite boyhood hero, Tom Graveney –

“The batsmanship of Our Tom, was of the orchard rather than the forest, blossom susceptible to frost but breathing in the sunshine. Taking enjoyment as it came, he gave enjoyment which still warms the winters of memory.”

I can’t write beautifully like this, and I think I’m still not old enough to talk about the winters of memory, but I hope that one day, when my hair is fully grey, and I am sitting in front of the fire, on a winter evening, with my dog sitting next to me, I’ll remember Keating’s lines and I’ll think about my favourite Viv playing those majestic pulls and hooks and inside-out shots, and I hope my old wrinkled face will beam with pleasure.

February is ‘Black History Month‘ and I thought that as part of the celebrations, I’ll write about some of my favourite books, writers and people. Today, it is about C.L.R.James‘ classic ‘Beyond a Boundary‘.

Beyond a Boundary‘ is a book which is a memoir, a social history and a sporting history, all rolled into one. This style of writing was unusual when the book first came out and so it was unique and the book broke new ground. In the book, James talks about his own life and how he started playing cricket, and then covers West Indian cricket history from the beginning of the 20th century till around the 1960s. He also looks at West Indian society and culture through a cricketing lens. The book asks the question, “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” That question has acquired a legendary status since James’ first posed it, and has the same kind of significance that Camus question in the first passage of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus‘ has. Many have pondered on what that question meant, and what could be its potential answers. Whether the book answers that question or not, you have to read it to find out.

Beyond a Boundary‘ had a mythical status in my life, because I had heard many older cricket fans talking about it in revered tones, and I had dreamt of reading it since I was young, but the book was out-of-print and was hard to find. Then, one day I discovered that there was an edition in print by Duke University Press. It was ironic, because cricket is not an American sport, but this book, which was one of the greatest cricket books ever written, was out-of-print in cricket playing countries, but an American university press kept the flame burning, by keeping the book alive, keeping it in print. I paid a king’s ransom to get that edition. When a few years later, the book came back widely in print, I got two more copies 😁 The book on the left in the picture is the Duke University Press edition, while the one on the right is the newer one.

After I got the book, I read it in one breath and it gave me goosebumps throughout. There is a reason it is revered by older cricket fans. It is a beautiful love letter to West Indian cricket, and cricket in general, the best there is. James’ prose is beautiful and gorgeous, and it feels like he is an intellectual from the 19th century, because he doesn’t shy away from difficult words – one chapter is called ‘George Headley : Nascitur Non Fit‘, another is called ‘Alma Mater : Lars and Penates‘. We take it in our stride, of course, and we continue reading, and we feel that we are in the presence of a master. James thoughts on the great Learie Constantine, on how the first black captain of the West Indies cricket team was appointed, and on the great Frank Worrell, are a pleasure to read. James also shares his love for books and reading and places them in a cricketing and cultural context. It is not often that we find discussions on William Hazlitt and William Makepeace Thackeray in a book on sport.

Beyond a Boundary‘ is one of the greatest books on sport, society and culture ever written. It is a love letter to the West Indies and to the game of cricket. It deserves to be more widely read.

On Scandinavian Literature

Being in the middle of reading Knausgaard, I thought it would be nice if I could take out all the Scandinavian books I have and put them together. I discovered that I have just 12 books. Yes, a round dozen only. (Ignoring the Knausgaard books, of course – I have 10 volumes of Knausgaard). I have read some of them, and hope to read the others in the future. I loved Per Petterson’sOut Stealing Horses‘. I also liked his ‘To Siberia‘. I loved the first part of Sigrid Undset’sKristin Lavransdatter‘. Haven’t read the next two parts yet. I liked ‘The Laughing Policemen‘, the series which probably launched the whole Scandinavian crime fiction scene today. I also liked ‘The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat’, which is a beautiful collection of Scandinavian short stories.

I noticed an interesting thing in the collection I have. I always thought that I must be having more Swedish books when compared to other Scandinavian books, because I thought that Sweden was the regional powerhouse. But when I look at this collection, the three Swedish books I have are all crime novels. There are four Danish books (three by Peter Høeg – I want to read ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow‘ soon), three Norwegian books, one Icelandic book (‘Butterflies in November‘ – such a beautiful title!) and one Scandinavian short story collection covering all Scandinavian languages. If I add the ten Knausgaard volumes I have, Norwegian wins by a clear margin! Very surprising! Who knew!

Do you like Scandinavian literature? Which are your favourite Scandinavian books? Which Scandinavian language in translation have you read the most?

I can’t remember when exactly I discovered Karl Ove Knausgaard. But I can remember exactly the time when he started to persistently demand my attention. That was when I read an article about books which were too big to be carried around and read in the subway or in any other form of public transport. One of the books on the list was Knausgaard’s ‘The End‘ which was the last volume of his 6-volume epic, ‘My Struggle‘. I added it to my list of ‘Epic chunksters which I hope to read, but probably won’t‘. I have been tempted many times since, to get that epic. I have always talked myself out of it, telling myself that ‘I will never read it, it is too big‘, ‘I got Proust’sIn Search of Lost Time‘ ten years back and I haven’t read it yet, the same fate will befall this‘, and ‘I have too many unread books on my shelf, I need to read them first.’ I thought I had come out of this unscathed, and I was happy about it, but then recently I saw the first two volumes of ‘My Struggle‘ in my friend’s shelfie, and it was the last straw on the camel’s back. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and I went and got it.

So my friends, may I present the epic mother-of-all-chunksters, the one which will give Proust a run for his money, Karl Ove Knausgaard’sMy Struggle‘ 🙂 (Who calls their lifetime epic literary work ‘My Struggle’? Why???)

I think there should be a word for an epic chunkster which runs to thousands of pages (the edition I have runs to 4008 pages), which is highly recommended but rarely read, which looks like a novel, but which in reality is a veiled memoir of the author. I think that word could be ‘Knausgaardian‘. ‘Proustian‘, you have been around for nearly a century now, and we love you, but it is time for you to step aside now, because the new kid-off-the-block has arrived, he is your 21st century version, and his name is ‘Knausgaardian‘.

One of my friends says that she reads a chunkster every summer. I loved that idea. So thought I’ll try to read Knausgaard’s epic, this summer. Atleast dip my toes into it. Then I read the great Yoshida Kenko saying in his book ‘Essays in Idleness‘ –

“Those who feel the impulse to pursue the path of enlightenment should immediately take the step, and not defer it while they attend to all the other things on their mind. If you say to yourself, ‘Let’s just wait until after this is over,’ or ‘While I’m at it I’ll just see to that,’ or ‘People will criticize me about such-and-such so I should make sure it’s all dealt with and causes no problem later,’ or ‘There’s been time enough so far, after all, and it won’t take long just to wait a little longer while I do this. Let’s not rush into things,’ one imperative thing after another will occur to detain you. There will be no end to it all, and the day of decision will never come. In general, I find that reasonably sensitive and intelligent people will pass their whole life without taking the step they know they should. Would anyone with a fire close behind them choose to pause before fleeing? In a matter of life and death, one casts aside shame, abandons riches and runs.”

Kenko was a Zen monk from the medieval ages, and he was talking about taking the path to enlightenment, but it is easy to take what he said and apply it to another suitable context. So, when I remembered Kenko’s words, I thought, ‘If I can read this in summer, I can read this in spring‘ and then ‘If I can read this in spring, I can read this today‘, and then, ‘If I can read this today, I can read this now.’ This is how the human mind works.

I have read the first few pages of the first volume, and it looks very beautiful. I have a poor record with respect to chunksters – I get started with enthusiasm, and then I get distracted after a hundred or two hundred or a few hundred pages, because real world tasks which I have kept pushing below the carpet, suddenly burst out and start demanding attention, or sometimes another book uses all its wiles to distract me. So I don’t know what is going to happen here. I have dipped my toe into the Knausgaardian ocean now, and I am waiting to see where it takes me. Please wish me well.