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We sometimes discover new books in interesting, unexpected ways. I am always excited when that happens. I discovered Justin O. Schmidt’sThe Sting of the Wild‘ through an episode of Jimmy Kimmel’s show. Schmidt was the invited guest for that episode and he had brought with him his favourite stinging insects and introduced them to the audience and then spoke about this book. I was excited when I saw that episode, because it is nice to see scientists at talk shows talking about the work they do. I got this book after a while and finally got to read it this week.

The Sting of the Wild‘ is about stinging insects. In the first part of the book which runs into five chapters, Schmidt gives us an introduction to stinging insects and talks about how their stinging capability might have evolved from an evolutionary perspective. In the second part of the book, Schmidt focuses on individual insects, talks about their life histories and their lifestyles, their relationships with humans and other animals from the animal kingdom, how they use their sting and how sharp and painful their sting can be. He creates a four-level sting-pain scale and tries to rate each insect’s sting using this scale. Some of the insects which are featured in the second part of the book are sweat bees, ants of different types including fireants, harvester ants and bullet ants, wasps of different types including yellowjackets, tarantula hawks, mud daubers and velvet ants, and of course everyone’s favourite, the honey bee.

During the course of this exciting adventure into the stinging insect world, Schmidt reveals some surprising facts. For example :

The male of a stinging insect cannot sting, it is only the female which stings –

““Careful, don’t let him sting you” is an all-too-familiar phrase to warn against stinging insects. But male stinging insects do not sting. You read right. Males do not sting. Why not? The answer could not be simpler—they do not have a stinger! Even if a male bee (or ant or wasp, for that matter) attempted to sting, it lacks the equipment. The stinger is a highly derived, egg-laying tube, and males cannot lay eggs. They simply cannot evolve a stinger similar to a female’s stinger. Consequently, males are harmless, have no ability to hurt large predators, and do not even aid their sisters to defend against predators. Threaten a male bee or a wasp, and it flees or hides.”

In the case of some ants, the intense pain from the sting lasts for nearly eight hours –

“One might be tempted to generalize from experience with stings from honey bees, yellowjackets, baldfaced hornets, various wasps, bumble bees, sweat bees, and even fire ants that all insect stings are sort of like a bee sting, differing mainly in intensity. Anyone who has been stung by a harvester ant knows better. Harvester ants are docile giants of the temperate ant world, unobtrusively going about their business of harvesting seeds for food. They have no attitude like fire ants and cause no harm if left alone. If they are sat on or pinched, however, they deliver a sting that is nothing like a bee sting. The pain is intense, comes in waves, and is deeply visceral. The intense pain lasts 4 to 8 hours, not 4 to 8 minutes, as with a typical honey bee sting.”

In another place, he says this about the sting of Maricopa ants, a type of harvester ants –

“Don’t let the delicate, lithe body shape or unassuming demeanor of Maricopa harvester ants fool you. The stings of these ants really hurt. The throbbing pain can last 8 hours, decreases only slowly, and the ants readily autotomize their stings into humans or other unfortunate animals. These ants were the most painful stingers we encountered on the summer’s trip. To add veracity to their message, the venom of the ants at this particular location is the most toxic known ant, wasp, or bee venom, some 25 times more toxic than honey bee venom and 35 times greater than western diamondback rattlesnake venom.”

There are some wasps, called Tarantula Hawks, which eat tarantula spiders, which are many times their size.

Some queen ants live for nearly forty years and continue to produce offspring to populate their colony during that span –

“What are the longest-lived ants? Harvester ants currently appear to win the award, outlasting all other ants…The longevity of a harvester ant colony has been exasperatingly difficult to pin down. Answers are all over the place, from an average of 15 years or 17 years for a colony reared in the lab, to 22 to 43 years and even up to 29 to 58 years…The western harvester ant is the species suspected to live the longest of all harvester ants. For her 56 colonies, she calculated that the last colony would live to 44.9 years of age…To live up to 45 years, a queen harvester ant must remain amazingly safe and secure.”

Bullet ants deliver the most painful sting. Or as the author puts it –

“I am confident that bullet ants are the holy grail of stinging insects and deliver the most painful sting of any stinging insect on Earth.”

And, of course, the fascinating, but probably well known fact about honey bees.

“Unlike, most wasps that are carnivores, honey bees are strict vegetarians (vegans, if you wish) that feed on pollen and nectar from flowers, plus sugary liquids from other sources, including honeydew-producing insects.”

One of my favourite descriptions in the book was about solitary wasps. It goes like this.

“Solitary in the sense of wasp biology means lack of sociality, that is, not living in colonies with sisters, brothers, mothers, and growing young. Instead, solitary wasps live a life of the single female who must do everything herself so that her offspring survive and carry on her lineage. Solitary wasps are true single moms. Male wasps do no work whatsoever to assist in producing the next generation.”

That passage gave me goosebumps. I always liked solitary wasps – sometimes one of them, I think a Mud Dauber, has buzzed around in my home trying to build a nest, and I knew instinctively that it was a mother which was going to have babies. Now, after reading this passage, I love them more.

There is also an astonishing fact that Schmidt reveals about some solitary wasps.

“Momma wasp has the special ability to choose the sex of her babies. Hymenoptera are oddballs in the genetic world. Females are produced from fertilized eggs, and males are produced from unfertilized eggs…it…means mom can choose to produce a son or a daughter by selectively allowing stored sperm to fertilize the egg. In the tarantula hawk world, females are valuable. They do all the work, take all the risks of capturing the spiders, and have to drag a spider sometimes eight times their weight to their burrow. Thus, females need to be big and strong to do the job efficiently and to produce the most young.”

During the course of the book, the author also describes how he got interested in studying insects and became an entomologist (insect biologist). (It seems he took the scenic route to get there, having done his undergraduate and graduate degrees in chemistry.) It is fascinating to read. He also talks about some of the great entomologists. I was fascinated by one in particular – Howard Ensign Evans. He has written books about wasps – those great, inspiring, insect single moms – how can we not love him? I want to read books by him.

Justin Schmidt’s pace flows smoothly and the pages fly. He enlivens the facts and anecdotes with humorous lines, like this :

“Animal survival is simple in theory: fill one’s stomach with nutritious food, and don’t end up in anyone else’s stomach.”

Occasionally, Schmidt also offers an overall commentary on science, like he does here :

“Science is rarely sterile. Scientists are adventurers like ancient explorers sailing to undiscovered parts of the globe, who do not know what they will find or discover but seek the thrill of the unknown. Contrary to movie caricatures, scientists are not eccentric, crazy, brilliant people in strange laboratories concocting various magical brews or wild computer programs. Scientists are people, equally exciting or boring, like our usual acquaintances. Science is the process of discovery, distinguishable from other human endeavors. The discovery process is self-correcting; that is, if evidence disproves a scientific concept, that old idea is either discarded or modified consistent with the new factual information. In practice, this process is not usually as smooth or as rapid as described. Most scientists make their greatest discoveries early in their careers and, because they are human, become attached to their discoveries. Within the scientific community, new ideas stimulate new experiments to test the ideas, generating new facts and information. Good scientists will look at new facts and modify or outright discard their ideas if they are shown to be wrong. But this is difficult. Nobody wants to think that much of what he or she accomplished in life is wrong. Young scientists are typically spared emotional attachment to earlier ideas and form their ideas mainly based on current facts. Thus, science tends to progress through younger people, and old ideas tend to die with the originators of those ideas. Through this cynical view, science progresses one coffin at a time.”

The Sting of the Wild‘ is a fascinating book. Though the focus of the book is supposedly the stings of insects and how and why they evolved and how painful they can be, the life history of insects that the book describes is fascinating. After reading this, we start seeing stinging insects not as annoyances which disturb our peace when we are the middle of our work or enjoying a relaxing day, but as living beings like us, which have problems and challenges which are not very different from what we have – how to find a mate, how to build a home, how to raise one’s young ones and bring them up to be independent beings, how to get food, how to protect one’s home against enemies and predators – we can almost feel the pressures and the challenges that nature exerts on an insect mother’s or insect colony’s life everyday. It is brilliant. I loved it. It is definitely one of my favourite books of the year.

Have you read ‘The Sting of the Wild‘? What do you think about it?

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A couple of years back I did a course on the Talmud because I was curious about it and wanted to learn more about it. I loved the course and wanted to read more. The Talmud can be roughly divided into two parts – the legal and logical part called the Halacha, and the imaginative and story part called the Aggadah. Of course, it is not like the book is cleanly divided into parts, because the Halachic and Aggadic components are integrated in the same page. In the course I studied, we learnt more about the Halachic part – for example, one of the things we learnt was what the Talmud says about false witnesses and how we can devise a practical way to discover whether a witness is offering false testimony or not. In this context, we learnt the story of Susanna. I loved that story. I wanted to read more like it, stories which highlighted a legal principle or offered wisdom or were just inspiring in some way. I thought I will look for a book which had stories from the Talmud, a book which highlighted the Aggadic part – stories which can be read for enjoyment and also for the insights they offered. That is how I discovered Ruth Calderon’sA Bride for One Night : Talmud Tales’.

A Bride for One Night‘ has seventeen stories, all selected from the Talmud. They address different themes of Jewish life, including family, love, marriage, relationships, friendship, the relationship between student and teacher, the true nature of faith, the joy of learning, the conflict between dedicating oneself to intellectual pursuits and spending time with one’s family – these and other themes are explored and illustrated through these stories. Each story has three parts. The first part, which is the shortest, is a translation of the story from the Talmud. The second part is a longer literary and creative rendition of the story by the author. The third part offers reflections by the author on the story and analyses and highlights different aspects of it. Many of the original stories look deceptively simple and straightforward on first reading and the author’s rendition of the story makes it more dramatic and more interesting. But to me, the most important part was the reflections of the author in which she teases out the meaning from in-between words and from behind the words, offers explanations of simple words which are not obvious to readers who are not familiar with Jewish tradition (for example, what is the difference between ‘found‘ and ‘find‘? The answer is not as simple as we might think), and sometimes reads the story against the grain which illuminates a situation from a totally new perspective (for example, the traditional way of reading the story might make us think that the story is extolling the virtue of a particular social practice, but by reading the story against the grain, we realize that the story is actually criticizing a particular social practice and exposing its ills). Many times Calderon offers a feminist analysis and viewpoint on a story which is insightful and is fascinating to ponder on and contemplate about. Sometimes it is interesting to read the analysis and then get back to the original story and try to find out whether we could have teased out the insights ourselves and contemplate on how we missed it the first time. Ruth Calderon is a Talmud scholar and in the introduction to the book she explains how she chose the stories included in the book, and delves into how the stories are structured and how they can be read and interpreted today, through our twenty-first century eyes. That introduction is beautiful to read.

Some of my favourite stories from the book were these :

Sisters – This is the story of two sisters and how one of them is accused of adultery and how the other tries to help her to get out of it.

The Other Side – It is the story of a Rabbi who takes a robber as his student and what happens to them after that. It has a fascinating conversation between the two, which goes like this :

“One day, they were debating in the study house: The sword, the knife, the hunting spear, the hand sickle, the harvesting sickle—at what stage do they become impure? [That is, at what stage in their production do they shift from being raw materials, which are not susceptible to impurity, to vessels that may contract impurity?]
And they answered: From the time they are completed.
And when are they regarded as completed?
Rabbi Yohanan said: When they are refined in the furnace.
Reish Lakish said: When they are polished with water.”

It made me contemplate on when does one thing change into something else. For example, at which instant do two strangers become friends? Or partners or lovers? Is there a particular instant at which this happens or does it happen slowly and gradually? Or does it happen slowly and then suddenly – as Hazel Grace says in ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ – “As he read, I fell in love, the way you fall asleep : slowly and then all at once“? At which exact instant does a collection of notes become music? At what point does a collection of random lines become art? At what exact point does a stone become sculpture? These are fascinating questions to ponder on. This is what this story did to me.

Libertina – A story in which a wife dresses herself attractively and seduces her husband and the husband responds without realizing that it is his wife and what happens after that.

Lamp – A story about what a young man and a young woman do on their wedding night – not the conventional consummating stuff but something unconventional.

He and His Son‘ and ‘Sorrow in the Cave‘ – Two versions of the same story in which a Rabbi who is chased by the authorities goes on exile, lives in a cave and spends the next twelve years pursuing learning and on contemplation. In the first version, he goes to the cave with his son. In the second version, he is alone.

Elisha – The story of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, who loses his faith.

The Beruria Incident – A story about a rabbi’s wife called Beruria, who is well learned herself. It is beautiful, inspiring and heartbreaking.

Yishmael, My Son, Bless Me – Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha enters the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the temple, to burn incense and offer prayers, and an amazing surprise awaits him. This story ended with these beautiful, inspiring lines – “What does this…teach us? It teaches us never to underestimate the blessing offered by an ordinary person.

I loved ‘A Bride for One Night : Talmud Tales‘. It offers beautiful insights into Jewish culture and tradition, in the form of stories. It is not a regular collection of short stories, which we can read at an easy pace, but it is more like a collection of Zen koans, which we read and contemplate on, try to tease the meaning between the words or behind them, and read the analysis and reflect on the insights they offer. It is thought-provoking and contemplative and makes us see some things in new light. I loved the commentary that Ruth Calderon offers in the ‘reflections’ part. I am glad I read it.

Have you read ‘A Bride for One Night : Talmud Tales’? What do you think about it?

I haven’t read a lot of Australian literature and it is one of the gaps on my reading list that I hope to address sometime. While thinking of which book to read next, I remembered Lisa’s (ANZ Litlovers) wonderful review of Karenlee Thompson’sFlame Tip‘ (You can find the reviews here and here.) Thompson is Australian and the stories in the book are set in Australia and so I was excited to get started.

Flame Tip‘ is a collection of short stories. There are seventeen stories in the book. All of them have a common theme – the 7th of February 1967, also called Black Tuesday, the day on which bush fires broke out in Tasmania killing many people, injuring many and burning down many houses leaving many people homeless. The main characters in each story is impacted by the bushfire in some way – they lose a family member or a beloved partner and in some cases they find freedom and even love. In one story we are literally treated to a bird’s eye view of the fire. The book also has an interesting foreword by David Walsh in which he shares his own memories on what he was doing on the day of the fire.

I will share brief descriptions of some of my favourite stories from the book to give you a flavour of the themes covered in the book.

Like a Wall – A woman looks back on her life at the time of the fire. She was young at that time, newly married, and loved her husband dearly. She is white Australian and her husband is Chinese Australian and so their relationship with her parents is strained. What happens to this young couple on the days leading up to the fire and on the day of the fire form the rest of the story. This was my most favourite story in the book and it made me cry.

Jack Frost – This is the story of a young girl who is scared of a neighbour called Jack Frost because there are scary stories told about him and how she ends up (whether fortunately or unfortunately – that is revealed in the story) in his house when the fire rages and what happens after that. This was my second favourite story from the book.

Medusa One Snake and Her Band of Three – This is the story in which we are treated to a bird’s eye view of the fire and we see the whole conflagration unfold through the eyes of a Whistling Kite matriarch and how she and her family handle the challenge that nature throws at them.

The Keeper of the Satchel – This tells the story of a man who goes to buy a satchel. He then looks back on his life, and his present and his past and the day of the fire interweave to form the rest of the story.

Anabelle, Just Looking – This story is structured like a personals ad in which a woman who is looking for a partner describes what kind of person she is looking for. Very charming and humorous.

Let Me Tell You – It describes how a town and its people looked like – the sights, the sounds, the smells – before and after the fire, through the eyes of a young person. It is beautiful and heartbreaking.

Lost – This is a very short story and describes beautifully and poignantly, in the form of a ‘Lost and Found’ notice, what has been lost in the fire.

Flame Tip‘ is a fascinating look at the great Tasmanian fire which happened on Black Tuesday in 1967, seen through the eyes of different people from different walks of life, young and old. I enjoyed reading it, though it was scary, poignant and heartbreaking in parts.

Have you read ‘Flame Tip‘? What do you think about it?

When Women Speak Up‘ is a collection of nineteen stories, all of them written by women writers. All the stories feature women who decide to speak up – sometimes by words and sometimes by actions. There are different kinds of women featured in the stories – some of them are young girls, some of them are working professionals, some of them are homemakers, some of them are women with grown up children, some of them are single, some of them are married, some of them are separated / divorced from their partners. They all face different kinds of challenges in their lives and each of them responds to her challenge in her own unique way.

Here is a brief description of some of the stories to give you a flavour of the variety of themes covered in the book.

The Girl with the Sealed Vagina by Vartika Sharma Lekhak – A mysterious girl makes a sudden appearance in a notorious town. She comes and sits under the tree at the railway station and munches pakoras in a relaxed way. She is there everyday. People in the town are surprised, because it is an unsafe place, and women don’t come and sit alone in public places like this. One day, bad guys come in a car, and force this girl inside the car and take her somewhere. Onlookers just watch this scene without intervening. From the next day, strange things, magical things start happening at the town. You have read the story to find out what.

An Old Friendship by Rashmi Raj – A woman comes back to the town where she grew up. We discover that the woman is grown up and has got grey hair now. And she meets the boy who was her best mate when she was a girl and he has grey hair too. What happens after that and how the story strands of the past and the present weave together into a potentially interesting future is told in the rest of the story.

Broken by Anushree – A woman is in a battered state. Her life appears to be dark and bleak. How she gets up, dusts herself, and what she does about her situation, and whether it works forms the rest of the story.

The Princess Charming by Agamonee Barbaruah – A young journalist is pressured by her mother to leave her job and get married. How she responds to that forms the rest of the story.

Never too Late for Starting Over by Kasturi Patra – A woman comes home with her young daughter to celebrate the Pujo holidays at her parents’ place. Things are going well at home with everyone catching up when this woman’s mother invites all her daughters into her room and drops a bombshell. You have to read the story to find out what that is and what happens after that.

A Series of Fortunate Events by Vijayalakshmi Harish – The narrator’s wedding gets cancelled. She calls it a fortunate event. Then one fortunate thing follows another defying Shakespeare’s maxim. To know more about these fortunate events, do read the story.

The Empty Nest by Tanvi Sinha – A woman in her fifties moves to a new city when her company transfers her there. She finds a house there but her roommate is young, in her twenties. What happens when these two unrelated women from different generations live in the same house is revealed in the rest of the story.

The V-Day Conference by Anupama Jain – A woman called Sita gets up on Valentine’s Day morning. She decides to have a party with her girlfriends. Interestingly (and suspiciously), they are called Draupadi, Yashodhara, Rukmini, Radha and Urmila. The real identities of these mysterious women and how their Valentine’s Day celebrations proceed form the rest of the story.

I liked most of the stories in the book, but if I am compelled to choose favourites, they would be ‘The Girl with the Sealed Vagina‘, ‘An Old Friendship‘ and ‘Broken‘. There is a beautiful introduction at the beginning of the book by Aparna Vedapuri Singh which talks about how this book came about.

I enjoyed reading ‘When Women Speak Up‘. It is a beautiful, moving account of how women of different ages, from different walks of life, defy the restrictions imposed on them by tradition and culture, to pursue their dreams and live a more enriching life. It is very inspiring.

Have you read ‘When Women Speak Up‘? What do you think about it?

I discovered Rein Raud’sThe Brother‘ through Melissa’s (The Book Binder’s Daughter) review of it.

A mysterious man walks into a town during a rainy night. A woman who lives in the town has inherited a lot of wealth after her mother passes, but before long, people in important positions in the town plot together and betray her trust and swindle her, and she ends up losing everything and works in an antique shop for a living. This mysterious man meets this woman and tells her that he is her brother and their father told him to help her if she ever got into trouble and that is why he has come. This mysterious man then sets in motion a succession of events which wreaks havoc on the bad guys. What happens after that forms the rest of the story.

The Brother‘ is a tale of revenge. It is cool and stylish like any good tale of revenge is. It is not very long, at around 130 pages, and the events move at a lively pace and Rein Raud’s prose glides along smoothly. Most of the characters don’t have names, except for three women characters. The main character is just called ‘The Brother’. The name of the town is also not specified. It could be any town, anywhere. The story, in its plot and style, reminded me a lot of Alessandro Baricco’s revenge stories. When I read the acknowledgements page in the end, I was happy to see that the author has mentioned Baricco.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Brother‘. This is my first Estonian novel. So Yay! I will look forward to reading more of Rein Raud’s works.

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

“Some people move through the world in such a way that their sense of order goes along with them. When they enter my room and see an open book lying face-down and crooked on the desk, they will, without fail, pick it up, bookmark the page with a strip of paper, and position it neatly on the corner of the desk, face-up, its spine evenly parallel to the edge. Those people must possess a great clarity, which keeps them connected to the overarching sense of order, and which comes to mind when they see the errors of the world. I don’t have that. When I bump something in a strange room by accident, I always try to put it back exactly where it was before. I don’t know whether the spot is right or wrong. I wish for nothing other than to be capable of slipping through the world without leaving a single trace behind.”

Have you read ‘The Brother‘? What do you think about it?

I first heard about Richard Bach when I was a college. My teacher recommended his book ‘Illusions‘. I later borrowed it from a friend and read it and loved it. Then later, I read ‘Jonathan Livingston Seagull‘. I remember reading it while waiting to be called for an interview at a college, for which I had applied for admission as a student. I remember finishing it before my turn came up and feeling very inspired when stepping into the interview room. I never got around to reading a third Richard Bach book. Yesterday, when I was thinking on which book to read next, this book leapt at me. I have had this book on my bookshelf for years and yesterday finally the stars got aligned and the time arrived.

In ‘Out of My Mind‘, Richard Bach is flying his Piper Cub and one day encounters a problem in his plane. He ponders on how to fix the problem but is not able to come up with a solution. He goes to sleep that night and when he gets up the next day morning, the problem is still there in front of his eyes. But when he looks at the image in front of his eyes carefully, he discovers that the image contains both the problem and the solution. The solution is simple and elegant and ingenious. Bach goes and writes down and sketches the solution in his notebook, before he forgets it. Bach thinks that while he was sleeping, his mind probably solved the problem. He nearly forgets all about it. But a few weeks later, he has a different problem in his plane. This time, when the solution appears in front of his eyes, he sees an image behind it. It is the image of a woman, like a reflection that we might see on a glass window. When Bach looks at her face, she looks back, and she is surprised and startled. And before he realizes it, the image disappears as if nothing was ever there. Bach ponders on this for a while. He wonders whether he was hallucinating. But he feels that he wasn’t. The problems he had in his plane were real. The solutions to the problems were real – they were carefully thought out and ingenious. The woman looked real too – because she looked back at him and was startled. He feels that she came from another world to help him. He wants to meet her again and talk to her. He concocts new problems on his plane and tries to get her back. But this woman doesn’t respond to fake problems. Bach contemplates on what to do. What happens after that – is he able to get this mysterious woman to come back, why does she help him, is she really from another world – the answer to these questions form the rest of the story.

Out of My Mind‘ is vintage Richard Bach. In it, the author shares his love for planes and flying, there is a mysterious, spiritual dimension to the story and there are beautiful passages scattered across the book, like sparkling diamonds, written in Bach’s soft prose. The book also discusses alternate universes and multiverses, time travel and quantum mechanics, which are beautifully embedded in the story.

Richard Bach was probably the Paulo Coelho of his era. Or maybe the Antoine de St.Exupery of his era. Readers loved his books because it made them think of planes and the glorious beauty of flight. Readers imagined that they were the ones doing the flying in small planes, rising to impossible heights, exhilarated by the wind rushing at them, blowing their hair. But the years passed by, and readers moved on. I don’t know whether people read him still. I thought that even I had grown out of Richard Bach. It looks like I haven’t. I loved ‘Out of My Mind‘.

I will leave you with two of my favourite passages from the book.

“Our recognition of random objects fails, I’m told, at exposures of less than half a second. Of geometrical objects, at less than a fiftieth of a second. But our perception of a smile will remain from a flash as short as a thousandth of a second, so sensitive are our minds to images of the human face.”

“A long time ago I learned that everything is exactly as it is for a reason. The crumb is on our table not only as a remainder of this morning’s cookie, it is there because we have chosen not to remove it. No exceptions. Everything has a reason, and the tiniest detail is a clue.”

Have you read Richard Bach’sOut of My Mind‘? What do you think about it? Which is your favourite Richard Bach book?

I got this book at Strand Book Stall, Mumbai a few years back. The author was unknown to me and it was a historical novel. It was a beautifully produced edition and I couldn’t resist it. A few days back, when I was thinking on which book to read next, this book leapt at me.

Exit Lady Masham‘ is a historical novel set in England during the early 1700s. During the time, Queen Anne is the reigning monarch, Britain is at war with France on the succession to the throne in Spain (I need to read on the politics of that time – it was too complicated for me) and the Duke of Marlborough is leading the English army to one victory after another. At one point the Queen orders a halt to the war, which is surprising, because this kind of stuff never happens – the winning side almost never stops the fighting till the other side has conceded. All these events are part of history. This story tells us what might have happened behind the scenes and why Britain pulled out of the war. We hear the story through the voice of Abigail Hill, who is working as a laundress in a lady’s house. Her cousin Sarah visits her one day, and takes her under her wing and employs her to work at her own place. Sarah is a very influential person and is best friends with Queen Anne. After this, Abigail’s fortunes improve and before she knows it, she is working at Queen Anne’s palace, tending to the queen. As time passes, Abigail becomes a close friend and a trusted confidante to the queen and how she becomes a part of and influences the historical events of her time is told in the rest of the story.

It is always nice when we pick a book by an unknown writer and it turns out to be wonderful. This is what happened when I read this book. Louis Auchincloss – who is he? Why haven’t I heard of him? I later went and checked Wikipedia and discovered that he has written many books. I am glad I have read one of them now. The historical facts as presented in the story are quite accurate – I did my research later on Wikipedia and confirmed it. So, the book is a good history lesson too. Of course, some parts of the story are imaginary, but the author says in his introduction that they are consistent with the facts. Auchincloss’ prose is elegant and moves the story along beautifully. There are many interesting, enjoyable dialogues. Jonathan Swift (Yes, the creator of ‘Gulliver’s Travels‘!) makes an appearance two-thirds into the story and his portrayal is very interesting.

I loved most of the main characters in the story – Abigail, our narrator, who rises from humble beginnings to become the queen’s confidante, Queen Anne, who is affectionate, warm, quiet, but also strong when the situation demands it, the Duke of Marlborough, who makes only a brief appearance in a few scenes, but who is dashing and cool and whom we can’t resist falling in love with, Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, who is kind, fair but tough, and who ends up on the opposite side of Abigail and the queen. I also loved the way the book depicts how a humble woman, who yearns for the simple life of comfort, because of a combination of her humility and sincerity and hardwork, and the strange workings of fortune, ends up in a position of influence and is able to shape the course of great events.

The edition of the book I have is a 1984 first edition hardback and privately printed. It has a beautiful red leather cover with a golden leafy design – the kind of edition which only libraries and rich people could afford. The paper is thick, there is a lot of spacing at the borders, the black-and-white illustrations are beautiful, the endpaper design is exquisite, there is a nice introduction by the writer, and there is a letter from the publisher, typewritten and signed in ink. (Have shared some of the pictures in the comments). As a physical object, the book is exquisite and a collector’s dream. They don’t make books like this anymore. Why someone would give away this book – I have no idea. When I got it, it was still in pristine condition. It still is.

I loved Louis Auchincloss’ ‘Exit Lady Masham‘. The only problem I had with the book was the title – it could have been better. I hope to read more on the British history of this era, especially about Queen Anne, Abigail Hill who later became Lady Masham, Sarah Churchill who later became the Duchess of Marlborough and the Duke of Marlborough. I also want to explore more books by Louis Auchincloss.

I will leave you with two of my favourite dialogues from the book.

Scenario : Masham seduces Abigail and gets her pregnant. He tries to use the situation to get a favour from the queen.

“And has Your Majesty seen fit to consider his petition with any favor?”
“No, Mr. Masham, I have not. Your conduct to Mrs. Hill may be deemed a fault that marriage will rectify. There is no occasion for reward, beyond the happy possession of a worthy spouse.”
Masham’s smile became even brighter. “Perhaps Your Majesty has not been apprised of my circumstances. I am in no position, alas, to afford a wife.”
“You should have considered that before you became so intimate with Mrs. Hill, sir. Future promotion will depend on how you treat her.”
“And if I decline the honor, ma’am?”
“Then I am afraid we shall be deprived of the pleasure of seeing you at court. There are islands, however, in the New World where my officers can usefully serve.”
Could the great Queen Elizabeth have put it better?

Scenario : Jonathan Swift and Abigail Hill discuss card games

“And is this a source of keen pleasure to you?”
“It is a source of pleasure, Mr. Swift. My life has not been so filled with pleasures that I can ignore cards. Besides, whist is like life. You cannot expect to win with a poor hand, but with skill you may reduce defeat to a minimum.”
“In chess there is no element of chance. I should think a person of your intellect would prefer it.”
“Perhaps I should, were I a man. But as a woman, with so many disadvantages, I prefer the cards. They reflect the struggle as I see it around me : so much for luck, so much for skill. The high trumps may come to the undeserving, but there is always the chance that they may misuse them. And then, too, the contest proceeds so smoothly, so intellectually! There is no blood, no squalor. It is a world of form. Or ideals, if you wish.”

Have you read ‘Exit Lady Masham‘? What do you think about it? Have you heard of Louis Auchincloss?