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Archive for December, 2010

I think this is going to be my last book review for the year 🙂 I was hoping to finish forty books this year, but because I had two not-so-good reading months in succession, I couldn’t get there. But thirty-six is not a bad number – it is better than last year 🙂

I discovered ‘Exit Wounds’ by Rutu Modan through Bina from ‘If You Can Read This’, who recommended it highly. As I haven’t read a book by an Israeli author before and as this was a graphic novel too, I couldn’t resist it. I finished reading it in nearly a day. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below a summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

In modern-day Tel Aviv, a young man, Koby Franco, receives an urgent phone call from a female soldier named Numi. Learning that his estranged father may have been a victim of a suicide bombing in Hadera, Koby reluctantly joins Numi in searching for clues. As Koby tries to unravel the mystery of his missing father, he finds himself not only piecing together the last few months of his father’s life, but his entire identity.

 

What I think

‘Exit Wounds’ is the story of a quest – a quest for a missing person, a quest to discover secrets and also in some ways a quest for love. When Koby and Numi go on this quest, they discover interesting surprises and also strange things happen to them, as can happen to two people who work closely together when they go on a quest. What is Numi’s relationship to Koby’s father? What secrets do they discover about Koby’s father? What does the quest do to them individually and to their friendship (or should I say acquaintance)? For answers to these you have to read the book 🙂

‘Exit Wounds’ was named as one of the top 10 graphic novels by Time magazine in 2007. A richly deserved accolade. The illustrations in the book are interesting – Rutu Modan uses simple lines and also the artwork is in colour, which is rare for a graphic novel (well, not really rare, but graphic novels seem to be in black-and-white by default. I have read just two graphic novels in colour – ‘V for Vendetta’ and ‘Logicomix’. ‘Asterios Polyp’ was also in colour, but it was not ‘colour-colour’ :))

‘Exit Wounds’ reminded me in some ways of the movie ‘Random Hearts’ (starring Harrison Ford and Kristin Scott Thomas) where the two leading characters go on a quest and are afraid of what they might discover. 

‘Exit Wounds’ was originally published by Drawn and Quarterly, the same company which published the ‘Berlin series by Jason Lutes. They seem to be publishers of fine graphic novels, going by the evidence of these two books. My own edition is published by Jonathan Cape (I am glad that they didn’t change the title and the cover!) – I am surprised that Jonathan Cape is publishing graphic novels now! It is really wonderful!  

I loved the character Numi – she was cool, she didn’t give up till she found the answers, she was positive in her search and she had a wonderful sense of humour. One of my favourite scenes was towards the end of the book – it shows why Numi is such a wonderful character. I am trying to give an excerpt here. It is a bit spoilerish, and so be sufficiently forewarned. 

 

  

Final Thoughts 

I enjoyed reading ‘Exit Wounds’. Rutu Modan is clearly a very talented writer and artist. I can’t wait to explore her other books.

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I discovered ‘Cold Earth’ by Sarah Moss, during one of my random browsing sessions at the bookstore. The title intrigued me first and I picked the book up to look at it. The cover was beautiful and drew me in. It had a picture of the face of a woman hovering over a snowy landscape. When I read the story summary at the back and the comments that Jane Smiley had given about the book, I couldn’t resist getting the book. I finished reading it today and here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

On the west coast of Greenland, a team of six archaeologists has assembled to unearth traces of the lost Viking settlements. But while they settle into uneasy domesticity, camping between the ruined farmstead and the burnt-out chapel, there is news of a pandemic back home. As the Arctic winter approaches, their communications with the outside world fall away. Utterly gripping, Cold Earth is an exceptional and haunting first novel about the possibility of survival, and the traces we leave behind.

What I think

‘Cold Earth’ is told in the form of letters written by each of the archaeologists, addressed to one of their family members. The initial letters are long and insightful – the first three letters take up around ninety percent of the book – while the later letters are more a fast-paced narration of events. There is an odd-woman out among the six archaeologists – it is Nina, the first narrator, who is not a trained archaeologist, but who is doing her doctorate in English. In some ways, Nina looks like the author herself – working on her doctorate in English from Oxford, having lived in Iceland and who talks about differences between English and Americans and how academic funding is done. (The author, Sarah Moss, has got her doctorate from Oxford, has lived and worked in Iceland and researches food in literature and the aesthetics of the North – what a resume!). The story she narrates is one of the most interesting parts of the book.

The other narrators are quite interesting too. Ruth is an American student-scholar, who is recovering from her grief but doesn’t show it, by being professional, and also by looking her best and most beautiful even in Arctic conditions. Nina’s description of Ruth at the beginning of the book, goes like this :

Her hair was perfectly tidy, as if she was expecting to be photographed, and I saw that she was wearing make-up, the kind of expensive, cunning make-up that betokens years of practice. It looked as if someone had dropped a Barbie doll on the grass. I found myself fingering a spot on my chin that I’d earlier decided didn’t exist as long as I didn’t have a mirror to see it.

If we are expecting that Ruth will be a flaky person after reading this description, we are in for a surprise later, because Ruth comes out as one of the strongest characters in the book.

There is Jim, another American student, whom Nina describes like this :

He was tall, with those big American shoulders that bespeak a childhood diet of beef full of growth hormones. ‘I’ve got a friend who’s working on the anthropology of surfing at the University of Hawaii,’ he said. He really was American.

There are also Ben (an English student studying in America), Catriona (a Scottish girl) and Yianni (the Greek-English project leader). We learn about Ben, Catriona and Yianni, mostly through the voices of others.

While the archaeologists are excavating a Viking settlement, they learn that a viral epidemic has broken out back home and they start worrying about it. At the beginning of the book, Nina says this :

It is actually a mistake to think about the news, I know, but worse when travelling, and a particularly bad idea to think about people you love and the news at the same time when you’re nowhere near either of them. There’s something about dislocation that makes the news seem horribly probable in a way that it doesn’t at home.

Unfortunately that is what the characters end up doing – worrying about the happening at home. I loved this passage, because this is what we all do when are travelling or away from home.

After the initial days, some mysterious things happen in the excavation site. There seems to be a strange presence there – there are noises at night, it appears that someone has thrown a stone at the researchers and Nina starts suspecting that it is one of the dead Greenlanders who has come out to torment them. The others disbelieve it and feel the Nina is losing her mind, but after a few days of strange occurrences, most of them start believing in it too. This reminded me in some ways of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’ (which I have not read, but have heard the story outline of). In one place one of the characters, pays homage to that book :

We’re all under stress but you’d hope it would take longer to start the Lord of the Flies stuff.

The voices which tell the story are very different and so it is interesting to see their different points of view and the interesting ways in which each voice depicts the other characters.

The story starts slowly with a leisurely pace and beautiful lines and we start believing that the excavation is happening in the sunny Middle East, but after sometime, the cold starts seeping into the story – both literally and metaphorically and the story turns a bit gloomy and scary. When the characters start hearing mysterious voices and mysterious events start happening in the night, and the internet and satellite phone connections go off, the story starts picking up pace and keeps us glued to the page, making us want to find out what happens next.

Nina, one of the main characters in the story, is a booklover and reads Victorian literature. At the beginning of the story, she says this :

A ‘two-person tent’, I discovered, is big enough for one small person, some chocolate and a lot of books.

There is an interesting conversation on books, between Nina and Jim later in the story, when the situation is tense. It is narrated by Jim and it goes like this :

      “Oh, for goodness’ sake,” said Nina. “Have a book to read.”

      “What?”

      “I can’t concentrate with you looming and fidgeting like that. Have a book.”

      “I’ve got a book.”

      “Have one you feel like reading. I can offer you Persuasion, but you won’t like it. Villette? It’s a good distraction, set in Brussels. Lots of interiors and cooking.”

      “Is it still about someone getting married?”

      She looked at me as if I were a particularly foolish student.

      “No men attended weddings in the making of this book. She doesn’t get married. The anti-heroine does but it’s no big deal.”

      I looked along the horizon again. “What else?”

      “I’ve finished Middlemarch. That’s got a wedding but they make each other miserable. All of them, really. Or there’s Return of the Native, but it’s full of wuthering heath and special effects and we’ve probably got enough of our own. What about Waverly? You’d like that. Walter Scott.”

      “What’s it about?”

      “Masculinity and national identity, mostly. Whether it’s better to be Scottish and Romantic or English and reasonable.”

Later Jim says :

Waverly has the kind of slow-motion plot that needs a captive audience. You’d need an intercontinental flight, probably an intercontinental flight on your own where the movie was in a foreign language, to make the most of Waverly.

It turns out that inspired by Nina or compelled by the circumstances, the Victorian-fiction-fever spreads across the camp. A little while later, Jim says this :

By 3 PM we were all reading Victorian fiction. Even Ben attempted some Dickens.

What happens after the archaeological team gets cut-off from the outside world? Are the mysterious voices really those of ghosts of Greenlanders past, who lived many centuries before? Or is it just the case of losing one’s mind, when one is put in an isolated situation? Are the members of the excavation team able to escape from the island in the end? For the answers to these you have to read the story 🙂

One more facet about the book that I want to touch upon is the way it looks. The cover picture was beautiful, the paper was thick, the fragrance of the new pages was divine, it was by one of my favourite publishers ‘Granta’ and the font was very pleasing and attractive to the eye. When I see a book like that – with a beautiful cover and a wonderful font – I can’t resist it. I have discovered that the right font is so important. When I was younger, I didn’t care much about the types of fonts used, but now I feel that I like some fonts more than others. I am glad that this book was deeply satisfying with respect to this aspect too. Do you get attracted towards books because of their font? How important do you think the cover page and the font are for attracting potential readers?

Excerpts

I am giving below some of my favourite passages from the book.

Checking the temperature

The only place I really enjoyed was Iceland, so cool and beautiful and safe. Do you remember sitting on the hillside after picking all the blueberries? We could hear only birds and wind, and chocolate didn’t melt even though it was August, and then later those German backpackers told us it was thirty-five degrees in London. When I rule the world I’m going to set a maximum midday temperature of the point at which good chocolate makes a noise when you break it.

(Comment : That is a wonderful test for temperature, isn’t it? 🙂)

The Good Things

Sometimes it works to count the good things from the day before and from the day to come, even if the only thing to look forward to is eating. Tomorrow is another day but atleast there will be breakfast.

The Difference

…cold is transient but dirt gets worse.

On Americans

There were several very clean-looking Americans who could rise from the rocks while holding cups of instant coffee and extending large flat hands and open smiling countenances like something out of Thornton Wilder. They were mostly wearing white T-shirts which appeared to have been ironed and were probably going to go on looking like that no matter how much mud and river water came their way…Reading Henry James, you’d think it’s the Old World that’s meant to be courteous but Americans practise levels of politeness unknown to the English bourgeoisie. The prospect of trying to beat American good manners before breakfast made me feel like a bird in a net.

Time on-line

      “I always get a shock when I look at my history. How much time I spend on-line when I think I’m working. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it, if people wrote their theses faster before the internet.”

      “Shouldn’t think so,” said Catriona. “Imagine all that extra time tracking down information. And travelling to libraries. Seems only fair, the internet gives us time and we give it to the internet.”

Being Happy

“So  you’re happy here? You’re enjoying it?”

      “Sure I’m happy. I like it here. But I’m usually happy, I’m happy at home too. I don’t think I have anything to be unhappy about.

      Can you imagine that?  Honestly? I’d like to attribute this fluorescently good mental health to stupidity, but all the evidence is against it. He’s got a full scholarship from Harvard. He might be faking it to succeed, since I shouldn’t think you get American grants and scholarships by being neurotic and miserable, which is practically a necessary criterion of success in Oxford, but if so, I think he’s kidding himself as well. I was tempted to offer him a list of things to be unhappy about, starting, perhaps, with war in the Middle East and featuring climate change, pandemics, human rights violations, the fallibility of love and the certainty of death, before moving on to the lack of slow-proved bread and good olive oil in rural Greenland.

History and Archaeology

“I liked History but it’s just stories. No one really knows what happened and what they say is based on what seems probable now. Archaeology just seems more honest. It’s there or it’s not.”

      “But you interpret what is there. You can read material culture. Well, you have to read material culture. These mussel shells don’t mean anything on their own, they’re just mussel shells. We read the land and say they’re by the house, which means somebody put them there, and we eat mussels so we’re assuming that Greenlanders ate mussels, rather than say sacrificing them or bringing a pile of shells up here for some other reason. And they’re at ground level so we assume the Greenlanders put them there and it’s not that someone came along later and dug a pit and filled it with shells. Archaeology is reading, just earth rather than text. And you could argue that there’s less slippage reading words than land.”

      “I know. All that theory stuff hit archaeology while I was an undergrad. But it does have a scientific grounding, you know. There is a legitimate claim to objectivity. History only tells you what the people who wrote it want you to know.”

On Love

I feel very far from you. Email works well enough to semaphore your survival but love is not a virtual commodity. I miss you. I need you. I want you.

On Hands

James’s hands were perfect. I used to watch them when he was cooking or fiddling with something the way he did. If you look, most people’s fingers are a little warped, bent or scarred by whatever they do. My right index finger curves in, I guess from years of writing with a heavy fountain pen the way French schools like you to do. My thumb is scarred from the first and last time Papa let me open my own oyster, and recently my nails have ridged, presumably from some deficiency resulting from grief or Greenland. I’m keeping them polished but it still shows. You have that white line across your middle and forefingers, I guess from a cooking or carpentry accident? James’s hands looked as if they’d done nothing but grow in the sun, as if he’d never tried basketball or barbecuing or mending a bicycle. His fingers were straight, not knobbly at the joints, and on the backs of his hands fine blond hair shone in the sun. He used to stroke my face with his cool fingertips, brushing over my eyes closed in readiness.

The Living and the Dead

You told me the dead live on as long as people remember them, that love keeps the dead alive, but that’s not true. Love plus death equals nothing at all. Death kills, you know, that’s the truth that puts you out of a job. There’s no virtual James in my head. What lives on is my memory, which is part of me and not him. My memory cannot surprise me, call me in the middle of the afternoon with an explicit request for the evening, smile when I wake him with croissants on Sunday mornings. He is ash and bone, James. Gone.

Different Lights

The sea reflects moonlight and starlight, which is why the most important navigation lights are coloured red and green.

On Marriage

      “And you’re planning the wedding?”

      “Not exactly. I mean, I wish we could just have a civil partnership. I can’t see how feminists can get married.”

      “Most feminists were married. Virginia Woolf, Simone de Beauvoir. Wasn’t Mary Wollstonecraft married to Shelley?

      “No. Students always think that.”

(Comment : I found this dialogue interesting because I always thought that Mary Wollstonecraft was another name for Mary Shelley, who wrote ‘Frankenstein’ and who married the poet Percy Shelley. I was surprised later to discover that the feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft was actually the mother of Mary Shelley).

The Mystery

      “Is that his problem?” asked Ben. “He’s blaming himself?”

      “Makes sense.” Ruth handed Villette to Nina. “Though why men have to threaten women when they’re blaming themselves remains a mystery.”

The Little Things Called Life

When you’re not dead, life goes on and there are buses to catch and lamb to cook. Doctoral theses to write. And letters to read, and answer.

Final Thoughts

I liked ‘Cold Earth’ very much. It evokes the haunting, desolate beauty of the Arctic landscape and paints an interesting picture of how human beings struggle to survive in a hostile environment. I think it is a wonderful debut for Sarah Moss and I can’t wait to read her next novel, ‘Night Waking’ which is planned for release in 2011. I also would like to try reading one of her nonfiction books which is a history of polar exploration – ‘The Frozen Ship’. I also want to read Jane Smiley’s ‘The Greenlanders’ which is also about Greenlanders and why they disappeared.

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I discovered ‘One Last Look’ by Susanna Moore through a review in Life Wordsmith. I loved the review. Birdy, who wrote the review, was kind enough to lend me the book. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is the review.

Summary of the story

I am giving below the summary of the story as given in the back cover of the book.

      After several wretched months at sea, Eleanor Oliphant arrives in Calcutta with her brother Henry and sister Harriet. It is 1836, and her beloved Henry has just been appointed England’s new Governor-General for India. Eleanor is to be his official hostess.

      Despite the imported English gowns and formal soirees, India makes a mockery of Eleanor’s sensibilities. Burning heat, starving people, insects as big as eggs – it is all an unreal dream, rife with tumultuous life. Harriet gives herself over to the adventure. Henry busies himself with official duties. Eleanor, though groping for her bearings, slowly finds her isolation punctuated by moments of elation: her first monsoon, graceful women in vibrant sarees, Benares rising out of the mist. She discovers she likes curries and her native servants – and often dislikes her compatriots. Over the course of six years and a trek from Calcutta to Kabul and back, India manages to unsettle all of her “old, old ideas.”

What I think 

‘One Last Look’ is written in the form of journal entries. The author says that she had read many books set during the period in which the story is set (middle 1830s to early 1840s) and she was also inspired by the journals and private papers of Emily Eden, Fanny Eden and Fanny Parkes. When I did a bit more research  on the above personalities, I discovered that Emily Eden lived in India during the period 1835-42 with her sister Fanny Eden and her brother George Eden who was the governor-general of India at that time (he was called Lord Auckland, formally). When I did some research on Fanny Parkes, I discovered that she lived in India for around twenty-four years during that time and wrote a travel journal which described the India of that time in detail, and which was later published as a book. Susanna Moore seems to have been inspired by these personalities and their works and seems to have done research on them before writing this book. In the acknowledgements page, she even says “in some instances, I have taken the great liberty of using their own words”. I liked the fact that Moore acknowledged her sources and mentioned the books that inspired her to write this story. I am inspired now to read Emily Eden’s book ‘Up The Country: Letters Written to Her Sister from the Upper Provinces of India’ and Fanny Parkes’ book ‘Wanderings of a Pilgrim in search of the Pictureseque During four and twenty years in the East with revelations of Life in the Zenana’ which has been edited by William Dalrymple and reissued as ‘Begums, Thugs and White Mughals – The Journals Of Fanny Parkes’. I also hope that Moore was only inspired by the stories in the above books and didn’t take content from them and rewrite them in her own words. They are out-of-print works and so it doesn’t matter from a copyright perspective, if she did, but still…

‘One Last Look’ is a wonderful book. It gives a vivid and fascinating picture of India in the middle of the eighteenth-century. The smells, the atmosphere, the colours, the music, the culture, the beauty as well as the noise, the chaos, the dust of 19th-century India are beautifully evoked in the book. It describes the story of Eleanor Oliphant and her initial experiences with India and how she feels frustrated and homesick in a country and culture which is so alien to hers and how across the years, the country, the people and the culture slowly seep into her heart and she falls in love with them and becomes one with them. And then it is time to go and leave the stage to someone else. Parting is sad  because just at the time she has fallen in love with an alien country and has started to understand its mysteries, her time is up. It is also sad because at that point of time, her own country starts to feel alien. Having been through this kind of experience a couple of times myself, my heart went out to Eleanor Oliphant. Of course, after such a soul-transforming experience one realizes that Marcel Proust is right, when he says that “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes”, and one starts looking at one’s own country with new eyes and sees exciting things that one hasn’t seen before.

In the initial part of the book, Eleanor gives an interesting description of her sister Harriet’s adventures, which evokes an interesting image of India of that time. It goes like this :

Harriet has gone to the hills with Lafayette. I’ve already had four letters from her. She has been presented with two peacocks, a pot of honey, and a pet deer by an attending raja. The deer travels in her howdah with her. He has his own spoon, teacup and saucer. She has had her dinner on a sandbank in the middle of a river (but was disappointed to find the table set with Meissen). She has ridden in a line of thirty screaming elephants in chase of a rhinoceros. She has refused to sit hidden in a mahua tree to shoot the deer tempted by the scent of the flowers. She has played whist under the yellow gaze of hyena dogs. She has seen scorpions the size of biscuit tins, boa constrictors twenty feet long and a jungle of white roses. And she has been seen by natives who never before looked upon a European woman.

English and Indians

The book also gives some interesting descriptions about the relationship between the English and the Indians. One of my favourite passages on this topic, goes like this :

The English have a greater tolerance, and sometimes even liking, for an Indian they consider to be their equal than for a pure Anglo-Saxon whom they deem inferior. Although they don’t say it, and perhaps do not even think it, it is not simply the race of a person that signifies here, but his social rank. This has led to some embarrassing misconceptions. The fact that a Brahmin is of a higher caste than a raja is most difficult for them (“Aren’t Brahmins cooks?”), although the precision and orderliness of the caste system tends to put them at ease. They know it from the military and from the nobility and from their own domestic hierarchies. (My brother-in-law Buckingham regards his tenant farmers with the same disdain that Mrs. MacGregor reserves for her maid-servants.) They prefer Mohammedans to Hindus only because they are heirs to the Mughals, a noble warrior class (and without the hundred gods). We educated Europeans consider ourselves children of the Enlightenment, but it seems to me that the Enlightenment did much to encourage the view that dark-skinned people are by their very nature beneath us.

There are three other passages that I liked, which went like this :

England will define what it is to be Indian. A good way to start, of course, is to make sure that Indians look like our idea of Indians. Turbans and sashes thought to be Mughal will do nicely. Even the English officers of our native sepoys will affect a touch of Indian costume; it is good for the morale of both. We will win their loyalty and gratitude without giving up a thing.

“The Calcutta Board of Control is secretive,” he said. “Clever, ruthless. Which, of course, one must be with a native population. As for the native leaders, they are the worst of all.” He paused, thinking. “Surely we’re meant to agree with Macaulay – we must develop a new class, Indian in skin, but English in thought. English in morals.”

“These people must have been magnificent before we came with our bad moneymaking ways. We have let all they accomplished go to ruin, and all our excuse is that we do not oppress the natives so much as they oppress each other.”

There are a few places where Eleanor talks about the differences between Europeans and Indians. Here are some of my favourite passages :

I have been thinking, and not simply out of greed, that we Europeans have misunderstood the meaning of nuzza. We see it as a straightforward commercial exchange that entitles us to certain privileges and goods and we do not hesitate to use these privileges to obtain wealth and power, but it does not mean the same thing to the Indian. For them, a nuzza – whether it is a gift to us of a sword or a horse or a monopoly on jute – is a ritual, not a system of trade. Dresses of Honour are kept for generations, passed from father to son and brought out for display on special occasions; they aren’t for ordinary wear and they are certainly not sent to the auction rooms. We take the nuzza for a bribe, which then entitles us to whatever we want – their country, for example.

Our servants are near to starving. It is an impurity for a Hindu to eat with us, of course, but they will not eat on water, either. They could not go into the mangrove lest a tiger carry them away. Our Mohammedan servants cannot take the chance of eating meat that has not been killed by one of them.

“India is a strange land; and live in it as long as we may, we shall to the last be constantly liable to stumble upon new moral phenomena.”

The Bishop was watching me closely, as he had all evening. I pretended to take no notice. “The merit of our kind,” I heard him say, “is that wherever we venture, we make trouble. Freedom of thought and all the many virtues of enlightened society tend to make a man restless, especially if he does not possess them.”

Portraits

Eleanor paints interesting portraits of people whom she meets or gets to know. They are some of the interesting parts of the book. The description of Zahid, Eleanor’s  manservant goes like this :

I used to disapprove of the way that women treat their servants here – not that they were unkind, but too trusting. I see now that the social hierarchy is so clearly defined, there is no need of aloofness; a native servant hardly need be reminded of his place. Native servants are present at moments that do not customarily allow for witnesses; their opinions and advice sought and often taken. Mr.Mill, who has told us that they are unnatural, offensive and not infrequently disgusting, might be surprised to learn that my jemadar Zahid has become my stay and support. He brings me fresh watercress every morning, washes my painting box, takes care of my money. He makes sure that my bathwater is cool, and he watches (from a distance) as the chobdars clean my rooms. He is faultless, as subtle and as silent as night, except when he shouts for his god Hari’s protection (I thought at first that he was calling my sister) against devils leaping into his mouth when he yawns. Yesterday, he suggested that I might like to taste the flower buds of the asoka tree. He claims they are a cure for grief.

In another place Eleanor says this about Zahid :

I think much of my servants these days – I don’t mean that I think highly of them, although I do; rather that they occupy my thoughts. They are the strictest of judges. Zahid is less forgiving than my own mother at her worst. The moment I do not meet his rather lofty expectations, I instantly perceive the disillusionment in his face – surely it is an unexpected provocation to be amongst people who bear their lives so gracefully. They believe in the unknown world, like women.

Eleanor’s portrait of Ranjit Singh, the Sikh king, goes like this :

Ranjit Singh looks like an old mouse with gray whiskers and one eye – small, wizened, ugly, pockmarked. He wore a simple red cotton dress with an edging of the commonest gray squirrel’s fur and a red cotton turban. He can neither read nor write. He possesses eighteen wives. He is mad for guns, horses, boys, women and drink. He physics himself with powdered pearls, corn brandy, opium, musk and meat juice. Although he has been known to step down from his chair to wipe the dust from the feet of a Mohammedan beggar, he is utterly indifferent to the well-being of his people. He has created no law courts, no hospitals, no schools, no prisons; made no roads, bridges or canals. His vaults are stuffed with treasure, but he will not pay his soldiers. Although he murdered his mother, those who cross him are not killed, merely relieved of their noses and ears. He is excessively beloved by his people.

I can imagine my Sikh friends getting annoyed and upset at this description.

Eleanor’s portrait of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, goes like this :

      In the garden, an old man was reading on a stone bench. A chowry burdar stood behind him, keeping the flies from the pages of his book. Our people fell to the ground when they saw him, their foreheads pressed to the dirt. The old man is their Emperor. They hold him in the greatest reverence.

      Harriet and I made a deep curtsy, and he lifted his watery eyes to gaze on us. Did he sit in the same arbor as his Mughal ancestor who delighted to watch his ladies slide down the sloping bank into a tank of lotus? With a forlorn grunt, the Emperor went back to his poetry and we tiptoed away, the servants bowing until he was out of view. We English delight in tormenting him, taking away more and more of his privileges; soon he will have to ask permission to recite his ghazals.

Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal Emperor and people rallied around him during the 1857 rebellion (called the Sepoy Mutiny or the first war of Indian Independence, depending on one’s perspective). He, of course, didn’t want any of it (as can be seen from the above description) as he was a poet at heart. He wrote some beautiful poems  in Urdu. One of my favourite poems of his, has these lines :

Poem

Umrey-dharaj maangkar, laayey they chaar din.

Do aarzoo mein cut gayey, do intezaar mein.

Translation

Asked for a long life and got four days.

Two have gone in yearning, two in waiting.

I am sorry the translation is not as beautiful as the original Urdu, but I hope it gives you a feel of the beauty of the poem.

William Dalrymple has written a biography of Bahadur Shah Zafar called ‘The Last Mughal’. If you are interested, you can check it out.

Eleanor gives an interesting description of how India has changed her French cook.

St.Cléry is behaving even more strangely than he usually does; perhaps he has fallen, as others have been known to do, under the spell of this place. He is a Creole, after all, and it may be in his blood. Aloof and offended, he sits in the kitchen house on a sofa covered with a white sheet, giving his orders, refusing to use other than silver pots and pans. He has taken altogether on his own to slipping rather unexpected dishes onto the table; we are given a cashew rice with curds and a spinachy dish with shrimp and chilies called puishaak and spiced pomfret curry and a sweet drink called a lassi. The surprising thing is how much I like it – having been brought up with the idea that too much interest in food bespeaks both vulgarity and greediness, I do admit that I grow hungrier and hungrier.

On Men and Women

Eleanor writes interestingly about the differences between expat men and women of that time. Here are some of my favourite passages on this topic :

I begin to see that while this space of half the convex world, as Henry calls it, is a different universe for women, for men, Calcutta might just as well be London.

      “You have misjudged Harriet,” I said.

      “I judged her as the world would judge her.”

      “That is the very thing she relies on you not to do.”

He shrugged. In his world it is permissible, even desirable to keep a bibi, even to sire children with her, but it is not permissible for my sister to have an Indian as a friend.

19th Century India

There are beautiful descriptions of nineteenth-century India in the book. Here are two of my favourites :

The sky grew pink around the edges. The smell of the earth changed with the coming of day. In the darkness, there was the sound of day before there was light. The banyan grove was raucous with crows – it was not the gradual awakening of an English wood but a spontaneous explosion of shrieks. Mist rose from the black river, as people, first three, then five and six, began to appear along the banks. I felt an immense sacredness – the trees, the river, the sky. In India, it is the land itself that is the god.

Chunam, the lime made from seashells, covers the walls and columns, whitewashed and then waxed to such a high sheen that at first I mistook it for marble. It is particularly beautiful in candlelight. The size of the rooms requires an endless ingenuity of light. As we throw open the shutters at night, as well as use the punkahs, the hundreds of candles must be protected with glass shades; the effect is fairylike, the air sparkling with the reflection of blue glass teardrops and festoons of cut-glass icicles. The swinging lamps of painted glass illuminate then darken the walls with each waft of air and sometimes I feel as if I am underwater. Shadows leap and sway along the white walls, hovering like haunts. I never knew the arrangement of black and white, of dark and light, could be attractive – it is all that I see now.

Strange Beautiful Pets

Eleanor, her sister Harriet and a few other characters in the story have some strange pets – a squirrel, a deer, a monkey and a few other interesting animals. Here is a delightful passage about Eleanor’s pet squirrel when she first gets it :

My little squirrel is extraordinary, very fond and merry, with three beautiful white streaks down his back. He runs up my gown to my shoulder when I bid him attend me. I keep him locked in the bathroom, but last night I awoke to find him stretched across my neck, whimpering plaintively and patting my face with his little black hands. He must have escaped through a window. I woke Radha, who sleeps in my room now, and she carried him back to the water-closet. Shortly before dawn, I was awakened again. I thought it was a rat at first; the squirrel had slipped inside my net and was sleeping pressed against my bare leg.

And here is what she says when the squirrel breaks her heart :

My dear little flying squirrel that Harriet gave me when he was three days old died yesterday. He never ate anything but two or three teaspoons of tea, but he found a meat pie that the servants had taken away from luncheon and it killed him in two hours. When I was fretful at night, he would hold out his paw for my hand and bite it all over. When I was dressing, he sat on Radha’s shoulder and watched with great black eyes as she did my hair – if he were impatient of her efforts he would leap onto my back and arrange it to his liking. I can never witness the death of a loved one again.

Humour

There are some interesting humorous conversations in the book. Two of my favourites are :

Morlington spent an hour turning over every brick and stone he could find.

      “Did you find what you were looking for, my Lord?” I asked.

      “No, I’m happy to say.”

      “What a pity.”

      “Not at all. I was looking for scorpions.”

I am teaching her particular phrases and she comes on rapidly. “Excuse me, sir, but I do not know London.” Henry says that anyone in his right mind will see just by looking at her that she does not know London, but I am determined that she not be humiliated.

More Favourite passages

There are other beautiful and insightful passages in the book. Some of my favourites are :

“Losing something is not as fine as possessing it.”

It is unbearably hot, the wind very high. The sand fills our mouths and eyes. I have been too low to write. (What does a traveler write, what one knows or what one doesn’t know? What I don’t know is endless. Sterne would have us do what all travellers do: feel superior to other travellers.)

He put down his saucer and cup with a little rattle and we sat there in a silence sufficient to extinguish a candle…

He appears to have lost all interest in writing his book on the Punjab. I tell him that he must take up his work before there is too much to know, before the tumult of history is too overwhelming for just one mind, but he only smiles.

In my old life, the women I encountered were of my own kind. My life – once a fastidious nibble – has turned into an endless disorderly feast.

Once, in Berlin, where our tutor Herr Schmidt had taken us to improve our German, we chanced upon a friend of Maman’s in our hotel. To the old lady’s astonishment, I threw myself into her arms, sobbing with happiness. It cannot have been Berlin alone or Henry’s insidious teaming with Herr Schmidt against me that moved me to such a display, but a phenomenon of travel itself. Surely it is a matter of ambient conditions – we fall upon the neck of a bore we’d once met at dinner in London if we meet him on the Corso, but should the poor fellow, misinterpreting our continental ardour, turn up two months later in Hill Street, we are embarrassed by his mundanity, his fatuousness, his preposterous presumption of friendship. Our only thought is to remove him from sight as quickly as possible in the hope of never seeing him again – that is, until we chance upon him next year in the rue Vivienne.

I know from Henry that although the Mughals once made Bengal a place of exile, it soon became the richest province in their empire, a place to revel in debauch. Although it is no longer so corrupt, thanks to East India Company, I hope for Cousin Lafayette’s sake that is hasn’t become too Christian; like all of us, he is here to make his fortune.

Perhaps it was that Maman did not believe in too much accomplishment. She held that a child quick at lessons made for a disappointing adult. One must be ordinary to be a successful person; to excel bespoke a certain vulgarity.

First Anglo-Afghan War

‘One Last Look’ covers the historical First Anglo-Afghan war in accurate detail (including the Simla Declaration) and some historical personalities walk through its pages – like Dost Muhammad, his son Akbar Khan and Shah Shuja. The historical details are so accurate, that it needs only a change of names of the main characters, for it to become an authentic and accurate depiction of the historical event. It looks like the world powers were upto their wily games in Central Asia even then. Eleanor Oliphant’s description on  the origin of the war goes like this :

“Henry has drafted a declaration called the Simla Manifesto which sets out the justifications for overthrowing Dost Mohammed in Kabul. He says that the Afghans have lost the right to govern through their own weakness and folly; the only question now is whether incompetence is inherent in their character or whether we can scour enough of it out of them so that we can all go home and leave them to ruin their country themselves. We will put Shah Shuja on the throne, a vicious tyrant who has three times been thrown out by his own people.”

One of the survivors of the First Afghan War, British army chaplain Rev G.H.Gleig said this, in his memoirs about the war :

“a war begun for no wise purpose, carried on with a strange mixture of rashness and timidity, brought to a close after suffering and disaster, without much glory attached either to the government which directed, or the great body of troops which waged it. Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war. Our eventual evacuation of the country resembled the retreat of an army defeated.”

Things don’t seem to have changed much in the intervening century and a half with successive Afghan wars leading to the same indictment including the current one.

Wishlist

The story starts in 1836 and ends in 1843. A significant part of the story is a description of a journey which the Oliphants and other government officials make from Calcutta to Punjab to meet Ranjit Singh, take a break in Simla and then come back. This part of the book stretches from October 1837 and ends in May 1841. It would have been interesting if the story had extended to beyond 1857 – it would have been fascinating to find out what happened to the Oliphants during 1857 which was a time of momentous change for the British who were living in India.

‘One Last Look’ depicts not only the follies of British rule in India but also the brighter side – for example, on how the British treated the natives well in some ways, and how, when there were natural disasters like flood and famine, they rushed supplies to help people affected by it.

Brother and Sister

The relationship between Eleanor and her brother Henry seemed to be complex and there seemed to be more to it than met the eye. For example, in one scene Henry asks Eleanor to kiss him (it looks innocent, initially), in another scene brother and sister see pictures in an erotic book together while playing with each other, in another scene Eleanor says that she liked her body with Henry, and towards the end of the book Henry tells Eleanor, “I’ve made many mistakes in my life, but loving you is not one of them.” It all seems to be loaded with hidden meaning. Eleanor doesn’t marry till the end of the story. It will be interesting to find out whether the real George Eden and Emily Eden loved each other that way.

Room for Wonder

During the course of telling her story, Eleanor takes us on a fascinating journey through this mysterious and complex land called India, which is magnificent and beautiful, frustrating and exasperating, kind and cruel in equal measure. Somewhere in the middle of the book Eleanor remembers the Emperor Babur’s words on India :

I beheld a new world – the grass was different, the trees different, the birds of a different plumage, the manners and customs of the wandering tribes of a different kind. I was struck with astonishment, and indeed there was Room for Wonder.

Towards the end of the book, when she is back to her homeland, she finds her homeland alien and strange :

I was most unprepared for London. It is as if we’ve been away for a hundred years. The very sounds are foreign to me: no crows, no pariah dogs, no jackals or flutes or drums. There are hawkers, but their cries are parochial – knife grinders and rag-and-bone men dragging through the mud. No pearls, no monkeys, no betel. Worse still, there is no colour. Not even a sun in the sky. The air is black, the people pale. Everyone is dressed in gray. Most disturbingly, but for the fog, but for the river at low tide, there is no smell.

With her, we pine for what she has left behind. It makes us sad and nostalgic about the things we had to leave behind in our own lives.

When she tries to create a little India in her home in England, she says this :

It was difficult at first to convey to the painters the exact shade of saffron yellow that I desired, but happily Radha has a saree of almost the same shade and she was able to show them. It took some doing, but the walls and the floor and ceiling are at last the colour of the saffron yellow rock that Harriet took me to see in Calcutta. (She said it was a goddess). I cannot help but be happy in this room. I need never leave it. Truly, there is Room for Wonder.

When the Bishop asks her towards the end of the story :

“Have you been happy here?”

Eleanor says to herself

“I did not know what to say, how to describe such a depth of happiness.”

By this time, during the course of the journey that we take with Eleanor, we have fallen in love with this beautiful, exotic, chaotic land and its people, and we feel a deep happiness and a nostalgic sadness. Like her we feel that there is Room for Wonder.

Final Thoughts

I loved reading ‘One Last Look’. It has inspired me to explore more books on India of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Reading the book also made me wonder about the kind of books Indian novelists (or novelists of Indian origin) write these days – novels about immigration (like Jhumpa Lahiri and Kiran Desai), about violence in modern-day India (like Arvind Adiga and Tarun Tejpal), adventures in college  (Chetan Bhagat and his clones) and thinly-veiled memoirs disguised as novels. I wonder why Indian writers, in addition to these topics (which are interesting and important, but which have become a bit tiring now), don’t also start writing novels based on India of the 18th and 19th centuries and about things like the First World War, when one million Indian soldiers fought in Europe and the Middle East. Will that day come?

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I have been away from book reviewing for a while. It has been nearly a month since I wrote my last review. I have been going through a book-reading-slump, and so I have been picking books, reading a few pages, dropping them and getting into another book, without finishing anything. I have a book-reading-slump every year, but it happens sometime during the middle of the year. The timing of this slump was unfortunate, because this is the most productive time of the year for me, reading-wise. So, to try to come out of the slump, sometime back I thought I will pick a book from my bookshelf, which had short pieces which will be easier to read. So, I picked up ‘Lost Classics’.

I discovered ‘Lost Classics’ during one of my random browsings at the bookstore. It had short pieces by writers on their favourite books, which they had loved and lost. It looked like a good book, which will be a good read when I am in the mood for short pieces (or am not in the mood for a long novel). It was the perfect solution when I went through a book-reading-slump, to nurse my reading and get out of the slump. I finished reading it a few days back. Here is the review.

Summary of the book

I am giving below the summary of the book, as given in the back cover.

Lost Classics is a compendium of glittering, witty, thoughtful, wild and wonderful-to-read short essays by some of the world’s finest writers on books that have inspired and influenced them, but are no longer available, are hard to find, or are sadly under-appreciated. 

 

What I think

The essays in this book originally appeared in the literary magazine Brick.

Some facts about this book – it has essays by some well-known literary stars like Margaret Atwood, Jeffrey Eugenides, John Irving, Pico Iyer, David Malouf, Anchee Min, Michael Ondaatje and Colm Toibin. It also has essays by lesser known writers – atleast lesser known to me. There is also an essay by one of my favourite poets W.S.Merwin. He is one of my favourite poets on the strength of one of his poems which was introduced to me by a wise friend of mine. The poem goes like this :

SEPARATION

Your absence has gone through me

Like thread through a needle.

Everything I do is stitched with its color.

Around two-thirds of the essay writers featured in the book are Canadian (48 out of 74). Most of the rest are American. There are probably a few Australians and maybe one or two are English.  The authors I have heard of, out of the ones featured in the essays were not many – Jawaharlal Nehru, Rudyard Kipling, Jane Smiley, Philip Levine, Mikhail Bulgakov, Arnold Bennett, Stendhal, A.E.Housman, Ford Maddox Ford, James Hilton, Alfred Noyes and William Golding. It is amazing that there are so many favourite books out there whose authors I haven’t even heard of. I feel sad at this – because it is highly probable that we might pass through our whole life without reading or even knowing about a lot of fine literature. One of my favourite books was featured in one of the essays – ‘Lost Horizon’ by James Hilton. Stendhal’s work was featured two times – ‘The Private Diaries of Stendhal’ and ‘The Life of Rossini’. There was an interesting thing about poet Philip Levine – he has written one of the essays on his favourite loved and lost book, while Michael Helm has written a piece featuring one of Philip Levine’s poetry collections 🙂 It looks like the case of the author becoming a character in the book.

One of my favourite essays in the initial part of the book is about a book called ‘Classics Revisited’ by Kenneth Rexroth. This is what the writer Brian Brett says on how he discovered the book.

      I first stumbled upon Classics Revisited when I was twenty-two years old, broke and broken-hearted, on my way home in the winter of 1972, having fled a doomed love affair in Oaxaca. I arrived in Santa Barbara. The hitchhiking was bad; clusters of hippies were stranded on a road still blooming with sixties strangeness and wild rumours about Route 101, tales of rednecks seeking longhairs to beat up, or victims getting acid slipped into their food and being used for weird sex. And everyone was searching for Nirvana, or at least fun. The full lusciousness of life lay ahead on that road.

      Then I saw the phone booth and remembered that the fabled mountain-climbing anarchist poet, Kenneth Rexroth, lived in Santa Barbara. To my amazement, I found his name in the phone book. I dialled the number. A gruff voice answered : “Hello.”

      “Hello, is this Kenneth Rexroth?”

      “Yes.”

      “My name is Brian Brett. I’m a poet from Canada and I just wanted to phone and tell you I’ve read your work and admire it.”

      There was a deadly pause, an embarassing silence. Finally, that bear of a voice said : “Waaallllll, c’mon up then.”

      I stayed for a week. We discussed T’ang dynasty poets, potato peddling, Hermes Trismegistus, vaudeville techniques, Ezra Pound’s looniness and brilliance, Kropotkin’s theories of mutual aid, Ono Komachi’s love life and the failings of the counter culture. Nearly everything he addressed in Classics Revisited.

      I left with my head in the clouds. So this was literature. Sure, he could be a terrible crank with a hiatus hernia and a tendency to grumble, but behind him was a dream, a world literature full of dignity and indignities, surprises and horrors and magic. And elegant dream, indeed.

There is a beautiful essay by Helen Garner in which she describes how she discovered that the author of her childhood favourite ‘The Journey of the Stamp Animals’, Phyllis Hay, is an actual Australian and she is still alive and how the author lends her a last surviving copy of the book and how the childhood magic all comes back when Garner reads the book again.

There is an interesting essay on Barbara Greene’s book ‘Too Late to Turn Back’ by Russell Banks. It describes Barbara Greene thoughts on her journey to Liberia with her cousin Graham Greene. Graham Greene himself wrote an account of the trip in his famous book ‘Journey Without Maps’. Russell Banks calls Barbara Greene’s book the better version and he also quotes Paul Theroux, when he says that Graham Greene mentions his cousin in his book only three eleven times in three hundred pages (while Barbara Greene gives an intimate and complex portrayal of her cousin in her book). It looks like another case where a wonderful woman writer was being ignored in favour of a more a more famous male writer. Russell Banks concludes his essay by saying “The great pleasure is to read them in tandem, his first, then hers.” 

There is an essay about a book written by a mother to a son, in the ninth century AD, called ‘Handbook for William’ by Dhuoda, which was very poignant and touched me. A few beautiful lines from this book, which were quoted by the writer of the essay Anne Carson go like this :

And when I am gone, you will have this little book of teaching as a reminder : you will be able to look at me still as into a mirror, reading me with your mind and body and praying to God. Then you will see clearly your duty to me.

Michael Helm says this about the poetry collection ‘They Feed They Lion’ by Philip Levine :

We have the sense of poems proceeding not from imagination, or even memory, which is a trick of the mind, but from remembrance, a state of the being. Levine’s poems show up so much of contemporary literature as lacking a breadth of experience. The lives in these poems are not only intimate but various, and together they lend the book an unusual amplitude. 

Helm goes on to say this :

Whatever its place in our times, the best poetry often seems like the last worthwhile form of public utterance. When it’s lost, the mundane encroaches without making the smallest claim on our attention. But regained, in a bit of chance mixed with faith, though nothing’s forgotten, nothing is familiar.

Beautiful passage, isn’t it?

Laird Hunt talks about a book called ‘Some Chinese Ghosts’ by Lafcadio Hearn, which was a case of so near yet so far for him and which he couldn’t read in the end. He says this about the writer –

Some writers one reads to saturation, to exhaustion; others are taken in brief, startling doses. For me, Hearn falls among the latter.

 When Wendy Lesser writes about Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ she deplores the fact that Bennett isn’t read much anymore, because of Virginia’s Woolf’s essay on Bennett. Lesser then says this :

I find it disturbing that Virginia Woolf, the possessor of an intense but extremely limited form of genius, should have been able, in the course of just sixty or seventy years, to crowd a great novelist like Arnold Bennett right off the literary map. It is as if you had planted a delightfully unusual groundcover in your garden, only to discover some years later that its rampant spread has killed your favoruite oak. (Well, not oak, exactly. Charles Dickens is an oak. Bennett is more like an unruly apple tree: he could use some pruning, but the fruit is delicious.)

I have read two books by Arnold Bennett – ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ (one of my alltime favourite books – more about it in a while) and ‘Literary Taste’ (Bennett’s attempt at helping readers acquire literary taste. The book is dated now, but it is fun to discover the names of so many new authors who were regarded highly in a bygone era).

Alan Lightman describes how he discovered his favourite book ‘Far Away and Long Ago’ by W.H.Hudson.

A number of years ago, before the days of amazon.com, I journeyed cross-country to Powell’s bookstore in Portland, Oregon in a last attempt to find a certain long-out-of-print book by W.H.Hudson. I was already a great admirer of Hudson’s more famous Green Mansions, a terribly sad novel about a romance in the green forests of South America that had haunted me for years. After wandering through acres and acres of used books at Powell’s, I entered a small clearing and spotted the relevant shelf. And there, I found five copies of the object of my desire. Out of good sportmanship, I bought only three.

Lightman will be puzzled to discover that Powell’s has also become Powells.com now 🙂

Susan Musgrave, in her essay, quotes this from the book ‘The Name and Nature of Poetry’ by A.E.Housman :

…poetry gives the most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood, that perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.

This is one of my most favourite lines from the book. One of my friends said that music is a beautiful language which sometimes describes things which words can’t. I think that it is true of poetry too, though poetry uses words.

Sam Solecki says these beautiful words, while writing about William Gass’ ‘On Being Blue’ :

…the use of language like a lover…not the language of love but the love of language, not matter, but meaning, not what the tongue touches, but what it forms…

Ronald Wright writes about how William Golding’s ‘Pincher Martin’ is about scary themes :

…the book transcends belief to examine conscience and consciousness; remembrance and destiny; the rise of our personality and our species; and the forces inside ourselves that we have every reason to fear, for behind us are a million years of ruthless victories.

In the afterword to the book, Javier Marias writes about how he discovered an old-fashioned bookstore, during one of his travels. His description goes like this :

During a recent trip to Buenos Aires, a city I was visiting for the first time, I rediscovered a type of dealer in old books whom I thought had disappeared from the face of the earth, except, perhaps, from England, where everything seems to persist in its original or Dickensian state. I mean the type of book dealer who knows absolutely nothing about what he stocks and sells, and therefore doesn’t mark his books with prices, but decides how much to charge on the spot after hearing the prospective buyer’s query, and particularly the tone in which it is made. Such a dealer is guided less by binding, the print run, the date of the edition or the author than by the interest betrayed in the customer’s way of looking at and handling a particular volume. These are people who have been seasoned or, rather, trained by years of experience watching their customers browse. For these men, we buyers must, I suppose, be an open book; our reaction tells them much more about the tome in our hands than that tome could have told them when it was resting on its shelf a minute before. They know nothing about their wares but they do know how to drill into the human psyche; they’ve learned to interpret the slight trembling of fingers that go to the spine of the book, the momentary blinking of someone who can’t believe his eyes are seeing the title they’ve sought for years; they know how to perceive the speed with which you seize this long-wanted but unfindable book…

My Lost Classics

I loved reading ‘Lost Classics’. Each essay in it gave me a lot of pleasure. Reading it made me feel nostalgic and think about the books that I had loved and lost when I was younger. This book also increased the length of my ‘TBR’ list considerably J If you are one of those people who likes reading books on books and who feels nostalgic about books which you loved and lost, you will love this book.

This book also inspired me to make a list of my own lost classics. After some careful thought, I compiled a list. This is what it looks like :

(1)   ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ by Arnold Bennett

This was a book which my dad read to me and my sister when I was in school. It was one of our favourite stories then. We had borrowed this book from one of my dad’s friends, but the language level was probably too difficult for me to read. Both my sister and I loved the story. My mom read it too. (The story went like this : An American millionaire, Mr.Racksole is dining with his daughter Helen at a London hotel. When his daughter wants something which is not on the menu – a filleted steak –  and the hotel chef declines to make that item, because it is a fine-dining restaurant, the millionaire gets annoyed and buys the hotel. This starts a sequence of mysterious and adventurous events and unexpected things happen after that.) Then this book disappeared from the face of the earth. When I remembered about it nostalgically many years later and tried looking for it, it was impossible to find. Bennett’s ‘The Old Wives’ Tale’ was more easily available, but ‘The Grand Babylon Hotel’ was lost. I was extremely disappointed. Then during one of my searches at different bookstores, one of the bookstore managers told me that she could get it for me. She contacted a publishing company which specialized in publishing out-of-print books and they somehow had a copy of this and I got it after a while. I read the book again and it brought back a lot of old fond memories and the book was as good this time as it was the first time I heard the story. It is one of my alltime favourite books and I still treasure my out-of-print copy. If you would like to read this book online, you can find it here

(2)   Physics for Entertainment by Ya. Perelman

This was one of the books that I got when I was in school. At that time Russian books published in English, which were in hardbound editions, used to be sold for really low prices. There was a book exhibition in my school where they had Russian books on display, and that is where I got Perelman’s book. It is a classic of its time and explains physics using everyday events and concepts in layman’s language. It covers mostly classical physics and so doesn’t have things like quantum mechanics and string theory. It is a pleasure to read. I lent it to one of my friends during college days and had forgotten about it. Recently, while I was in a bookshop, I saw one volume of this book brought out by an American publisher (the original was published by Progress Publishers, Moscow during the Soviet days). The publisher had mentioned in the edition that the other volume of the book has been lost. I then remembered the copy I had owned. Luckily, the friend to whom I had lent the book, was still my friend. I wrote to him and asked him whether he had it still. It had been so many years since I lent it to him and so I thought it might be possible that it had been lost. But my friend surprised me by saying that he still had it in his parents’ place. The next time he went to his parents’ place, he got it and sent it to me. I was thrilled when I saw it! This was really a lost-and-found treasure. 

(3)   Peter the Great by Alexei Tolstoy

This was another book by a Russian writer that I got during the old times when the world was a different place. Alexei Tolstoy is related to the more famous Leo Tolstoy, but is lesser known. ‘Peter the Great’ is a novel which is based on the life of the Russian czar, who brought momentous changes to Russia. Alexei Tolstoy’s reputation sunk in later years probably because he supported the Soviet regime and Stalin and probably no one reads his works these days. I am sure all of his books are out-of-print, with only a few copies lying quietly in the back-row of bookshelves of readers like me. It is sad in some ways, because an author’s political work and beliefs sometimes impact the way posterity views his literary work and though sometimes we try to separate a person’s life from his work (for example, Herman Melville was a nasty person in real-life and we recognize that, but we also recognize his genius in ‘Moby Dick’. We sometimes hate Ted Hughes for his shabby treatment of Sylvia Plath, both when he was his wife, and after she died, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming a Poet Laureate), but with respect to Alexei Tolstoy, his political work and beliefs probably resulted in his literary work being sidelined. It is sad because he was a real good writer.

(4)   One, Two, Three… Infinity : Facts and Speculations of Science by George Gamov

I saw this book in a pavement bookshop during college days. It was an edition published in the 60s. The bookseller sold it to me at a ridiculously low price. I haven’t heard of George Gamov before. After reading the first page of the book, I got hooked into it. It started with simple descriptions of numbers, delved into infinity and its different types (I didn’t know that there were different types of infinities before), and then goes on to talk about physics, chemistry, astronomy, the origin of the universe, the origin of life and other exciting topics. It is written for the general reader and it is wonderful. I lent my copy to a friend of mine and as it happened many times those days, we moved houses and cities and the book got lost in the cracks. Then a few years back while browsing in a bookstore, to my pleasant surprise, I recognized my old friend in the new arrival section! I immediately got it and read it from the first to the last page. It was as good and fresh as when I read it the first time. It is one of my treasured books in my personal library now 🙂

(5)   Manimozhi Nee Ennai Maranthu Vidu (Manimozhi, Do forget me) by Tamilvanan

Tamilvanan was a writer who wrote murder mysteries, thrillers, self-help books and inspiring essays in my mother tongue, Tamil. He was a writer of a bygone era. He was quite famous in the 1960s and the 1970s and his books were all bestsellers. In those days, his novels were ‘hot’ in the library and it was  difficult to get one of his books as they were very much in demand. Tamilvanan wrote in pure Tamil and he avoided using English words in his books. So, though the language in his books sounded contrived, they were a pleasure to read. For example, he never used ‘juice’ but used the Tamil equivalent ‘pazharasam’ which literally meant ‘the tasty water squeezed out of a fruit’ – here ‘zh’ is pronounced as ‘l’ but is stressed by folding the tongue. The names of the characters in his books were also quite original and beautiful. For example the name of the main character in this book is Manimozhi which means ‘someone whose voice is melodious like the music of a bell’. The names of some of the characters in his other books were ‘Kayalvizhi’ (‘someone who has beautiful eyes in the shape of  a fish’), ‘Malarkodi’ (‘someone who has the beautiful thin curving body like a creeper’), ‘Naavalan’ (‘someone who is eloquent’).  ‘Manimozhi Nee Ennai Marandhu Vidu’ is one of his most famous works. It is a story about a dad, who reveals to his daughter that he is part of a criminal gang and he is going to die soon and he asks her to escape and run away to another city. What happens to the daughter and the interesting adventures she has form the rest of the story. In later years, after I came to work, I went to the office of the publishers which published his books (the publishing company was owned by Tamilvanan and later by his sons) and got all of his novels that they had on display. Most of them were the last copies they had and they said that they were not planning to print them again as the readers’ taste has changed. But ‘Manimozhi Nee Ennai Maranthu Vidu’ was missing and the last copy of the book had been sold out. (One of the reasons given by the bookstore assistant for the company not reissuing Tamilvanan’s novels was that in an earlier era, Tamilvanan described one murder in a book and how an investigator  resolved it. But today in TV there are movies and serials which have a lot of murders and so Tamilvanan’s stories had become dated. I didn’t agree with his reasoning, but I did agree with the fact that reading had come down and TV viewing had gone up). When I went to the annual book exhibition in my city last year, I discovered to my surprise that ‘Manimozhi Nee Ennai Marandhu Vidu’ has been re-issued again. I was really thrilled and got a copy.  It is one of my treasured possessions in my bookshelf now.

I am happy to say that I have regained all my ‘lost classics’ 🙂

Can you remember books which you had loved and lost? What does your list of ‘Lost Classics’, look like?

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