Archive for May, 2011

I discovered ‘Night Gardening’ by E.L.Swann through a post by Eva on books on neuroscience and neurological illness. (Thanks Eva :)) There was something haunting about the story and so I added it to my ‘TBR’ list. The book was available only in hardback and so was quite expensive (the equivalent of around twenty-five dollars). (I have this strange way of thinking – when a graphic novel is around twenty-five dollars and I like it, I don’t think twice about buying it. Because nearly all graphic novels cost atleast twenty dollars or more. But with respect to regular books, I think twice before buying a book which costs twenty-five dollars, because I think it is quite expensive. I don’t know why I think this way! Well, back to the story). So, I didn’t buy this book but kept looking at my ‘TBR’ list longingly. Recently I thought I will have a look at my ‘TBR’ list and try to get a few of the books on that list. Swann’s book was somewhere near the top and so I brushed aside my thoughts about its price and decided that it was time to get it. I placed my order.

When the package containing the book arrived, I opened it with a lot of care and looked at the book. It was beautifully produced with a lot of care and love. The cover was minimalistic, understated and beautiful. The pages of the book were made of thick paper with generous spacing. The font was not my favourite one, but it was not bad. Each chapter started with a picture of a flower and a quote from a gardening book. There was no introduction, no spoilers anywhere, no potted biography of the author. It was difficult to even tell whether the author was a man or a woman. There were even no quotes from reviews on the cover. With one exception. There was a description of the book by author Alexandra Ripley on the back cover. Ripley raved about the book. I loved reading every word of Ripley’s rave. It made me drop everything else and get into the book. I finished reading it a couple of days back. Here is what I think.

What I think

‘Night Gardening’ is about three characters. The first two are Maggie Welles, a sixty-one year old woman who is recovering from a stroke and Tristan Mallory, a sixty-odd year old man (I think so, though I don’t remember Tristan’s age being mentioned anywhere) who is a landscape architect. The third character is Maggie’s garden. There are other minor characters – Maggie’s daughter and son, Maggie’s neighbour Judith Stein who has hired Tristan to landscape her garden and a few others. The story starts with Tristan working on Judith’s garden with his assistants and Maggie watching what is happening next door through a gap in the wall. Then because of circumstances created by the author, Maggie falls down, Tristan comes down to help, and it is the beginning of, initially, a beautiful friendship, and later a loving relationship. Tristan gives a surprising gift to Maggie by laying a walk for her where she can practise walking during the day. Then later, Tristan comes over to Maggie’s place during the night to help groom her garden so that it can regain its lost glory. During this time Maggie and Tristan talk about gardens and trees and plants and their families and Japanese Zen Buddhist priest gardeners. They fall in love and make plans for the future. Maggie body and heart recovers and blooms as does her garden, slowly through the rest of the story.

So, what happens in the end? I can’t tell you that. You have to read the story to find out how it ends. I will just say this. When I read the last chapter, I was heartbroken, my eyes were filled with tears and I even got angry with E.L.Swann. E.L.Swann, why did you do this? Why??

‘Night Gardening’ is one of the most beautiful books that I have ever read. It is a beautiful love story. It is also a love poem on gardens and gardening. I cared for most of the characters in the story, I followed their fortunes closely and my heart beat faster when some of the events in the story hinted at a dissonance in the harmony of the melody. My favourite characters were Maggie and Tristan. And of course, Maggie’s  garden, with its peonies and ferns and dogwoods and maples and wildflowers.

This is what Alexandra Ripley said about the book : 

“Bring on the champagne! French, of course, and an exceptionally good year. Night Gardening is a cause for celebration. Make that a magnum, not a bottle. Night Gardening is what all of us who love to read have been waiting and longing for. A novel for grownups, for readers who care about the English language, who hunger for a story about people we come to know – a little – and care about – a lot – and miss when we finish the book and return, hugely enriched, to our various realities.

A toast and a hundred heartfelt ‘thank you’s to E.L.Swann. You gave me laughter and tears and magic. I envy you your gardening knowledge and your musical, beautiful prose. But the joy of a wonderful read is even stronger than jealousy.

May every literate woman inAmericaexperience the same joyousness. (We might even allow a few fortunate men the same treat.)”

I loved Ripley’s thoughts before I started the book. I agreed with them when I finished the book. 

I think I will add ‘Night Gardening’ to my top-10 alltime favourite list. It is surprising that the book is not more well-known. It is also surprising that the author E.L.Swann is also not that well known too. I had to do some research before I discovered that the author was a woman. It took more research for me to find out that her actual name was Kathryn Lasky and she has written many children’s books and a few books for adults, most of which form part of a series featuring artist-sleuth Calista Jacobs. ‘Night Gardening’ seems to be the odd book in her list and a pure one-off. It is a book that I will read again.


Some of my favourite passages from the book :

Character Actors 

     “Hey, look ahead,” Tristan said suddenly.

      “Oh my goodness, Polymnia canadensis,” Maggie whispered. On a stalk nearly six feet tall, a small flowered leafcup quivered in the night wind. They approached it silently. An unspectacular plant with washed out petals as small as a baby’s fingernails, it bent in the evening breeze toward them. Maggie extended her right hand to touch it as one would the downy crown of a baby’s head. “You should never have to be beautiful to be in a garden,” she spoke softly. “There is always a place for character actors.”

      Tristan was watching Maggie now. She seemed hypnotized by the plant. She continued to speak softly in a barely audible whisper. “Well, with wildflowers, wild anything, I guess, there is not always a relationship between beauty and rarity.” She felt Tristan pull her closer. And she did feel something in that dead side of hers. She turned her head slowly to look at him. He said nothing, but his eyes looked at her, studied her in a way no one ever had before. It was as if he were diving right down into her soul. Tristan himself was simply beyond words. He felt that he was in the presence of something so strangely powerful and extraordinary – that words, language, were utterly useless. He wanted only to submit himself completely to her rareness. But he saw beauty in this rareness, not perhaps the vividness of a lady’s slipper in full flower. Maybe it was a light more than a color, pale green and shimmering like that found in the filtered light of a deep forest, falling in shafts piercing the leafy canopy and stirring the imagination.

The Beauty of Imagination

A slight wind ruffled the ornamental grasses, turning them into the liquid stream. There was even a visible current as a narrow swath of the grass turned its dark side toward her. The very few splinters of light that penetrated the shady canopy spilled across the moss like flitting minnows. There was a subtle stirring in Maggie’s imagination, in her mind’s eye, as she watched the light that seemed like fish. The moss trembled when a slight breeze shivered the still water in the middle of the lake. This is what happens here, Maggie thought. This is the place where time nearly stands still and space contracts until the universe is at one’s feet. Was she shrinking or was she growing larger? The spirit of the place filled her and yet at the same time, some of her flowed out into the deep nature of the third step garden. Here, she was in balance; here there were no beginnings and no endings. Here, all was one and continuous. Maggie did not have to turn around to feel the presence of the tree that she had nurtured and pruned for years. She felt its ancient spirit enfolding her.

People with Stories

      The clients he got through his work with rock, through his obvious overtures to Asian art, its paintings, even its porcelains, were very different from the Sissinghurst gang. They were all people with stories to tell. Their lives were full of narrative. Each one was in his or her own way, though they might not know it, whether rich or poor, a poet, a painter, an artist. Through carefully drawing out their stories, Tristan could make them appreciate themselves better. That was the most satisfying part of a job. There was always a moment with clients like this when a light seemed to go on and it was within that split second of illumination that they realized that, yes indeed, they had more than just money or unformed desire, they had a story and a degree of artistry.


…it was the walk that beckoned. It summoned. It coaxed. A weariness dissolved from her limbs. A sap stirred. “Wick,” that was whatNanused to say. “It’s wick.” You nicked a dead-looking twig or branch with a small knife and you found a “greenish bit, something juicy” and you knew it was not dead. It was wick!

Garden Priest

      Ever since Maggie had met Tristan Mallory, hovering in the back of her mind, on the edges of her consciousness there had been an image, a word or words that she could not quite bring into focus. But now she did. It was gardener priest, those monks of ancientJapanwho designed many of the exquisite gardens that still lived and grew there. The foremost had been Muso Kokushi, designer of the Moss Temple of Saiho-ji and creator of the first karesansui, or dry gardens in which there is no water at all. It is only through the arrangements of rocks, pebbles, and moss that water is evoked in all of its moods and motion. There are references and suggestions of water – the swirls and cascades, still water or rippling ponds, even tumbling waterfalls but no actual water.

An Invisible Glass Wall

It was as if the screen of falling water had turned into an invisible glass wall now between them. They both mourned the distance, mourned the intimacy they had reveled in, which had now become something transient, a vagrant from some dreamworld, perhaps a complete chimera. They seemed slightly aghast at their newfound isolation.


      “Have you ever heard the word yugen, Maggie?”

      “Yes,” she whispered back.

      “There was an ancient Japanese monk. He lived in the fifteenth century. His name was Shotetsu and he once said that yugen can be the thin cloud veiling the moon or the autumn mist wrapping the scarlet leaves on a mountainside.”

      “Or the reflection of a flower’s color in a dew drop at dawn,” Maggie whispered.

      “Yes,” he said and stroked the small of her back. So he knows, Maggie thought. He knows what he is to me and I never have to say the words.

Yugen also meant the lingering resonance of passing things and they both knew that come what may, they might, when they possessed nothing, possess all – if they were lucky. And this was the paradox of life, the riddle of the Japanese garden.

Private Autumn

Amidst the inky greens, one branch, just one, had a limb of bright yellow leaves. She had seen this happen before, in the middle of summer; when you think it will go on forever, one tree decides to have its own private little autumn. It reminded Maggie of the time when she was quite small and it had suddenly begun to snow heavily. Her mother had gone out just a few hours before and had not taken her hat. When she came back her hair was covered with snow.

Have you read ‘Night Gardening’? What do you think about it?

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It is time to get back to books 🙂 In the past one-and-a-half months, when I have been writing about music, I have been reading too. I finished around eight books and so I have a lot of catching up to do. I will start with the most recent reads first.

I have been on a mystery-reading-binge these days. I discovered that there were too many mystery books on my shelf which were unread. I thought that was a shame, because this is one of my favourite genres. So I thought I will make a list of them, get them down from the shelf and start reading them. I read three of them in the past few days. These are what I read.

The Man on the Boulevard by Georges Simenon

I got this book many years back when I was living in a place, where my biggest moment of the week was the Saturday evening I used to spend in the bookstore. There was just one bookstore in the city which had English books. Later two more stores opened. This bookstore had an early closing time – I think it was 7PM on Saturdays and 6PM on all other days. I was always the last guy still left in the bookstore and the guard used to come chasing after me asking me to leave. We got so used to each other after a while that this became some sort of game. After discovering that I liked hanging out at the bookstore after the closing the time, during subsequent times, the guard used to come ten minutes before closing time and point at his watch indicating that it was time for me to pay the bill. I used to point at my watch and say that there were still ten minutes left 🙂 All the guards in the bookstore became friendly with me after a while, after a few of these ‘battles’. I miss those times and am feeling nostalgic about it. Later two other bookstores opened in the city and they were open till 10PM on all days and I started frequenting them more.

Well, back to the book. I got ‘The Man on the Boulevard’ during one of my bookstore visits on a Saturday. I think I got it not from the first bookstore which used to close at 6PM but at one of the new bookstores. I had read one or two Simenon books when I was in school or in college. I remember liking them but I can’t recall their names or the plot. Though this Simenon book is slim, like most of his books, it ended up being in my shelf for years, unread and uncared for. I decided to give it some love and take it down and read it. I finished it in a day, which is something I don’t do normally – I prefer to read slowly and linger on my favourite sentences and paragraphs.

My initial impression of the book is this. The story had an interesting premise – a body is discovered in a cul-de-sac and it is that of a grocer. But when Maigret starts investigating the case, he discovers that there is more to it. It looks like the dead man has been leading a parallel life which his family is not aware of. New facts come to light which are all surprising and which don’t fit the ‘official’ personality of the dead grocer. The grocer’s wife seems to be a tyrant and the grocer’s daughter seems to have a secret herself. How things unravel and who is the real murderer form the rest of the story. On the way to unveiling the secrets, Simenon makes some interesting observations on life and people. These are all interesting aspects of the book.

On the other hand, after getting into the book with high expectations, I was also mildly disappointed. I had read somewhere that Maigret was a connoisseur of food, but there was not much evidence of it in the story. Though the book was fast-paced from one perspective, I was not really satisfied with the way the events of the story unfolded and the way the secrets were unveiled. I was also disappointed with the climax when the identity of the murderer was revealed. To be fair to Simenon, this book was published in 1953. Simenon published his first Maigret book in 1931 and the last one in 1972. So this book falls midway in Maigret forty-year career. So it is not surprising that it didn’t really reveal Maigret’s personality. Maybe it was written for readers who were already fans of Maigret. If one wants to know more about Maigret, maybe one should read one of the earlier books in the series.

The translation made me smile in some places. For example, in one place a dialogue goes like this :

Waiter : ‘Beer, sir?’

Maigret : ‘No. A half-bottle of claret.’

Claret? Really? Is that what Simenon wrote in the French original? (I am sure you already know this – a claret is a Bordeauxred wine. But only the British call it claret. There is a scene in the Bond movie ‘Diamonds are forever’ where this wine-knowledge comes in handy for Bond to identify the villains. I am pretty sure that Simenon called it a Bordeaux, in the French version of the novel).

Some of my favourite passages from the book :

The Room

The room to which she had taken them was a dining-room furnished in the rustic style. Presumably, it was also used as a sitting-room. There was an impersonal tidiness about everything which was reminiscent of a window display, or the interior of a furniture shop. Nothing had been left lying about, not even a pipe or a packet of cigarettes. There was not even a newspaper or a piece of needlework to be seen, nothing to suggest that people actually lived there.

The Two Kinds

      In the old days he had been particularly struck, even one might say romantically stirred, by the sight of those who, discouraged and defeated, had given up the struggle, being swept along willy-nilly by the great, surging tide of humanity.

      Since then, he had come to know many such people, and it was no longer them whom he most admired, but rather those just one step above them on the ladder, who were clean and decent and not in the least picturesque, and who fought day in and day out to keep their heads above water, or to nurture the illusion, or perhaps the faith, that they were alive and that life was worth living.

Wikipedia says that Georges Simenon is one of the writers who wrote during the golden age of detective fiction. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to be very popular today. I think he deserves better.

The Shape of Water and The Terracota Dogtwo books by Andrea Camilleri

‘The Shape of Water’ and ‘The Terracota Dog’ were two other mystery novels that I got during the ‘golden age of book shopping’ in the same bookstore that I mentioned earlier above 🙂 I still remember why I got Andrea Camilleri’s books. The books are set in Sicily of the early 1990s. The blurb of the first book said this about Inspector Montalbano, the main character in the series – “Picking his way through a labyrinth of high-comedy corruption, delicious meals, vendetta firepower, and carefully planted false clues, Montalbano can be relied on, whatever the cost, to get to the heart of the matter”. Who can resist this description 🙂

Now, more about ‘The Shape of Water’. A leading politician is found dead in a shady place in a compromising situation. The case comes to Inspector Montalbano. The coroner certifies that the death is purely because of natural causes – ‘refreshingly unusual for Sicily’ as the blurb puts it. There is pressure applied on the inspector – from the police chief, the judge, the bishop – to close the case. But Inspector Montalbano wants to get to the bottom of the case. He wants to find out what happened. And the secrets start tumbling out one by one.

‘The Terracota Dog’ is a little bit different. There are two or three plot arcs in the beginning – there is a secret meeting with a Mafioso, there is a supermarket heist and the mysterious abandoned loot and then there is secret grotto in a mountain cave where two young lovers, dead fifty years and still embracing, are watched over by a life-size Terracota dog. Things move between these three plot arcs and then stays on the last one. The dead lovers are in a strange position with interesting objects around – it looks like a sign left by someone. It reminds one of ‘The Da Vinci Code’. There is also a reference to Umberto Eco’s work and his work in semiotics in the part of the story which covers this symbolism. What the true meaning of this sign is and who the dead lovers are and why they were killed are the mysteries that Montalbano discovers towards the end of the story.

I liked ‘The Shape of Water’ more than ‘The Terracota Dog’ because the plot and the events of the story were more focused. ‘The Terracota Dog’ borrowed some elements from ‘The Shape of the Water’ but the story wasn’t as tight. But I feel that Inspector Montalbano’s stories are not about plot, but about what they reveal about life inItaly andSicily during the early 1990s. There are notes provided by the translator Stephen Sartarelli at the end of these books, which describe some of the cultural facets of the story in more detail – like some finer points on history, language, cuisine, Italian idioms. After reading the books and the accompanying notes I felt that the books would have been a pleasure to native Italian readers because of the way they depict life inItaly, the wordplay, the humour – which the translation only hints at and the mild fragrance of which we can just get a whiff of. It is sad that things get lost in translation, but that is something we have to live with.

I liked Inspector Montalbano and his sense of humour and his concern for the underdog and the way he bends the law to help underdogs (one of his subordinates calls him a ‘communist’ because of that). Another of my favourite characters is Ingrid who plays an important part in ‘The Shape of Water’ and plays a minor part in ‘The Terracota Dog’. Another of my favourite characters is Signora Luparello, who comes in ‘The Shape of Water’ (she is the one who utters the phrase ‘the shape of water’) and who is a strong character. Unfortunately, she comes only in a few scenes in the story. There is also a comical scene in ‘The Terracota Dog’, which I liked very much, where the three women in Montalbano’s life – his girlfriend Livia, his colleague Corporal  Anna Ferrara, who loves him, and his friend Ingrid who flirts with him – are all at his bedside in the hospital with tears in their eyes and Montalbano doesn’t know what to do and closes his eyes.

Some of my favourite passages from these two books :

From ‘The Shape of Water’

Pecorilla was the foreman in charge of assigning the areas to be cleaned, and he nurtured an undisguised hatred for anyone with an education, having himself managed to finish middle school, at age forty, only thanks to Cusumano, who had a man to man talk with the teacher. Thus he manipulated things so that the hardest, most demeaning work always fell to the three university graduates in his charge.

…when they got to the Pasture, the Montelusa crime lab team was already there. They were in what Montalbano called the meditative stage, that is, five or six agents circling round and round the spot where the car stood, hands usually in their pockets or behind their backs. They looked like philosophers absorbed in deep thought, but in fact their eyes were combing the ground for clues, traces, footprints.

And now I’m going to dawdle a bit, he thought as soon as he got home. He liked the verb ‘dawdle’, tambasiare in Sicilian, which meant poking about from room to room without a precise goal, preferably doing pointless things. Which he did : he rearranged his books, put his desk in order, straightened a drawing on the wall, cleaned the gas burners on the stove. He was dawdling. He had no appetite, had not gone to the restaurant, hadn’t even opened the refrigerator to see what Adelina had prepared for him.

From ‘The Terracota Dog’

To judge from the entrance the dawn was making, it promised to be a very jiffy day – that is, blasts of angry sunlight one minute, fits of freezing rain the next, all of it seasoned with sudden gusts of wind – one of those days when someone who is sensitive to abrupt shifts in weather and suffers them in his blood and brain is likely to change opinion and direction continuously, like those sheets of tin, cut in the shape of banners and roosters, that spin every which way on rooftops with each new puff of wind.

I wish I could read Camilleri’s book in Italian. I think the reading experience would be more pleasurable then. I think, when I am in the mood, I will try to read more books in the Inspector Montalbano series.

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

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Here is my sixth favourite 🙂

Tomorrow Never Dies by Sheryl Crow – I have a compilation of theme songs from James Bond movies which I used to love when I was younger. I used to put the cassette, which had this compilation, in the stereo and listen to it everyday.  Many famous singers have sung the theme song in James Bond movies including Paul McCartney (‘Live and Let Die’), Louis Armstrong (‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’), Nancy Sinatra (‘You Only Live Twice’), Duran Duran (‘A View to a Kill’), Tina Turner (‘Golden Eye’), Madonna (‘Die Another Day’). But my favourite is Sheryl Crow’s ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’. It encapsulates the personality of Bond and the Bond theme in one song and Sheryl renders it beautifully. 

Have you heard this song before? What do you think about it?

(If you want to read about my previous favourites you are invited here – song no.1 and song no.2 and song no.3 and song no.4 and song no.5).

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Here is my fifth favourite 🙂

Song No.5 – Oh, Lonesome Me by Don Gibson

I discovered this song in a CD song collection that I got. The collection is called ‘Perfect Day : 100 Amazing Songs’ 🙂 I like the pace of the song, the lyrics, the melodious country music and the wonderful singing of Don Gibson – that is, pretty much everything about the song 🙂 The guitar play at 1.26  is awesome, isn’t it? Other singers have released covers of this song, including Neil Young and Johnny Cash, but I think Don Gibson’s original is the best.

Have you heard this song before? What do you think about it?

(If you want to read about my previous favourites you are invited here – song no.1 and song no.2 and song no.3 and song no.4).

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Here is my fourth favourite 🙂

Song No.4 – Overload by Sugababes



I discovered this song in a DVD song collection that I got. I like the pace of the song, the music and the singers (one of them is English, another is Jamaican and another is Filipino, making a real rainbow). I also like the way the video is produced – simple-style with a white background. I don’t know many people who have heard this song. I don’t know why. Because it is really nice.

The strange and sad thing is that the three original singers of the band are no longer part of it now and there are three new singers now. I can’t understand how it can be the same band then! (It is like John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr left ‘The Beatles’ and there are four new singers calling themselves ‘The Beatles’. A music band is not a company, for God’s sake!)

Have you heard this song before? What do you think about it?

(If you want to read about my previous favourites you are invited here – song no.1 and song no.2 and song no.3)

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Here is my third favourite 🙂

Song No.3 – Wherever You’ll Go by The Calling


I discovered this song in a DVD song collection that I got. It made me cry when I listened to it the first time. I like the way the singing changes when the story depicted takes a dark turn. I also like the love-affirming ending. I have never heard of the band, ‘The Callling’ , before, and so I did some research in Wikipedia. I discovered that this was their most famous song and they have stopped performing now. It is sad. It also makes one realize that creating a beautiful work of art is a difficult, complex, uncertain task. Whether it is a poem or a song or a book or a play or a movie or a painting or a scarf or furniture or a garden. One needs lots of luck and hardwork, dollops of inspiration and dashes of genius. It is not for the faint-hearted. For most of us, one beautiful work is all that we can produce in our life – if we are lucky. For ‘The Callling’, I think this is that one song. But what a song!

Have you heard this song before? What do you think about it?

(If you want to read about my previous favourites you are invited here – song no.1 and song no.2.)

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