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Archive for March, 2012

I got to know about Irish short story week hosted by Mel U from The Reading Life, after I read Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) post on it. It looked like a fun event and I love many Irish authors and so I decided to participate in it. I took a short story collection that I have, which has served me well in the past – it has short stories from most of the countries in the world and which I have been resisting reading from cover to cover because I can get the maximum out of it during reading challenges and festivals 🙂  – and read all the stories in it which were under ‘Ireland’. Then I took a book of Irish Fairy Tales and read eleven stories from it. 

 

These are the short stories I read.

 

From the short story anthology

 

(1)   Araby by James Joyce

(2)   The Boarding House by James Joyce

(3)   Desire by James Stephens

(4)   The Sniper by Liam O’Flaherty

(5)   Sunday Afternoon by Elizabeth Bowen

 

This was the first time I was reading a James Joyce story (shame on me!) and I found both the stories interesting. I liked ‘Araby’ more than ‘The Boarding House’ because there were beautiful sentences in it. Like this one – ‘a coachman smoothed and combed the horse or shook music from the buckled harness’ – and this one – ‘the soft rope of her hair tossed from side to side’ – and this one – ‘I did not know whether I would ever speak to her or not or, if I spoke to her, how I could tell her of my confused adoration. But my body was like a harp and her words and gestures were like fingers running upon the wires’. My favourite phrase was ‘shook music from the buckled harness’ – isn’t that so beautiful?

 

The last line of ‘Araby’ went like this – “Gazing up into the darkness I saw myself as a creature driven and derided by vanity; and my eyes burned with anguish and anger.” I read an interpretation of this ending in a book called ‘How to Read Literature Like a Professor’ by Thomas C. Foster, which went like this – “He suddenly sees that his feelings are no loftier than theirs, that he’s been a fool, that he’s been running this errand on behalf of an ordinary girl who’d probably never given him a single thought.” I didn’t see it that way at all. To me the last reaction was that of a shy boy, who had come to buy a present for a girl he liked and who discovers that the girl in the shop and two guys are flirting with each other, and they don’t give him attention and his shyness makes him frustrated and filled with anguish and anger. The word ‘vanity’ there could mean anything, not necessarily what Thomas Foster said. Have you read this story? What do you think about it?

 

You can read Caroline’s beautiful review of ‘Araby’ here.

 

James Stephens’ ‘Desire’ asked some interesting questions on what we would desire for, if we had one wish which could be fulfilled. The narrator of the story has an interesting answer to this question. This is what he says :

 

What is there now belonging to me, absolutely mine, but from which I must part, and which I should like to keep? And I saw that the thing which was leaving me day by day; second by second; irretrievably and inevitably; was my forty-eighth year. I thought I should like to continue at the age of forty-eight until my time was up.

      ‘I did not ask to live forever, or any of that nonsense, for I saw that to live forever is to be condemned to a misery of boredom more dreadful than anything else the mind can conceive of. But, while I do live, I wish to live competently, and so I asked to be allowed to stay at the age of forty-eight years with all the equipment of my present state unimpaired.’

 

The story has a surprising and sad ending.

 

‘The Sniper’ by Liam O’Flaherty was a short story with a surprising ending. Civil war is going on in the streets of Dublin and there is a sniper on one of the rooftops who is shooting people down. But a rival sniper spots him and shoots and injures him. Then our sniper plots to kill the rival sniper and manages to do that. But when he goes and tries to find the identity of the rival sniper, he is in for a shock. A classic old-fashioned short story with a twist in the end. I want to read more of O’Flaherty’s short stories now.

 

‘The Boarding House’ is a love story between the landlady’s daughter and one of the boarders. The story has an open ending and the reader is expected to imagine what he / she wants. ‘Sunday Afternoon’ narrates the events that happen on a Sunday afternoon when a man from London visits his friends in Dublin. I wasn’t sure about this story. Maybe I should read more of Elizabeth Bowen’s stories to appreciate her style and talent.

 

These were the fairy tales that I read.

 

From ‘Irish Fairy Tales’ collected by Joseph Jacobs and selected by Jennifer Chandler


(1)   Connla and the Fairy Maiden

(2)   Guleesh

(3)   The Field of Boliauns

(4)   The Horned Women

(5)   Hudden and Dudden and Donald O’Neary

(6)   The Story of Deirdre

(7)   Munachar and Manachar

(8)   Fair, Brown and Trembling

(9)   The Fate of the Children of Lir

(10)                       Paddy O’Kelly and the Weasel

(11)                       How Cormac Mac Art went to Faery

 

I liked most of the fairy tales. However, my favourites from the above were ‘Guleesh’, ‘The Story of Deirdre’, ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling’ and ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’. One reason I liked all these stories more was that they were long. ‘Guleesh’ is about a young man of that name who wants to have adventures and by a fortunate series of events he gets to go to France with some magical people who take his help in kidnapping the daughter of the king of France on her wedding day. But when Guleesh discovers that the magical people don’t have good designs for her, he escapes with her, but before they escape the magical people make her dumb. Guleesh leaves her at the local priest’s home and visits her everyday and as time passes the young people fall in love with each other. Whether the princess gets back her voice, whether there are surprising twists to the story, whether the young people get together in the end forms the rest of the story. I liked ‘The Story of Deirdre’ just because of the name ‘Deirdre’ – it is such a beautiful name! It is about a young woman who grows up in the forest without having met any man and what happens to her when she meets a man for the first time and falls in love. It made me remember the Indian mythological story ‘Rishyashringh’ (where it is a young man who goes through such an experience – how much in common fairy tales across cultures have!). In the end it all ends tragically though, and I felt quite sad at the end. ‘Fair, Brown and Trembling’ is the Irish version of the Cinderella story. I loved the name ‘Trembling’ – it is the name of the Cinderella character in the story. ‘The Fate of the Children of Lir’ is about four children who are ill-treated by their step-mother and what happens to them. It is beautiful and though the ending is what one dreams about, it is sad.

 

One of the interesting things I noticed in the fairy tales is that sometimes there is no hero/heroine – villain contrast in the story. Normally when I read a fairy tale, I expect to see some good guys and some bad guys and I hope that the good guys will win in the end and live happily ever after. I also expect that mostly humans will triumph over magical beings, who are typically the bad guys. But it doesn’t happen in some of the fairy tales in this collection. For example, in ‘Paddy O’Kelly and the Weasel’ everyone is a good character. So is the case in ‘How Cormac Mac Art went to Faery’. In ‘Hudden and Dudden and Donald O’Neary’ (the picture on the cover is that of Hudden and Dudden), though Hudden and Dudden are the bad guys, Donald O’Neary is not really a likeable guy either. In ‘The Field of the Boliauns’ the human character is the bad guy while the Lepracaun is the good guy and the human character bullies the Lepracaun, but the Lepracaun wins in the end. Reading fairy tales like this, which were against the grain, made me happy. It also made me think. It made me realize that fairy tales are not all black-and-white moral fables, but they probably represent the complexity of the human condition at one point of time and there is more to them than meets the eye. There was also a mention of Galway in the story ‘Paddy and the Weasel’ which made me smile. Have you heard Steve Earle song ‘Galway Girl’ which was also featured in the movie ‘PS. I Love You’? In many of the stories the name of the land is Erin which I found surprising. I always thought that Erin was a Scandinavian name. I didn’t know that it was Irish.

 

Here are some of my favourite lines from this book :

 

From ‘Guleesh’

 

The cold winter’s wind that was before them, they overtook her, and the cold winter’s wind that was behind them, she did not overtake them.

 

So they married one another, and that was the fine wedding they had, and if I were to be there then, I would not be here now; but I heard it from a birdeen that there was neither cark nor care, sickness nor sorrow, mishap nor misfortune on them till the hour of their death, and may the same be with me, and with us all!

 

From ‘Hudden and Dudden and Donald O’Neary’

 

You would think there was little here to make Hudden and Dudden jealous, but so it was, the more one has the more one wants…

 

From ‘How Cormac Mac Art went to Faery’

 

‘Could I learn the meaning of the wonders I saw today?’

      ‘Thou shalt learn them,’ said Manannan. ‘The horsemen thatching the roof with feathers are a likeness of people who go forth into the world to seek riches and fortune; when they return their houses are bare, and so they go on for ever. The young man dragging up the trees to make a fire is a likeness of those who labour for others : much trouble they have, but they never warm themselves at the fire. The three heads in the wells are three kinds of men. Some there are who give freely when they get freely; some who give freely though they get little; some who get much and give little, and they are the worst of the three, Cormac,’ said Manannan.

 

A few days back I saw the movie ‘A Million Dollar Baby’ and liked it very much (I am a big Clint Eastwood fan. I love Morgan Freeman too.) There is a scene in the movie, where the characters played by Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman and Hilary Swank are waiting in the hospital so that Hilary can get treated for a boxing injury. Clint is reading something while they are waiting. When Morgan asks him what he is reading, Clint replies ‘Yeats’. That scene made me smile 🙂 This is the kind of scene which can come only in a Clint Eastwood movie – a boxing coach reading Yeats while waiting in a hospital. So, I thought that though this is really Irish short story week, I should read an Yeats poem. This is what I read. 

 

When You Are Old

 

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book.

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

 

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

 

 

A Coat

 

I made my song a coat

Covered with embroideries

Out of old mythologies

From heel to throat;

But the fools caught it,

Wore it in the world’s eyes

As though they’d wrought it.

Song, let them take it,

For there’s more enterprise

In walking naked.

 

I don’t know which Yeats poem Clint Eastwood was reading in the movie, but I loved both the above poems. I didn’t know that Yeats was so good.

 

Are you participating in Irish Short Story Week? Have you read any of the above stories and poems?

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When I was studying in college, the smart guys in my class used to read a particular kind of books. Some of these books were ‘The Lord of the Rings’ by JRR Tolkien (before it became a movie and was read by everyone else), novels by P.G.Wodehouse, ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey’ by Arthur C. Clarke, ‘One, Two, Three…Infinity’ by George Gamov, ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand and ‘Zen and the Art of Motocycle Maintenance’ by Robert M. Pirsig. (In case you are curious, I have read the first part of the first book of ‘The Lord of the Rings’, a few novels by P.G.Wodehouse, ‘One, Two, Three…Infinity’ and ‘2001 : A Space Odyssey’ in later years, many years after I finished college. I haven’t read the others yet.) One of these books was Douglas Adams’ ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’. It looked to me like a book which combined science fiction and humour and I wondered how that combination might work. But I never got around to reading it. Later, after I went to work, I saw all the books in the Hitchhiker’s series in one omnibus volume. I read the blurb and the premise of the series was quite interesting and so I thought I will get it. I carried it with me as I moved cities and countries, but never read it. Finally all the stars got aligned last week. The book club that I am part of, decided to read this book this month, and so I took it down from my shelf and read it. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.


What I think

 

Arthur Dent, a mild-mannered guy who works at the local radio station, gets up one day morning and discovers that there are bulldozers at his front door. When he talks to the person who seems to have brought them, he discovers that his home is going to be razed down to make way for a bypass. He lies down in front of one of the bulldozers and prevents those newcomers from doing their jobs. Dent’s friend, Ford Prefect, suddenly appears on the scene. Ford, though he says that he is an out-of-work actor, is actually an extra-terrestrial, who has come to Earth to study about the planet and about the beings there. Ford suddenly discovers that day that the Earth is going to be demolished that day, by the officials of the Galaxy, to make way for a hyperspace bypass. It is ironical, that while the local bureaucracy is trying to raze down Arthur’s home without worrying about how it will affect his life, the Galactic bureaucracy is planning to raze down Earth without worrying about what Earth’s inhabitants will feel about it. Ford tries to explain this to Arthur, but Arthur finds it difficult to believe all this. It seems like too many fantastic things are happening in a very short space of time. The spaceships which have come to demolish the Earth, are run by Vogons, extraterrestrial beings who are not highly evolved, but who know how to get a job done. The Vogon ships announce the news to the Earth’s inhabitants and the Earth is destroyed. Meanwhile, Ford finds a way of taking Arthur with him and getting into a Vogon ship with the help of the cooks there, who like doing things which annoy the Vogons. However, unfortunately, the Vogons discover the presence of stoways in the ship and arrest them and eject them into space. Meanwhile the action shifts to the another part of the Galaxy, where the President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox inaugurates a new ship called Heart of Gold which uses the Improbability Drive and can travel vast distances in very less time. And before the audience present at the inauguration event know it, Zaphod steals the ship and escapes away and the whole Galactic police is after him. And by pure chance, the Heart of Gold rescues our old friends Arthur and Ford, while they are being ejected from the Vogon ship. Interestingly, Zaphod has a human companion on the ship, a woman named Trillian. Zaphod goes on a mission to a distant planet Magrathea, where untold of wealth is supposed to lie. What happens to our old friends and their new ones while they go on this journey forms the rest of the story.

 

I found ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ quite interesting. I don’t think I have read a sci-fi book which combined humour, like this, before. I think Douglas Adams was a pioneer in combining humour with science fiction. Science fiction novels are mostly fantastic – in the sense that they assume that enormous leaps of technology have been made and it is possible to travel across a galaxy in reasonable time, aliens exist etc. Such assumptions are there in this book too. But the interesting things I discovered were the small things that Adams says, which probably foreshadowed developments in technology which happened a few decades later. For example he talks about a device which Ford Prefect has in his knapsack, the description of which goes like this :

 

…he also had a device that looked rather like a largish electronic calculator. This had about a hundred tiny flat press buttons and a screen about four inches square on which any one of a million “pages” could be summoned at a moment’s notice. It looked insanely complicated.

 

To me it looked like a description of a modern tablet or a reading device like the iPad or a Kindle with which one could browse the internet and use the Google search engine.

 

In another place, Adams says this about screens :

 

For years radios had been operated by means of pressing buttons and turning dials; then as the technology became more sophisticated the controls were made touch-sensitive – you merely had to brush the panels with your fingers; now all you had to do was wave your hand in the general direction of the components and hope. It saved a lot of muscular expenditure, of course, but meant that you had to sit infuriatingly still if you wanted to keep listening to the same program.

 

I liked this passage very much because it talks about touch screens and more sophisticated user interfaces of electronic devices, which have come into being today, more than thirty-three years after the book was written. There were no touch screens or Kinect-like interfaces, even a few years back. When I first saw Kinect, I was amazed. I think it still feels like magic. And it is surprising and amazing that Adams has written about these things so many decades back.

 

I also like the subtext in the novel, using which Adams comments on different things. For example, he says this about the position of the President of the Galaxy, while indirectly taking a dig at political leaders in general and the Presidential form of government in particular.

 

The President in particular is very much a figurehead – he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it. On those criteria Zaphod Beeblebrox is one of the most successful Presidents the Galaxy has ever had – he has already spent two of his ten presidential years in prison for fraud. Very very few people realize that the President and the Government have virtually no power at all, and of these few people only six know whence ultimate political power is wielded. Most of the others secretly believe that the ultimate decision-making process is handled by a computer. They couldn’t be more wrong.

 

My favourite scene in the story is, of course, when two people ask a supercomputer called ‘Deep Thought’ what is the meaning of life, the universe and everything and it asks them to come back after seven-and-a-half million years for the answer. And when the descendants of these two people come after all those years and ask the computer for an answer, it gives them an answer, which is totally surprising and unexpected. And humorous also, in a way J

 

The book also makes interesting commentaries on the boring aspect of everyday life, on dead-end jobs where people feel that they are just a cog-in-the-wheel and have no idea of the overall picture, on how scientists, eventhough they create and invent and discover new things, still bow down to political leaders who don’t know much, how we miss the small things and not the big ones after they are gone (particularly in this passage, where Arthur Dent feels nostalgic about the earth after it has been destroyed – “New York has gone. No reaction. He’d never seriously believed it existed anyway. The dollar, he thought, has sunk for ever. Slight tremor there. Every Bogart movie has been wiped, he said to himself, and that gave him a nasty knock. McDonald’s, he thought. There is no longer any such thing as a McDonald’s hamburger. He passed out.”), on how the lowest people in a research team sometimes make the most important discoveries and how this pisses off the powerful guys in the team and on how though we think we are the centre of the universe we might actually be an unimportant and irrelevant part of it.

 

Adams also touches humorously on the many-worlds theory, on whether prime numbers are infinite or there is a highest prime number, and asks philosophical questions, in a humorous way, on what would happen and what it might mean if we were all really parts of a gigantic creature or a computer, like coral polyps are parts of a coral reef.

 

‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ is humorous, funny and a fast read. It is also surprisingly deep, philosophical and asks all the big questions in an understated,  humorous tone. I loved it. I can’t wait to read the second book in the series now.

 

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

 

Mostly Harmless

 

      “If you’re a researcher on this book thing and you were on Earth, you must have been gathering material on it.”

      “Well, I was able to extend the original entry a bit, yes.”

      “Let me see what it says in this edition then, I’ve got to see it.”

      “Yeah, okay.” He passed it over again.

      Arthur grabbed hold of it and tried to stop his hands shaking. He pressed the entry for the relevant page. The screen flashed and swirled and resolved into a page of print. Arthur stared at it.

      “It doesn’t have an entry!” he burst out.

      Ford looked over his shoulder.

      “Yes, it does,” he said, “down there, see at the bottom of the screen, just above Eccentrica Gallumbits, the triple-breasted whore of Eroticon 6.”

      Arthur followed Ford’s finger, and saw where it was pointing. For a moment it still didn’t register, then his mind nearly blew up.

      “What? Harmless? Is that all it’s got to say? Harmless! One word!”

      Ford shrugged.

      “Well, there are a hundred billion stars in the Galaxy, and only a limited amount of space in the book’s microprocessors,” he said, “and no one knew much about the Earth, of course.”

      “Well, for God’s sake, I hope you managed to rectify that a bit.”

      “Oh yes, well, I managed to transmit a new entry off to the editor. He had to trim it a bit, but it’s still an improvement.”

      “And what does it say now?” asked Arthur.

      “Mostly harmless,” admitted Ford with a slightly embarrassed cough.

      “Mostly harmless!” shouted Arthur.

 

Positive Attitude

 

      “Just don’t say things like that,” stammered Ford. “How can anyone maintain a positive mental attitude if you’re saying things like that?”

      “My God,” complained Arthur, “you’re talking about a positive mental attitude and you haven’t even had your planet demolished today. I woke up this morning and thought I’d have a nice relaxed day, do a bit of reading, brush the dog…It’s now just after four in the afternoon and I’m already being thrown out of an alien spaceship six light-years from the smoking remains of the Earth!”

      “All right,” said Ford, “just stop panicking!”

      “Who said anything about panicking?” snapped Arthur. “This is still just the culture shock. You wait till I’ve settled down into the situation and found my bearings. Then I’ll start panicking!”

 

On being stupid

 

One of the major difficulties Trillian experienced in her relationship with Zaphod was learning to distinguish between him pretending to be stupid just to get people off their guard, pretending to be stupid because he couldn’t be bothered to think and wanted someone else to do it for him, pretending to be outrageously stupid to hide the fact that he actually didn’t understand what was going on, and really being genuinely stupid.

 

On being safe

 

      “Is it safe?” he said.

      “Magrathea’s been dead for five million years,” said Zaphod, “of course it’s safe. Even the ghosts will have settled down and raised families by now.”

 

On problems

 

      “You think you’ve got problems,” said Marvin, as if he was addressing a newly occupied coffin, “what are you supposed to do if you are a manically depressed robot? No, don’t bother to answer that, I’m fifty thousand times more intelligent than you and even I don’t know the answer. It gives me a headache to think down to your level.”

 

Going to have a look

 

     “What happened?” said Arthur.

      “They stopped,” said Zaphod with a  shrug.

      “Why?”

      “Dunno, do you want to go and ask them?”

      “No.”

      They waited

      “Hello?” called out Ford.

      No answer.

      “That’s odd.”

      “Perhaps it’s a trap.”

      “They haven’t the wit.”

      “What were those thuds?”

      “Dunno.”

      They waited for a few more seconds.

      “Right,” said Ford, “I’m going to have a look.”

      He glanced round at the others.

      “Is no one going to say, No, you can’t possibly, let me go instead?

      They all shook their heads.

      “Oh well,” he said, and stood up.

 

On being too fast

 

      The aircar rocketed them at speeds in excess of R17…

      R is a velocity measure, defined as a reasonable speed of travel that is consistent with health, mental well-being and not being more than, say, five minutes late. It is therefore clearly an almost infinitely variable figure according to circumstances, since the first two factors vary not only with speed taken as an absolute, but also with awareness of the third factor. Unless handled with tranquility this equation can result in considerable stress, ulcers and even death.

      R17 is not a fixed velocity, but it is clearly far too fast.

 

Have you read ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’? What do you think about it?

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A few days back I was looking for some light, breezy reading and when I looked at my bookshelves, ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’ by P.D.James leapt at me. So I took the book down from the shelf and read it. It was a fast read, and I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.

What I think

 

In ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’ P.D.James gives an overview of British detective fiction in the past one hundred and fifty years. The key operative word here is ‘British’. She begins with how it all started, the debates on which novel can be regarded as the first ever detective novel and how the creation of a detective unit in the actual police force was a pre-requisite before a novel could be regarded as a detective novel. She then talks about Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Moonstone’ and how it was the pioneer in this area. She goes on to talk about the familiar icons – Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and the kind of influence Holmes had on subsequent detectives, Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple and how they were detective superstars for decades, though the overall structure of their stories was very predictable. She then talks about the Golden Age of British detective fiction and the authors and detectives who peopled those times. She takes a digression here and goes beyond British detective fiction and talks about American hardboiled fiction by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and talks about how they are very different when compared to the fiction written by the Golden Age authors. She goes on to talk about the four great women authors who wrote detective fiction – Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham and Ngaio Marsh. She then describes the basic elements of a detective story and how different authors had improvised these elements in their own unique way, sharing her own experiences when she was working on her books.  She then concludes by looking at why some critics like detective stories and others don’t and describes how the detective fiction landscape looks like today and gives her prediction on how it will look like in the future.

 

Before I started reading the book, I smiled at it. I have been reading detective fiction in different languages ever since I can remember and I thought I knew one or two things about it. One or two things that P.D.James might not know 🙂 So, I first made a list of things that I knew, which I thought James may not include in her book. The list had these things :

(1)   As the book is called ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’, I thought I will make a list of detective fiction authors who were American. My list had authors like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett,  Mickey Spillane, Robert B. Parker, Walter Moseley (all American). I ignored the Scandinavian guys, Andrea Camilleri (Italian), the Russian Agatha Christie Alexandra Marinina and detective fiction writers in my own language like Tamilvanan, Sujatha, Rajesh Kumar, the famous Urdu writer Ibn-e-Safi and the Chinese writer Qiu Xiaolong, because I knew that P.D.James wouldn’t have heard of them. (If we get curious and ask the question – is it possible to write a global history of detective fiction? My answer – ‘Impossible’! There are too many writers in far too many languages!)

(2)   I included Georges Simenon as a separate name on the list. Though Simenon wrote in French, he is a true legend of the detective fiction genre and he started writing detective fiction at the same time that the Golden Age authors did and his career coincided with Agatha Christie’s career for decades. So I thought that anyone who ignored Simenon did so at their own peril.

(3)   I added a couple of British writers, who don’t seem to be so well known today as detective fiction writers, to the list. They are Freeman Wills Crofts and A.A.Milne. Milne wrote just one detective novel called ‘The Red House Mystery’, but I thought he deserved to be talked about. After a lot of reluctance, I also added Georgette Heyer to the list.

(4)   I added a few writers of historical mysteries to the list. Though they wrote novels which are set in ancient times, I thought they were important, because they also wrote mysteries. The names I included were Ellis Peters (who wrote the Cadfael mysteries), Lindsey Davis (whose mysteries featuring Marcus Didius Falco, one of my favourite detectives, is set in ancient Rome), Margaret Doody (in whose novels Aristotle features as a detective), Umberto Eco (whose ‘The Name of the Rose’ can be regarded, among other things, as a detective novel), Boris Akunin (who wrote the Fandorin and the Sister Pelagia novels) and Susanna Gregory (who wrote the Matthew Bartholomew novels set in Cambridge university). 

(5)   I also added Edgar Allan Poe as a separate name on the list. Many people regard Poe as the founder of modern detective fiction because he was the first to introduce a fictional detective – Auguste Lupin in some of his short stories. Poe, however, never wrote a detective novel. I wanted to know what James thought about Poe and whether she gave him credit for inventing the genre.

(6)   I also added James Hadley Chase to the list. Chase was regarded as the British Raymond Chandler. In my own opinion, in terms of plotting and pace, Chase was better than Chandler, though Chandler’s prose was better and beautiful. I wanted to know whether James mentions Chase anywhere.

 

After having made my list, I read the book carefully. I wanted to find out whether James missed out someone. Whether she tripped up somewhere. I was ready to catch her if she did and point out the omission. It was an interesting experience to read the book this way. The result of this exercise was this (in football terms) : PD James 1 – Vishy 0 🙂 James didn’t trip a single time! To make her position clear, she says at the beginning of the book that it is a survey of British detective fiction. However, she gives a separate chapter for American hardboiled fiction writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett (though she doesn’t mention Mickey Spillane or Walter Moseley or Robert B. Parker). She writes a wonderful few passages about A.A.Milne’s ‘The Red House Mystery’ (I really thought I would catch her here 🙂), she talks about Ellis Peters and Lindsey Davis in one of the later chapters (though she doesn’t mention Margaret Doody or Umberto Eco, especially Umberto Eco whose ‘The Name of the Rose’ can be both treated as detective fiction and literary fiction), she writes about how Edgar Allan Poe created the first modern fictional detective (though she gives more weight to Wilkie Collins as the father of the modern detective novel). Unfortunately, she doesn’t mention James Hadley Chase anywhere, which is unfortunate, because though he is unknown and underrated today, he was one of the most wonderful storytellers there ever was. Maybe James thought that he was a crime novelist and didn’t really write detective fiction. So far so good. But on one item, I thought I will really score a point over James. I thought she wouldn’t talk about Georges Simenon. It didn’t happen till the last chapter. But in the last chapter she gives Simenon his due and gushes about him. She also talks about detective fiction from Scandinavia, Italy, Russia, Iceland, Japan. I have to say that by the time I had finished the book, James had won me over completely by her knowledge, her warmth, her beautiful prose, her comprehensive tackling of the subject, her wisdom. I had total admiration and affection for her.

 

I have two minor quibbles though. The first one is that James misses out Freeman Wills Crofts. Freeman Wills Crofts was one of the greats of the Golden Age and his books were regarded as forerunners of the modern day ‘police procedural’. Unfortunately, he is not so well-known today. I think he should find a place atleast in a book on the history of detective fiction. My second quibble is that James doesn’t talk much about herself, though she does share her thoughts on how she got ideas for her novels and the kind of research she did to write them and how she came upon the setting described in her novels. As a detective fiction novelist, James is one of the greats in her domain and so her being modest, though it is the polite thing to do, makes the reader yearn for more. The book compares Agatha Christie’s novels with Dorothy Sayers’ and Margery Allingham’s and Ngaio Marsh’s. We would have liked to know how James’ novels stacked against these great women’s novels. But this is one of the conundrums in the book – it is like asking Maradona to write about the history of football or Tendulkar to write about the history of cricket or Steffi Graf to write about the history of tennis – how much will he / she write about himself / herself but still continue to be polite? It is a tough situation to be in.

 

Agatha Christie fans will have a few things to quibble about in the book. For example, James says this about Christie :

Her style is neither original nor elegant but it is workmanlike.

And then she says this :

Agatha Christie hasn’t in my view had a profound influence on the later development of the detective story. She wasn’t an innovative writer and had no interest in exploring the possibilities of the genre.

And here comes the double-edged sword.

Above all she is a literary conjuror who places her pasteboard characters face downwards and shuffles them with practiced cunning.

However she also says nice things about Christie, and explores why Christie’s mysteries have been so successful across the decades. Unfortunately, the above comments stand out, and Christie fans might be irked by this. 

 

After reading the book, I discovered that despite having knowledge of some of the arcane aspects of detective fiction, I haven’t read books by many of the legends of the genre. There were so many gaps in my reading. So, I thought I will make a ‘TBR’ list of detective fiction, based on the books that James mentions in her book. Here is what it looks like :

 

(1)   Caleb Williams by William Godwin (published in 1794 and regarded as the first ever detective novel)

(2)   Four Auguste Dupin short stories by Edgar Allan Poe‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’, ‘The Mystery of Mary Roget’, ‘The Purloined Letter’, ‘The Gold-Bug’

(3)   The Father Brown Stories by G.K.Chesterton

(4)   Trent’s Last Case by E.C.Bentley (regarded as the novel which heralded the Golden Age of detective fiction)

(5)   Two books by Edmund Crispin – ‘The Case of the Gilded Fly’ and ‘The Moving Toyshop’

(6)   ‘Speedy Death’ by Gladys Mitchell (starring Dame Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley – isn’t Beatrice Lestrange one of the villainous witches in the Harry Potter series? Why did J.K.Rowling give this name to one of the villains? Is there a story behind that?)

(7)   Books by Michael Innes (starring Sir John Appleby of Scotland Yard – I really want to read these stories!)

(8)   Tragedy at Law by Cyril Hare

(9)   Three novels by Josephine Tey – ‘The Man in the Queue’, ‘Brat Farrar’ and ‘The Franchise Affair’

(10)                       Books by Ross Macdonald (starring Detective Lew Archer)

(11)                       Books by Sara Paretsky (starring V.I.Warchawski)

(12)                       Three books by Dorothy L. Sayers‘Strong Poison’, ‘Have his Carcase’, ‘Gaudy Night’

(13)                       Two novels by Margery Allingham‘Flowers for the Judge’, ‘More Work for the Undertaker’

(14)                       Three novels by Ngaio Marsh‘Vintage Murder’, ‘Colour Scheme’, ‘Died in the Wool’

(15)                       Historical mysteries by C.J.Sansom

(16)                       The Lady Investigates : Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction by Patricia Craig and Mary Cadogan

(17)                       The Great Detectives ed. By Otto Penzler

(18)                       Bloody Murder by Julian Symons

 

I loved ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’ by P.D.James. It is a slim gem but it is comprehensive and it is a must-read for detective fiction fans. Highly recommended.

 

I will leave you with a link to Bina’s wonderful review of the book and some of my favourite passages from the book.

 

One of the criticisms of the detective story is that this imposed pattern is mere formula writing, that it binds the novelist in a straitjacket which is inimical to the artistic freedom which is essential to creativity, and that subtlety of characterization, a setting which comes alive for the reader and even credibility are sacrificed to the dominance of structure and plot. But what I find fascinating is the extraordinary variety of books and writers which this so-called formula has been able to accommodate, and how many authors have found the constraints and conventions of the detective story liberating rather than inhibiting of their creative imagination. To say that one cannot produce a good novel within the discipline of a formal structure is as foolish as to say that no sonnet can be great poetry since a sonnet is restricted to fourteen lines – an octave and a sestet – and a strict rhyming sequence. And detective stories are not the only novels which conform to a recognized convention and structure. All Jane Austen’s novels have a common storyline : an attractive and virtuous young woman surmounts difficulties to achieve marriage to the man of her choice. This is the age-long convention of the romantic novel, but with Jane Austen what we have is Mills & Boon written by a genius.

 

And however well I think I know my characters, they reveal themselves more clearly during the writing of the book, so that at the end, however carefully and intricately the work is plotted, I never get exactly the novel I planned. It feels, indeed, as if the characters and everything that happens to them exists in some limbo of the imagination, so that what I am doing is not inventing them but getting in touch with them and putting their story down in black and white, a process of revelation not of creation.

 

Certainly all the major novelists in the canon of English literature have told stories, some exciting, some tragic, some slight, some mysterious, but all of them have the virtue of leaving us with a need to know what happens next as we turn each page. For a time in the late twentieth century it seemed that the story was losing its status and that psychological analysis, a complicated and occasionally inaccessible style and an egotistic introspection were taking over from action. Happily there now seems to be a return to the art of storytelling.

 

(Comment : I am not sure whether novelists are back to storytelling these days, but I am happy that P.D.James feels that way.)

 

Have you read ‘Talking about Detective Fiction’ by P.D.James? Have you read books / writers in the above list? What do you think about them?

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I have wanted to read ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Brontë for many years now. Finally I got a chance to read it last week. The story of ‘Wuthering Heights’ starts with a man called Mr.Lockwood, who is also the narrator of the story, renting a house called Thrushcross Grange, in the countryside. The owner of the house is Mr.Heathcliff who lives a few miles away in a house called Wuthering Heights. Lockwood tries to become friends with Heathcliff but finds that Heathcliff is a difficult man to talk to. He discovers a young man and a young woman who live in Heathcliff’s house and learns that the young man is the son of the former master of Wuthering Heights, while the young woman is Heathcliff’s daughter-in-law. No one tells him anything else. One evening, while Lockwood is resting at home, because he is unwell and the weather is cold, he asks his housekeeper Ellen Dean, about Heathcliff and his family. It turns out that Ellen Dean knows Heathcliff since the time he came to Wuthering Heights as a child. So Ellen starts telling the story of Heathcliff and Hindley and Catherine, with herself as a childhood playmate of these three. She describes the childhood rivalry between Hindley and Heathcliff, about Heathcliff’s and Catherine’s love for each other, how Catherine chooses to marry Linton because that is socially more appropriate, how Heathcliff hates Hindley and Linton and disappears from Wuthering Heights only to come back a few years later and extract his revenge on them and how he carries on his revenge-taking to the next generation and what happens after that.  

I found ‘Wuthering Heights’ quite dark and intense. There were a few sunny, happy scenes in the beginning and throughout the book, but most of the time it was dark and intense. The part of the book where Heathcliff returns back to Wuthering Heights and proceeds to ruin the lives of Hindley and the Lintons was quite sad and tragic. I didn’t have many favourite characters in the story – I disliked Heathcliff because he is really a man with a  dark heart and I didn’t like Catherine or Hindley either. Edgar Linton was not bad. Probably the younger Catherine was my favourite character in the story. Maybe Hareton was nice too. The narrator of the story, Lockwood, and Ellen Dean who narrates Heathcliff’s story to Lockwood, were likeable, though they didn’t have a major part to play in the story. At some point I despaired on whether the atmosphere of the book will change, and whether a ray of sunshine will come out. It happened on page 360 of the book (the book had 395 pages). So sunshine did come out after 90% of the story was over and things turned out better for the younger Catherine, Hareton and Ellen Dean. I was happy when I read the last 10% of the book.

 

The book reminded me of an old Tamil movie that I have seen. It is called Avargal’ (it had Rajinikanth and Sujatha in lead roles). In that movie a husband and a wife get  because they are not able to get along well. The wife moves to a different city with her kid and starts working in a new company. She meets a guy there and falls in love with him. The husband follows her and meets her again and tries to be nice to her, and when the wife likes the new guy, he prevents her from taking it forward. He keeps on putting roadblocks to happiness in her life and when the wife discovers that it is too late. When she asks him why he is torturing her he replies that he liked torturing her because it gave him a lot of pleasure and he wants her to be miserable and didn’t want to see her happy ever. It was a very dark movie and one hated the character played by Rajinikanth after watching the movie. Heathcliff reminded me of that role – someone who always tries to be nasty and makes the other person miserable and takes pleasure out of it. At some point in the beginning he seems to have some reason for it, but later when he tries to take it out on the next generation it feels too nasty.

 

I read a little bit about Emily Brontë, after reading the book. It was sad that she died young – she was just thirty years old. I felt very sad when I read that. I also read that Emily Brontë alongwith her sisters Charlotte, Anne and brother Branwell had a literary club at home and used to write poems, novels and publish a newsletter which the family read. In an era, when there was no internet or telephone or email or music system or film and when avenues of entertainment or intellectual pursuits were limited and when the lives of women were restricted, it was wonderful to know that the Brontës lives a rich inner life, intellectually, culturally and literarily. It is amazing that it takes so little to live a rich inner life and create beautiful works of art, if one puts one’s mind to it, but it is so difficult in the modern age to realize that, looking at the way we are tied down by the telephone and the email and the internet and the other myriad trappings of modern life. 

 

I want to read Emily Brontë’s sister Charlotte Brontë’s ‘Jane Eyre’ next.

 

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

 

      “You shouldn’t lie till ten. There’s the very prime of the morning gone long before that time. A person who has not done one half his day’s work by ten o’clock, runs a chance of leaving the other half undone.”

 (Comment : This passage made me smile, because I remembered listening to nearly these exact lines in a Luis Buñuel movie called ‘Diary of a Chambermaid’. It is amazing how two unrelated works of art can have exactly the same dialogue. My mind also thought – Did Buñuel get inspired by Emily Brontë’s lines? Or was this a common sentiment which was expressed by everyone during that era?).

 

‘He said the pleasantest manner of spending a hot July day was lying from morning till evening on a bank of heath in the middle of the moors, with the bees humming dreamily about among the bloom, and the larks singing high up over head, and the blue sky, and bright sun shining steadily and cloudlessly. That was his most perfect idea of heaven’s happiness – mine was rocking in a rustling green tree, with a west wind blowing, and bright, white clouds flitting rapidly above; and not only larks, but throstles, and blackbirds, and linnets, and cuckoos pouring out music on every side, and the moors seen at a distance, broken into cool dusky dells; but close by great swells of long grass undulating in waves to the breeze, and woods and sounding water, and the whole world awake and wild with joy. He wanted all to lie in an ecstasy of peace; I wanted all to sparkle, and dance in a glorious jubilee.

      ‘I said his heaven would be only half alive, and he said mine would be drunk; I said I should fall asleep in his, and he said he could not breathe in mine, and began to grow snappish. At last, we agreed to try both as soon as the right weather came;

 

Have you read Emily Brontë’s ‘Wuthering Heights’? What do you think about it?

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I have been a ‘bad’ blogger of late. My reading is going okay, but not as good as expected. I am one review behind – ‘Four Letter Word : New Love Letters’ edited by Rosalind Porter and Joshua Knelman, in case you are curious – and I am reading Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ now. ‘Wuthering Heights’ is a tough read, filled with dark characters, which makes it difficult for me to turn the page, because I don’t know who is going to suffer next. So, I thought I will post some music 🙂

I was going through the archives in my computer a few days back trying to find something, and I discovered some old songs that I used to like very much. When I heard them again I felt very nostalgic – I liked them very much even after all these years. Here is my most favourite out of the ones I listened to. It is in Chinese, and it is called ‘The First Snow of 2002’. Happy Listening!

The translated lyrics of the song go like this.

The First Snow of 2002

The first snow of 2002
Came later than it did before
The public bus which stops at the Kunlun hotel
Carried away the last fallen autumn leaf
The first snow of 2002
Is the complex story from Wulumuqi that I cannot give up
You are like a fluttering butterfly
Fluttering about in the virgin snow like a flickering flame

I cannot forget the feeling of you in my arms
Warmer than the passion inside my heart
I forget the biting cold North wind outside the windows
As I bring forth familiar tender emotions

It is your red lips that I hold fast in my memory
It is your every care which makes me feel alive again
It is your ten thousand tender sentiments which melt the ice
It is your sweet speech and honeyed words which change the season

Thanks to Soul Muser from Life Wordsmith for identifying the singer of the song and for showing me the translation. Thanks to my old friend Dop Sun for introducing me to the song in the first place and for giving me more information on Dao Lang.

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I won ‘The Gargoyle’ by Andrew Davidson in a giveaway hosted by Delia of Postcards from Asia. After reading Delia’s wonderful review of it, I couldn’t wait to read it. I started reading it a few days back and finished it a couple of days back. Here is what I think.

 

What I think

 

‘The Gargoyle’ is about a nameless narrator (I discovered to my surprise, and only accidentally, after finishing the book, that the narrator’s name was not revealed), who gets caught in an accident while he is driving and his car gets off the cliff. He suffers serious burns, but somehow survives and ends up in a hospital. He discovers that he has lost all his wonderful looks. He also loses most of his money for his medical treatment. He can’t imagine living again in the world. He decides to commit suicide after getting released from the hospital. When he is contemplating thus, a mysterious woman comes to his hospital room and befriends him. She says that her name is Marianne Engel and she was born in the 14th century, and that she fell in love with him then and she has been waiting for him to come back into her life. She tells him many medieval love stories set in different countries – in Italy, in Germany, in Japan, in Iceland. She also tells him her own story – how she grew up in a medieval monastery, how her talent for languages was identified and how she ended up working in the scriptorium and became a nun and how she met the narrator and how they fell in love and what happened after that. She also says that she is a sculptor now and she helps bring out gargoyles from stones when they cry out to her. All this puzzles our narrator. He thinks that Marianne might be having manic depression or schizophrenia. He asks the psychiatrist in the hospital about this, and the psychiatrist neither confirms nor denies it. But the narrator discovers that Marianne had been in the hospital for a brief while for psychiatric treatment. However, he goes along with her and Marianne spends time with him and makes him feel human and feel loved. Then the time comes for his discharge from the hospital. The doctor treating him wants him to join a facility which helps burn patients. But Marianne wants him to come and live with her. And she is adamant. Our narrator accepts Marianne’s offer and goes to live with her. Is Marianne really a sculptor? Is she really who she claims to be – a nun from the medieval age who has come back to claim her lost lover – or is she someone who is having psychiatric problems? What happens to the narrator’s and Marianne’s love for each other? The answers to all these questions form the rest of the story.

 

I loved ‘The Gargoyle’. Starting from the first sentence – “Accidents ambush the unsuspecting, often violently, just like love” – the book gripped me and the pages turned on their own. I liked very much the main story – the story of the narrator and Marianne. I also liked very much the story arc involving Gregor Hnatiuk, the psychiatrist, and Sayuri Mizumoto, the physiotherapist. I also liked the medieval love stories that Marianne tells the narrator – the stories of Francesco and Graziana (my favourite love story in the book), Victoria and Tom, Sei and Heisaku (which has a very beautiful and poignant ending), Siguror Sigurosson and Einarr (a gay love story). The book also has a lot of interesting information on different topics – on burns and how people who are involved in burn accidents cope with them, on medieval monasteries, on Dante’s ‘Inferno’, on Japanese culture, on science and Galileo and how Galileo’s research into the physical properties of Hell led to real developments in modern Physics, on German mysticism in the medieval age. I loved these digressions. I also liked the narrator’s sense of humour, for example, in this snippet, where he is describing the food served at a party which Marianne organizes at the hospital – “spaghetti, fettuccini, macaroni, rigatoni, cannelloni, tortellini, guglielmo marconi (just checking to see if you’re still reading)” 🙂 I was hoping that Marianne and the narrator will live happily ever after, but I was sad when I got to the end. It was beautifully, achingly sad, but it was also perfect – probably the only ending possible. I can’t wait to find out what Andrew Davidson will come up with, next.

 

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

 

Backwards Art

“Tell me why you like carving.”

“It’s backwards art. You end up with less than what you started with.”

 

The Art of Sculpting

      “I absorb the dreams of the stone, and the gargoyles inside tell me what I need to do to free them. They reveal their faces and show me what I must take away to make them whole. When I have enough information, I begin. My body wakes but there is no sense of time, there’s nothing but the work. Days pass before I realize that I haven’t slept and I’ve barely eaten. It’s like I’m digging a survivor out from underneath the avalanche of time, which has been collecting for eons and all at once has come sliding down the mountain. The gargoyles have always been in the stone but, at this precise instant, it becomes unbearable for them to remain. They’ve been hibernating in the winter of the stone, and the spring is in my chisel. If I can carve away the right pieces the gargoyle comes forth like a flower out of a rocky embankment. I’m the only one who can do it, because I understand their languages and I’m the only one who can give them the hearts necessary to begin their new lives.”

 

Hells of different types

…Marianne Engel educated me on the Icelandic version of Hel. Apparently it is a place not of fire but of ice : while English speakers say that it’s “hot as Hell,” Icelanders say helkuldi, “cold as Hell.” This makes sense : having spent their entire lives hammered down by the frigid climate, how could they fear anything more than an eternal version of the same thing? For the burnt man, might I add, it is particularly attractive that the notion subverts the Judeo-Christian idea that the means of eternal torment must be fire.

      That Hell is tailored to the individual is hardly a new idea. It is, in fact, one of the greatest artistic triumphs in Dante’s Inferno : the punishment for every sinner fits his sin.

 

The Paradox of Life

I was born beautiful and lived beautifully for thirty-plus years, and during all that time I never once allowed my soul to know love. My unblemished skin was numb armor used to attract women with its shininess, while repelling any true emotion and protecting the wearer. The most erotic of actions were merely technical : sex was mechanics, conquest a hobby; my body constantly used, but rarely enjoyed. In short, I was born with all the advantages that a monster never had, and I chose to disregard them all.

      Now my armor had melted away and been replaced with a raw wound. The line of beauty that I had used to separate myself from people was gone, replaced by a new barrier – ugliness – that kept people away from me, whether I liked it or not. One might expect the result to be the same, but that was not entirely true. While I was now surrounded by far fewer people than before, they were far better people. When my former acquaintances took a quick glance at me in the burn ward before turning around to walk out, they left the door open for Marianne Engel. Nan Edwards, Gregor Hnatiuk, and Sayuri Mizumoto.

      What an unexpected reversal of fate : only after my skin was burned away did I finally become able to feel. Only after I was born into physical repulsiveness did I come to glimpse the possibilities of the heart : I accepted this atrocious face and abominable body because they were forcing me to overcome the limitations of who I am, while my previous body allowed me to hide them.

      I am no hero in soul and never will be, but I am better than I was. Or so I tell myself; and for now, that is enough.

 

On Love

      I once knew a woman who liked to imagine Love in the guise of a sturdy dog, one that would always chase down the stick after it was thrown and return with his ears flopping around happily. Completely loyal, completely unconditional. And I laughed at her, because even I knew that love is not like that. Love is a delicate thing that needs to be cosseted and protected. Love is not robust and love is not unyielding. Love can crumble under a few harsh words, or be tossed away with a handful of careless actions. Love isn’t a steadfast dog at all; love is more like a pygmy mouse lemur…

      Marianne Engel’s love for me seemed built on so flimsy a premise that I assumed it would come apart the moment we stepped through the hospital doors. How could a love based on a fictional past survive into an actual future? It was impossible. That kind of love was a thing to be snatched up and crushed in the jaws of real life.

      That was my fear, but this Christmas Day had shown me that Marianne Engel’s love was not feeble. It was strapping, it was muscular, it was massive. I thought that it could fill only my room in the burn ward, but it filled the entire hospital. More important, her love was not reserved only for me; it was shared generously with strangers – people she didn’t think were friends from the fourteenth century.

      All my life I had heard foolish stories about love : that the more you give away, the more you have. This had always struck me as nothing more than a violation of basic mathematical principles. But watching Marianne Engel share her love so widely awakened in me the weirdest of romantic feelings : the opposite of jealousy.

 

Have you read ‘The Gargoyle’? What do you think about it?

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