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Archive for January, 2018

Anne Fadiman is one of my favourite writers. Her essay collection ‘Ex Libris‘ is one of my alltime favourite books. But unfortunately her literary output is very thin. Anne Fadiman is like the J.D.Salinger or Harper Lee of our times. There are two essay collections, ‘Ex Libris‘ and ‘At Large and At Small’, and one non-fiction book about the Hmong community called ‘The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down‘, in her backlist. She has also edited two essay collections, ‘Rereadings : Seventeen Writers Revisit Books They Love’ and ‘The Best American Essays 2003’. I have seen an introduction by her in another book, whose title I can’t remember. That is all there is. Three books, two edited collections, and one essay somewhere. It is slim. It makes Anne Fadiman fans like me yearn for more, everyday. So any new Anne Fadiman book is an event. When I discovered that Anne Fadiman’s new book was coming out, I was so excited. It was called ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ and it was a memoir about her father. When I got the book and held it in my hands, I was so happy. I read it slowly over the last week and finished reading it yesterday.

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‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ is mostly about Anne Fadiman’s father Clifton Fadiman. Clifton Fadiman was a famous writer of his era. He mostly wrote essays and edited anthologies. He was the editor-in-chief at Simon and Schuster, a book reviewer for The New Yorker, was part of the Book-of-the-Month club, was on the Board of the Encyclopedia Britannica, was a radio host of a programme on books, and also anchored a literary quiz show on television. He was also a lover of wine. In the book, Anne Fadiman talks about how her father started from humble beginnings as part of an East European Jewish immigrant family, how he fell in love with books when he was a kid, a love affair which lasted for his whole life, how he faced discrimination at different times because of his Jewish background, how he tried to escape from his Jewish background and become a regular WASP intellectual, and which led to his fascination and love for wine, which became another of his lifelong love affairs. Anne Fadiman also talks about her own relationship with her father, about her own ambiguous relationship with wine, and during the course of the book she takes our hand and leads us into the Fadiman house where we get to hear private conversations between the family members, their thoughts and feelings and their points of view, and understand the fascinating, affectionate, complex relationships between them. On the way, Anne Fadiman dedicates a chapter to her mother, who was an accomplished person too and was a war correspondent in the Far East before she got married to Clifton Fadiman. That chapter made me want to read more about Anne Fadiman’s mother, Annalee Whitmore Jacoby Fadiman. There are some anecdotes in the book involving famous people, including P.L.Travers, Ernest Hemingway and M.F.K.Fisher. They were all interesting to read.

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Though the book is a memoir, it is also about the love for wine. It describes how Anne Fadiman’s father first discovered wine and how he developed a lifelong love for it. This is what the book says about the first time he tried wine.

He always said this first taste felt less like a new experience than like an old one that had been waiting all his life for him to catch up to it. He tried to describe it by analogy – it was like Plato’s doctrine of reminiscence, or like the moment when the hero of Conrad’s “Youth” reaches the East, or like Napoleon’s realization that he was born to be a soldier – but invariably fell back on the language of eros. The Graves spoke to him : “I am your fate. You are mine. Love me.”

In another place, Anne Fadiman talks about her father’s love for wine. Here is how it goes.

Aside from books, he loved nothing – and no one – longer, more ardently, or more faithfully than he loved wine.
      These were some of his reasons.
      Wine provided sensory pleasures equaled only by sex.
      Wine was complex. “Water and milk,” he wrote, “may be excellent drinks, but their charms are repetitive. God granted them swallowability, and rested.”
      Wine was various, both in its chemistry (alcoholic content, sugar, iron, tannins) and in its moods (champagne for celebration, port for consolation).
      Wine was companionable. “A bottle of wine begs to be shared,” he wrote. “I have never met a miserly wine lover.”

This list goes on for the next couple of pages.

In another page, Anne Fadiman describes what her father says about how wine ages across the years.

      My father wrote that wine is “not dead matter, like a motorcar, but a live thing.” It moves through the same life cycle as a human being : infancy, youth, prime, old age, senescence. Unfortified wines have shorter life spans than Madeira, but a great red wine, properly stored, can last a century, evolving with each passing decade. It’s not like a bottle of Coca-Cola or vodka, exactly the same no matter when you open it.

When Clifton Fadiman’s eightieth birthday was celebrated by his family and friends, the invite contained a facsimile of The New York Times from the day of his birth, with a news item about his birth ‘Clifton Fadiman born : Brooklyn stunned by great event.‘ Below that was this description :

“Fadiman’s mother, Grace, was heard to complain that her son had turned down a bottle of milk and asked instead for a bottle of Château Mouton Rothschild ’29. His father, Isadore, explained that this request would be difficult to fill because it was only 1904.”

That passage made me smile 🙂

There are many interesting facts about wine in the book, most of them well known to wine lovers. But if you are like me, you might like these three.

“We can still drink port and sherry from the nineteenth century because they are fortified wines, infused with brandy to halt fermentation.”

“With the exception of sweet dessert wines, white wines are less durable because the tannin-rich grape skins are removed from the juice before fermentation – which is also why they’re white, since the juice of all grapes, both red and white, is nearly colorless; it’s the skins that provide the pigment.”

“We tasted the wine. I thought it would be strong and sour (a word shunned by wine connoisseurs – they call it dry).”

The book mentions many famous wines like Château Mouton Rothschild ’29, Château Lafite Rothschild 1904, Haut-Brion, Madeira 1835. It mentions Premier Cru and Grand Cru wines. It mentions Bordeaux and Burgundys. If you love wines and these names mean something to you, reading about them will give you goosebumps.

Though Anne Fadiman mostly says nice things about her father, and shares her love for him with us readers, she doesn’t shy away from his flaws. For example, in one place she says this :

“My father was a male chauvinist. He liked women – relished them, studied them, adored them. As a good progressive…he supported the Equal Rights Amendment…But that didn’t stop him from being reflexively condescending…He asserted that although they were better drivers…women are not as good at conversation and they know absolutely nothing about wine…he continued to make jokes about the bird-witted literary tastes of housewives; to call women “girls”; and, in both speech and writing, to use “he” when he meant “he or she”…My father believed there were certain things only a man should do. Earn more than his spouse. Pay the check at a restaurant. Hold the tickets at an airport. Be the last through a door. Tell the taxi driver where to go. Repeat an off-color joke.”

I admired Anne Fadiman for saying that.

Two-thirds into the book, Anne Fadiman spends a whole chapter on how her father became blind in his old age. When her father realizes that he wouldn’t be able to see again, he has a conversation with her. This is how it goes.

“He told me there were two reasons his life was no longer worth living : he would burden my mother, and he couldn’t read. He asked if I would help him die.”

When I read that, I cried. That is the worst thing that can happen to a book lover – losing sight. It was heartbreaking to read.

The book has notes in the end and a reasonably long acknowledgement section. Like in any Anne Fadiman book, these are beautiful, charming, informative and heartwarming. Fadiman writes the best acknowledgement pages.

Well, we have reached the end of this review now. Or nearly there. ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter‘ is a beautiful book. It is vintage Anne Fadiman. It is about love, family, parents and children, and friendship. It is also an ode to books and reading, and a love letter to wine.  If you like memoirs, wine, Anne Fadiman’s books, or some or all of these, this book is a must read.

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

“When you reread a classic you do not see more in the book than you did before; you see more in you than there was before.”

“Relationships with parents wax and wane, following their own natural cycles. I was fortunate to have loved both my parents, and been loved by both, but I sometimes felt closer to one and sometimes to the other. In college, when I was studying English literature, I felt closer to my father. In my twenties and thirties, when I was working as a reporter, I felt closer to my mother. In my early forties, when I started to write essays, the tide turned back in my father’s direction. Essays were his territory, and I might never have ventured over the border if I hadn’t been confined to bed during eight months of Henry’s gestation and obliged to find a literary genre that could be executed from a horizontal position. But something else had changed too. There comes a point when oaklings outgrow the diminutive and stop worrying about withering beneath the shadow of the oak. I no longer bristled – a slight sigh sufficed – when I was told, “You’re following in your father’s footsteps” or “You have your father’s genes.” He had my genes, too. There has been a time when nothing would have pleased me more than to be better known than he was, but as he grew frailer, I started to worry that someday this might actually happen. If my father were forgotten, the balance of my world would shift so disorientingly that I’d lose my footing. I still check periodically to make sure he has more Google entries than I do.”

Have you read ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter‘? What do you think about it? Have you read other Anne Fadiman books?

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When I discovered that T. F. Carthick’s first book ‘Unfairy Tales‘ was coming out this month, I couldn’t wait to get it and read it. I finished reading the book today.

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Unfairy Tales‘ is a collection of seven fairy tales. All the tales are famous ones which most of us have read. But that is not the end of the story. Because there is more to them than meets the eye. The stories are all told from an unusual, unexpected point of view. Sometimes, the person, who we think is the bad person in the original fairytale, tells the story. We see the events unfolding in a totally unexpected way from this unusual point of view, that we start questioning whether our original understanding of the fairytale is correct. Sometimes the narrator of the story is a totally unexpected character and in one story the city is the narrator. That point of view is fascinating, I think. Some of the stories have different endings from the original fairytales, while others have the same endings as the originals, but because we see the story from a new, novel point of view, the ending looks very different. It is like looking at a familiar building from different angles and from different levels of elevation – the same thing unfolds itself in new perspectives, and reveals hidden depths of beauty.

Throughout the book, the author pays homage to literary masters like Charles Dickens and Douglas Adams and each of the story titles is a homage, in itself, to a famous literary work. The stories are also filled with subtext which allude to specific scenes or lines or inferences in other literary texts. It is fun to spot these subtexts. Sometimes the narrator of a fairytale steps a little bit outside the specific events and ventures into the general, and offers commentary on the human condition, on the position of women in relation to men, on the relationship between humans and animals and the environment, on the evolution of human history, on imperialism and colonization, and sometimes even on contemporary affairs. One of my favourite passages, from this perspective, was this one :

“This is always the way of men. Dire situations call for the best of men at the helm. But instead, when things turn bad, people more often than not end up choosing the worst among them to lead. It would be years before the people would realize the disastrous consequences of choosing one such…”

Another of my favourite passages was this one :

“Isn’t this usually the way with you humans? If you stumble upon something, you obviously have to break in. Then you will take what you like. After that you will throw out the original inhabitants and erect fences to keep them out.”

The cover art is by Rashmi Prabhu and it is in vivid colour and depicts the main elements of the featured fairytales beautifully. I loved Rashmi Prabhu’s cover art and colourplates in Ushasi Sen Basu’s delightful novel ‘Kathputli’, and it appears that with each new book her artwork is growing from strength to strength. 

So, that’s it. This is my sufficiently vague review of ‘Unfairy Tales‘ – I haven’t revealed the name of any story or the name of any narrator, haven’t talked about the endings which are surprising and different, and haven’t talked about specific literary allusions. These are not for me to reveal. These are for you to read and find out.

I loved ‘Unfairy Tales‘. I think whether one is a child or a teenager or a grown up, one will enjoy it in different ways. I loved the unusual points of view, the sometimes surprising endings, the literary allusions, the homage to the masters, the commentary on the human condition – together they created magic. T. F. Carthick has followed in the long tradition of Angela Carter and John Connolly and Michael Cunningham and composed a book which offers a fresh new perspective on some of our favourite fairytales. It is a wonderful debut. I can’t wait to find out what he comes up with next.

Have you read ‘Unfairy Tales‘? What do you think about it?

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I got the graphic novel adaptation of Philippe Claudel’sBrodeck’s Report‘ last week. The artwork was by Manu Larcenet. The story told in ‘Brodeck’s Report‘ goes like this. In the first scene, Brodeck walks from his home, in the outskirts of his village, to the inn in the village. He goes there to get some butter. When he enters the inn, he is surprised. Because nearly all the menfolk of the village are there in the inn. There is a menacing air about them. Then someone looks at the door of a room in the inn. Brodeck follows their gaze and looks at that door. Then light dawns on him. He tells the men that they shouldn’t have done that. One of the men, who looks like the leader, says that Brodeck should write a report about the events that happened, in which he should dispassionately lay down the facts, so that it can be submitted to the authorities. Brodeck, after some hesitation, agrees. We soon get to know that a stranger, whose real name is not known, who has been staying for a while in that room in the inn, is dead. And the others have probably killed him. Brodeck attempts to get to the bottom of this affair. He talks to different people in the village, uses information that he has in the form of diaries and letters, and uses his own past experiences and memories to write that report. Interwoven into that report is Brodeck’s own story, his past and his present and the happenings in the village in the past many years. What emerges is a dark, bleak, haunting story of flawed, innocent human beings who are pitted against the cruel forces of history.

Tamil Edition Cover

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French Edition Cover

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So, what do I think about the book? I am sure that Philippe Claudel’s prose is beautiful in the original novel, which I hope to read sometime – after all, it won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize when it came out. But I will focus more on the graphic novel adaptation here. Manu Larcenet’s graphic novel adaptation of the original novel is brilliant. The artwork is in black-and-white, and it works wonderfully because of the story’s theme. Larcenet plays with contrasts like a master – with light and dark, with mountains and snow, with forest and village – and brings the haunting, eerie, bleak atmosphere, brilliantly on the page. I spent a lot of time lingering on some of the individual panels and admiring the details. It was exquisite artwork. I love illustrations both in black-and-white and in colour, but I feel that if the artist knows how to imagine the infinite possibilities of light and shade and manages to bring them alive on the page, the old black-and-white will trump over colour any day. Larcenet is, of course, a master. He doesn’t just imagine the possibilities – he extends them into new terrain, into unknown territory, and expands the horizons, and the artwork in the book shines brilliantly in all its black-and-white glory – in the beautiful depiction of light and shade, in the exquisite depiction of silhouettes, in the fine deployment of delicate lines, in the brilliant usage of stippling (creating shading using dots). Each page and each panel is an absolute pleasure to look at, linger on and experience. If I may be permitted one more last adjective, the artwork is stunning. The book can be read just for that.

Some of the scenes in the book involving a prisoners camp are hard to read. Larcenet doesn’t shy away from the gory details and doesn’t push things below the carpet. I found those pages a tough read. So, those parts of the book are not for everyone. And this book is definitely not for children.

I read the Tamil translation of the French original. (In Tamil, the book is called ‘The Silence of Truth‘ and it is published by my favourite Tamil comics publisher, Lion Comics.) It is interesting to ponder on how accurate the translation would be. It is hard for me to tell, because mostly, the book flowed smoothly in Tamil, but in a few places, I could feel that the French forced its way through. For example, in one place one of the characters asks another – ‘What do you call yourself?‘ (= ‘Comment t’appelle you?‘) – and the other character replies – ‘I call myself…‘ (= ‘Je t’appelle…‘) This is classic French, of course. I thought that there would be an English translation of the book, but when I did some research, I discovered that there isn’t. I hope one of the publishers decides to translate it into English, because this brilliant graphic novel adaptation deserves a wider audience. More people need to chant the name of Manu Larcenet.

I loved this graphic novel adaptation of ‘Brodeck’s Report‘. I am glad that my first book of the year turned out to be brilliant, and though it is early days yet, I am sure it will end up among my favourites of the year.

I am sharing below some of the pages from the book so that you can get a feel for its brilliant artwork.

First page :

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Second page :

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Third page :

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Snow scene 1 :

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Snowy scene 2 :

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Snowy scene 3 :

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Mountains :

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Close-up of horse’s face :

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Stippling style art :

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Have you read Philippe Claudel’sBrodeck’s Report‘ – either the novel or Manu Larcenet’s graphic novel adaptation of it? What do you think about it?

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This is my last book review in the fading moments of the year. This book is a compilation of short essays that Voltaire wrote on different topics, arranged according to the letters of the alphabet. There is atleast one essay for each letter, except for ‘X’ and ‘Y’. In his essays, Voltaire shares his thoughts on a wide range of topics with his customary intelligence, humour, satire. The essays are interesting to read, insightful, intelligent but accessible. In many essays, Voltaire pokes gentle fun at existing practices, beliefs and systems. The legendary Voltairean wit is on glorious display – at times gentle, at time sharp, at times acerbic. It is to be expected from a man whose words offended the powers-that-be of his time that he was imprisoned many times by them. Voltaire’s love for freedom of speech, his critique of religion, and his curiosity and acceptance of other cultures shine through in the book. This is to be expected from a man to whom is attributed the legendary lines – “I may vehemently disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

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There were many passages in the book which made me smile and some which made me laugh. For example, he says this about ‘Enchantment‘ :

“The word enchantment is said to derive from the Greek by way of the Chaldean, meaning ‘song that has power to move.’ Thus it was believed that Orpheus made stones and trees dance. If this ballet was so simple, a city might be built with a violin or razed with a ram’s horn.”

And he says this about ‘History‘ :

“History is the recital of facts represented as true. Fable, on the other hand, is the recital of facts represented as fiction. As for the history of man’s ideas, unfortunately this is nothing more than the chronicle of human error.”

And he says this about ‘Novelty‘.

“Nobody gets very excited by the wonderful spectacle of sunrise, which can be seen every day, but a lot of people run to gape at the smallest meteor that plummets through the autumn sky. We despise what is common or what has long been known.”

Later in the essay, he tries to answer, why we like novelty.

“Perhaps this widespread hunger for novelty is a benefit of nature. We are told, ‘Be content with what you have. Desire no more than you deserve. Quell your restless spirits.’ These are good maxims. But if we had followed them we should still be feeding on acorns and sleeping under the stars, and should have had no Corneille, Racine, Molière – or Voltaire.”

There was one essay on ‘Optimism‘, which I loved very much. It was not at all about optimism 🙂 I wish I could quote it in full, but it is too long – it is the longest essay in the book. Instead of that, I will give below three of my favourite essays, so that you can get a flavour of the book.

Appearances

Are all appearances deceptive? Have our senses been given us only to trick us? Is everything error? Do we live in a dream? We see the sun still setting when it is below the horizon. A square tower seems to be round. A straight stick in water seems to be bent. You see your face in a mirror; the image appears to be behind the glass when it is neither behind nor before it. The glass itself, seemingly so smooth and even, is made up of tiny projections and pits. The fairest skin is a bristling net of minute hairs. What is large to us is small to an elephant; what is small may be a whole world to an insect.
      Nothing is either as it appears to be, or where we think it is. Philosophers, weary of being deceived, have in their petulance declared that nothing exists but what is in our mind. They might have gone all the way and concluded that, mind being as elusive as matter, there is nothing real either in matter or mind. Perhaps it is in this despair of ever knowing anything that certain Chinese philosophers say that Nothing is the beginning and end of all things.
      You do not see the net of hairs of the white and delicate skin you idolize. Organisms a thousand times less than a mite perceive what escapes your vision; they lodge, feed, and travel about on it as in an extensive country; those on a right arm are ignorant that creatures of their own species exist on a left. If you were so unfortunate as to see what they see, this charming skin would transfix you with horror.
      All is in due proportion. The laws of optics, which show you an object where it is not, make the sun appear two feet in diameter when it is s million times larger than the earth, a size impossible for your eyes to encompass. Our senses assist much more than they deceive us.
      Motion, time, hardness, softness, size, distance, appearances, all are relative. And who has created the delicate adjustment of relativities?

Happiness

Can one man be happier than another? It is clear that a man who has the gout and stone, who has lost his money, his good name, his wife and family, and who is about to be hanged after having been mangled, is less happy than a young, vigorous sultan, or La Fontaine’s cobbler. But how are we to determine which is the happier of two men equally healthy, prosperous, and placed in society? Their temperaments must decide it. The most moderate, the least worrisome, the most keenly perceptive is the most happy; but unfortunately the most keenly perceptive is often the least moderate. It is not our position, but our disposition, which renders us happy. Our disposition depends upon the functioning of our organs, over which we have no control.

Queries

Why was not a tenth of the money lost in the war of 1741 used in helping and improving the country? If half the men killed to no purpose in Germany had lived, might not the state have been more flourishing? Why prefer a war to the happy labors of peace?
      Why have nations reduced to extremity and humiliation still supported themselves in spite of all efforts to crush them? Is it not because they were active and industrious? Are not their people like bees : you take their honey and they work to produce more?
      Why in pagan antiquity were there no theological disputes, or hostile sects?
      Why do booksellers publicly display the ‘Course of Atheism‘ by Lucretius, why is it to be found, in handsome morocco, in the libraries of princes and bishops, while the works of modern deists are banned?
      Why do we abandon to sneers and neglect that great mass of men who cultivate the earth that we may eat of its fruits, while we pay court to the useless men who live by their labor?
      Why is there no place on earth where there are not more insects than men?
      Why, since we are always complaining of our ills, are we always doing something to redouble them? Why, since we are so miserable, is it thought that to die is bad – when it is perfectly clear that not to have been alive, before birth, was not bad?
      Why do we exist? In fact, why does anything exist?

I loved ‘Voltaire’s ‘Alphabet of Wit‘. Can’t wait to read more of Voltaire’s work. If you have read this, I would love to hear your thoughts.

So, that’s it 🙂 This is my last review of the year. Hope you enjoyed reading it.

Wish you and your family a very Happy New Year! May your New Year be filled with light, love, friendship, joy, happiness and beauty!

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