Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Johan Theorin

My passion for Scandinavian crime fic continues unabated, and I've recently come across two new authors in that genre - Jo Nesbo, Norwegian crime fic writer of the Harry Hole series, which are enjoyable, certainly, but doesn't offer very much beyond that; and Johan Theorin, whose crime novels are set on the little Swedish island of Oland.

And in Theorin, I have found an author who can grip the imagination and create convincing characters in much the same way that Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, in their fantastic Martin Beck series, could. Much of the credit should undoubtedly go to his translator, who has done a far better job than most other translations from the Swedish that I have read so far.

Theorin comes from the little fishing island of Oland, which comprises several small villages which are home to summer visitors from urban Sweden, and stay empty and deserted all through the winter months. There are a couple of larger towns - but they, too, come alive only during summer. While he no longer lives on the island of his childhood, Theorin's books are set here - and in the pages of his 'dark mystery novels with supernatural overtones', the island comes to life. This, I think, is what sets him apart from the other European crime fic writers - they are all, without exception, urban, urbane authors, and cities in their books - Stockholm and Malmo in Sweden, Oslo, Paris, Edinburgh, London - play just as big a role as the characters, whose lives are only too familiar to us city-bred readers. In Theorin's books, though, the slick city pace is missing - the landscape of Oland plays a large role (especially in his first novel, Echoes From the Dead), but what drives (for want of a better word) the narrative forward is the slow, gentle pace that characterises village life in general. Oland is portrayed in such loving, vivid detail - the sea, the wicked rocks that once wrecked ships, the summer cottages, all shut and deserted, the 'alvar' that great expanse of scrub and rocks that one can so easily get lost in, the mists that creep out from the sea, the winter blizzards that can kill - and what is ever present all through is, as Theorin said, the supernatural. Swedish folklore comes to life in places like Oland - myths and ghosts are as much a part of people's everyday lives as daily routines.

In Echoes From the Dead, we are introduced to Gerlof, an old sea captain who is one of Theorin's central characters and the one who gets to the bottom of the crimes committed - again, these cannot be called 'procedurals' in the strict sense of the term - it's hard to write 'police procedurals' when your stories are set in a place with one single police station with possibly five police officers for the entire island. Echoes From the Dead sees Gerlof finally solving the mystery of what had happened to his grandson, who went missing 20 years ago at the age of six. But the supernatural, which was merely an undercurrent here, really comes into its own in Theorin's second, darker novel, The Darkest Room. Socialised as I have been to think rationally and find a plausible explanation for all things not 'dreamt of in our philosophy', I found myself waiting for everything to be neatly tied up and presented at the end before I realised that wasn't the way to read Theorin's books - I had to let go, give in, let the atmosphere draw me in. And once I had done that, the book gripped me, gave me chills, terrified me, upset me, haunted me long after I had finished reading it. I didn't want it to end - and that's not something I can say about a lot of books.

The Darkest Room is set in northern Oland, in an old house situated next to the sea, which had been originally built in the nineteenth century as a home for the lighthouse keeper and his family. Now abandoned, it is bought by a young couple who want to escape city life, and bring up their small children in the peace and quiet that Oland offers. Within a few months, though, a member of the family dies - and while it looks like an accident, it could well be murder. As the others struggle to cope, a young policewoman, Gerlof's niece, in fact, tries to get to the bottom of it - with, of course, a lot of help from Gerlof, in the form of cryptic statements and grumpy suggestions. And all through the wonderful descriptions of the countryside, the sea, the old house - so vivid that it doesn't take much to imagine yourself there - are the ghosts, the spirits who reach out and communicate, who are as potent a force as the living.

I personally love slow, gentle books set in landscapes other than the usual - and not very interesting - metropolitan cities, books which spend time bringing characters to life, which dwell on descriptions, linger on thoughts and emotions. So it's no surprise that I loved both of Johan Theorin's books - I love how unapologetically different they are, I love that there's no rebellious, 'damaged' police officer at the centre of events, how it describes a way of life that's so completely alien to anything I - most of us, I'm sure - have ever experienced. But I'd recommend these to anyone who's a fan of crime fic, who enjoys good writing and imaginative stories.

And apparently Theorin has completed the third book in his Oland series. I can't wait.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Top 10 books

Following PD, and after having read her marvellous list, I've decided to make my own list of top 10 books on my blog, in the hope that readers will then be inspired to make their own lists - either here, or on blogs of their own. These books are in no particular order - I'm listing them as they come to mind. And, of course, these are in no way the only books that I've loved, read over and over, and been inspired by - I'll be leaving out plenty more that I will later wish I had included. Ten is too tiny a number.

So here goes.

1. The Art of Murder (Jose Carlos Somoza): I read this book earlier this year, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since. In terms of imagination, creation of an alternate (in a manner of speaking) cultural world, and a gripping crime thriller, The Art of Murder is has no equal. It raises deeply disturbing questions about the definition of 'art', the boundaries that we draw - both for ourselves and others - and how far we might be willing to push them. One of the best books I've read in a while.

2. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery): The first of a series of six books, this is the one I love most. I discovered Anne rather late, when I was in college, thanks to a friend - that friend and I have long since parted ways, but Anne has stayed with me. This delightful story set in the late nineteenth century of an orphan girl who gets adopted by a brother-sister pair in Nova Scotia, Canada, never fails to make me laugh and remind me that the world isn't such a bad place after all - no matter how unhappy I might be.

3. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 (Sue Townsend): I discovered Adrian Mole in my pre-teens and found in him a kindred spirit - minus the weird parents - and a couple of years later, when teenage angst set in, this book, and the one that followed (The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, aged 15 1/2), were very reassuring indeed! It was later, upon reading them all over again, that I realised what a wonderful sociological commentary they were on Britain under Margaret Thatcher.

4. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee): There isn't much I can say about this classic that hasn't been said already. Atticus remains my hero - and while I first read it as a precocious 11-year-old, when I was really too young to fully comprehend the gravity and complexity of the book, I remember wanting to be Scout, and wishing I had a friend like Boo Radley. Only when I read it again as an adult did I discover how wonderful it is - and since then, I've read it again and again.

5. The Bartimaeus Trilogy (Jonathan Stroud): I know, I know, I'm cheating here - but how can I mention one of these fantastic books and not the others? This is one of the best fantasy trilogies I've ever read - wonderfully written, quirky, imaginative, with one of the best endings of all times - these books make me laugh, give me goose bumps, make me cry - time I re-read them again!

6. The Dispossessed (Ursula K. LeGuin): I discovered Ursula LeGuin very late in life, but since then I haven't stopped reading her. If anyone were to ask me who my favourite author is, I'd have to say it's her. Her science fiction and fantasy are a world apart from anything that had been attempted either before or after. This book, the best and most incisive treatise on political anarchy I've ever come across, stuns you with its prescience. It's gripping, it's rousing - it's not just the best science-fiction book I've read, it's one of the best books of all time.

7. Tehanu (Ursula K. LeGuin): The fourth in the Earthsea series, the quiet and thoughtful tone of this book makes it different from the other, 'action'-oriented Earthsea books. It's quietness in no way takes away from its scathing feminist critique, though. A wonderful read.

8. Stet (Diana Athill): I perhaps love this one so much because I'm an editor working in the publishing industry - but no one can fail to appreciate Athill's first, and wonderful, memoir. She talks about her days as an editor with Andre Deutsch, tells us interesting anecdotes about authors like Naipaul, gives us insights into the workings of the publishing world, all too familiar to people like us - and I was reassured no end to find that she, too, didn't think too highly of Philip Roth!

9. Like Water for Chocolate (Laura Esquivel): Again, a fantastic bit of magic realism. It's not as intense or grim as Allende, but grips you nonetheless. One of the most powerful love stories I've ever read.

10. All Creatures Great and Small (James Herriot): All four books (the others being: All Things Bright and Beautiful, All Things Wise and Wonderful, The Lord God Made Them All) are among the best I've ever read, but somehow I love this one most. Herriot's wonderful prose brings it all to life - the mad characters (Seigfried and Tristan, especially), the animals, the beauty of the Yorkshire Dales - the experience is undoubtedly better if you're an animal lover, but you don't necessarily have to be one to appreciate the wonder of these books.

And a few I left out - The Left Hand of Darkness (because there would have been too many of LeGuin's books in the list); Angela's Ashes (Frank McCourt); The King's General (Daphne du Maurier); and The House of the Spirits (Isabel Allende).

Saturday, September 18, 2010

In defence of orange

How many times have I been told I look like a right-winger/sadhvi/religious freak when I wear orange? I've lost count. And how many times have I been told I will look like one or all of the above if I wear orange? Again, countless. I haven't cared, though, because orange happens to be my favourite colour - and because my protesting that any group or religion cannot 'own' a colour have fallen largely on deaf ears, I've decided to put my love for this bright, vibrant, sunshiny colour on record.

My love affair with orange began in early childhood - it was the colour of bright balloons and childish pleasure in walking through parks, holding on to the hand of some much-loved adult. It was the colour accompanying the delight of new experiences like the first magical orange ice bar, bought for me by my grandmother one sleepy summer afternoon. Orange is the colour of memories of childhood summers, of long, hot months stretching ahead with no school, and the excitement of making that soft drink that signified happy summer days - Rasna, tall, endless glasses of cool, bright orange liquid, of commandeering ice trays, filling them with Rasna, and pretending to be crunching at home-made 'ice cream' later on. It's the colour of friendship, of sharing Parle sweets, little orange balls of molten sunlight, the colour of childish laughter as we stuck our tongues out at each other to see whose was the orangiest.

It's the colour of that most favourite fizzy drink of all, Goldspot, those first TV commercials featuring happy teenagers, that impossibly cool age we desperately longed to grow up into. It's the colour of winter, the smell of peeling that most evocative and wonderful of fruits, oranges, in the warm sunshine on long, sleepy afternoons. It the colour of that mischievous bundle of fur that used to be my little kitten Simba, and now, again, the little tearaway that is my Catnip's tiny baby. It's the colour that can brighten the dankest, gloomiest day, and warm the chilly days of winter. It's the colour of happiness, of love, of sunshine.

And damned if I'm going to let organised religion co-opt it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

On Sexual Politics

I read a really weird piece of news a couple of days ago - actress Portia de Rossi, who's been married to comedian Ellen DeGeneres for some years now, has decided to change her last name to DeGeneres.

Why did I find it weird? I'd have thought that was obvious - the issue of women changing their last names after they were married, taking on their husbands' names and thereby giving up a part of their name, their identity (although one might ask why surnames should be considered part of one's identity in the first place; but that is an entirely different question, and subject matter for another post - perhaps), and subsuming their selves to that of their husbands' has been an issue that has irked feminists for decades now. This is one of the most deeply entrenched patriarchal practices - it has its origins in a time when women were exchanged between groups of men, much like the other commodities bartered; and once a woman made her way to the tribe or moeity of another man, she became that man, that moiety's property - and like all properties, including livestock, she was branded - with the name of her new owner. Since women are still the 'second sex', still bodies that do not matter, this tradition continues - even among otherwise enlightened, educated, urban, supposedly worldly women who somehow do not question a practice this retrogressive, but come up various excuses (it's a way of showing him how much I love him, for instance; and no, merely tacking on your husband's last name after your own does not make you more liberated - all it does is proclaim you're a confused fence-sitter) for giving up a part of their identity, their selves.

So my disbelief and bewilderment at reading that a woman married to another woman, and part of a radical, alternative family whose very existence is premised on a questioning and subverting of patriarchal beliefs, is now about to embrace one of the same traditional practices that feminists the world over - and a large chunk of the LGBT community too, one presumes - have been fighting to eradicate, is understandable. Clearly, far from pushing the boundaries, far from creating a brave new world, DeGeneres and di Rossi's marriage seems little more than a replication of a traditional heterosexual union - one in which DeGeneres is cast as the husband, and di Rossi as the wife, who is now proving her 'love' for her partner by taking on her last name.

A straight woman in a heterosexual marriage doing the same would be censured for giving up her identity and giving in to patriarchy; or, at best, condoned for being a 'victim' in an unfair social system that gives her few choices and little agency. What do we say to the women with plenty of choices and definite agency, who had subverted the system only to resurrect it through an insidious back door?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The end of innocence

For those of us growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, a few memories stand out (and since these were pre-globalisation, pre-cable TV days, all children and adolescents, whichever part of India they might have been in, did much the same stuff, wore clothes that looked similarly weird, and watched the same shows on TV - and so you have a couple of generations with shared memories, united by giggling fits over Doordarshan 'fillers') - printed 'frocks', summer holidays with Rasna, Doordarshan; and later, when we were 'older' and hipper college students, Flying Machine jeans and Beverly Hills 90210.

I remember with what eagerness we used to wait for 8 PM on Sundays - because then, for one hour, we could lose ourselves with Brenda, Brandon, Dylan, Kelly, and the gang in yet another episode of what to us was the best show EVER. And Monday mornings meant excited discussions in college - Oh my God, Brandon is so self-righteous! Wasn't Brenda's dress cute? What was Kelly thinking?? Would Andrea get over her crush already? And Dylan ... sigh, Dylan!

So I was intrigued when last year, I learnt that Beverly Hills 90210 had been re-made - the new avatar was to be called simply 90210, to distinguish it from the original. The characters were cast in similar moulds - instead of the Walsh family, you have the Wilson family who've moved from Kansas; there's a brother and sister (not twins, though!) - Annie and Dixon; there's the glamorous, rich, spoilt prom queen - Naomi Clark; the confused, messed-up friend - Adrianna; the geek - Navid ... and so on. But there's one thing the new, glitzy, super glamorous, slick version lacks - and that's innocence. And heart. Remember how refreshingly real and down-to-earth Mr and Mrs Walsh were? How we could actually see our own mothers in Brenda and Brandon's mom? How we could identify with Brenda in everything she did; how their parties and sleepovers seemed so much like ours? And several episodes over the first two seasons actually dealt with issues - alcoholism, breast cancer, growing up and becoming independent, losing friends, death - apart from the usual high school stuff that we identified with only too well - boyfriends, relationships, break-ups, friendships.

The new show, though, focuses only on two things - high fashion and sex. Lots of glamorous clothes and hair styles, and lots of sex. The group of friends is still there, but now all they do is go out with each other, make out like there's no tomorrow, break up, and then move on to someone else - usually within the same group. Sometimes new people become their friends, and the incestuous circle is expanded. Apart from Annie and Dixon, no one else appears to have parents - at least, none that might ask them why they were late coming home - or why they didn't come home at all; and the dialogues and story line are so shallow they make Stephanie Meyer's Twilight seem positively intellectual. There seems to be a complete absence of any values or ethics - the teenagers drink, lie, cheat, manipulate and whine their way through the show - all of which leads me to ask - is this what young people are like these days? Seriously? Are there college kids actually watching this show with as much fervour as we watched Beverly Hills 90210 15 years ago? Who do they identify with - the dumb Annie, the nasty, bitchy Naomi, the messed-up Adrianna (who's actually one of the few watchable people on the show), the confused Dixon? What happened to the sweetness, innocence, light-hearted fun of the original?

Or maybe this is just me growing old. But I can't but say something I've said earlier - I'm glad I'm not a child or a teenager in this day and age. I'm glad I lived in the times of high-waisted jeans and puffed sleeves and over-sized T-shirts and Beverly Hills 90210. I'm glad my childhood and youth was the way it was supposed to be - innocent.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Literary conundrum

For most of us, a few basic rules apply when it comes to people we choose to have in our lives - as an important part of the our lives, that is - we need to get along with them, trust them, be able to depend on them; a shared ideology often comes in handy; and we have to respect them, as individuals and humans beings. Now here's my question - does this apply to our relationship with fictional characters as well?

I say 'relationship' because for most of us avid readers, whose best friends are probably books rather than people, who have favourite genres, favourite authors, favourite fantasy worlds and characters, who return to the comfort of much-read books very like one would to an old memory - or an oversized, shabby, warm sweatshirt on winter nights - for us, characters are real and close and perhaps as dear to our hearts as real people we love. While growing up, I considered a lot of the Enid Blyton characters my friends, and then came my beloved Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple; I never tire of reading Alice's Adventures ... (which is probably why I'm a bit wary of watching the Tim Burton movie); and I still think when I'm upset - now how would Anne (of Green Gables) deal with this situation?

To come to the point now. On my recent visit to Delhi, I was introduced to more Scandinavian crime fiction writers by my aunt, who has an enviable collection - and among them were books by the duo Roslund-Hellstrom. Edgy, gritty, disturbing, the books leave you shaken. Unlike Sjowall and Wahloo, or Henning Mankell, who have clear notions of good and evil, these books have no definite moral compass; the whole point, as the authors say, is to show that the perpetrators are often as much victims as, well, the victims. I don't want to throw out any spoilers here, but in one of the books the two lead detectives do something that, to me, was totally reprehensible. Sitting and brooding over the book I'd just finished, I realised I was - disappointed in them. And that I didn't want to read any more - because how I can sit through books featuring characters I no longer had any respect for?

Martin Beck would never have done this, I told my aunt. Nor would Kurt Wallander, or even Inspector Rebus. Almost like they were real people, people to be emulated. Except they are, as far as I'm concerned. And now I no longer want to read otherwise good crime fiction because I'm disgusted at the conduct of the central characters. I don't respect them any more. Not the authors, the characters.

So. Is that weird? Or does anyone else feel that way?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Kolkata Book Fair

I think it's safe to say that for us Calcutta Bongs, there are two major events that mark each year, events that we look forward to and which our lives revolve around - Durga Pujo and the Book Fair. As a child, I didn't know which I loved more, which got me more excited - the prospect of five days of fun, food, revelry and new clothes with family and cousins at the pujo bari, or three-four days of fun, food, dusty joy and new books with parents at the Maidan. A decade spent in Delhi meant that I invariably missed the Cal book fair - I'd listen to my parents tell me about it, how good or bad it was, what the food stalls were like with nostalgic longing, and wish I was back home. Well, now I am, and since our return two years ago we have spent many, many happy days waiting for the book fair, and then happier days throwing ourselves into it once it started.

Going to the Cal book fair is, unlike, say, the Delhi book fair, an event in itself. You don't go just for the books - you go for the sheer experience of it. Where else would you find a book fair that invokes an almost festive atmosphere, where entire families, including ancient grandparents, show up to make a day of it, where you can rub shoulders (literally, that) with people of every class, every socio-economic background imaginable? What unites us all at the book fair is the love of books and the printed word, yes - you'll find everyone carrying bags that will contain at least one new book - but also the peculiarly Bong trait of turning every event into a large, communal picnic where gastronomic delights preside. Food is about as important as the books - from samosas to rolls to fish cutlets to biryani to ice cream to the ubiquitous Bengali sweets - you name it, you'll find it at the book fair, along with large crowds of people slurping away as if their lives depended on it. (We join in enthusiastically - I've had the best biryani in Cal at the book fair, and this time we traipsed every inch of the fair ground, carrying heavy bags of books, just so we could locate that particular stall.) There's an infectious camaraderie pervading every bit of the book fair - you smile at strangers browsing the same shelf as you; you exchange remarks with someone you see buying a book you're interested in; you grin at the delighted squeals of children as they pounce on books they want to buy - and grin wider when you hear parents stepping in with a firm 'Porikkhhar age kintu ekdom porbe na!' (You're not to read it before your exams are done!).

Our pilgrimage spot at the book fair is a stall called Book Line, which offers the most amazing titles at the most unbelievable prices. K and I are favoured customers, mostly because we spend the greater part of what we earn all through the year at that stall, but also because the owners, who know their books, have learnt that we're serious, discerning readers. We're greeted like long-lost friends, our bags taken from us and stowed away, hot tea appears out of nowhere, and solicitous helpers are assigned to look after us. We spend about three to four hours at that stall and emerge, triumphant and tired, with three big, heavy bags of books and an evening of messing about with them, looking over what we've bought, smelling them, writing our names inside to look forward to.

One comes across avid readers who one would never meet otherwise: every year, I meet a scholarly gentleman at Book Line who looks around for classics; seeing a Borges (which K had picked up) among our piles of books, he told me a gentle story of entering a Paris roadside cafe which has carefully preserved the table Borges used to sit at. His eyes shone with pleasure when he talked of sitting on that very chair. I saw a young boy, perhaps in his mid-teens, picking out books he thought his mother might like (R.K. Narayan) and then begging her to buy him a couple of books that were a little more expensive than they'd budgeted for; a group of schoolteachers on a mission to stock their school library were busy buying up every children's book in the store, from Enid Blytons to Roald Dahls to Harry Potter. Then there was a sad-looking young man looking for 'electric-er boi', and the bunch of giggling teenagers whose sole form of entertainment was huddling together, getting in everyone's way, and picking up random books, bursting into giggles, and then replacing them. And 'Cheton Bhogot', of course, remains infuriatingly popular.

But what I love most is the festivity, the way the entire city joins in the fun of buying books; the book fair might be a localised affair, but a large chunk of the E.M. Bypass is brightly lit up, traffic jams all over the city are worse than usual, loudspeakers make all sorts of announcements, sometimes playing songs, the only distinguishable lyrics of which are 'Kolkata ... boi mela ...'. The local news channels devote sections to the book fair, the daily papers make it a front-page affair. And it's not just about books (and food!) - art lovers go to see if they can spot anything good among the works young, struggling artists put up for sale, you can even get your portrait sketched if you want, or buy bits of terracotta jewellery and knick-knacks.

Ten days go by all too quickly, though, and we're left feeling low and flat - till our eyes fall on the piles of books with their as-yet unknown riches waiting to be discovered - and then we immediately cheer. After all, ashche bochor abar hobe!

Monday, January 11, 2010

FOX's blatant homophobia

My first post of the year - and it's to be a rant of sorts.

I've lately grown quite addicted to the TV show So You Think You Can Dance, another of FOX TV's successes, a sort of dance-oriented version of American Idol, and even created and produced by the same people. But I'd grown to like this one so much more, chiefly because it was warmer, friendlier, without any of the arrogance and patronising so characteristic of American Idol. The judges don't sit on a pedestal and talk down to the contestants - they treat them like equals, and criticism is always constructive. Everyone genuinely seems to be enjoying themselves, and you can almost believe in the 'we're all one big happy family' myth American TV shows insist on peddling. And Cat Deeley makes for an infinitely more charming, accessible, funny, down-to-earth host than snooty Ryan Seacrest, who never lets anyone forget that he's as big a celebrity as the judges.

So I was doubly upset at being left with a particularly nasty taste in my mouth after last week's episode.

Season 5 is being aired at the moment, and the auditions are on; and last week, two men, clearly gay, clearly partners, came along to audition. They dance together, and were hoping the judges would appreciate the novelty of watching two men dancing together. Except, they didn't. After looking visibly uncomfortable throughout the audition, Nigel Lythgoe pronounced that he didn't think the audience who watched this show were quite ready for an act of this nature; that neither was he, since he liked the male dancers on the show to be 'manly' (this wasn't the first time he'd voiced such an opinion - he'd remarked in a pleased tone on Season 3 that he was glad to see the male dancers 'this year dance like guys'). Mary Murphy echoed his sentiments and, surprisingly, so did Sonja, a choreographer who'd come on the show last season and had been invited to judge a few audtions this year - going by her mohawk, tattoos and piercings, you'd have been forgiven for presuming that she was a radical of sorts - except she turned out to be as retrogressive and strait-laced as the rest.

The two men in question were asked to return for the choregraphy round, where they would have to do a routine that involved dancing with girls - 'you might even like it' was the patronising remark. Strangely, though, the men took this rather blatant attack on their sexuality, their lifestyle, their very identity lying down, listening calmly, returning for the next round, and even appearing pleased when one of them made it to Las Vegas. They promised to return the next year - although it doesn't seem likely that Lythgoe and team would be getting over their homophobia anytime soon.

Not that one expects anything more from FOX - but what was shocking was the blatant display of homophobia. There was no lip service paid to political correctness - and that was strange, considering that so many Hollywood ceebrities are openly gay or bisexual, or staunch defenders of alternative lifestyles. It's as if they've decided to take up where George Bush left off, with the blessing of their Bible Belt audience. But what was even more shocking (to my mind) was the way the two men took the insult lying down - if people who espouse a certain way of life don't thmselves stand up for it, how can they expect anyone else to?

I'm certainly not going to be watching So You Think You Can Dance with the same pleasure as earlier.