Monday, April 30, 2007

Rubbing hands in glee

I came across this very interesting review of God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens in the LA Times. The reviewer is Jack Miles, a distinguished professor of English and religious studies at UC Irvine. He is the general editor of the forthcoming "The Norton Anthology of World Religions."

But this does not imply that he is a terrible bore who is out to throttle ideas of theism down our throats. Perhaps that's the whole charm of atheism. To present a picture devoid of piety. Piety is uncool, eh? But what if a member of the Church of Piety turns out to be an intelligent, well-read master of the stylized phrase. It stumps the atheists. Count Miles in that category.

Really, Miles's initial arguments are quite similar to what the NBCC has been saying with regard to the declining status of book review sections: forces of the market, tired to the hilt of the process (atheist polemics seeing success, in this case), so on and so forth:

How dispiriting it must be for the neo-atheist pamphleteer to pick up "The Cambridge Companion to Atheism" and read even Chapter 1, "Atheism in Antiquity." To be sure, several recent works of anti-religious polemic have had heartening success in the marketplace, but even reliable allies are beginning to show signs of market fatigue.

Consider this:

Here is an example that I find both typical and thrilling:

"By all means let an observant Jewish adult male have his raw-cut penis placed in the mouth of a rabbi. (That would be legal, at least in New York.) By all means let grown women who distrust their clitoris or their labia have them sawn away by some other wretched adult female. By all means let Abraham offer to commit suicide to prove his devotion to the Lord or his belief in the voices he was hearing in his head. By all means let devout parents deny themselves the succor of medicine when in acute pain and distress. By all means — for all I care — let a priest sworn to celibacy be a promiscuous homosexual. By all means let a congregation that believes in whipping out the devil choose a new grown-up sinner each week and lash him until he or she bleeds. By all means let anyone who believes in creationism instruct his fellows during lunch breaks. But the conscription of the unprotected child for these purposes is something that even the most dedicated secularist can safely describe as a sin."

As the orator mounts through that withering, seven-fold repetition of "By all means," imagine excitement building in the audience and erupting in a roar of applause at his righteous climax: "But the conscription of the unprotected child…. " The strength of this book is the undeniable eloquence of its indignation — in Alexander Pope's famous phrase, "What oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd." Its weakness is that the thinking in it has indeed oft been thought. Rhetorically, Hitchens, a repentant and affectingly rueful Marxist, could rally a band of timid schoolboys to storm the Winter Palace. But did the paragraph just quoted tell you anything you did not already know or change your mind about a single thing you did know?

One can almost see Miles rub his hands in glee as he deflates another high concept that the atheists take such pleasure in presenting. After all, there is a charm in shunning sweetness. But more is the charm in killing hubris and reclaiming the sweetness.

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Katie Roiphe in the Slate discusses the similarities between Mrs. Dalloway and Ian McEwan's Saturday. This is an old piece but I came across it only today, and it's so good that it deserves to be read again.

Roiphe spots the similarities in the styles of the two books and narrates them in spell-binding language:

On the domestic front, both Saturday and Mrs. Dalloway take up the particular blend of love and alienation and awe that parents feel toward their adult children. And in each, art and literature have what might be considered an unrealistic, magical presence: Poetry has an incantatory redemptive power that tames the madman in Saturday, just as lines of Shakespeare focus Clarissa's mind in Mrs. Dalloway. A homeless woman's nonsense song in Mrs. Dalloway has the same eternal, soul-lifting force as Perowne's son's jazz song in Saturday. (Though, of course, the idea that art can save us was less implausible and startling in 1925 than it is now.)

In the end, she questions why critics have failed to notice this similarity in reviews of Saturday. She blames it on sexism. I don't agree.

Given the many parallels, one wonders why so few critics have interested themselves in McEwan's connection to Virginia Woolf. It may be that there is a certain gentle sexism at work: Is it too hard to imagine that a male writer of McEwan's stature might be channeling Virginia Woolf? Is the leap from a neurosurgeon to a housewife too distant for critics and readers to conceive? Does the separation we still have in our minds between a woman's novel, which is "domestic," and a man's novel, which contains wars and politics, still so pronounced that we can't clearly see the amazing, sexless feat of weaving the two together?

In today's post-modernist times, with all sorts of review attention coming the way of books--from Focauldian to queer theory-- it is unfair to claim that different angles have not been explored due to biases. Perhaps it just did not strike many reviewers considering the differences in times and settings.

Even so, I remember having read a piece or two which spoke of the similarity, at least to the extent that both novels straddle a day in the lives of the protagonists. Even the cover shown above can pass for Mrs. Dalloway (except it's a male figure) reminiscing in her room in the middle of the party (when she spots a neighbour in the room opposite).

The real face of organized retailing

Bharti Retail has been crying itself hoarse that its tie up with Wal Mart to launch a slew of retail stores in India will not affect mom-and-pop stores—a euphemism for small time neighbourbood retails shops. Not so, it seems. A report in BusinessWeek looks at what Wal Mart's "calculated decision to break the $1,000 barrier for flat-panel TVs" in the US did to retail outlets there:

...triggered a disastrous financial meltdown among some consumer-electronics retailers over the past four months. The fallout is evident: After closing 70 stores in February, Circuit City Stores (CC) on Mar. 28 laid off 3,400 employees and put its 800 Canadian stores on the block. Tweeter Home Entertainment Group (TWTR), the high-end home entertainment store, is shuttering 49 of its 153 stores and dismissed 650 workers. Dallas-based CompUSA is closing 126 of its 229 stores, and regional retailer Rex Stores (RSC) is boarding up dozens of outlets, as well as selling 94 of its 211 stores. "The tube business and big-screen business just dropped off a cliff," says Stuart Rose, chief executive officer of Dayton-based Rex Stores. "We expected a dropoff, but nowhere near the decline that we had." Clearly, these retailers are taking such drastic measures because they don't see any respite in sight.

Bharti says that their model will encourage small retailers to lease their space to the new entity and will therefore be beneficial to them. But this looks more like an entry level bonus than a long term strategy for the sector. Small operators may be in for a rude surprise once the corporate entity spreads its tentacles to the heartland.

Nurture the 'symbiotic relationship'

Thanks to Critical Mass, I came across Michael Connelly's column in the LA Times: The folly of downsizing book reviews:

FIFTEEN YEARS AGO, my first book was published in near obscurity. Only 15,000 copies of "The Black Echo" were printed, and the publisher didn't place a single ad for it in any newspaper in the country. It could easily have been ignored or forgotten or simply missed among the thousands of books published to little fanfare every year.

But even without an advertising push, the book got reviewed in newspapers big and small, far and wide. Across the country, newspapers had strong book sections and critics were always on the lookout for a new voice. The Washington Post's Book World devoted half a page to a review of my novel, predicting a bright future for both its protagonist and its author.

That review and others like it stimulated interest in what I had to say. They got the momentum going in the bookstores. Those reviews helped establish the voice of the protagonist, Los Angeles Police Department Det. Harry Bosch, and now, 12 books later, Bosch has led a full and adventurous (albeit tortured) life in Los Angeles. He has explored places and seen things in this city that most people who live here don't even know about. All the while he has tried to understand and make sense of his city and his place in it — just like everybody else who lives here.


The truth is that the book and newspaper businesses share the same dreadful fear: that people will stop reading. And the fear may be well-founded. Across the country, newspaper circulations are down — and this is clearly part of the reason for the cuts to book sections. At the same time, the book business increasingly relies on an aging customer base that may not be refueling itself with enough new readers.

In the past, newspaper executives understood the symbiotic relationship between their product and books. People who read books also read newspapers. From that basic tenet came a philosophy: If you foster books, you foster reading. If you foster reading, you foster newspapers. That loss-leader ends up helping you build and keep your base.

What I fear is that this philosophy is disappearing from the boardrooms of our newspapers; that efforts to cut costs now will damage both books and newspapers in the future. Short-term gains will become long-term losses.

It reminds me of something detectives have often told me while I've researched my crime novels. They say that when they trace events backward from a crime, they often find that the victims made mistakes that put themselves in harm's way.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Colm Toibin on Henry James

Readers of his blog will testify to my appreciation of The Master, Toibin's fictionalized account of James's life. He is currently writing a novel set in the last five years of the nineteenth century.

He discusses Henry James's dilemma of deciding between the full life that comes with marriage and the need for an artist to shun the trappings of family, in the Guardian.

On January 5 1888, when Henry James was in his mid-40s, he recorded in his notebook a conversation with the journalist Theodore Child "about the effect of marriage on the artist, the man of letters etc. He mentioned the cases he had seen in Paris in which this effect had been fatal to the quality of the work etc — through overproduction, need to meet expenses, make a figure etc.

Four years earlier, James had had a similar conversation with Edmund Gosse about John Addington Symonds, "of his extreme and somewhat hysterical aestheticism", and of his wife's disapproving of the tone of her husband's work, "thinking his books immoral, pagan, hyper-aesthetic etc". He imagined Symonds's wife saying: "I have never read any of John's works. I think them most undesirable." James immediately saw a drama he could make between "the narrow, cold Calvinistic wife, a rigid moralist; and her husband, impregnated - even to morbidness - with the spirit of Italy, the love of beauty, of art." From these seeds he grew his story "The Author of Beltraffio", the first of the 10 stories he wrote about writers.

One can sense the undercurrent of hostility that Toibin harbours for the insensitive wife forcing her spouse to return from a world of aestheticism to that of mundane matters. And ostensibly, the reader—the sensitive reader, no doubt—ought to be charmed by the lyrical flushes of language (impregnated—even to morbidness—with the spirit of Italy) and agree with Toibin on how the rituals of straight life can sap the intensity of the artist.

I have nothing against gay writers, but what Toibin seems to be falling into here, is a common enough trap with them:

Child then spoke of the French novelist Alphonse Daudet, whom James also knew, saying of his "30 Ans de Paris", a memoir, that "He would never have written it if he hadn't married." James then wrote: "So it occurred to me that a very interesting situation would be that of an elder artist or writer, who had been ruined (in his own sight) by his marriage and its forcing him to produce promiscuously and cheaply - his position in regard to a younger confrère whom he sees on the brink of the same disaster and whom he endeavours to save, to rescue, by some act of bold interference - breaking off the marriage, annihilating the wife, making trouble between the parties." As a result of this conversation, James was inspired to write his story "The Lesson of the Master", published later that year.

The image of the older writer worrying about the young confrère has identifiable gay overtones. Notice the word used for the wife—annihilate. Why? What has the poor woman done? If the writer has such problems with her, why did he marry? James didn't, but that can hardly be qualified as a morally superior choice. A writer's need for solitude cannot be bound by gender. I would like to know what Toibin would say about an elderly gay writer, such as himself, who comes to the realization in his later years that a life with his partner (invariably male) has restricted his creative capacities. And would he find it in himself to advise another young man to desist from a civil partnership? I doubt it very much.

One may say that the dynamics of a gay relationship are very different from a straight one, and so, the question of such a possibility does not arise. But that would be looking at the situation lazily. Are we saying that a gay relationship involves a superior living space between the partners than a straight one? Because that's the only way of explaining the hostility towards the wife. James may have felt so since he was closeted, but such a theory—of marriage ruining creativity—cannot be generalized to other perfectly happily settled writers. Think Zadie Smith and Nick Laird. Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss. Siri Hustvedt and Paul Auster...and several others.

Update: Came across another Toibin piece in the LRB:

A fourth story of James's, 'The Beast in the Jungle', which comes very close to being a masterpiece, has also been interpreted as having a gay theme.

In Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has an interesting essay on James and 'The Beast in the Jungle'. It is possible, she writes, that critics believed that James himself translated 'lived homosexual desires, where he had them, into written heterosexual ones so thoroughly and so successfully that the difference makes no difference, the transmutation leaves no residue.' She herself, on the other hand, believes that James 'often, though not always, attempted such a disguise or transmutation, but reliably left a residue both of material that he did not attempt to transmute and of material that could be transmuted only rather violently and messily'.

When, in 'The Beast in the Jungle', May Bartram meets John Marcher, she remembers the 'secret' he has told her ten years earlier. 'You said you had from your earliest time, as the deepest thing within you, the sense of being kept for something rare and strange, possibly prodigious and terrible, that was sooner or later to happen.' Eve Kosofsky writes: ' I would argue that to the extent that Marcher's secret has a content, the content is homosexual.'

I would argue, on the other hand, that Marcher's secret clearly has a content and the content is possibly homosexual. The problem with the story is that the 'secret' itself, the 'something rare and strange' sounds laughable when we hear it first, a heavy-handed self-dramatisation which Marcher's character in the story takes a while to recover from. The reader has a right to expect, as the years go by, either that Marcher's secret will turn out to be a delusion in which May Bartram has all along encouraged him, or that some catastrophe will actually befall him before the story ends. It is as though some traces of Kafka had arrived in Lamb House. (James first thought of the story in 1901.) There are only two characters in the story, both isolated, oddly neurotic; and before she dies May intimates that she knows what the 'secret' is, and it refers to something that has already happened. After her death, Marcher, too, realises, vaguely, what it is about. He has failed to love; he has been unable to love. Clearly, he has been unable to love May Bartram, as James was unable to love Constance Fenimore Woolson; and it is open to readers whether or not they believe that May has understood all along something Marcher cannot entertain. He may have failed to love her because he was gay. And because he could not deal with his own sexuality, he failed to love any body. This, Kaplan points out, is 'an embodiment of James's nightmare vision of never having lived, of having denied love and sexuality'.

The story becomes much darker when you know about James's life - something that almost never happens with the novels. You realise that the catastrophe the story led you to expect was in fact the very life that James chose to live, or was forced to live. 'In all his work,' Leon Edel wrote, 'there is no tale written with greater investment of personal emotion.' In 'The Beast in the Jungle', James's solitary existence is shown in its most frightening manifestation: a life of pure coldness. The story includes the sentence: 'He had been a man of his time, the man, to whom nothing on earth was to have happened.' Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick writes: 'The denial that the secret has a content - the assertion that its content is precisely a lack - is a stylish and "satisfying" Jamesian formal gesture.' But it is not a stylish or satisfying formal gesture. It is, ostensibly, about a man who realises that his failure to love has been a disaster; but it is also, for readers familiar with Edel's or Kaplan's biographies of James, and readers willing to find clues in the text itself, about a gay man whose sexuality has left him frozen in the world. It is, in all its implications, a desolate and disturbing story, James's 'most modern tale', according to Edel. 'No passion had ever touched him for this was what passion meant. He had seen outside of his life, not learned it from within.'

Another reason, if one was needed... retain book review sections in newspapers. Sharmistha Gooptu, writing in the Times of India, speaks about the prevalence of reading groups in the US, which depend on local review sections to select books to read. So popular is the reading group concept in America, writes Gooptu, that publishers routinely enclose reading group guides in their promotional material:

Barbara Willard, an American who went to see the movie with a group of her friends, had an instructive point to make. She saw the film with her friends from a ladies reading group, who had read Jhumpa Lahiri's novel together some eight months earlier. Their interest was principally on account of their familiarity with the book. Barbara felt that The Namesake would be a big draw among women who were part of such reading groups.

The reading group, which is far less common in India, is very significant among American women of all age groups. I was informed that ladies reading groups in the US have generated a greater market for certain kinds of publications which are supposed to be 'women-oriented', and publishers are known to promote a new author if they feel that the book will do well in reading groups. Reading group guides are available, and new publications are often tagged with a sheet for reader's response, for market surveys. The Namesake first appeared in paperback in the US in the middle of 2006 when Barbara and her reading group read it.

Edith Wharton by Hermione Lee

Unraveling the wonders of Wharton

It was with some trepidation that I began reading Hermione Lee's bulky tome on the mysterious Edith Wharton. After all, Lee's formidable reputation as the author of the definitive biography of Virginia Woolf precedes this book. Wharton was the writer of many well-known books —"The House of Mirth," "The Custom of the Country" and "The Age of Innocence," in which she caricatured the high society she was born into.

Wharton believed that new wealth — with all its attendant glamours — constrained women to a certain kind of life that eschewed all possibility of personal freedom. Always interested in the workings of the underclass, be it moral or economical, her books force the reader into a morally ambivalent sphere.

After an uneventful childhood, Wharton was married off to Edward "Teddy" Wharton, "a friend of the family who seemed a perfectly reasonable (though not wealthy) match." The pair's relationship was doomed from the start and mirrors, in its claustrophobic incompatibility, the miseries of Wharton's protagonists.

The book further explores Wharton's passionate love affair with William Morton Fullerton, a magnetic journalist given to serial affairs. This relationship, too, brought only fugitive comfort to Wharton, and she was destined to never experience long-lasting romantic bliss.

A central theme running through Wharton's life — and this biography — is her association with writer Henry James. Owing to their similarity of style, Wharton was often compared to James, and this troubled her deeply. Lee discredits any talk of James' influence on Wharton's writing; rather, she hints at the opposite, saying Wharton was often the template for James' "satirized figures." Notwithstanding these professional blips, Wharton and James shared a rock-solid friendship whose foundation was unaffected by the differences in their personalities.

This is not to suggest that Wharton's life lacked spice. She was like Bloomsbury's Virginia — the by turns maternal and imperious grand dame of a group populated by the likes of James, Howard Sturgis and Percy Lubbock. Their meeting ground was Sturgis' English country house — the iconic Qu'Acre — and here, Wharton was the flirtatious "Firebird," not the dowdy novelist reminiscing on the Gilded Age.

Lee dwells on Wharton's writings about France, her adopted country, and introduces the reader to some crisp observations that are part of the rich cross-fertilized writing of France and America by writers who straddled both countries: Wharton, James, William Dean Howells and Henry Adams.

The vast scope of this biography permits Lee to devote enough space to the major and minor players in Wharton's life. Insightful and intelligent, this account of Edith Wharton's life (and times) is unlikely to be bettered.


From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Not another gratuitous Cho post

Devangshu Datta writes in the Business Standard on a friend of his who shows violent paranoid behaviour. This story is tragic, but what's striking are the parallels that Datta draws between his friend and Cho Seung-Hui, the Virginia Tech killer. I am reproducing the entire piece below, not only because it may be unavailable after some days, but also because this story needs to be told:

About 20 years ago, a friend of mine was pursuing a Ph D in an American university. His thesis was a game-theoretic analysis of Hamlet. It was an interesting, ambitious crossover topic. For an English literature major to attempt to learn the mathematics and “translate” back into terms that his mathematically-imbecilic guide could follow, was impressive.

Then he was afflicted by paranoid schizophrenia. First, his “guide” became a “racist”. Then spy drones (described in exact detail) started hovering around the campus. After that, he was enmeshed in a conspiracy involving Rajiv Gandhi (then already dead), Zia-ul-Haq and Ronald Reagan.

His academic career fell apart. Back in India, he joined a national daily as a sub-editor. His command of English was good enough for him to work on cruise control. But journalism is not an ideal profession for paranoiacs—there’s too much source material to feed the fantasies. He quit. A trust fund enabled him to survive. In the 1990s, he turned against his “treasonous” father, who had “made a deal” with Guy Burgess and Kim Philby in Cambridge in the 1950s.

By 1997, my friend was a veteran of psychiatric institutions and he had undergone many brushes with substance abuse and the law. His lunacies would peak in physical explosions, which led to lockup or hospital. Coming off the high, he would seek help. Soon the paranoia would resurface. He would accuse doctors of poisoning him and go through a drug orgy to “cleanse” himself. The cycle would repeat.

The delusions got more bizarre. He drew parallels between himself and Odysseus, Homer’s wandering hero. Then he became a reincarnation of Odysseus. Everybody around had his or her life stories rearranged to fit the Iliad and Odyssey. His folks gave up. His parents are elderly, his siblings scattered across three continents. His friends are middle-aged and too concerned with earning their daily bread to cope. We last met about two years ago, when I bailed him out of a minor police case. After I collected him from lockup, he jumped out of my running car, screaming that I was trying to kill him.

He lives somewhere in Qutab. He writes about six rambling e-mails a day, with cc-s addressed to Bush, Putin, Manmohan Singh, the Pope, etc. In these, he details plots against him and promises vengeance outlined in specific, stomach-churning details. The prognosis isn’t good. Doctors say there is a very slim chance of remission. This pattern could continue indefinitely. Or, he may lapse into catatonia, withdrawing totally from the real world.

In the legal sense, my friend isn’t mad. He knows who he is; he can name the political leadership of a dozen countries. His memory is unimpaired and he retains apparent cognition. He can quote classics in several languages, extract definite integrals and apply the compound interest formula, which is more than most sane people can. He reads and absorbs information—but he processes it in abnormal fashion.

His lifestyle is mostly harmless—spam filters deal efficiently with the crank e-mails. When he goes berserk, it usually means a scuffle or two and minor police cases. When he comes down, he is apologetic. The parallels between him and Cho Seung-Hui go deeper than just two people turning disturbed and delusional while enrolled in an American academic institution. There is a strong resonance between Cho’s ramblings and my friend’s e-mails. Both had violent delusional fantasies; my friend’s are actually more coherently developed and more wide-ranging. (Oddly, both were fascinated by Vladimir Putin.)

But my friend returned from the US before he developed full-blown symptoms. If he had stayed on there, he and several others would surely be dead by now. Sometime during one of his violent phases, he would have bought a gun and gone ballistic. It wouldn’t have stopped at mere scuffles. India is traditionally tolerant of “holy fools”. So he survives here despite having cut himself off from family, friends and medical support. And thankfully, India is not tolerant of guns. The right to bear weapons is not enshrined in our Constitution.

Datta is hinting at the easy availability of guns in the US. I have been pondering the situation and am forced to say that guns are a moral/ethical issue, even though they may be of use in certain situations, like the Miss US case recently. They can trigger crimes such as Virginia Tech, and this must be accounted for. I was discussing Bowling With Columbine with a friend this evening and she remembered a scene where the guys playing the two teenaged killers walk into a Wal Mart store and buy a lot of ammunition. Just like that--off the counter. This cannot be justified under the pretext of people needing to protect themselves, howsoever meritorious that argument may be.

The hopelessness of Datta's friend's situation depresses me. To my mind, euthanasia should be administered on such people, so that they may stop hurting themselves and others.

Goodbye Mike, Hello Christine

Los Angeles Times sportswriter Mike Penner is taking a sabbatical to return to work as Christime Daniels. That's right--in a moving column, Penner explains his decision to reveal to the world that he is transsexual:

For more years than I care to count, I was scared to death over the prospect of writing a story such as this one. It was the most frightening of all the towering mountains of fear I somehow had to confront and struggle to scale.

How is it going to affect his work output?

People have asked if transitioning will affect my writing. And if so, how? All I can say at this point is that I am now happier, more focused and more energized when I sit behind a keyboard. The wicked writer's block that used to reach up and torture me at some of the worst possible times imaginable has disappeared.

My therapist says this is what happens when a transsexual finally "integrates" and the ever-present white noise in the background dissipates. That should come as good news to my editors: far fewer blown deadlines.

Read my review of Transamerica here.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Cameron displays his literary bent

British prime ministerial hopeful David Cameron was pictured this week reading a copy of Ian McEwan's latest On Chesil Beach on the London tube. This piece in the Guardian calls Cameron's move to get himself photographed with a literary novel as an excellent brand-building exercise:

The McEwan brand is perfect for Cameron. It says "I like fiction. I'm in touch with my feminine side. And I support the arts." Cameron's endorsement is a moment of brand-recognition no amount of money can buy... Interestingly, it is more than equalled by his popularity in the US.

With the current spotlight on the declining status of book review sections in the US, one wonders if Cameron's picture may have clues to the malady that affects American society. Can a George W Bush hope to swing the tide in his favour by getting photographed with an intelligent book in his hands? Would such a thing affect Americans? I am no authority on the subject but my reading informs me it is unlikely to. One reason perhaps why newspaper managements consider book review sections dispensable.

Bob Hoover on book sections

NBCC's campaign to save book reviews is allowing us a peek into the minds of America's pre-eminent book editors. The latest post is by Bob Hoover, the book editor of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. He begins by acknowledging the real problems facing books pages:

Appealing to the better nature of the management and stockholders about the value of books and literary coverage in a petition campaign might make us feel good about ourselves, but isn’t going to move that bottom line. It’s not the desire that’s missing; it’s the money and the readers. Those factors aren’t going to go away soon.

In my view, we need to stop looking at papers as commercial enterprises which must follow forces of the market to justify their existence. Since early teenage, when I started reading book reviews in Indian papers like Indian Express and Hindustan Times, the thought of their ending one day never crossed my mind. Granted, the Indian media scene is thriving and newspapers here have no fear of closing shop, yet my knowledge of the book sections never closing had its basis in another belief.

Too often, the reductionist argument of book sections being a conduit between the publisher and the reader is offered to give a consumerist spin to the profession. But to my mind, book sections are not really a conduit betwen the publisher and the reader, but one between the writer and the reader. Good book reviews probe the writer's meaning to a depth that is not imaginable otherwise. They tell us the history of the genre, and its attendant similarities with others. To that extent, they are an important addendum to the overall arts and culture coverage in the newspaper, like sports in a different context.

So, it's not so much the commercial underpinnings of the newspaper trade that had me hoping the book section would go on for ever, but the promise of being taken into a whole new world in the span of 750 words. That accessibility, the magic of it coming my way every Sunday!

Thursday, April 26, 2007

'Footbridges to artistic tradition'

NBCC president John Freeman writes in the Guardian on the declining status of book reviews in America:

As Jonathan Franzen pointed out in his terrific book of essays about reading, How to Be Alone, obsolescence - once it is accepted - can be a virtue. But not in this case, I believe. Book reviews are one of the few places in a US newspaper one can stop to appreciate the beauty of language, the pleasures of knowledge. They are also footbridges to artistic tradition, however rickety.

Book reviews and blogging

The NBCC campaign to save book reviews is gaining momentum, and yesterday, Marie Arana, books editor at the Washington Post, wrote on the NBCC blog:

I've been in this business a long time, and I can't remember when book review sections were not in peril. Newspaper staffs are filled with people who don't understand what we do or why readers love us, even though the very public they serve tells them often and strongly that books are important to their lives.

A recent arts and entertainment survey of
Washington Post readers shows that interest in book news is second only to interest in restaurants. That means that readers want book information more than they want information on new movies, pop music concerts, live theater,or even newly released DVDs. And yet when the accountants come around wanting to cut the newsroom's budget, it's always book sections that are scrutinized first.

Arana gets the other editors at the Washington Post Book World to comment on the issue. Michael Dirda begins his piece with this:

Every blogger wants to write a book. In fact, the dirty little secret of the internet is "Littera scripta manet"--the written word survives. A book is real, whereas cyberspace is just keystrokes--quickly scribbled and quickly forgotten.

I have two points to make here. I wonder if Horace knew at any level that coming societies may have a form of writing that's not done on paper. His maxim seems more like a warning against leaving important things to only oral communication. Digital word is the written word, for every practical purpose.

Second, it is unfair to argue that every blogger wants to write a book (those who do, like Scott Stein, end up publishing theirs). Why should one assume that a wish to talk about books is dependent on one's future as a writer? Blogging has opened up vistas for me that were not imaginable in the absence of the World Wide Web. Not only has it made me a more learned person, it has also piqued my interest in the arts by democratizing their coverage. If the non-visual world had been my only medium of expression, I don't think I would have bothered getting a look in.

There is also the question of what constitutes "serious work". I have often felt that critics like Dirda rest their argument on the dissipative nature of the Internet. They seem to be saying, "The Web allows you to be irresponsible and ill-informed about what you speak becaue there is no accountability." Well, thankfully, blogging today has so many erudite participants that it is almost impossible to pass something silly without the fear of a loss of face. The communities, whether literary or any other, are so well-knit that one can be assured an immediate slap on the wrist for a lapse.

In other news, you can now show support to the NBCC campaign on saving book reviews by displaying a sticker the kind you see on my blog when you scroll down (below the Archives). It's available at Critical Mass.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Martin Amis unplugged

Martin Amis's interview with the Opinion Journal. I came across this on Frank Wilson's Books Inq. Amis is his inimitable eloquent self--"But his virtuosity becomes glaring in conversation. He does not so much talk as assemble flawless paragraphs in the air, fielding subjects from tax cuts to teen fashion."

Read his discourse on 'Islamisophobia' coupled with his Guardian essay The Age of Horrorism.

Amis in one of those writers who can say, in brilliantly constructed sentences, what one has been thinking a long while. Not just on Islamist politics, he also holds forth on President Bush and the
"numbness of advanced democracy and the market state". (I don't necessarily agree with his contention that divorce is an outcome of the western guilt at having it too easy. This highly moralistic position may apply to Amis, but he can hardly generalize it to others.)

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A thousand books and more

Patu Keswani's appetite for reading seems endless, in quantity and variety. In spite of my familiarity with several people who proudly wear the tag of 'voracious reader', no one comes close to the prodigious amount that Keswani, chairman, Lemon Tree Hotels, manages to devour every day.

By his own reckoning, he pores over 30-40 books a month and reads four-five books at any given time. If this hasn't made you choke on your coffee already, consider this: he possesses some 200-300 books on the world wars and a few thousand on science fiction alone.

That though is just the tip of the iceberg. Other books transcend genres like history, fantasy, architecture, painting and science fiction.

Books on history and warfare top the list, with The Art of War by Chinese master Sun Tzu the reigning favourite. While he is not very enthusiastic about Indian writers (his wife likes them), Samit Basu's fantasy books, The Simoqin Prophecies and The Manticore's Secret impressed him.

Keswani also liked Ashok Banker's series on the Ramayana, and proceeds to narrate a Guru Dronacharya quotation from the book, "The truth of today becomes the history of tomorrow, the legend of next month and the myth of next year." The statement is inspirational because "it presents a philosophical spin on the passage of time".

Despite being one of the pioneers of mid-market hotels in India, Keswani is not really a management buff. He does, however, find himself picking up a few finance tomes just to break the monotony. Lewis Carroll and T S Eliot find favour when it comes to poetry while the hotelier in him ends up picking books on tiles and stained glass.

Did I mention painting? Never mind. Patu Keswani's reading ambitions certainly stretch far beyond the scope of this column.


This appeared in the Business Standard, here.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Review—The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A perplexing shift to hatred of America

In Mohsin Hamid's new book, an erstwhile high-flying finance whiz kid narrates the story of his life over the course of a single evening to an American, whose identity remains suspect till the very end. Changez –– a native Pakistani –– was the blue-eyed boy of leading management firm Underwood Samson. Backed by an elite education from Princeton, he had it made. Liked by superiors and respected by peers, he was on his way to corporate superstardom. His love for the beautiful Erica ensured him a spot in New York's high society. But 9/11 changes all that. The premise of Hamid's book is robust, and in better hands, this book could have explored the precarious relations between communities and how imagined grievances play a part in bolstering hatred of the "other".

This one, however, falls short of locating a coherent core. The book traces the protagonist's journey from foolish optimism to inexplicable hatred. The turnaround comes about in the Philippines where Changez is deployed for a project. A Filipino driver exchanges a cursory aggressive glance with him. Changez is baffled by it; he thinks it's the driver's envy at seeing a fellow Third World person of color do well and meld with the white, all-American crowd. To Changez, this realization is no less than a shock, for it indicates to him that he is still sensitive to such a sensibility.

From here to his sociopathic reaction to the tragedy of 9/11 (seeing the Twin Towers fall like a pack of cards, he smiles to himself), Changez's shift is not only baffling but consternation-inducing. There is no vantage point more strapping than imagined victimhood, and this gives him the leeway to make accusations against American mores and foreign policy without justification in fact. One often spots phrases such as "American undercurrent of condescension" and "the denial of gratification –– that most un-American of pleasures". Hamid makes no attempt to explain these views which are liberally espoused by Changez –– the reluctant fundamentalist. One can't help bristle at this undercurrent of animosity.

After the September 11 attacks, Changez returns to the US after a holiday in Lahore without shaving his two-week-old beard. As he explains, "It was, perhaps, a form of protest on my part, a symbol of my identity, or perhaps I sought to remind myself of the reality I had just left behind." One can understand identity as a socio-economic construct but for all purposes, each of the reasons Changez gives himself to keep his beard are personal and, if I may add, superfluous. Doubtless, a beard is an inconsequential appurtenance, but in a climate of suspicion triggered by an atrocity that snuffed out 3,000 innocent lives, does it make sense to score political brownie points over one's appearance? What is so wrong with not arousing suspicion? Why this gratuitous aggression?

India also figures in the narrative as the belligerent big brother out to ruin Pakistan with America's support. What Changez calls intimidation –– referring to the ten-month long Operation Parakram in which Indian troops were deployed along the Indo-Pak border after an attack on the Indian Parliament –– Indians call pusillanimity. Pakistan's involvement in stoking terror on Indian soil is an open secret among intelligence circles. Yet, as with America, Changez's dislike for India flows as a river with a steep gradient –– so powerful is the current of victimized accusation that any scope of a rational discussion is drowned out.

In the final analysis, Changez comes across as a confused soul. He is filled with self-loathing for leaving his country for a better life abroad, but does not feel the need to fully integrate himself with the American way of life. Even so, he has no compunction in milking the bountiful cow dry. This, as so-called "loony right-wing commentators" would tell you, is the scourge of multiculturalism.

Erica's story, which showed promise in the beginning, fails to integrate with the book's larger premise, leaving one wondering why she had to be knocked off mysteriously after intermittent episodes in a mental asylum. Besides, Hamid stretches the reader's suspension of disbelief to breaking point by including a Soviet era-type undercover assassin. That said, the ending does spring a genuine surprise. Read the book for its tautness, but don't expect to come away enriched.


This review appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The original link is here.

Review—Kalooki Nights

Haunting history, with a dose of humor

So much of the writing on the Holocaust is dark and dreary, arguably rightly so. After all, how does one locate humor in a moment of history unparalleled in its brutality? Yet, every once in a while, a book comes along that forces us to relook at the tragedy, and not necessarily with misty eyes. Howard Jacobson's Kalooki Nights in one such book, celebratory of its Jewishness, lush in its humor and very-very intelligently composed.

At its heart is the story of Max Glickman, a cynical cartoonist who composes a self-proclaimed masterpiece, Five Thousand Years of Bitterness. Passing through a spate of failed marriages with women "who have diaereses or umlauts in their names," such as Chloë, Zoë and Alÿs, Max is the archetypal Jewish outcast, aching to break free from his Jewish heritage even as the ties of culture and ancestry bind him.

Raised in a secular atheist family, with a boxing enthusiast for a father and a kalooki player for a mother, Max's childhood is centered around his two friends—the outgoing, vibrant Errol Tobias and the quiet, brooding Manny Washinsky. Errol and Manny are two opposing poles of Jewishness. While one is into randy quips and onanist fantasies, the other is the product of a strict upbringing that has sapped the life out of him. What ties the book together is an incident from the past: Manny gassed his own parents in the '70s, in a brutal reprisal of the Nazi methods against the Jews during the Holocaust. Max is asked by two television producers to examine the case in writing, and the second half of the book tracks Max's attempts to make sense of the grisly crime his friend committed many years ago. Why did he do it? How did an ordinary-looking boy plumb depths of such depravity? Did his orthodox upbringing incite hatred for his parents?

No, none of these seemingly apparent answers fit. The subject matter, though dark, makes up for an oddly light tale in Jacobson's able hands. But let not his humor be confused for apathy. Jacobson, via Max and Manny, conveys the ineluctable truth of young Jews everywhere: how not to be special; how to look at the world without the past beating down their back. In creating extraordinary circumstances for quite ordinary characters, Jacobson has effectively questioned the force of history. He does not look at history from the perspective of those who were part of it; rather he beseeches the reader to consider the fate of those who continue to be haunted by its unedifying distance. In spite of its humor, or perhaps because of it, Kalooki Nights is one of our best contemporary novels on what constitutes Jewishness.


This review appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Here is the original link.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

AJC scraps book editor post

Via Critical Mass comes the news that Atlanta Journal Constitution has scrapped its Book Editor post, which was occupied by Teresa Weaver. The link is here:

This is shocking news, and there are editor and publisher e-mails included in the CM post to register protests. I too have written to them and here is the text of my mail:

I write not just as a reviewer but as a consumer of intellectual nourishment which is offered in the form of books pages in daily publications. This is shocking news, totally unexpected and, may I add, unwarranted. The books page is the heart of any newspaper's cultural coverage, and your scrapping of the post of book editor betrays a lack of the appreciation of a newspaper's true role in society.

Are we going to dumb down for fear of falling readership and allow space to silly movies and art events which defy the very definition of art. Ms. Weaver's books coverage made AJC one of America's few papers to proudly boast a healthy literary section. It has now been trampled upon by the rigours of commercialism. I doubt this would help bottomlines much, but it is going to cost the paper tremendous goodwill. Countless people who keenly follow books pages will be heartbroken.

What is the press's objective, if not to initiate thinking via forums such as books pages? I understand that newspapers are slugging it out to maintain relevance, but that still does not justify the scrapping of the books page. This is akin to deleting the Edit/Op-ed pages.

I strongly protest this (wanton?) act and beseech you to reconsider.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Not afraid of Virginia, are we?

Till very late into the movie, Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, I struggled to make sense of the mess that was running before me. Had I been in another, more charitable mood, I may have thought it as an unsparing portrait of marital life, but even that, given Martha’s excessive carping, was difficult to accept. Both George and Martha run an endless tug-of-war of abuses directed at each other in what must be a surprisingly vivid blend of sarcasm, anger, confusion and loss. There is not a moment’s respite in this hodge-podge of two custodians of grief getting back at each other for life’s missed chances. Caught in the crossfire is another young couple who has only recently moved to the university George is a professor of history at. Nick and Honey, comprising a Math professor and his frail, retarded wife supply the meaty inspiration to the elders’ games. They do, yes, and play "Humiliate the Host" and "Hump the hostess". If this is getting confusing, watch the movie, and you’d know why Edward Albee chose to include Virginia in the title. But this is mad, mad stream of consciousness, real perhaps, but maddening nevertheless. The ending rescues the story a bit, and the play from which the movie is adapted has provided grist to endless commentaries. But in the final analysis, WIAOVW fails to come across as anything other than the chasm that separates two disgruntled individuals.
All the four leads were nominated for Oscars in their respective categories, but only Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis won.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Review - The Last Mughal

A keen look at the end of an empire

William Dalrymple, then a young man at 18, arrived in Delhi for the first time in 1984. Since then, the writer-historian has had a near obsessive fascination with India's capital. The Last Mughal is the third in a series of books he has devoted to the city. While the first, City of Djinns, is a paean to his love affair with the Capital, the second, White Mughals recounts the history of the many British who embraced Mughal culture when they first arrived in the country. By the 1850s, however, this intermingling had given way to a hierarchical power structure which ultimately laid the foundation of the British empire in India. The Last Mughal delves into this latter part of the British presence in the subcontinent, focusing on the uprising of 1857 and the downfall of the Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II.

Dalrymple eschews the analytical form — which a lot of history writing is caged in — and draws out his tale in rich narrative. In an interview, he says, "Since the '80s onwards, there was a return to how history writing had always been done from the time of Gibbon and so on…History is the telling of things past. It's a city with many mansions." This approach heralds two advantages: not only does the story of the 1850s Delhi come alive in prose that closely mirrors fiction, but also it gives Dalrymple the space to indulge the lives of the tiny players in the uprising — from fruitsellers to courtesans, the story of the last days of the Mughal empire comes alive in the minutest details imaginable. Dalrymple reportedly gleaned over 20,000 Mutiny papers at the National Archives in Delhi as part of his meticulous research for the book.

What Dalrymple focuses on is the religious nature of the uprising. While the sepoy mutiny is given prominent focus in the book, Dalrymple is careful to maintain that the incidents that led to the uprising were clearly aimed at getting rid of "the other," in this case, the Christian rulers. Several different theatres of aggression were operating at the same time, such as civil uprisings in Lucknow, princely associations in Jhansi, peasant revolts in Doab and so on. But Dalrymple limits himself to Delhi, which was the center of the revolt, mainly because it happened to be the seat of the Mughal empire.

The central strand of the book is Zafar's acquiescence to the uprising and the aftermath, which he was to bitterly regret. In Delhi, at least, the uprising is portrayed as one that went far beyond the purview of eliminating the British. Wealthy but unpopular Marwari and Jain moneylenders were looted. For the Delhi elite, both Hindu and Muslim, the disappearing of a way of life defined by its syncretic character and love of the arts, was the primal jolt. The low-caste workmen, miscreants and prisoners let loose from the jails became enthusiastic participants in the uprising, fracturing it along caste lines. Dalrymple quotes court poet Ghalib's worry that a way of life, maintained by the Delhi elite, was being waylaid at the hands of streetside ruffians.

From the massacre of innocent Christians to the heavy-handed British reprisal, Dalrymple's tale evokes how history is often not the grand sweeping narrative it is portrayed to be, but the messy outcome of circumstance, destiny and individual action, or lack thereof. As he writes, "When Delhi fell in September 1857 it was not just the city and Zafar's court which were uprooted and destroyed, but the self-confidence and authority of the wider Mughal political and cultural world." Zafar was banished to Rangoon after a show trial, where he stayed in confinement until his death in 1862. Because of his equivocal attitude to the uprising, his influence soon dissipated from Indian life. A move that had sought out to end the British Raj in India, ironically gave them the means to strengthen their presence.

The book ultimately is a lament to this loss, the loss of a rich culture that imbibed the best of Hinduism and Islam, and one that never really made a comeback to the bylanes of this ancient city. Thanks to Dalrymple, we can now get a peek into the last moments of a beguiling era.


This review appeared in St. Petersburg Times. The original link is here.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Review - The Year of the Rooster

The real dragon

Guy Sorman is a well-known French journalist who spent a year—precisely the Year of the Rooster, stretching from January 2005 to January 2006—in China, during which he built upon his earlier research on that country to pen a portrait of its society. This comprehensive—and in parts, shocking—book is a product of that year’s travels. In Sorman’s hands, China, that utopian land where communism rests lovingly with all-round development, the cynosure of all eyes, western and definitely Indian, comes through as an Orwellian nightmare worse than 1984. For here, the Big Brother not only watches, but also kills and maims.

The hustle and bustle of Beijing and Shanghai hides the stark darkness that is the fate of the Chinese countryside. With most reliable media outlets muzzled by the Party (read the Communist Party of China, referred to throughout this books as the Party, in a not-too-veiled attempt at communicating its sinister power and absolute hold over Chinese society), the news of any uprising or revolt remains hidden from the outside world. So the world gets to see what the Chinese government wants to project: a country on the move, all geared up to host the 2008 Olympics. The truth, as always, is greyer, less delightful.

Turn to page 121, and you may be forgiven for thinking you were browsing an account of the recent Nandigram massacre, whose gruesomeness shook the nation’s conscience. But no, what you are instead reading is all in a day’s work for the Party’s hired goons. In May 2005, a militia squad of the local government at Shengyou expelled a hundred peasant families who refused to give up their lands for the construction of a power plant without being compensated. When the peasants resisted, twelve were killed on the spot. Work on the power plant subsequently began. This is one of the very few incidents that actually got leaked out. Countless other injustices never make it to the international media, and so we are led to believe that peace is thriving in communist China, even as the real truth behind the Curtain, as it were, remains suppressed.

So damaging are some of Sorman’s observations that Joseph Stalin, that greatly vilified Communist villain, starts looking like a benevolent messiah. Sorman narrates the case of one Madam Feng Lanrui, one of the many intellectuals fighting for democracy in China. Sorman meets Madam Feng—an old and fragile woman gifted with an indomitable spirit—addressing a public gathering. He writes, “In the sixties had she spoken as she did, the Party would not have hesitated to send a couple of Red Guards, boys no more than fifteen or sixteen years old, to torture her and force a confession of heresy out of her. She would have been beaten till she did not declare her love for the Party; she would have had to confess that she had been against progress, against history, against China and an American agent in the bargain.” Admittedly, this period is part of the Maoist era of excesses, but the situation continues to be grim. “The executioners of yesterday have become the businessmen of today. And they want at all costs to bury the past.”

In spite of the vehemently anti-Communist leanings of the writer, democracy doesn’t exactly cover herself in glory in his book. His conversations with several Chinese intellectuals who have returned from the US lead Sorman to conclude that the Chinese don’t want democracy as much as the West would like to believe. In their view, democracy may suit diverse societies like India, but for a homogeneous country like China, it would only hasten the rise of mediocrity (this is something we Indians must accept, howsoever grudgingly). Which is why competitive examinations are routinely used as a signpost to the next generation of the Chinese leadership.

Where does this leave us, the readers? Are the Chinese satisfied with their government or not? In Sorman’s view, China is passing through a transitional phase in which the globalising aspirations of its youth are coming into direct conflict with the rigid structure of the Party. The liberalist that he is, Sorman hopes that these urges will fight it out until China sees a form of governance which is predominantly capitalist, and which would ensure that the subdued collective voice of “the one billion people of silence” finally breaks free.


This review appeared in the Business Standard. The original link is here.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Review: Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life

The 18th and 19th centuries were a tumultuous time in Europe. France, in particular, was looking to find its feet after its revolution, which had wiped out a considerable part of its nobility.

Under these circumstances, it was but natural that scholars of the age looked outward for better forms of governance. Among these, the name of French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville must reign supreme. After a brief visit to America in 1831, he came to write the definitive book on American democracy and many of his insights remain relevant to this day.

And yet, for almost two centuries, there has been no comprehensive English-language biography of Tocqueville. That gap is now filled by Hugh Brogan's absorbing, exhaustive Alexis de Tocqueville: A Life.

Brogan, a British historian and biographer, seems to alternate throughout the biography between idealized and sharply critical views of Tocqueville.

It was the turmoil in French government, Brogan points out, that brought Tocqueville to America. The July Revolution of 1830, which led to the accession to the throne of Louise-Philippe, left Tocqueville, who had studied law, in a state of crisis. His father lost his position, his own career lost its momentum, and the very foundation of European nobility – Tocqueville's milieu – became precarious.

And so, on the pretext of studying prison reform in the United States (which at the time was considered to have the best penal system in the world), Tocqueville and close friend Gustave Beaumont took leave of France.

On his arrival to America, the fact of American democracy's success was nothing less than a shock to Tocqueville. Although he was born in 1805 – 16 years after the storming of the Bastille – Tocqueville's aristocratic family suffered greatly from the excesses of the French revolution. His grandfather and other family members and friends were guillotined and their grounds and property were confiscated.

Not surprisingly, young Tocqueville was left with a deep fear of the "tyranny" of majority rule. But once in the United States and able to observe the new nation close-up, he was forced to concede that a system of government founded on equality – the kind that Europe had never experienced – seemed to work.

Tocqueville was an admirer of local self-government and decentralization, and Brogan writes warmly of this admiration. He also devotes considerable space to Tocqueville's notes on prison reform. But Brogan's greatest interest is in Tocqueville's rather contentious relationship with democracy itself, as evidenced in his seminal work, "Democracy in America."

"Tocqueville," Brogan complains, "keeps switching from the pros to the cons [of democracy] and back again and thereby disconcerts his readers, because he states every point so emphatically and never tries to harmonize his discourse."

Ironically, the same can be said for Brogan's treatment of Tocqueville. At one moment, he is the undisputed prophet of democracy; at another, a self-doubting, formulaic scholar. In Brogan's view, Tocqueville's longevity in political discourse may have as much to do with his literary leanings and ease with language as with the workings of a real intellect.

He accuses Tocqueville of using "literary guile" to make his thoughts acceptable. He decries the comparison between democracy and aristocracy that Tocqueville makes, lamenting, "It is a great pity that Tocqueville was not prepared to use the word 'oligarchy' systematically."

Equally jarring to Brogan is Tocqueville's failure to discuss women's rights, which John Stuart Mill did to such resounding effect.

Along with this thorough tracking of Tocqueville's intellectual development, Brogan also offers a close analysis of his personal life.

He traces the lifelong friendship with Beaumont, quoting generously from letters they wrote to one another. He also provides insight into Tocqueville's marriage to Englishwoman Marie Motley, a relationship strained both by their different backgrounds and Tocqueville's philandering, although Brogan makes clear that there was always deep affection.

And then there was Tocqueville's devotion to his beloved France. Much of Tocqueville's life was aimed at discovering a form of government that could reclaim past French glories. Brogan's biography is a marvelous tribute to that life.


This review appeared in the Christian Science Monitor. The link is here.

Monday, April 09, 2007

After the wedding comes chaos

Efter brylluppet is the story of Jacob (or is it?), an idealistic Danish man working with orphans in Bombay, who comes to Denmark to convince billionaire industrialist Jørgen about his projects in India and in the process, get him to donate some much-needed moolah. Little known to Jacob, Jørgen is husband to his past lover, Helene and also father to his daughter Anna. Secrets come tumbling out of the closest during Anna's wedding to which Jacob gets invited. The movie has a very solid premise but the treatment is weak.

Mads Mikkelsen as Jacob has a towering screen presence (I kept wondering where I had seen him earlier, until IMDb informed that he played the villain in Casino Royale), but halfway through the story, the focus shifts to Jørgen's anxieties about his impending death. So dramatic and sudden is the turnaround that one is forced to question who the protagonist of the movie is-- Jacob or Jørgen?Also, Jørgen is supposed to come across as the man-of-steel industrialist with a heart of gold. But Rolf Lassgård fails to excite sympathy. That too may be the director's fault, because he is initially portrayed as this no-nonsense man who does not have time for niceties or charity. How then does he turn out to be a messiah of sorts?

The movie is okay in parts, and Stine Fischer Christensen is good as Anna—tender and sympathetic. But why does she look at her fathers--biological and otherwise--like she is about to land wet passionate kisses on them? Sis and I kept thinking that she will be the center of some earth-shattering anti-climax, but no, the movie--excruciatingly long at over two hours--ends without so much as a whimper. And dear Susanne (Susanne Bier--director), panning the camera to a tear-laden eye may boast its effects but only when not done to death. When you start doing this in every scene and in every frame and with every Tom, Dick and Harry, the sublimity of the action tends to wear itself out, right?

An unquestioned failure!

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

To all people who want to become Pedro......

I must confess at the beginning that I am not an Almodóvar fan. I believe that the edginess his films are lauded for comes from their setting in a hetero-normative context, and therefore, their exploration of gay/transsexual life from a perspective that gives no credence to the "notion of the other", is thought of as radical. When, in fact, they are just ordinary stories of people grappling with AIDS, sexual identity, maternal obsession and so on.

Having said that, I liked All About My Mother, Almodóvar's 1999 film about a mother grieving over the death of a young son in an accident. Manuela, a former prostitute, ran away from Barcelona to Madrid to raise her boy Esteban. The film tracks her journey back to Barcelona in search of the boy's father, the transvestite junkie Lola. Along the way, she reunites with her friend Agrado and meets Sister Rosa (Penélope Cruz). The film dwells into Almodóvar's trademark themes of transvestism, the conflict between art and life, and how the greatest redemption is found in the unlikeliest of settings.

Watch All About My Mother. Almodóvar ends the film with: "To all actresses who have played actresses. To all women who act. To men who act and become women. To all the people who want to be mothers. To my mother." It's a touching look at a mother place's in our lives. Without getting maudlin, the movie pays tribute to the bond of motherhood, its different manifestations (a man can be mother to a child; a grieving lady to a nun) and the power of this feeling to overcome all else.

I may not much like Almodóvar, the filmmaker, but I have a feeling I will love Almodóvar, the man.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Review - Ending poverty in south Asia

Some bits of hope

The book is a guide to 12 cases that have beaten the odds of bureaucratic laxity, endemic corruption and deadening hopelessness to become tales of success in small, mainly rural communities. They have been compiled by Deepa Narayan and Elena Glinskaya, both World Bank economists working on issues concerning poverty reduction. The heartening cases cited in this book have been culled from across the length and breadth of the Indian subcontinent, with eight of the 12 case studies discussing Indian successes. Notable among these are Operation Flood, ITC’s e-choupal, self-help groups in Andhra Pradesh and Gujarat’s Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA). While most of us are familiar with the broad aspects of these stories, it takes a nuanced rendition such as this one to make the reader appreciate the extent to which micro-initiatives have changed the situation on the ground.

A case in point: Inspired by the wide success of the self-help movement in Andhra Pradesh, a couple of men and women came together to end the oppressive jogani system, a euphemism for institutionalised prostitution. As the book narrates, jogans “typically are first used by the local landlord until he tires of them, after which they are left in the temple to service any man who is willing to pay (the priests, not the jogan)”. The system has persisted for centuries as an effective means to suppress Dalit women into submission. Denied self-espect, the atrocious practice perpetuates itself over generations, with daughters of jogans getting into the trade as well.

The campaign launched by the multivillage joint action committee used street theatre and visited local authorities to sensitise people to the issue. With growing awareness, the committee was successful in ending the heinous practice in one temple and is now directing its efforts at other temples.

Such are the grassroots, little-heard-of stories that this book brings to light. Not only are accounts given, but the lessons that civil society at large can learn from them are also discussed. ITC’s e-choupal is a beacon of hope for farmers who were until now at the mercy of unscrupulous middlemen. Not only does it employ web-based tools to keep farmers informed of the latest market prices, e-choupal also busts the commonly-held notion that large corporate firms are run by rapacious agents who cannot work out strategies for rural transformation.

For those baulking at the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, this book shows how not all guarantee schemes are destined for failure. The Madhya Pradesh government’s education guarantee scheme (EGS), launched in 1997, has resulted in a dramatic rise in enrolment rates. Especially endearing is the fact that the programme has been successful in educating a large number of children from disadvantaged backgrounds. Ninety-one per cent of the more than 1.2 million children enrolled in schools run under the scheme are from Schedules Castes, Scheduled Tribes and other backward classes. Political will had a major role to play in the success of this programme, with the then Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh promoting it with missionary zeal. As Vimla Ramachandran, who has penned the piece, says: “Political will was clearly a distinctive factor in the EGS from the beginning ... Thus the start-up of the programme was not contingent on availability of foreign funds or grants from the government of India.”

The book also looks at rural support programmes in Pakistan and the National Development Framework, which is aimed at rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan. Notwithstanding the recent global spotlight on Nobel winner Muhammad Yunus’ Grameen Bank, the microfinance story in Bangladesh is analysed with a keen eye on the anxieties for its future. How will Bangladesh’s microfinance institutions fare in the absence of charismatic leaders like Yunus? How will the transition from simple credit products to more advanced financial practices come about? Does scaling up involve stretching managerial capacity excessively? All these questions are raised and possible solutions debated.

By including pieces by the redoubtable Verghese Kurien and the inimitable Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, the book offers practical insights into how the public and private sectors, rather than working in opposition, can come together to devise innovative solutions. Success stories depicted in this book might not have been so under different circumstances. The challenge is to tweak practices that have delivered and tailor them to local needs. Shunning hysterical optimism for guarded pragmatism, this book is a notable primer on certain ideas that have borne fruit.


This review appeared in Business Standard. The original link is here.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Review - The Testament of Gideon Mack

Religious zeal, a cautionary tale
In James Robertson's latest novel, a Church of Scotland minister goes missing for three days in a gorge, only to miraculously emerge alive. The trouble begins when Gideon Mack claims the devil saved him. This ignites a scandal in the sleepy town of Monimaskit, leading to Gideon's ostracism. The minister ultimately leaves town and is found dead on a mountain one year later.

The book is narrated by a cynical publisher, Patrick Walker, who has been sent a strange manuscript by freelance journalist Harry Caithness. Caithness pleads with Walker to look at the manuscript and consider it for publication. "The Testament of Gideon Mack" is Gideon's account of his life, right from his strict upbringing to his marriage to the feeble Jenny and his love affair with the beautiful Elsie to his banishment from Monimaskit.

Mr. Robertson gives the reader hints of the duality he intends to introduce in the protagonist's character. The young Gideon is fond of reading Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Unknown to himself, the core of this tale will strongly resonate with his own life.

Gideon's father, the Rev. James Mack, is a strict disciplinarian looking down upon life's simple pleasures. There is a scene in which he lashes out at the young Gideon for secretly watching "Batman," only to be struck by an unfortunate stroke.

A bullying incident at school reveals that there are two aspects to his self -- one the devilish Gideon, willing to sin, and the other, the priestly Gideon, reprimanding this devilish self for its wanton immorality -- and connecting the two, like an invisible thread, is the deeply ingrained fear of God's wrath. To Gideon, fed on a diet of Calvinist morality, bridging the gap between religion and desire is a lifelong effort, at which ultimately, he fails.

Despite following in his father's footsteps to become a minister of the Church, Gideon is an atheist. There is an endearing passage in which Mr. Robertson explores the doubts wracking his brains:

"I didn't believe in him and yet he was still there, a hovering doubt in the background of every move I made: somebody out there may be watching you. I thought I'd got it all out of my system as a boy, but I hadn't. You don't, not if it's in you in the first place. Anyway, the point was, he was there or he was not there, whether you believed in him or not. I happened not to believe in him, but he was still there. And that was the twist: even if he didn't exist, he would still get you sooner or later . . ."

"The Testament" is, at one level, the tale of a man gone loony after a string of personal tragedies which includes losing his wife, Jenny, to an accident. But looking deeper, it is also a cautionary tale of religious zealousness ruining a conscientious man's life. The devil, it turns out, is none but the cry of Gideon Mack for a connection in a world gone horribly wrong -- a world where the benign hand of God is absent, in spite of Gideon's perpetual readiness to be tested upon his faith.

To protect just the things he holds sacred, such as his love for Elsie (despite the relationship being adulterous), Gideon must embrace the devil in him. He must embrace that which he knows to exist as a thing of beauty, yet which cannot be accepted as a reflection of God's grace.

The epilogue explores Caithness' visit to Monimaskit to meet with the locals and learn, first hand, the truth behind Gideon's tale. Much of the manuscript is revealed to be half-true at best, such as Gideon's suppressing of his roaring love affair with Elsie. This leads the reader to wonder if Gideon was being compassionate in sparing Elsie the awkwardness of facing the truth or if, as the tale slantingly points, something else was amiss.

Blending the best elements of the supernatural with an engaging tale that makes one question their assumptions about morality, religion and God, "The Testament of Gideon Mack" is a startling book indeed.


This review appeared in the Washington Times. The online link is here.