Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mothers and Sons

This is Colm Toibin’s first book of short stories, and includes a novella in the end, "A Long Winter". Two of the stories here, "A Song", about a chance meeting between an estranged mother-son duo, and "Famous Blue Raincoat", which is the only story that is not about mothers and sons, but two sisters, had previously appeared in the Guardian, where I had read them. I have been reading a lot of Toibin's fiction recently, and Mothers and Sons is easily the best book to emerge from his stable. This, and his last, The Master, indicate a steady progression in the skills of an already deeply gifted observer of human frailty.

In "Three Friends", Fergus has just lost his mother to illness, and the story opens with his preparation for her funeral. Attending the funeral as if in a stupor, Fergus is forced by three of his friends to accompany them to a rave party later that night. Toibin slowly builds the shift in mood, from Fergus's reluctance to attend a pleasure trip to the point when deep in the throes of ecstasy (and Ecstasy), he undertakes an intense sexual experience inside the swimming pool with one of his friends, Mick. With another writer, the switch from grief to pleasure might have turned tacky, but Toibin's development is wholesome, making the reader want Mick to exert his full body weight on Fergus, a scene of mutual masturbation that breathes life into Fergus and the story.

In "A Long Winter", an alcoholic mother walks out on her family one morning only to be caught up in a blanket of snow. Her husband and son must then negotiate a truce with others in the village to help them search for her. The novella develops across several weeks, with ultimately a kitchen boy, an orphan, being brought in to take care of the household. Even as the mother's dead body is never discovered, Toibin, through scenes of conflict and tenderness, denotes the astonishing yet welcome way the orphan comes to displace the lady of the house.

Expectations turned false is a theme that runs through many stories. In "A Summer Job", a woman tries to bring her son to feel something for his grandmother with whom he spends the summers. The old lady is, of course, crazy about her grandson, and there are scenes in which, publicly at least, he seems to return the emotion. However, his mother discovers, later in the story, that his loving exterior may after all be a facade. Similarly, in "A Journey", a mother is driving home her depressed son from the hospital. He, who had bound himself to her as a child, thinking of ways to impress her, has turned distant and refuses even to sit next to her in the front. Toibin declines to discuss the cause of his depression and lets the reader be pained by the heavy silences that have crept in between mother and son.

Mothers and Sons is a truly inspired collection, its pitch perfect. It is so good that one hopes Toibin will, if only sporadically, reserve his pregnant sentences for shorter fiction like he has done here for the first time.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Story of the Night

The Story of the Night is inspired by Colm Toibin's own experiences in Argentina during the early 1980s, at the height of the Falklands War. As a journalist sending dispatches from Buenos Aires, he chronicled the suppression that the Generals of the time wreaked on the common populace. The Story of the Night, then, is a novel both of political oppression and US hegemony and ultimately, like in any Toibin novel, the search for the perfect gay love.

The story spans Richard Garay's experiences during the heated political climate of the time. Living with his mother, who dies 50 pages into the novel, Richard is ignorant of "all that is going around me". In hindsight, when he becomes an accomplice of two CIA agents — Susan and Donald, wife and husband — working on privatizing Argentina's national resources, he views those early halcyon days as ones of utter innocence, mixed with a certain lovable foolishness, where the hope of obtaining something was always greater than the pleasure in getting it.

Richard falls in love with Pablo, the son of a local senator, but does not know until later that he too is gay. Pablo's brother, Jorge, who Richard used to teach English at one time, is having a furtive affair with Susan. Toibin builds on the secretiveness of the two relationships — Richard and Pablo's versus Jorge and Susan's — to seek legitimacy for gay love. This is similar to the central conflict in Alan Hollinghurst's The Line of Beauty, where Nick Guest's gay affair is accused of spoiling the party for politician Gerald Fedden, never mind that Gerald is himself having a torrid straight affair. The Line of Beauty beat Toibin's The Master to the 2004 Booker.

All of Toibin's trademarks are present here, including the tactile gloom that pervades his novels. By the end of the novel, both Pablo and Richard have contracted AIDS, and Toibin uses this to develop a measure of beauteous absolution for his characters, from the mere fact of existence. One needs to be of a certain disposition, then, to fully appreciate the longing in these pages.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

'Guernsey' refreshes the art of epistolary writing

The epistolary novel has become a rare form with the advent of e-mail, though e-mails were used to good effect in Meg Cabot's The Boy Next Door. More recently, Andrew Sean Greer's The Confessions of Max Tivoli used the epistolary form to popular acclaim.

Now, another novel promises to revive this lost art. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society takes the form of letters written to and by Juliet Ashton, close on the heels of World War II. Juliet gained fame as the writer of a syndicated humor column, "Izzy Bickerstaff Goes to War."

Soon after the war, she receives a letter from one Dawsey Adams, founder of the literary society in Guernsey, a small island off the British coast, and the only English province the Nazis manage to control. Dawsey is an admirer of author Charles Lamb, one of whose books, owned by Juliet, has somehow reached him, a situation that leads her to remark that "perhaps there is some secret sort of homing instinct in books that brings them to their perfect readers."

This happens amid Juliet's search for matter for her next book, a concern expressed in letters to her publisher and friend, Sidney, and his sister, Sophie. Juliet has known the brother-sister duo since teenage and shares an easy conviviality with them, evoked wonderfully in their letters to one another.

Juliet's interest in the Guernsey Literary Society, which begins with discovering the roots of its eccentric name, soon develops into full-fledged interaction with its many members. There is the reserved but warm Dawsey, the magical potions-churning Isola, the cautious Amelia and many others. Through their letters, Juliet gains a sense of what the Nazi occupation entailed for the tiny island, and how the absence of one member from their midst continues to be a haunting memory.

Drawn to the fascinating story of the islanders, Juliet decides to visit. Written in warm, life-affirming prose by the aunt-niece duo of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (the former died earlier this year), The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is an ideal choice for book groups, and also for individual readers.


This review appeared in St Petersburg Times.

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Blackwater Lightship

The Blackwater Lightship, another subtle exploration by writer Colm Toibin, is the story of three women, Mrs Devereux, Lily and Helen — granny, mother and daughter — who are forced to come together to care for Helen's dying brother Declan. Declan is gay and is dying of AIDS, and Toibin uses this eventuality as a backdrop for allowing the three principal characters to bury a lifetime of differences to help Declan spend his last days in peace. The setting is granny's — Mrs Devereux's — house in Cush, an Irish rural outpost.

Toibin playfully sets modern themes in sharp contrast to the the rigidity of life in rural Ireland to deliver a tale that resonates with the palpable tension among the protagonists. Living with her husband and two boys in Dublin, Helen is introduced as someone who leads the simulacrum of a normal existence, but with childhood tensions always bubbling within the surface. One day, she is visited by Paul, a (gay) friend of Declan's, who tells her that her brother is dying. It is up to Helen then to inform her family, in other words, reach out to a successful entrepreneur of a mother and bitter haggard of a granny — and also learn new and surprising things about her brother and his "lifestyle".

Everyone congregates at granny's house in Cush — there's the three women, Paul, and Larry, "another one of those". As the clock ticks away and Declan swings between health and sickness, Helen and Lily are put in situations that demand active investment in emotion, mainly a robust forgetfulness. Paul and Helen, not the most comfortable of couples, become friends forced to share their stories with one another out of a growing sense of desperation and time flying away. Paul shares his coming out travails and Helen the roots of her animosity towards her mother and granny. The latter half is far more important to the story than the former, but because of the unspoken questions that Toibin raises (Why is Declan gay? How did he contract HIV?), the release of gayness from hidden subtext to bold openness is a much needed relief, and also, something of necessity given one can only go so far with subtlety without frustrating the reader.

Declan's health continues to deteriorate and there comes the point when it becomes essential to move him back to hospital in Dublin. This gives another opportunity to Lily and Helen to settle their differences. Since the novel is written from Helen's perspective, we try and empathize with her inability to give in to tenderness with her mother. But it's not easy given how hard Lily is trying to mend fences. There is also the sense of a dual personality hovering over the women, allowing them to be perfectly maternal and supportive when it comes to Declan, yet also equally capable of bitter jibes with one another in private.

The novel ends with Declan still carrying on, and the promise of rapprochement between Lily and Helen. Critics have said this is not Toibin's best book, and I second that with respect to The Master, his 2005 book that fictionalized the life of writer Henry James. Both The Blackwater Lightship and The Master were shortlisted for the Booker, though neither won.

Also read my review of The Master.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Mad, Bad and Sad

The history of mental illness is a fascinating subject, and its relation to childhood traumas and sexual abuse gained currency after Freud advocated psychoanalysis at the beginning of the 20th century. Mad, Bad and Sad by Lisa Appignanesi is a brave attempt at charting the history of psychological disorders in women since the beginning of the 19th century, and how the development of curative tools has helped mitigate the social disapproval associated with neuroses.

At the outset, Appignanesi develops this work as a feminist tract, clearly identifying the biases that forced misconceptions about women being more prone to mental illnesses than men, even though evidence pointed to the contrary. This may have something to do with the Victorian ideal of a "delicate woman, prone to "nerves". Appignanesi challenges these stereotypes by showing how women over the ages, from Mary Lamb to Alice James, have tried to delineate their suffering, often at the cost of inviting social ridicule.

By including specific cases and the language that female patients used to address their problems, Appignanesi points to the development of a relationship between nascent psychiatry and the courts. She quotes the case of one Henriette Cornier, a Parisian nursemaid who obsessed greatly over the infant daughter of her master. One night in 1825, in a fit of insanity, she sliced off the head of the girl and threw it out the window. Because of the sheer inexplicability of the crime, this was the first case in the history of criminal law when a doctor was called in to testify on the mental health of the accused.

Another case that draws Appignanesi's attention is of Celia Brandon, who requested to be admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Hospital in 1915. This was the first documented case of a woman expressing a relationship between childhood brutality and sexual perversion. Brandon complained that she often fantasized about pain being inflicted on her during sex, and linked it to the beatings she received as a child from her aunt. The hospital records term her case 'Freudian'.

The best takeaway from Appignanesi's book is the realization that the mentally ill are not all that different from those on the other side of the divide. Thanks to the advancement in psychoanalytic procedures and psychiatry, mental illness has come to encompass a broad array of disorders. Which is why it is surprising that rage combined with hysteria could be the ground for lunacy in the 18th century.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Old Filth

I have been wanting to read Jane Gardam ever since news of her book "Old Filth" making it to the Orange shortlist started doing the rounds. I am an unabashed follower of prize shortlists, and believe that they are often indicators of good fiction/non-fiction, for no other reason than competition. Old Filth fits this description perfectly.

Edward Feathers has retired to Dorset after a booming judicial practice in Hong Kong. Born in Malaya to a British father and a local (who passes away immediately after Edward's birth), Edward's life has revolved around his search for "home". Sent to Britain as a young boy to be raised under the tutelage of his father's sisters (who show no interest in him), Edward finds himself in a boarding school where the personal attention of the benevolent "Sir" and the promise of a family during holidays helps him to define his identity and dissipate the ghosts of his birth and early childhood.

The Filth in the title comes from the acronym :Failed in London, Try Hong Kong, referring to Edward's success as a lawyer and subsequent judge in Hong Kong after trying pennilessly for many years to break into the British law scene. Gardam mentions on the novel's first page that this is not intended as irony given that Edward was very particular about personal hygiene.

Throughout the novel, from Edward's painful childhood to the adolescent journey on water that will transform his life to his later marriage to Betty and professional success, Gardam moves back and forth in time to develop a complete portrait of Filth's isolation. A large part of the novel is set after Betty's death, when Edward, utterly at loss on the ways of living, decides to connect to his past. He visits his cousins and makes trips to places he remembers from his childhood. But none of this can return him to the certainty of life with Betty and ultimately he decides to leave England to make one last trip to the East, where right after getting off the flight,
he passes away in a rush of happiness triggered by the freedom that a willingness to die gives.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Sagarika Ghose...

...takes on the Left:

Your opposition to the nuclear deal once again shows your distance from India. Sure, it’s a commercial transaction, but why is anything to do with commerce necessarily evil? Even at the height of the Cold War, 2 million Indians lived in the US. The links between India and America are so massive, that as a leading economist put it, the Indo-US nuclear deal is an offshoot of a long process of civic exchange with America, not the basis of it. You hate America, but do Indians feel the same? There are important reasons to criticise a country that bombs and invades other countries at will, but there is also the need to recognise that anti-Americanism is hardly hardwired into the Indian DNA.

No to nuclear deal, no to reforms, no to change, no to newness, no to price rise, no to America, negativism seems a reflex action. Your contempt for change, your constant lamentation, your moral righteousness are incongruous in a country shouting ‘Chak de India!’

Sunday, July 06, 2008

The square in the circle

Countless books on Mumbai have charted its vast and versatile spaces which have come to signify different things to different people in this bustling metropolis. Zero Point Bombay makes an important addition to that list by homing in on Horniman Circle in the Fort area, a place replete with history and culture.

The zero point in any city is the place from where distances are measured, and in the Bombay of yore, that privilege went to St. Thomas Cathedral in Horniman Circle (it was later shifted to the GPO). Kamala Ganesh, Usha Thakkar and Gita Chadha, social scientists and confirmed Mumbai-wallahs, pay tribute to this landmark in Mumbai's history.

This collection of 20 essays takes us through the bylanes and open spaces of Horniman Circle, from its economic history to its architectural splendours. In the introductory piece, "The Intangible Heritage of Horniman Circle", Ganesh informs that the idea for the book germinated in a series of heritage walks that the editors took in 2004. Given the "spectrum of work cultures" and "a fecund reading culture", Horniman Circle, she says, makes natural choice for a book of this kind.

In his essay on the genesis of the Bombay Stock Exchange, Neeraj Hatekar recounts the quaint story of twenty-two stock brokers who traded under a banyan tree in the Bombay Green, in 1851. Investing a "not really princely" sum of Re 1 each, they came to form the Native Share and Stock Brokers Association. It's hard to imagine such modest beginnings of an exchange that today has a market cap of close to Rs 50 trillion.

In "Beyond Orientalism", Ganesh traces the roots of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. Housed in the majestic Town Hall building, the Asiatic Society was founded by Sir James Mackintosh, a distinguished English public figure, in 1804. Known then as the Literary Society of Bombay, the Asiatic Society went through a series of ownership changes in the Raj era. More democratic in its current avatar, the Society houses over a hundred thousand books, periodicals and scholarly journals.

Prithvi Theatre's Sanjna Kapoor writes lovingly on the chance association that her group came to have with Horniman Circle. In 1998, she was on the lookout for an open space to host the production of a visiting English company. After scouting several locations, her hunt ended "in the happy finding" of the Horniman Circle Garden. Kapoor ends her essay on a plea that the power-that-be recognize the importance of well-managed public spaces in developing a vibrant and dynamic urban cultural life.

My favourite essays in the collection discuss the bookstores and street food of Horniman Circle. In "Going A La Carte", Saroj Merani walks us through such charming avenues as Khau Gully and Street Food Mela. Sample what she says about the famed brun maska chai:

"Sensing that I was a novice at this ancient Yazdani ritual, the owner informed me that the only way to really savour it was to dip the buttered brun in the sweet Irani tea. And while I can't guarantee you that you will hear the music of the heavenly spheres, you will at least leave Yazdani Bakery with the distinct feeling that God's in heaven, and all's right with the world."

Gita Chadha, in "Mirroring the Precinct", dips into the history of the reading corners in the area. From the iconic Strand Book Stall to the newly refurbished The Bookpoint, Horniman Circle must boast the most number of book stores per unit area anywhere in the country. Did you know that the idea of opening a book shop came to TN Shanbhag, the owner of the Strand Book Stall, during the screening of Cheaper by the Dozen at Strand Cinema? Chadha writes:

"Having been humiliated in a reputed bookstore of the time for touching a book, the young Shanbhag wanted to start a bookstore where the access to 'Saraswati' would not be restricted to the elite, but would be open to a wider section of the people. Shanbhag approached Keki Mody, the owner of Strand Cinema with his idea, and that is how the Strand Book Stall came into being on the premises of the cinema hall."

Richly illustrated and artfully packaged, Zero Point Bombay is an essential compendium on the history and ethnography of a cornerstone in Mumbai life.


This review appeared in Business Standard.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

And the winner is...

...Jhumpa Lahiri. Guardian reports:

The judges for the Frank O'Connor award have dispensed with the ritual of issuing a shortlist, announcing today that Jhumpa Lahiri has won the world's richest honour for a short story collection. The jurors decided that Unaccustomed Earth was so plainly the best book that they would jump straight from longlist to winner, and have awarded Lahiri the €35,000 (£27,000) prize.

I have been scrambling to get the other books on the longlist, none of which are published in the US yet. But after today's announcement, I am happy that no work lies ahead of me, so poor is the quality of the other books:

"With a unanimous winner at this early stage we decided it would be a sham to compose a shortlist and put five other writers through unnecessary stress and suspense," explained the award's director, Pat Cotter. "Not only were the jury unanimous in their choice of Lahiri's Unaccustomed Earth as the winner, they were unanimous in their belief that so outstanding was Lahiri's achievement in this book that no other title was a serious contender."

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The future of news?

The Orange County Register is shifting its design layout and copyediting jobs offshore — to India!!

As reported in NY Times. Read the whole thing, including the comments. The company the jobs are being transferred to is Mindworks, based in Noida. Its website is here.