Introduce Yourself! BBAW Day 1

When two of my favorite book bloggers on the internetz co-host an event, I HAVE to be a part of it!

Day-OneIntroduce-yourself

So here’s what you’re supposed to do on Day 1: Introduce yourself by telling us about five books that represent you as a person or your interests/lifestyle.

Let’s start with the newest one in this list—The Wee Free Men which I got around to reading after Ana’s heartfelt review of The Shepherd’s Crown, the last one in the Tiffany Aching series (The Wee Free Men is the first).

Why am I choosing this book? Because in Pratchett, and in Pratchett’s portrayal of Tiffany Aching, I have found a kindred spirit. Like I said in my review of The Wee Free Men: The Wee Free Men struck a deep and resonant chord with me. Its nine-year old protagonist reminded me of the girl I used to be though Tiffany Aching is WAAAYYYYYYY MORE smarter, and MUCH more put together than I ever was at her age! Even more, I felt this sense of familiarity that is hard to put words to. It was as if the nebulous mist that I carry around in my head had suddenly coalesced into words, and shapes, and forms! In Pratchett, I feel like I have found a kindred spirit.

the wee free men terry pratchettAlso, BOOKS! AREN’T THEY GIRNORMOUSLY AWESOME?!! I’m not a nine-year-old. Nor do I live on the chalks. Or have an army of tiny, blue tattooed fairies all around me. BUT oh, there is this sense of RECOGNITION, this feeling of the very depths of my soul being reflected in what Terry Pratchett writes that takes my breath away. (Did you notice how I carefully refrained from mentioning how I’m NOT a witch like Tiffany Aching is?)

Second is one of my favorite books of poetry by my favorite translator-poets of all time, Daniel Ladinsky: Love Poems from God: Twelve Sacred Voices from the East and West. Ladinsky is famous for his translations, or non-translations according to many, of one of the greatest Sufi poets of all times, Hafiz. I’ve been reading his work for more than ten years now, and if Pratchett’s writings is my soul’s translation in prose, then Hafiz and Ladinsky are probably its poetic version. Here’s my favoritest of all Hafiz-Ladinsky collaborations:

Even
after
all this time
the sun never says to the earth,

“You owe me.”

Look
what happens
with a love like that—

it lights up the whole
world.

The next one has to be Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. See, I’m the kind of person who thinks that life lies in the details of our day to day existence. I love celebrating the “big events” that mark our lives and ratcheting up words in their favor but what I love even more is finding the poetry in the everyday stuff of our lives. It just seems a tad stupid to me to leave happy feelings for only the “occasions.” The occasions matter of course but what about the morning sunlight, and the afternoon teas, and the quiet conversations and the deep breaths and that sort of stuff? Emily St. John Mandel agrees (Or so I think anyway!). And that is why I’m choosing Station Eleven as the third book that I think says something about me.

love poems from god daniel ladinskyFourth is The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I’m choosing this one because the tension that it depicts between Gogol and his parents struck very close to home for me. It’s not that Gogol doesn’t love his parents, nor that his parents don’t love Gogol, just that. . . there’s a weight of expectations, a lot of it stemming from the cultural milieu that is India, that puts them at cross-purposes with one another. Lahiri really captured the experience of generations of Indian parents and children in her book.

Fifth is not a book, but a poet, Mary Oliver. . . What do I say about her that is coherent and weaves together all my love for not only the images she paints but also the words that she paints them with? To say that she writes about nature would be to paint an incomplete picture. She talks about moments in time and often those moments feature oaks, and fishes, and herons, and “wild geese, high in the clean blue air.” But that’s not it. It’s what she does with those snapshots, mixing them up with her own essential self, that makes her poetry what it is. My current favorite from her is not even about nature. It’s just a four-liner that I often chant to myself:

Things take the time they take,
Don’t worry.
How many roads did Saint Augustine follow
Before he became Saint Augustine?

I also want to mention Walt Whitman though it’s only recently that I have started reading Leaves of Grass. I wish I could end every sentence that I write in relation to him with an exclamation point—such is Whitman’s exuberance and vigor. His vision and the all-encompassing largeness of it, and the generosity with which he proclaims from his poetic pulpit amaze and enthrall me each time that I dip in and out of his words.

So yes, that’s it from me. I would love to know what five books you think speak to who you are. And of course if you’re participating in BBAW, do leave a link to your own post!

Romance and the Appeal of the Alpha Male

Romance is a genre that I have read the maximum number of books in. For the longest time I was leery of bringing this fact into conversations with other readers. Over the last few years this has changed.

A part of the reason is because I have come to believe that more than the inherent complexity of the narrative itself (the lack of which is an accusation often leveled at the romance genre), it’s about the individual who’s reading the said narrative. Engaging meaningfully with a piece of text, while being a function of the text itself, is also very much about the person who is involved in the act of reading.

So when Michelle Sagara wrote this article on Alpha males over at Dear Author, I found myself contemplating my own enjoyment of this archetype. I am pretty sure that I could not abide by this kind of a person in real life. But I’m interested in the conversation that takes place after I accept that I know the difference between fantasy and reality. I love what Liz McCausland said about this:

There are two things people say when discussion of this kind of hero comes up:

  • I guess I’m just too feminist, but it bothers me.
  • Of course in real life I’d run screaming from this guy/get a restraining order, but swoooon, he’s so hot. (otherwise expressed as “women can tell the difference between fantasy and reality”).

These are both pretty much conversation-stoppers, in part because they are personal. They make this an issue simply of reader beliefs and fantasies (which of course it is, in part) rather than of broader cultural ideals, messages, or scripts, which maybe can be discussed more neutrally.

What she said.

I can see why a person might be reluctant to continue with the conversation—they might believe that there’s a need to defend their particular preference(s) which in turn could trigger all sorts of defense mechanisms, bringing any further interaction to a complete halt.

And that makes me wonder what the person who initiates such a discussion can do to create a space which disarms the need for any such defensive tactics, a space where one feels safe to explore why a thing that is comfortable is comfortable; what lies at the basis of that enjoyment; what biases and assumptions inform that enjoyment.

As far as the alpha hero is concerned Miss Sagara defines the alpha hero as one who is basically comfortable in his own skin. (Or that’s what I took away from it, anyway). Therein lies the appeal of the alpha hero for me—the fact that someone that sure in his sense of self falls for you is not only incredibly sexy but also makes one feel really really good about oneself.

I enjoy the alpha hero type probably because for the longest time I had the shittiest sense of self-worth. And having my then boyfriend and now husband believe in me was definitely a boost to my battered sense of confidence. What I have come to realize though is that while my husband is always there to support me, any lasting change has to be driven by me.

In other words, while the transformation of the heroine may begin with the someone “powerful” falling for her, at some point, she will need to take the reins in her own hands.

I also realize that such a change can be facilitated by really anyone in one’s life. Within the limits of genre romance, the hero (or the heroine) is the likeliest candidate to affect such a change but they definitely are not the only ones who can do so.

And this brings me to a major reservation that I have when I read stories with alpha heroes (despite my enjoyment of them). Instead of allowing the heroine to develop at her own pace and rhythm, a lot of times, alpha heroes have a tendency to bulldozer through and sort of take control of the narrative. This always makes me question the tenability of such a relationship.

But going back to what I said earlier, as I am writing this, I am very cognizant of the fact that some woman out there might like what I find questionable and question what I like. And maybe that’s ok. Maybe I have to find a way to be ok with a position so starkly different from mine before I can understand where they’re coming from.

If romance really is the literature of women, written by women then shouldn’t it be a space where every woman can explore what it means to be her?

A Fantasy, A Regency, and A Historical or Madames Elliott & Heyer and Monsieur Lawrence Norfolk

Yes people I’ve been reading. So without further ado—does anyone have a replacement for this phrase? Hosts introducing moderators, and moderators introducing the panel “without further ado” left, right and center in the World Science Festival has left me feeling a bit exhausted with this phrase—here’s a quick recap of what I’ve been upto reading-wise.

The Spiritwalker Trilogy by Kate Elliott

Oh how MUCH I love this one! It’s big, it’s complex, it’s meaty, it features two kick-ass heroines whose relationship forms the heart of the series and it also explores issues of free will.

I loved the romance that was explored in the series—I love how it’s allowed to simmer so that when things really come to a head between the two protagonists it feels so authentic, like a natural-next step for its two main leads. Then there’s the theme of ownership that was woven all the way through to the end of the story (with a plot twist that I hadn’t foreseen and that made me realize how I really SHOULD NOT jump to conclusions about others’ actions because I really DO NOT know the heart of their stories). I also really liked how one of the two main female characters was so kick-ass happy WITHOUT a strong, big hero in the offing. And I really liked how the ambiguous note that the series ends on politically reflects the one step forward, two steps backwards nature of sustainable, long-term changes in the real world (feudalism/capitalism/democracy/benevolent dictatorship and their ramifications are all discussed through the length of the story arc). And there’s a parallel Caribbean too! Oh just go get your hands on Cold Magic, the first in the series!

On Fantasy

So I went to the Fantasy panel with Deborah Harkness and Lev Grossman at BookCon on May 31. The thing that I like about both these authors is that their works straddle the real and the fantastical. Their magic skids along the edges of the world as we know it. And that apparently is, exactly the reason, why they write the sort of books that they do (rather than straight out fantasies like George R. Martin or Brandon Sanderson).

Grossman said that to him it’s not about the magic. He’s more interested in exploring how you live your life, and what you do with it, when you could conceivably have everything that you want at your finger-tips. For Deborah Harkness, magic is just another skill like being innately smart at studies or good at singing. In each case, how you feel about yourself as a person and your sense of self-worth is not a function of the skill you posses but more about what you think of and feel about yourself.

It was interesting to see some of my own thoughts about fantasy being reflected back to me by these two authors whose books I’ve enjoyed so much!

Georgette Heyer’s Black Sheep

I really really enjoyed Black Sheep. I am NOT a fan of the rake to perfect husband trope and didn’t like Venetia, and These Old Shades, two other Heyer romances featuring a rake as a hero. The other two felt over-the-top to me whereas Black Sheep hit the sweet spot with both Miles and Abigail. This time around it also struck me that dialogue is Heyer’s tool of choice for fleshing out her characters. There are pages and pages of conversation between her characters with only a few words spared for the setting or descriptions of any sort.

I think that along with The Unknown Ajax Black Sheep has become one of my favourite Heyers. And now that I think of it both Miles and Hugh Daracott (the hero of The Unknown Ajax) are cut out of the same cloth.

Lawrence Norfolk’s John Saturnall’s Feast

If you love food and words, go grab the book! The setting is mid-17th century England. The plot is okayish. Indeed, the use of Christian zealot-ism as an integral part of the storyline is tedious. The characters are also nothing spectacular but they serve the purpose—the purpose being to devour the food–words that are dished up through the course of the story! The FOOD! Oh my! The description of the implements of cooking, the depth and breadth of the spices, the process of the ingredients being mixed up to serve utterly sumptuous feasts, the “recipe” that introduces each chapter, ALL of it had me salivating for more! The words are ornate, at times archaic (and I was really glad that I read this one on my iPad which made looking up the meaning easy), but always luxurious, especially the ones that have anything at all to do with food. The scenes that do feature food (and thankfully, there are a LOT of them as this is a story about a 17th century cook) are truly evocative. If you love cooking or eating, or perhaps enjoy both like me, then this is a book that you shouldn’t miss out on!

Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South 

Dashing off a quick note because I just HAVE to express how much I loved this novel. Emotionally satisfying, intellectually stimulating and a heroine whom I couldn’t help liking. What more could I have asked for? Even more, a novel that is as topical today as when Gaskell published it originally. North and South was written in the early 1850s, a few decades into industrialism if I am not mistaken and yet its discourse on the tensions between “masters and men” is as relevant today as it was back in Gaskell’s days!

I am looking forward to reading the essays on the novel that my Norton Critical Edition has. I also have to admit that this book has fanned the tinder that was sparked when I wrote the piece on Victorian authoresses for Bloom. There is something endlessly fascinating about the Victorian era–so far in the past and yet so astonishingly apropos to today’s times as well. I am strongly tempted to look up Gaskell’s other works, especially the posthumously published Wives and Daughters. Too, I want to try out Anthony Trollope, Emily Eden’s letters as well as George Elliot’s Middlemarch. The last moved from my should-I-should-I-not to uh-hunh-I-should TBR pile after I read this about Dorothea Brooke: “There aren’t a lot of happy outcomes for intense, principled women in fiction. I’m so grateful for this one.”

NYPL’s Children’s Literature Exhibition – The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter 

The New York Public Library is home to a wonderful exhibition these days: The ABC of it: Why Children’s Books Matter.

The first thing that struck me as soon as I entered the Gottesman Exhibition Hall was the sheer colours on display: you feel submerged in utter gorgeousness as soon as you enter—from beautifully illustrated picture books to silvery handmade embossments on indigo-violet coloured hardbacks (the name of which I now forget) to William Blake’s elfin-like watercolours in Songs of Innocence to the lush greenliess of the mock “Secret Garden” from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden—the exhibition is a feast for the eyes. (Unfortunately I was so entranced that I forgot to take pictures except one or two. I plan on rectifying that when I go again for the free guided tour. Yes, free. Isn’t NYPL simply awesome?)

I have experienced only a very tiny slice of the authors and the books featured in the exhibition and I had absolutely no idea that there exist such exquisite picture books for kids. I don’t know if my unfamiliarity was primarily due to a preponderance of books-famous-in-America or simply a result of my doleful exposure to children’s literature. Perhaps most likely, as is the case with all things in life, it’s a case of both-and: a glut of books popular in US and my general ignorance of kids’ books. The one glaring exception to my ignoramusness though was Amar Chitra Katha! Yes!! They had Amar Chitra Katha comics too as a part of the exhibition and that of course brought back all the happy memories of summers spent swaying back and forth on the tiny swing at my grandma’s place while breezing past through the stories of Ramayan and Mahabharta and Shakuntala in a comic form.

NYPL's Children's Literature Exhibition Amar Chitra Katha

Amar Chitra Katha @ NYPL’s Children’s Literature Exhibition
Photo Credits: Juhi @ Noooks & Crannies

NYPL's Children's Literature Exhibition Amar Chitra Katha

Amar Chitra Katha @ NYPL’s Children’s Literature Exhibition
Photo Credits: Juhi @ Nooks & Crannies

There is also interspersed through the exhibition quotes on libraries: from Ray Bradbury’s “Libraries raised me” to ““But why’s she got to go to the library?” “Because that’s what Hermione does,” said Ron, shrugging. “When in doubt, go to the library.””

The theme of the exhibition is of course Why Children’s Books Matter. The question makes me sort of gurgle with speechlessness. I mean, isn’t it sort of obvious why books and especially children’s books matter? But then again maybe it’s a good thing we’re actually having conversations about such important issues. So apart from the obvious that instilling a love for reading during childhood (something that children’s books play a huge role in) ensures a life long love affair with the written word, here’s what the exhibition had to say on the matter: there are two opposing camps on why children’s books matter.

One train of thought follows the puritanical view that reading should not only have a Purpose (yes, purpose with a capital P) it should also instill in the child good old moral values. Case in point: the biblical version of the ABC primer, one of the very first such books to be published in US that was in exhibition (by the way it was really really tiny)

A is for Adam: In Adam’s Fall/We Sinned all.

B is for Bible: “Thy Life to Mend/This Book attend.”

To counter is the singularly beautiful and illustrated collections of poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Mr. Blake of course is a firm believer in espousing and encouraging a child’s innocence and nothing else.

The funny thing is that this argument which is essentially a battle between an activity having no purpose other than the doer’s sheer enjoyment of it and there being no purpose to an activity unless it has a well defined objective can be extended from books to their more glamourous cousins, the iPads and all such new-fangled technological inventions that today’s kids find themselves in the midst of. The viewpoints that the exhibition is putting forward about children’s books can be extended to almost all forms of technological inventions that have been on offer for kids since technology happened to humankind.

I am not sure what and even more if there is a right answer to such a question. Certainly, assigning a purpose to each and every new “device”/technology that a child experiences sounds extremely militant while having fun for fun’s sake sounds much more appealing. Then again intending to learn while having fun does not sound all that nefarious. So I am not sure. Perhaps, it’s one of those things for which the answer lies somewhere in the middle?

I have a crush on Nick Hornby

He says, “I’m beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brains tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes.”

And that a certain book, “wasn’t just up my street; it was actually knocking on my front door and peering through the letterbox to see if I was in.”

You see why I have a crush on this man?

a reading meme

Found this wonderful meme over at Litlove’s and wanted to give it a whirl!

The Book I’m Reading

Jo Walton’s ‘Among Others’ – universally good reviews plus a 2011 Nebula followed by a 2012 Hugo clinched the deal. This was, however, a month ago. At the time that I started Among Others I also embarked upon Francis Lymond’s 10 year journey with Dorothy Dunnett little realizing that I would be dead to everything else till I finished the six part series. Of course, once I finished the series I was left gasping for breath and had to breathe in a lung-full of something sweet, something light. Once THAT was over with as well I could finally settle into Among Others.

Among Others is a fantasy unlike others in that the story’s not choc a bloc with fantastical creatures and other-worldly happenings. In fact now that I think of it the story’s touched more by an air of mystery than fantasy – the event that triggered Morganna’s current life situation are never fully revealed (Morganna is the 15 year old socially awkward bibliophile who narrates the story). Her mother is hinted at being literally evil but we do not really hear from her or of her other than Morganna’s oblique references. The secondary characters especially Wim and Morganna’s paternal relations, grandfather Sam and her father’s three sisters, all portend trouble – of things coming to a head in the second half of the novel where all these secondary characters are going to become important. And of course writing the above just made me realize that Miss Walton has definitely succeeded in imbuing her story with a certain atmosphere – a thick pall of rain and thunder and storm is what I would associate the story with. I’ll come back to this once I’m done with the whole novel.

The Last Book I Read

Pride & Prejudice – Ahh, I loved this re-reading so much. Sort of like soaking in the warmth of the sun after a particularly chilly night. The romance between Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy was delightful. So too was the ridiculousness of the haughty Lady Catherine and the obsequious Mr. Collins. I appreciate the fact that while from my 21st century perspective I find these characters a tad unrealistic and tending to be a little caricature-like they probably have their grounding in the norms that were prevalent in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Of course each character could also be held up as a template of a certain type of individual that remains as true in the 21st century as it probably was in Miss Austen’s times – Mrs. Bennett and Lydia Bennett, the fluffy heads with nary a care except all that would be judged by the social barometer; Jane Bennett and Charles Bingley who seem naïve and too-good-to-be-true with the sweetness of their tempers and kindness of their dispositions; Mr. Bennett who seeks solace and amusement in his books and the absurdities of life as his coping mechanism for the choice he made in marrying Mrs. Bennett; and last but not the least Elizabeth and Darcy who in the surety of their opinions and in the blend of a certain selfishness and caring affection towards their family members and friends are perhaps the most easily relatable. I have to admit that I would not mind reading Pride & Prejudice in a proper classroom setting with a rigorous analysis of the novel as well as of the context in which Miss Austen wrote this much beloved work.

The Book I’ll Read Next

Ahh, all the contenders have been swept aside by the release of Karen Marie Moning’s next installment in the Fever world series – Iced.  I am a fan of Miss Moning’s packs-a-punch storytelling where half the world’s population is dead and the other half is busy cavorting ‘in the Faerie’. I came to the Fever series late which was odd considering that I was a big fan of her Highlander romances. However, once begun I could not put the books down – a heavy dose of paranormal elements crossed with alpha-male-hunkiness dunked in a world of non-whimpering females who can kick some major ass is as good a pleasure-read as it gets. Why these would not be the epitome of comfort-read is something that I might need to explore in another post; for the time being for a thoroughly enjoyable bout of pleasure reading I’d most certainly recommend the Fever series.

The Last Book I Bought

My last purchase was actually last night – Persuasion from the Kindle store since after re-reading Pride & Prejudice I want to go through all of Miss Austen’s works again.

The Last Book I Was Given

It’s been a while since I was given a book. I think the last one was a collection of poetry edited by Edward Hirsch. I love what I call ‘Poetry of the Everyday’ and I distinctly remember this collection featuring several of those kind… perhaps it’s time for a re-read. Speaking of poetry, I love the sort written by David Whyte, Billy Collins, Jane Hirschfield and Mary Oliver – they remind me of the joy and the poetry lurking in the interstices of life. And writing this brings the forceful realization that it’s been a really long while since I read any. I think one of my next purchases is going to be a book of poems!