Shticks and Shenanigans. Mostly.

Miss Buncle’s Book by D.E. Stevenson: It’s possible that if I hadn’t read Jane and Prudence so recently, I’d have enjoyed Miss Buncle’s Book more. I was all prepared to be charmed but I found most of the characters, including the titular Miss Buncle to be just too insipid! This book just isn’t fun the way Barbara Pym’s Jane and Prudence is. I know, I know, they are two separate entities—why the comparison? Well, because they are both set in quaint English villages, detail the lives of those who people the said quaint villages, and both aspire to charm their readers (or so I think anyway!)

The problem is Miss Buncle’s Book has characters who are kind of cardboard cut-outs of various prototypes. So you have the gold-digger, the capable spinster, the queen of the social circle, the retired army-man, etc. etc. Their interactions are kind of interesting but each character in and of themselves are just plain boring. They’re simply not interesting enough for me to care much about them. (On the other hand, I WANTED to know what was going on with the characters in Jane and Prudence.)

I am wondering if I should give another of Stevenson’s books a go to see if I might like her any better? What do you guys think? Have you read any of her works? Did you like it?

“Story of Your Life” by Ted Chiang: This one was prompted by the movie. We saw the movie, and wanted to read the story to see a) if we were right about the parts which had been Hollywoodized aka dramatized unnecessarily (we were) b) if the story was better than the movie. Duh. It was. Of course. I love sci-fi for the ideas it explores, and this was no-different. From the wielding of the Sapir-Whorf theorem (which is even more dramatically illustrated in the chapter “The Grammar of Animacy” in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Brading Sweetgrass which I absolutely loved and am waiting for my turn at the library again so that I can finish it!), to Fermat’s Least Time Principle to the deconstruction of languages to my least favorite part of the story about free-will and determinism, “The Story of Us” weaves lots of stuff into a seamless plot. If you liked the movie, or are interested in any of the things I mentioned, I’d urge you to read it!

The Penderwicks at Point Mouette by Jeanne Birdsall: What is it about Birdsall’s stories that gives me all the feels? There’s something so honest about the way her characters think, and feel, and interact that I can’t help being sucked into their world. My favorite character by the way, is the five year old Batty! The sisters’ adventures reminds me of Enid Blyton but the depth, and the fullness of their inner lives reminds me of Elinor M. Brent Dyer’s Chalet School series. And there’s so much humor in Birdsall’s world! I wish I could be more coherent about these books. Maybe I’ll have more to say on a re-read? Do you love the Penderwicks too?

Slice of Life: The Internet’s Frontpage

If you’re like me—that is to say, generally clueless about things internet and pop culture—you probably heard of Reddit later in your life than sooner. The only reason I came to know about this time sink is because of my husband, who happens to be a class A nerd!

Reddit, as I said, is a sink hole. How is that any different from the rest of the internet you ask? Well, reddit, in my opinion, is a special kind of sink hole. It sports itself as “the frontpage of the internet”—and so “a discussion at the trump rally” shares page with “drainage canal in Germany is so clean they even have beer in it,” which of course inspired “drainage canal in America is so clean they even have dogs in it,” to “ELI5: What would happen if you take a compass into space?” (ELI5=Explain Like I’m 5).

HOWEVER, what makes reddit the special sink hole that it is are all of the comments!

See the thing that fascinates me the MOST about reddit is the utter joblessness/conscientiousness (depending upon your point of view) of the hundreds? thousands? tens of thousands? of people who devote so much time and attention to answering all the questions. And then commenting on all the answers. And then remarking on all those comments. And so on and so forth, till the initial question/post sort of becomes completely and totally beside the point!

And in case you’re wondering at the source of all my knowledge, let me assure you that I generally do NOT seek this time sink out on my own! Rather, it is husband, whose endless chortles annoy me enough to want to poke my nose into it too. Because yes, that’s the other thing about all these comments! They’re really, really funny! And sometimes insightful. And sometimes totally scratch-your-head-worthy! Oh, and there’s enough pictures of dogs and cats to please the highest of sticklers. (Does anyone remember ICANHASCHEEZBURGER?)

Note: This was inspired by The Annual Slice of Life Challenge, and yes, by reddit.

Slice of Life: Routines, rituals, and practises

One of my lasting memories from my childhood is of the smell of incense wafting through our home early in the morning. That was my mom doing her puja. Rain or shine, winter or summer, my mom begins her day with her daily puja. I’m one of those who has a small puja-ghar with all the requisite idols and photos but rarely lights an incense-stick. And yet, I think, I’m beginning to understand why the daily puja is such an incontrovertible part of my mother’s life.

A few years ago I started meditating. It was slow going, and I was beset by doubts (still am at times), and there continue to be days when I don’t meditate. But over time, I find myself returning to my meditation practise. Same goes for exercising. I don’t exercise every day. More like once every four or five days. And yet, despite going only once every while, I’ve seen the tangible difference in my strength and endurance over the course of the past year.

Even more than this increase in physical well-being, what my exercise sessions have done for me, is driven home the value of consistency. Suddenly, I see why my mom has kept up her puja practise for so many years. The clear, discernible differences brought about by the sheer consistency of my exercise sessions have made me look forward to my own rituals. I already liked myself better on days I meditate but this has made me see my practise in an all new light.

It’s made me think about my grandmothers, and other women of those generations. Maybe some of the things that baffled me about them were simply their brand of their own rituals and practises.

It’s also made me contemplate the “small” stuff— rituals that need not have any specific tangible benefit but still speak of comfort and peace, rituals that are a part of the framework of our days. Such as drinking tea. I wasn’t a tea-drinker for most of my life but I now brew myself a cup once a day and feel a sense of kinship with the friends, families, and legions of other Indians, for whom the gupshup, and the unwinding happens over the morning and evening cup of tea.

My husband, who’s also the official dishwasher in our house, has his own ritual—he either watches or listens to comedy shows or podcasts while washing the dishes, or more often than not, practises his own version of meditation by doing nothing and simply focusing on the task at hand. Then there’s my ritual of putting lots of oil in my hair the night before I plan on washing it. And my daily take-the-fresh-air-in walks, even if they last for only ten minutes.

All of which has got me wondering about the differences between a routine and a ritual, and the ease (or not) with which we can cross from one into the other. What do you think?

Note: I was inspired to write this by the Annual Slice of Life Story Challenge. (And by meditation, and exercise)

Slice of Life: It’s Just An Omelet. Not!

Two eggs whisked together (that go in last I might add), a handful of baby spinach, some mushrooms (that go in first), some cheddar cheese, and voila, you’ve got yourself a yummy omelet! Now the trick to a tasty omelet (that is if you’re me at any rate), is to cook it at a low heat and to cover it with something so that the top gets steamed! No covering, and it takes forever to cook. Crank up the heat, and the omelet becomes too eggy.

Yes, there is a thing such as an omelet becoming too eggy.

See, I’d never really been fond of omelets till my aunt taught me to cover it up while cooking. Till that time, I’d only ever eaten the well-done omelets, especially the way it’s done at my in-law’s place—which is in vegetable oil, and really, really well done.

Cooking eggs in oil is a no-no for me. Cooking it in oil just accentuates the eggy smell, and much as I enjoy eggs, I DO not enjoy an overdose of that eggy smell. Which by the way is why I cannot stand quiches. Or cakes which call for 6-7 eggs. Ugh. That’s like all eggs and no cake!

The best way to cook eggs, if you ask me, is to make it in butter. Same goes for mushrooms. If like me you can’t stand the smell that mushrooms emit (especially ones that are past the super-fresh stage), try sautéing them in butter. Or better still ghee. Ghee! Ghee my friends makes everything tasty. As does frying. Or parmesan cheese.

But back to omelets!

I admit it’s been a while since omelets have been on the menu at chez Juhi but they’re making a comeback! For suddenly, I’ve lost the appetite for boiled eggs, and instead feel myself salivating over cheesy, laden with vegetables, slightly crisp on the underside, and totally fluffy on the top, omelets!

Note: I was inspired to write this by the Annual Slice of Life Story Challenge. (And by omelets).

In Which I Read Some Meh Books (and re-read a favorite)

I very eagerly started The Goblin Emperor by Kathleen Addison only to DNF it. It was the political intrigues! Apparently, I am not one for endless court politics. They bore me to tears. I liked . . . erm, I don’t remember our protagonist’s name? I liked the untenable position he found himself in, and his struggle for legitimacy while staying true to who he is, but when I found myself at the half-way mark, and realized that the reason for my reaching that half-way mark was the skipping of dozens of paragraphs in between pages, I knew it was time to return the book rather than continue persevering. I was also held back by the sheer number of characters and the abundance of consonants in their names. I kept forgetting who was who, and having to constantly turn to the index at the end to look them all up took a toll. Have any of you read it? Did you enjoy it?

The Vor Game by Lois Mcmaster Bujold was next. And it was nice, though it’s of a slightly different mien than The Warrior’s Apprentice. It has space hi-jinks, and Miles getting caught in impossible situations, but it was different in feel than TWA. TWA introduced Miles, in TVG we see his development as a lowly officer in the emperor’s army. (And since lowly and Miles do not go together, fireworks ensue). An essential part of Miles’s character that comes across very clearly in this book is his desire to be a part of, and to serve Barrayar. I’ve been wondering about this. Why does he yearn for this so much? Why not move to his mother’s home planet? Or somewhere else? Is it because of his father’s legacy? I’m interested in seeing what Bujold has in store for him through the course of the series.

Edith Layton’s The Duke’s Wager was next, and I didn’t really enjoy it. I’m not one for much angst in my reading and this one while not being angsty, was much too emotionally fraught. I never got around to caring much for any of the characters either. The heroine was the kind of ingénue who I want to shake, and slap, rather than be amused by, and the reasons behind the two anti-heroes’ dissoluteness felt too pointless for me to buy into it (though come to think of it while Layton makes a creditable attempt to give some backstory to Jason, Sinjun’s dissipation is never really explained at all). The culmination of Regina’s and Jason’s character arc to such a point where the two’s coming together feels authentic is very well done though.

I also finally gave in and re-read Georgette Heyer’s Frederica, rather than storing it for a “rainy day.” I want to write a longer post on this one later but along with The Unknown Ajax, this is probably my favorite Heyer. Although both have such different settings, and heroes, the one thing in common between them is the humor! The banter between Alverstoke, and Frederica just slays me! Slays me, I tell you! (And then there’s Felix, and Jessamy, and Lufra, but I’ll reserve them for the longer post).

So what have you been reading friends? Any spectacular meh-s (or stand-outs) in your reading pile recently?

The Ordinary Lives of Women: Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym & Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

Both Tehanu, and Jane and Prudence place women at their center. The focus of both the stories is on the “small” things that occupies a woman’s space. And it is this very “smallness” of their scope that I loved so much!

jane-and-prudenceJane and Prudence is silly, funny, and immensely readable.

It’s silly because its two protagonists, Jane and Prudence, are silly, though not twits. Pym writes about their follies with such generosity that it is very hard to look at them with anything but affection, and/or amusement.

Jane is a country vicar’s wife, and has a tendency to expect her real life experiences to play out as their fictional counterparts do. She often drifts off into her own thoughts and finds it rather comforting to cast her experiences in terms of the obscure 17th century poetry that she studied in Oxford, fragments of which surface up in her consciousness now, and then. She isn’t anyone’s idea of a vicar’s wife, and her presence is vaguely uncomfortable to those around her (most noticeably her daughter) but she is cheerfully impervious to this. What prevents her from becoming annoying is this very cheerfulness, this joie de vivre—never mind the reception of this joie de vivre! Her bouts of self-awareness, and her amusement at herself help too. And on a related noted, Pym’s gentle invoking of Trollope-like books throughout the story to  make fun of them by (generally!) underscoring the departure of real lives from fictional ones is quite funny!

Then there’s Prudence. I almost want to add a “poor” in front of Prudence! She starts the book by imagining herself in love with her middle-aged frump of a boss, spends most of the book with a man who shines and sparkles—though not in the intelligence department— and ends with someone who seems to be happily her equal! She’s unapologetic about her string of lovers, and recalls them all rather fondly! Jane and Prudence are quite different from one another, and even though the book is called “Jane and Prudence,” the book is not so much about their relationship with each other as much as their relationship with the world around them.

I think Pym’s genius lies in characterization. Each person in the book is unique, and feels very real. The cast of secondary characters is delightful. And again, they are sketched with such generosity that their absurdities amuse you rather than annoy you! I didn’t agree with all of Pym’s conclusions about marriage, gender roles, and men, but that didn’t prevent me from having a jolly good time!

Tehanu by Ursula K. Le Guin

tehanuI loved Tehanu. I faintly recall the first book (in the Earthsea series), remember some of The Tombs Of Atuan, and haven’t read the third one. The story places Tenar, who was rescued by and shared the stage with Ged, in The Tombs of Atuan, at its center. In Tehanu, Ged shares the stage with Tenar.

We find out that Tenar gave up her sort-of-apprenticeship with Ogion in order to become Goha, a farmer’s wife, who runs a house and has children and as different an experience as possible from the one she had  as Tenar at Atuan.

Reader, I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed reading Tehanu. I like making a haven of my home. I like cooking. I take pleasure in tasks that would seem chores at best, and meaningless at worst. I like domestic activities, and there was a period in my life when I was bothered by my apparent enjoyment of domesticity. I wondered if I were a less of a feminist because of this.

For me, Tehanu too seems to be exploring these very issues. Are things related to home and hearth diminutive in nature? And does this diminution carry over to, and makes small, whoever is the care-taker of home and hearth?

Le Guin asks of her characters, and her readers, what is the source of magic in Earthsea? What is the appeal of magic? What about it makes Ged, who is no longer a mage in Tehanu, feel broken, and ashamed of himself? From where does magic draw its power? Is the potential of an “ordinary village witch” any less than that of a trained wizard? Is what she does any less because she does not know the “true” language? What is the source of a woman’s magic? Is it fundamentally any different than a man’s? Why are the men in Earthsea (especially the mages) so afraid of women?

Tenar comes into her own in this book. She has experienced the “authority allotted her by the arrangements of mankind,” and is now ready to explore beyond these boundaries. Not for her, the divisive, constricting definitions of home, power, or wisdom.

I’ll end with Le Guin’s own words from the Afterword:

“What cannot be mended must be transcended.”

Maybe the change coming into Earthsea has something to do with no longer identifying freedom with power, with separating being free from being in control. There is a kind of refusal to serve power that isn’t a revolt or a rebellion, but a revolution in the sense of reversing meanings, of changing how things are understood. Anyone who has been able to break from the grip of controlling, crippling belief or bigotry or enforced ignorance knows the sense of coming out into the light and air, of release, being set free to fly, to transcend.

In Brief: Recently Read (Neels, Pratchett, Wynne Jones)

betty-neels-vicars-daughterThe Vicar’s Daughter by Betty Neels: I take my time with a Betty Neels story, and I like taking my time with a Betty Neels story. In no rush to reach the end, I savor all the details that I know for sure I will encounter in one of Neels’s story. This one was no different. In fact, it was a pleasant revelation of sorts! A few pages into the story, it hit me that I’d read this one years ago, and disdained its nothing-happens-in-it-ness. I also recall feeling disgusted at the sheer stupidity of its heroine. What a pleasant surprise to find that it was exactly its quietness that made me enjoy the story this time around. And what I’d labeled as Margo’s stupidity, now came across as an endearing quality. Isn’t it fun, and funny, how a few years, and some living of life changes the way we perceive a thing? Have you had any reading experience where you’ve swung from one side of the pendulum to another? (Or perhaps just drifted along the spectrum?)

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett: Need I mention that I loved it? If there were such a thing as a spirit author, I think Terry Pratchett would be mine. I find myself highlighting/marking reams and reams in any Pratchett story I read. He’s thought-provoking, funny (even when things are NOT fun!), and generally some flavor of what I’ve experienced as “true” in my own life. I’ve already put another of his Discworld stories (Going Postal) on hold (I want there to be some passage of time between Wintersmith, and the next Tiffany Aching story that I read).

Tiffany grows up some more in Wintersmith. She (and we) experience the power of the stories we tell ourselves (and others), and come to inhabit, even more forcefully. There’s this whole “Boffo” plot in the story centered around this concept that I absolutely loved (and don’t want to talk about for fear of spoiling it!)

It made sense. Of course it made sense. It was all Boffo! Every stick is a wand, every puddle is a crystal ball. No thing had any power that you didn’t put there. Shambles and skulls and wands were like . . . shovels and knives and spectacles. They were like . . . levers. With a lever you could lift a big rock, but the lever didn’t do any work.

Annagramma, who we met in A Hat Full of Sky, returns in Wintersmith.  She’s as unthinking, stupid, and annoying (Tiffany’s words!) as before but it’s interesting to note that in time of need she turns to Tiffany, and that Tiffany finds it in her to see to the truth of Annagramma—annoying but also perhaps a little frightened at her core, and deserving of Tiffany’s help. I’d call them frenemies, and I actually find their relationship oddly satisfying.

Annagramma does not suddenly transform into a kind soul herself as a result of all the kindness she receives. She continues to be annoying but her annoyingness does lose its edge. It becomes more rounded, and she herself becomes more bearable as we see this side of her where she’s willing to ask for help, and follow-through on what she receives. I really like how her character developed in Wintersmith, and I hope there’s more of her in the next two books!

Also, this!:

Tiffany had looked up “strumpet” in the Unexpurgated Dictionary, and found it meant “a woman who is no better than she should be” and “a lady of easy virtue.” This, she decided after some working out, meant that Mrs. Gytha Ogg, known as Nanny, was a very respectable person. She found virtue easy, for one thing. And if she was no better than she should be, then was just as good as she ought to be.

witch-weekWitch Week by Diana Wynne Jones: So here’s the thing. I find Diana Wynne Jones intellectually satisfying but I find Pratchett intellectually AND emotionally satisfying. Does that make sense? Has anyone else experienced this with respect to these two authors (or maybe another pair)? Maybe you’ve felt the exact reverse of what I stated?

This is my sixth Wynne Jones (I’ve read the first two in Howl’s Moving Castle, and the first four in Chrestomanci), and I am very definitely going to be reading A LOT more of her books but I find myself contemplating this difference in the way I connect with Jones, and Pratchett.

I think part of it maybe because of the fact that in most of the books I’ve read so far (by Jones), I have NO IDEA what is going on till more than the half-way mark while I have some dim sense of the meaning underlying the gobbledygook in Pratchett. Then there’s the setting of Pratchett’s story vs. Wynne Jones’s. Tiffany Aching’s world is one of plains, and forests, while most of the Wynne Jones’s stories that I’ve read so far happens in buildings—schools, castles, houses. In and of itself, I wouldn’t find this particularly claustrophobic. But when I juxtapose it with Pratchett’s stories, I can’t help feeling slightly confined by them. There’s this sense of openness, this sense of an all-encompassing-ness that I feel in the Tiffany Aching stories, and that I find myself responding to which I don’t feel in Wynne Jones’s books. It is of course possible that this does indeed exist in Wynne Jones’s world too and is just something I haven’t tuned in to yet! Even in terms of their systems of magic, Wynne Jones’s just is (and there’s nothing wrong with that!) but I do so love the way it seems to work in Pratchett’s, or Tiffany Aching’s world at any rate. It’s this heady mix of a zen-like practise, common sense, the use of herbs and plants, and a leveraging of folklore that appeals to me! (And I am not even referring to what “witching” is really supposed to be about!)

What about Witch Week itself? It is so clever! (Also, the next paragraph MIGHT be considered spoiler-ish so consider yourself warned)

At its heart, this is a book about the ways in which we cope with being different. The characters in the book try to hide their differences, feel scared at being different, and do their best to blend in. And yet, they can’t help feeling pulled towards what they perceive as being different within them. I thought the twist in the end regarding this was simply spectacular. Turns out EVERYONE is different! I’m a little in awe of the way the story and the theme are so inseparable in this one!

I liked this but I enjoyed Conrad’s Fate and The Lives of Christopher Chant more. I’m also really looking forward to The Magicians of Caprona, and The Pinhoe Egg, both of whose summaries make me think that I’ll probably enjoy them! Fingers-crossed!