JOST A MON

The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Continuing the round-up of 2016: three more non-fiction titles that were well worth my time.

Elizabeth Pisani is a multitalented woman - journalist, health-worker, linguist. If you look past the arrogance of her wanting to 'introduce' Indonesia to the world (a phrase she has repeated in her preface and several interviews) and the irritating comparison of the country to an old flame, her Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation is a comprehensive account of the lives and times of the fourth most populous country in the world. While the general tourist will likely visit a city or two in Java and Bali, Pisani travels across the archipelago, living with subsistence farmers, fishermen, smugglers, the nouveau riche, the up and coming politicos, the religious fanatics, and the indigent. Many times, the story is ostensibly repetitious - she arrives at an island, discovers a quirk of the local society, meets the bottom and the top of local society - and after a while, every island seems to blend into every other. But the people are affectionately described, and combining sociology with a thorough exposition of modern Indonesian history and political economy, this becomes overall a fine book.

Helena Attlee runs horticultural tours in Italy, and when she's not popping in and out of some of the finest gardens in the country, she studies the citrus fruit, and she writes absolutely riveting books, such as The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit. Weaving history and botany, architecture and landscape design and scrumptious foods, the book ranges across the peninsula and explores oranges, lemons and every citrus in between. (The blood orange is my own particular favourite, and her account of the groves beneath Etna made me want to hurry over and retire there immediately.)

Finally, we have Margalit Fox's Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation, an excellent guide to the people behind the decipherment of Linear B, the ancient Minoan script. She is as good at the technical details of the decipherment as at the personages involved. In particular, she puts to the forefront the lesser-known Alice Kober who provided most of the impetus for the cracking of the code, though it was the ultimately tragic Michael Ventris, a self-taught decipherer, who managed the breakthrough. The tablets he read weren't stirring tales of kings but rather palace accounts; still, the thrill of the chase and the frustration of the dead-ends are well worth the time spent on the book.

Jan 3, 2017

Hussar Blowout

Before the Hussars even got to Waterloo, one of their chiefs, the 2nd Earl of Uxbridge, put down riots in London by hungry people protesting the Corn Laws. In their spare time between engagements, what did the Hussars do? They consumed:
‘Turtle, Fish, Venison of the best quality’ washed down with ‘Champagne, Hock, Burgundy, and Claret’ as well as ‘Vin de France and Hermitage drunk in copious libations.’

I didn't go to Reading, not this year, at least.

Poor pun, that... What a strange, troubling year this has been. Besides worrisome politics and deaths, there has been ill-health, injury and sickness in the family, and the boy was badly bullied in his new school and had to be moved when that school showed little inclination to tackle the issue. It has felt that there was no time to truly relax and unwind. Even books, at every other time a palliative, failed to boost the spirit, except during the brief snatched moments that they could be read. A strange, troubling year.

****

Considerably and consistently behind the times as usual, I decided to read books by women this year. Various luminaries had encouraged us to do so. Some spent a year practising what they preached. Others created lists for interested readers. My own reading over the decades has generally been dominated by male authors. This is because the default position - in libraries, newspapers, shops, review journals - is the promotion and preponderance of males. To look for books by women is an active choice, and the effort involved is considerable because of the sheer dominance of publications by men.

Over the past few years, I've pretty much given up reading more than one book by the same author. Except for the multi-volume fantasy or science fiction cycles, it seems that there are more authors for me to discover than to explore the variations of any given one. So too this year.

Total books: 105
By women: 81

of which

Fiction: 62
Non-fiction: 19

****

My attention span continues to dwindle, and my memory of the contents of the average book is fairly fuzzy. So I continue to read smaller books. Not many of the books this year exceeded 200 pages. The ones that did were mainly non-fiction ones.

There were some truly superb pieces of non-fiction. A particular favourite was Marwa al-Sabouni's The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect. Born and brought up in Homs, al-Sabouni is  an architect, and her book is a thoughtful exploration of the collapse of her native city and the role of alienating architecture in its fission. She intersperses her academic experiences with the horrors of living through wartime, and she beautifully analyses both theoretical and practical considerations in the design of living spaces. An amazing thought-provoking work.

In the vein of wartime stories was the The Diary of Lena Mukhina, a sixteen-year-old girl who survived the Siege of Leningrad. The book begins a month or so before the German invasion and all Mukhina can think of is a boy in her class and why he pays her no attention. Once the war begins, in between accounts of school exams and studies, and which of her girlfriends is really a friend, she is happy to repeat propaganda that the Soviets will triumph. It is after Leningrad is encircled and there is constant bombing and food begins to run out that she suddenly steps up her game: her intelligence and empathy is fascinatingly mature for one so young. In between puppy love and friendship and Communist platitudes are truly beautiful passages describing the lives she, her family and neighbours are leading. The terrors are all too real and the terse text is spellbinding. I couldn't bear to read another page and I couldn't bear not knowing what would happen next.

Again on the theme of war was Lizzie Collingham's magisterial account of the battle for food and the maintenance of its supplies for the soldiers and the home front during World War II: The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. This is well-written, often fast-paced albeit saturated with statistics. It was clear to the Nazis that they could never produce enough food to feed their armies and the Fatherland, and to this end they were willing to sacrifice any number of lesser beings in Eastern and Southern Europe to repopulate those lands with Germans who would, of course, be the most productive farmers ever. Meanwhile, Churchill was willing to sacrifice the health of the colonies (in particular India) to supply his armed forces, and is directly implicated in the horrors of the Bengal famine. The Japanese left their soldiers to forage as they advanced through Asia, resulting in more  military deaths from starvation than from actual fighting. The Americans, on the other hand, amped up their agricultural production so well that their civilians and soldiers remained the best-fed and healthiest on the planet, and managed to feed many of the Allies as well. At the end of the war, the US was the dominant agricultural and industrial power on the planet, and everybody else was in ruin.

Lest you think I was solely immersed in sanguinary matters, I'd like to highlight the fact that I looked up to the stars as well. Lisa Randall's Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universeis an exciting overview of the search for dark matter and an elucidation of her theory that explains why the Earth faces periodic bombardment from comets (among others leading to the death of the dinosaurs). Of course, nobody has seen dark matter, and nobody has a model that explains all aspects of cosmic evolution and the distribution of the galaxies. And this makes the situation exciting both scientifically and sociologically because there are various theories fighting to overcome each other as the cosmic model. Priyamvada Natarajan, another fine astrophysicist, wrote Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos, a rather good explanation of the latest scientific thinking. 

The latest headmaster is a bit of an eccentric.

In the boy's class one day he announced that he hated Spanish women. (It is not clear what prompted the outburst.)

The boy's classmate, a Spanish girl, burst into tears.

'Stop snivelling,' said the headmaster.

In Rosa Liksom's excellent Compartment No 6, a nameless girl dines on the Trans-Mongolian railway with a brutish fellow.
'There isn't any vodka,' the waiter said gruffly. 'Is that so hard to understand, comrade?' 
'Bring me a bottle of cognac, then. Cognac will do nicely.' 
When he'd got his plate of vobla and his cognac he took a long swig, grinned, and bit off some of the dry fish. 
'Now we can order some food,' he said. 
The waiter looked at him wearily. 
'A bowl of selyanka to start with. For the main dish fifteen blinis, shashlik, some boiled tea sausage, salad, and a bottle of cognac.' 
Instead of shashlik they got some dry chicken legs and instead of salad some potatoes fried in margarine.

Nov 29, 2016

Impatience

This morning I was frustrated to find that the entry gates at the local railways station were blocked by milling commuters. One woman kept touching her Oyster card to the reader and it kept beeping back to her without letting her through.

In some impatience, I said, 'Wait till the light turns yellow.'

'I did,' she said, 'And it turns red.'

I reached across her to brandish my Oyster card at the reader, just as its indicator light flashed yellow.

It turned red. So did I. The gate remained resolutely shut.

The woman grinned at me.

'That will teach me to pontificate,' I said.

We stood there alternating Oyster cards at the reader while the queue behind us grew and grew. 

'Oh dear,' I said, and moved to another line.

Just then the gate opened and the woman nipped through.

Nov 18, 2016

Wettlin

Growing up in Moscow in the 70s, I'd devour Russian books, as many as I could get my hands on. The Soviet publishing machine was prolific, especially where children's books were concerned, but their availability was always a matter of chance. As Mark Grigorian pointed out to me, in the USSR, one could never be sure which book would suddenly be banned. So books were a scarce commodity; they would always be treasured, passed from hand to hand, read till they fell apart from use.

My dad, meanwhile, stalked the bookstores for translations into English. He wasn't always successful. In any case, although the books were relatively cheap, his salary didn't quite extend to large-scale purchases. Still, he managed to amass a small collection of fiction by the great Russians.

When we came back to India, I discovered English translations of the books I'd loved. Exported from the USSR as part of cultural propaganda - no wonder hardly any were available in Moscow. At the time, I wasn't fussed about the quality of the translation - if it conveyed the story with fidelity, I was content. Nor did I particularly bother about the translators. Some of my favourite books were translated by a Margaret Wettlin. But other than wondering if her last name should have been spelled Wetlina, in the feminine Russian ending, I didn't think too much about it.

Recently, I found out that Wettlin was an American woman who had sailed off to Russian in 1932 to join what she thought was a great social experiment - the establishment of a new economic model for the world. Disappointed by the fraying of the American social fabric during the Great Depression, she fancied an adventure in an unknown land. She taught English for a bit in Russia, fell in love with a theatre director, had children. Then Stalin announced that foreigners would either have to take up Soviet citizenship, or leave. Unwilling to abandon her family, she naturalised. She would end up staying in the USSR for nearly fifty years.

Her house was a hotbed of artistic fervour. Her husband was a friend of Stanislavsky; there were actors and playwrights in and out of their lives. The family travelled extensively across the country, even to Mongolia, setting up regional theatres. It was a heady time. It was also a nervous time for her, personally, as the KGB recruited her to spy on her neighbours.

Then the war happened and they were caught in Moscow. The suffering of the Russians during that bitter conflict has been covered extensively. The famines in the Soviet Union caused by misguided Communist policies are also well-known. Her own voice was added with the eventual publication of Fifty Russian Winters: An American Woman's Life in the Soviet Union.

After the war, Wettlin began to translate Russian fiction into English for publication by the Soviet press. Her translations of Gorky, Pasternak, and Tolstoy were well received. As I found out, she also translated Nikolai Nosov, whose books I still recall with undimmed affection.

She continued to live in Moscow till about 1980, when the Soviets finally granted permission for her, her daughter and grandson to leave the country. The US State Department determined that she had become a Soviet citizen under duress and restored her US citizenship. She returned to Philadelphia. Her son couldn't join her for another seven years.

Wettlin died in 2003.

Nov 15, 2016

Liddles

My good friend Guru mentioned Swapna Liddle and I sat up.

Do you know she organises heritage walks in Delhi? he said.

She was our senior at College, he added.

I've heard the name, I said, but only because I read Madhulika Liddle's blog.

Sister? he said.

Quite possibly, I said.

Small world, he said.

****

When we were at Khan Market, we stopped to look at books at Faqirchand and Sons. A genial proprietor sat behind the desk at the entrance.

Do you have Madhulika Liddle's The Englishman's Cameo? I said.

Madhulika Liddle, Madhulika Liddle, he muttered and scratched his chin.

Book came out a few years ago, no? he said.

I nodded.

Oye, Suresh, he called. (Or Chotu. Or possibly Desai.) An assistant looked up.

Do you remember Madhulika Liddle? he said.

Suresh shook his head.

Sure you do, urged the proprietor. She gave a talk here. Just a few years ago.

Chotu shook his head again.

Yaar, history type book, prompted the proprietor.

Desai went back to his shelving.

Romance, no? the proprietor said to me.

Historical crime fiction, I said.

Yes, I remember, he said.

He looked into the distance.

So, do you have the book? I said.

No, he said.

In Joseph Hansen's work of gay noir, Backtrack, the narrator is looked after by a hospital orderly named Catch.
After that, he feeds me. For years, I didn't know there was anything for breakfast but sugar pops. These days, I get eggs turned over easy in deep butter, slabs of juicy ham, fried mush, porkchops, buckwheat cakes, country sausage, hashbrown potatoes. What I got yesterday was cornbread fresh out of the oven with melted butter and molasses. 
"You'd think you wanted to marry me," I said, and Catch said, "You'd be right."

Oct 3, 2016

A Sardinian Nuptials

In Michela Murgia's Accabadora, the oldest sister is getting married and the whole family rallies around to cook up sweetmeats. Sardinian delights ensue:

For three whole days the bride's home became an ants' nest of relatives and neighbours coming and going with baskets full of fresh ingredients and borrowed trays on which the finished cakes were laid. The Listru sisters worked almost without a break, alternating tasks to bring miraculously to life an army of capigliette decorated with sugar lace, kilos of tiliccas swollen with saba, baskets full of aranzadas with their spicy aroma, tin boxes full of crisp little sugar dolls, and hundreds of round almond gueffus, individually wrapped like sweets in white tissue paper with its edges fringed like the battlements of the Guelph towers. There was not a room in the house with space in it for anything more, and Giulia and Regina had to move basketfuls of finished delicacies off their beds before they could fall asleep in the gentle fragrance of orange-flower water.

I'm not sure that a recent third author writing crime fiction based in India constitutes a new trend, but after Tarquin Hall and Vasim Khan, it is the turn of yet another Brit, Abir Mukherjee, to take up the genre. Mukherjee, however, sets his new procedural A Rising Man, in the past - in Calcutta, where, in 1919, there is already a insurrectionist mood, and the imperial interlopers are feeling nervy. Into this arrives a veteran of the Great War - Wyndham - who, in true detective style, has a tragic past and an addiction problem. As he is new to India, he needs a big info dump, which is of course Mukherjee's way of educating the reader.

There seems to be a requirement these days to have a likeable protagonist, so Wyndham is suitably anti-imperialist, unsexist and unracist. Your typical modern liberal, in other words. To show him off as even more likeable, his deputy (another Brit) is a bigot; to demonstrate his manliness, his sergeant Banerjee is a nerd; to prove he is progressive, his love interests are all intelligent women.

Then there are the crimes: a murder of a British administrator, and a robbery and murder on a mail train. Naturally, there will be a connection and it will be unearthed by Wyndham, who has to battle not only his personal demons but also colleagues and rivals from other departments of the security establishment. As police procedurals go, this book ticks all the requisite points: a shifty witness at the crime site, autopsies and nauseous onlookers, bursts of derring-do, a twist or two in the tale. The novel strives to be bigger than that, with expository analyses of Bengali socio-economics and effete intellectuality. There are bitter outbursts about the iniquity of foreign occupation, the rootlessness of mixed-race people. There are long lectures by various characters. And you can't have Calcutta without a description of its imperial splendour and native squalour.

Soon after reading this book, I came across Barbara Cleverly's older series of historical crime fiction. This has Joe Sandilands, another decorated soldier and Scotland Yard detective, who arrives in India on some sort of lecture tour, but can't wait to leave. In the first book, titled The Last Kashmiri Rose, just as he is making tracks to leg it from India, he's dragged into investigating a death of a British woman at an outpost not far from Calcutta. Proceeding there, he soon comes to realise that this death is only the latest of a set. Once again, you have a likeable protagonist - somewhat naive, even - who is not swayed by imperial pretensions of superiority. You have a hyper-efficient Indian subaltern, a very clever Englishwoman who Sandilands is suddenly in love with  (and who also serves to educate both him and the reader on the mores and attitudes of the Raj and the natives), and various politicking Brits and suspicious babus. While Cleverly appears to have researched the milieu and era quite a bit, there are some jarring notes to an Indian ear: dubious mythologies and references to deities, some expressions that are quite unlikely to have been used at the time, and peculiar Indian names. The book was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 2002; it must have been a rather slow year for historical fiction for that paper.

Sep 3, 2016

Last Meal?

He brought us a litre of white wine. Then we each ordered a salad with octopus and fried whitebait as a starter, followed by spaghetti with mussels in tomato sauce, and for a main course marinated anchovies with broccoli rabe.  
Riccardo poured the wine. 
'To us,' he said, raising the glass. 
'And sod the others,' I said.

From Andrej Longo's short story Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness in Ten.

Aug 27, 2016

Streetfinder

The other day I was in Brussels to see high school friends with whom I'd been in touch phonewise and WhatsAppily but not actually set eyes on for decades and I thought I should try a bit of French with the locals. Arriving, per directions, at a crossroads not entirely sure which of the streets led to Neelu's house (streets being unmarked and I not trusting Google Maps since it led a rail replacement bus badly astray not two months ago after I attended a wedding at Newmarket and strove to get to Cambridge), I decided to stop an elderly pedestrian and interrogate him.

'Ahem', said I, 'Excusez-moi, monsieur. La rue Coubertin est où?'

He stopped and looked around and a pensive mien descended upon his face.

'Attendez', he said, 'attendez.'

I attended.

'Un moment,' he continued.

I gave him a moment.

The pensive mien ascended and he brightened. 

'Là bas', he said.

He did not point. I bethought myself of his panache as he made a fish of his hand and whipped it around the periphery of the crossroads, wriggling his fingers in unison and making the following noises.

'Zut', and 'phwzzz' and 'bopp'.

The last sound signified a street diametrically across from where we stood.

He smiled.

'Merci', I said.

We parted.




By the time Nils Holgersson turned forty-eight, he already lived very far north, in Jokkmokk, the capital of Swedish Lapland, which could only with the utmost pretension be called a capital city, since it was no more than a small, remote village upon which, as Tacitus wrote, the sun never shone in the winter and never set in the summer. He worked as a custodian at the only local high school, which had three classes for each grade and a dormitory so that students who lived as far as 100, 200 or even 1000 kilometers away would have a place to stay. The school menu was standard for Sweden: mashed potatoes with butter and strips of bacon on Mondays, fried fish and potatoes on Tuesdays, pea soup and pancakes with jelly on Wednesdays, tuna salad on a roll on Thursdays, and noodles with ground beef on Fridays, which was the children’s favorite. He knew all this from his wife, Maria, who was the cook in the school where he worked as the custodian.
From The Princess, by Alit Karp, translated from the Hebrew by Ilana Kurshan, The Guardian, February 2, 2016.

Jul 3, 2016

Stereotypes

You know what they say about Americans abroad: if the locals don't understand what they say, they speak louder and louder... In English. But check this:

We took our leave of Sóstófürdő with a modest lunch. In the square where the pub was, a wilds how advertising Sprite. Gangsta rap over loudspeakers while Hungarian kids on skateboards slalomed in and out of giant green bottles imagining themselves black brothers. At a table nearby, the father of the family called to the waiter in Polish,"Kotlet scshabowy z fryktami! Veal cutlet with fries! Veal cutlet, dummy!" No matter how much the man raised his voice, however, the Hungarian dummy didn't understand a word.

From Andrzej Stasiuk, The Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe.

Jun 3, 2016

Bedford in Bordeaux

We look, we inhale, we draw in our mouthful: we chew, we think. It is a slow process… utterly absorbing and near an ordeal — the raw tannin puckers the inside of the cheeks, rasps the throat like claws, while at the kernel one finds a notion of… what? Texture, structure, multiplicities of scents…
Sybille Bedford, Pleasures and Landscapes.

May 3, 2016

Vladimir to Véra

All through those 1926 letters, [Nabokov] remembers to tell Véra what he has eaten — it’s slightly comic, because Vladimir is not an adventurous eater, and it becomes a litany of good plain food — ‘lamb chop, and apple mousse… meatballs with carrot and asparagus, a plain brothy soup, and a little plate of perfectly ripe cherries… broth with dumplings, meat roast with asparagus and coffee and cake… chicken with rice and rhubarb compote’. The point is that Véra will be interested, because it’s her man eating his meals far away from her; we are interested because the writer evokes and specifies.
Philip Hensher, "Nabokov’s love letters are some of the most rapturous ever written", The Spectator, Sep 27, 2014.

The standard dishes were allegedly geared to popular taste and were devised by a group of experts inside the Ministry of Public Health. A typical dish might consist of three slices of meat loaf, two baked onions, five mushy boiled potatoes, a lettuce leaf, half a tomato, some thick, flour-based sauce, a third of a litre of homogenised milk, three slices of bread or crispbread, a portion of vitamin-enriched margarine, a little tub of soft cheese, coffee in a plastic cup, and a cake. The next day it would be the same thing again, but with boiled fish instead of milk. The whole lot was served on hygienically packed plastic trays, covered in plastic film.
From Per Wahlöö's The Steel Spring.

Mar 3, 2016

A Bit of Cod

In Manuel Rivas' tale of Galician melancholy, All Is Silence, a man is intent on a particular meal.
My primary objective was to go and eat cod in the Viana do Castelo. No, not à la Margarida da Praça, nor à la Gomes de Sá. In the end what I had, let's see if I remember, was "sliced cod with maize bread on a bed of baked potatoes and salted turnip tops."

Feb 22, 2016

Anarchist Food

They were Bradford anarchists who survived on food recovered from supermarket skips... They would bring back their catch and improvise exquisite meals: trout with poached eggs and roasted beetroot; pork with bruised peaches and goat's cheese; serrano ham and celeriac hash; all washed down with a chablis lifted from the Tesco Metro.