What in the world!

  The recently announced Staunch Book Prize is for ‘thriller’ novels which keep readers on the edge of their seats without resorting to extreme violence against women. The words used by the prize are ‘where no woman is beaten, stalked, sexually exploited, raped or murdered’. Is this because books where men are murdered or eviscerated make much better reading at bed time?

There seems to be some kind of a movement happening. Every other day news pops up; like the annual VIDA count has again, in 2017, found that there seems to be some sort of a bias, male authors and their critics constitute two thirds of those published and critiquing. Maybe these numbers prompted writer Kamila Shamsie to urge publishers to take a stance and make 2018 the year of publishing books only by women writers. A pipe dream obviously. It’s a different matter altogether that of the top ten selling writers in UK  in 2017, only one happened to be a man. Mr. Murakami held the side entirely by himself. But is that any reason for women in the literary world to get a big head and expect more? And then there are the bunch of women writers (around 250) who, unhappy with the number of women poets (4) included in the Cambridge Companion to Irish Poetry, have decided to boycott anthologies and festivals that do not have a fair representation by women. Seriously? Is anyone even paying attention?

Just because they got the right to vote, women now want to take the mile? Is it possible that after centuries they have started believing that they are entitled? These days, especially after the appearance of the #MeToo movement, there seem to be no limits to their expectations.

  Where will this all end? …Fair play?

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A mixed bag

  What happens when Netflix/Amazon/Hulu or any of the regular TV channels produce a series based on a little read book which was published 20 or 30 years back? Or even a more recently published one, popular mainly with genre readers? The answer to that question is that suddenly the books start flying off the shelf, much to the publisher’s delight. In the case of the authors, the feelings are probably mixed as new found popularity will have them scrambling around in their brains to explain to interviewers why they wrote what they did. After all, thirty years is a long time and who remembers?

  Terry Brooks wrote the first book in the Shannara Chronicles forty years ago and now finds his events packed with very young people who have watched the series and as a consequence have discovered his books. The libraries have huge queues for books which had indolently been sitting on the shelves for a long time. Margaret Atwood’s amazingly thoughtful and disturbing book, the Handmaid’s Tale is being considered the story for this age although it was published in 1985. People who had never heard of Margaret Atwood are now reaching out for her books and attempting (or pretending) to read them. If nothing else, they look good on the book shelf or the side table. Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman wrote Good Omens in 1990 and it is being made into a mini series to be released on Amazon Prime next year. Amazon has already released the TV series of Gaiman’s American Gods.

  This happens with classics all the time, with each new movie or TV series, the author is back in fashion. Not that people like Gaiman ever went out of fashion but their readership is limited because of their books being classified, ridiculously so, as genre books. For the writers, to find books they had written years ago as the hot topic of conversation and reviews, it must surely be a surreal experience. Though no doubt a very pleasant one. Readers who never read fantasy are watching these series and then getting drawn to the books. The flip side is that those who have read the books and loved them are sometimes up in arms about the depiction of favourite characters and vent to the author. This happens particularly with fantasy books as the fandom tends to be vocal and strident. And it is a rare director or scriptwriter who can truly understand the essence of the genre and deal reverently with the book. Not many realise that fantasy is not just sword and sorcery or dungeons and dragons. Sometimes, even if they do, they are too lazy to explore the depths. This happened catastrophically in the series adaptation of the Earthsea books. The readers were horrified at the clueless and careless production based on an amazing series of books. As indeed was the author, Ursula K. Le Guin, who called it a ‘generic McMagic movie’.

  As fantasy readers, the increasing trend of adapting fantasy books to the screen is exciting because we are wondering what’s next and keeping our fingers crossed that a complete hash would not be made of a much loved book. After all, there is only one more season left of Game of Thrones and there are so many, many books that could fill that slot. More power to the magicians.

A roller coaster to nowhere

9793AEDD-156B-4F54-B3BE-AD1C60F87CFD.jpegCaraval by Stephanie Garber is a good example of why one should not go by covers and reviews when picking up a book to read. Although, there is little else to go by these days. It was a good thing that we borrowed the book from the library instead of buying it.

A magical game on an isolated island to which you need an invitation and you can choose to either participate or watch, had so much potential. The main character Scarlett had been writing for years to Legend, the mysterious game master of Caraval, requesting an invitation. From the time she and her sister were little girls, they hoped that a participation in the game and the chance to win a wish would help them to get away from their tyrannical father. After years of no response forthcoming, the invitation finally comes just before Scarlett’s wedding. But she is now reluctant to participate and her sister Tella pretty much abducts her and takes her to the island where Scarlett finds herself unwillingly drawn into the game.

The rest of the story is a roller coaster where the reader along with Scarlett does not know what is real and what is part of the game. The game takes place within what seems to be a large amusement park type setting, which can be, at times, quite frightening. Everything gets turned on it’s head at some point and none of the characters are what they seem. The descriptions of Caraval are lavish and Garber successfully  brings out the decadence of it all. The story  could have been exciting had it been strung together a little more tightly and had the characters not been so shallow. Events are just randomly put in without much explantion to make the story move to the author’s convenience.

There were no plausible reasons given to explain the intense cruelty of the girls’ father or their grandmother’s obsession with Legend. Scarlett’s haste to get out of the game after having spent her entire life trying to get there and her constant guilt for one thing or another becomes irritating. There was no real sense of a competition taking place and the ending was just too convenient and contrived.

While reading, the book moves at a rapid pace and the reader goes along willingly with it, accepting the twists and turns, with the expectation that all will be explained and answers will be found. It’s only once the book has ended that one feels cheated and hence irritated since there are no answers. Unless the author has left everything to the sequels, which in itself seems unfair. Besides, even fantastical magic should have some rules and explanation for the way it works. world building for a fantasy novel is of the utmost importance. This was truly a YA book in the sense that it lacked depth and the numerous comparisons to The Night Circus are totally unwarranted. Frankly we can’t understand why the book got such amazing reviews and was mentioned all over the place last year. It can be read if one has nothing better on hand.

Words of power

3A0D6380-25CD-4DFA-884D-DCE5A4A6F89C.jpegIn times gone by, when the ignorant declared that science fiction was not within a woman’s domain, they would have Ursula K Le Guin‘s name thrown at them. Having won both the Hugo and Nebula awards twice in the 70s for her books The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, she made it much easier for women writers to be accepted in the science fiction genre.

But for us she is chiefly the author of the fantasy books of the Earthsea trilogy, that later became a quartet and are now a quintet. Magic is not only what wizards do in a story. Le Guin more than any other writer made her readers acutely aware of the magic of words strung together.

In that moment Ged understood the singing of the bird, and the language of the water falling in the basin of the fountain, and the shape of the clouds, and the beginning and end of the wind that stirred the leaves; it seemed to him that he himself was a word spoken by the sunlight.’

And while the stories in the Earthsea books were about the power of names, the words written by Le Guin themselves hold sway. They imprint themselves on the readers’ mind and continue to exert their power and magic long after the story is told.

The Earthsea books are glorious and dark, thoughtful and yet edge of the seat story telling. Set in an archipelago housing the original school of magic, a wizard called Sparrowhawk, themes and thoughts that are distinctly Taoist and dragons the likes of which have not been seen before or after. Le Guin’s dragons speak the original language, the words of which are imbued with power. They can be savage and wise, detached and compassionate all at the same time. They can move between life and death and other dimensions. They have the power to take on human form and the eldest of them is perhaps also the creator although that is never addressed directly in the books. Le Guin describes their nature beautifully in The Farthest Shore ‘We men dream dreams, we work magic, we do good, we do evil. The dragons do not dream. They are dreams. They do not work magic: it is their substance, their being. They do not do; they are.’

Is it any wonder we were hoping she would write a sixth book in the series? As with all writers whose books we love, when Ursula K Le Guin passed away last week we felt a real sense of loss. After all there are many who write about magic but very few who actually create magic.

Only in silence the word, only in dark the light, only in dying life: bright the hawk’s flight on the empty sky.’

A Solar Holiday

  Today the sun enters Capricorn (the northern hemisphere), according to the Indian calendar. This happens to be one of those rare fixed dates for an Indian festival (either 14th or 15th of January). This year some states celebrated it on the 14th and luckily for us, here in Karnataka, it is on the 15th. Which means we have a Monday holiday.

  Makara Shankranti is basically a harvest festival celebrated across India by various names. Bulls (used for pulling ploughs in fields) are decorated and kites are flown. Not that any of it means much in a non agrarian city environment, beyond being a holiday. But curiously enough, the festival is observed by most people, no matter whether they live in villages, towns or cities. Either our agrarian roots are not too far off or perhaps (we hope) we all feel connected to the earth in some way and feel the need to continue observing harvest related festivals. And why not? After all Harvest means food and food is what makes the world go round.

  The observance of Makara Shankranti is mainly in the food that is consumed. The Tamil name of the festival is Pongal, which is also the dish made and offered to the sun god and therefore eaten on that day. It just goes to show that the Tamilians have their priorities absolutely right; food and festival being synonymous. Across the country, there is an abundance of jaggery, sugarcane, beaten rice and sesame being consumed in different concoctions. Although, having lost our agrarian roots none of us really know what to do with the sugarcane any more. This is also the season of fresh turmeric, traditionally eaten pickled with rice and dal. Ordinarily turmeric is the most common spice used in Indian cooking and as such rather innocuous. But in the last year or so it seems to have become almost ‘fashionable’, much to the bemusement of most Indians.

  So in keeping with the times, this year we are looking up recipes for turmeric latte. This is how change happens.

Eternal Robin

Since conversations recently have been all about governments reducing taxes for the rich and for corporates and burdening everyone else, the mind automatically veers towards Robin Hood who did the opposite. That too with panache.

Of course, taking from the rich and giving to the poor is only one part of Robin Hood’s timeless appeal. But one wonders what it is about his myth (If he was a myth. Could have been real) that endures in the popular imagination and lends itself to so many retellings and interpretations. Over time there have been numerous books, movies and TV series that have made each successive generation fall under his charm.

PS: Just look at Ivanhoe, though he was the eponymous hero, Robin Hood was the one who saves the day. As a reader one waits for his character to come on the page.
LL: It’s also because in most of the retellings, Robin is a wisecracking and flippant character with hidden depths to his nature and dark undertones to his story. He isn’t two dimensional.
PS: There is always a degree of unpredictability attached to him. One never knows what he is going to do in a story, only that he will end up saving the day. I think part of the charm is that he is always a reluctant hero. He never set out to become a leader but in the process of surviving, he found himself unable to abandon others like himself.
LL: Then there are the other people around him who each have their own clear backstories which instead of detracting, only add to Robin Hood’s story somehow.
PS: A lot of the appeal also comes from the bad boy, rebel image. The constant challenging of authority has its own fascination.
LL: Perhaps he was the first socialist. I wonder which of his stories inspired Karl Marx. The best part is that though each book or TV series has interpreted him so differently, intrinsically his character retains the same ethos.
PS: Other than Ivanhoe which for most people is their first introduction to Robin Hood, I really enjoyed Robin McKinley’s Outlaws of Sherwood.
LL: And there was Hood, the first book in the King Raven trilogy by Stephen R. Lawhead. It was a lot darker and had more magical elements than just the clever and good hearted outlaw story.
PS: Speaking of magical elements, how can we not mention the Robin of Sherwood TV series from the 80’s, there was quite a bit of magic in that one and I don’t just mean the charms of Michael Praed (who acted as Robin Hood).  The later BBC series, Robin Hood, was more edgy but with a Robin as incorrigible as a lot of other versions and with wonderful one liners.
We feel this quote from the BBC series pretty much encapsulates Robin’s cheekiness and hence his appeal:
“ I know I behave like I am more intelligent and sophisticated than other people. But the fact that I am aware of my arrogance puts me above others with a superiority complex”

A New Monday?

Things are cyclical, you just have to look for the pattern. The old is constantly brought back or rehashed as new. Sometimes this is welcome and at times it just raises eye brows. But when someone somewhere, with the power, decides that just because something is old it is not necessarily bad, it comes back in focus and is treated as new. This happens a lot in fashion. One day flares are out and then few years down the line they are back in vogue. There are constant reprisals of 20s, 50s, 70s or 80s fashion trends. But fashion is just one aspect of it. In recent times we have been noticing a number of ‘new’ ideas which are just old ones in the clothing of modernity.

People want to move away from plastics, which is a good thing in our opinion, so suddenly the new fashion is steel lunch boxes called Tyffyn and brass water bottles. Shops and sites selling these behave as if the entire concept is avant garde. As do those using these products. Really? We remember carrying steel lunch tiffins to school. And surely the brass water bottles were used by our grandparents? Nothing new, people. Since plastic bags have been banned in Bangalore, we all now have to carry cloth or jute bags with us for shopping. So suddenly we are back to the old days of our grandparents, who carried their own bags and baskets for shopping trips; only now we believe we are environmentally conscious.

Looks like physical books are also back in demand. E book sales in the last one year have apparently dropped and sales of physical books have gone up. This is of course a good trend. We are not too sure though about the new covers for old classics. Particularly the ones that make Jane Austen or Charles Dickens look like E. L. James. A lurid cover will only deceive the unwary new reader but it cannot change the contents. The Bennet sisters will still be living in their strait laced, confined societal norms, Oliver Twist will still be asking for more food and Sidney Carton doing a “far far better thing”, no matter what the cover.

Even a lot of popular music these days seems to be harking back to a different time. What else would explain the main stream popularity of ballads sung by artists like Ed Sheeran? The old is now the new.

And so, the old year is out and the new is in but how is it different really? We make a big deal at the beginning of the calendar but that is all it is, a new calendar. The start of the year is not signified by anything else, it is not a new season or even an astronomical date like a solstice or an equinox. It’s just fashionable to feel new and because everyone thinks it is new, we behave as if it is. But really, isn’t it just the old pretending to be new? More of the same?

Having said all of that and since we have all set out our new calendars today, and that too on a Monday, we at Mostly Mondays would like to wish everyone reading us, a Happy ‘New’ Reading Year!