Ostrich

Photograph of planet Earth, Feb 14th 1990, from a distance of 6 billion km, taken by Voyager 1 space probe as it left the solar system

The global warming nay sayers and deniers are strangely quiet these days. Strange weather patterns around the world don’t seen to trouble them or make them think twice about their stand. Who ever thought temperatures could reach 49°C ( 121° F) in some towns of Canada in July. It was actually warmer than north India on those days! The mind boggled. Then the floods in Germany seemed apocalyptic but the forest fires raging across Turkey and Greece soon followed. The visuals of what looked like spontaneous outbreaks on hillsides dry as tinder and people who were unable to do anything beyond watch their homes being engulfed further emphasized the helplessness of humanity against the ravages of nature. Who could have even imagined that there could be so many forest fires in Siberia, let alone that they would go on for so long and become bigger than all other fires combined. Isn’t it a land of endless snow and huskies pulling sleds?

Year after year there are massive floods in China, floods, drought and rising temperatures in India, and all of Asia is suffering from climatic change. Unseasonal cyclones, rapidly increasing in severity, are becoming common. It is becoming more and more likely that coastal cities are going to soon submerge entirely. Glaciers and ice bergs are melting at unprecedented rates. And who knows what old diseases may be lurking under the permafrost and will be let loose by the melt. Zoologist and entomologists are horrified at the rate species are becoming extinct. The botanists have just about given up and acknowledge that it may be a loosing battle. The window of opportunity has closed, it seems, and a lot of scientists are saying the situation is not reversible. NASA keeps publishing fascinating Hubble photos of other planets, their moons and distant galaxies and they keep discussing goldilocks planets (planets which are just the right distance from their suns to sustain life) in faraway solar systems. But how does that help us when we can’t get there? All we have right now is this pale blue dot suspended in a sun beam (phrase coined by Carl Sagan for the Voyager 1 photo of the Earth) and what a mess has been made of it. The photo of the Earth shows us what a tiny, fragile home we have. And so lonely in the vastness of space.

But hey, we are very good at sticking our heads in the sand and pretending it is not happening to us. Though we tremendously admired the Tokyo Olympics for recycling E waste to make all the medals and the ribbons holding them, is it not too little, too late? Covid has also created so much non bio degradable waste like PPE kits, masks and shields but how are they being disposed? Why is no one even thinking about it?

Where do we go from here? Or, should we not ask that question? Popping bubble wrap for de stressing is no longer an option so better download a virtual bubble exploder on the phone and pop away while Rome burns.

A Phoenix Odyssey


In most stories till now, Phoenixes have been portrayed as glorious and yet tragic creatures that rise from the ashes of their previous existence. For the most part they are bird sized but with striking plumage. The most famous one of course is Dumbledore’s  Phoenix, Fawkes, from the Harry Potter series. There are so many fantasy books written about dragons and dragon riders that there is very little new about them any more. So when a book about large Phoenixes and their riders, like Nicki Pau Preto’s Crown of Feathers, came long, we felt it had to be given a try. 

Pyra’s Phoenix riding queens and their Phoenix riders who are animages (people who have the ability to mentally communicate with animals) have been virtually wiped out by the Empire, declared illegal and those that survived were enslaved. Veronyka and her older sister Val are animages and shadowmages (having the ability to communicate mentally with other humans and sometimes also control them) hiding their powers and constantly on the look out for phoenix eggs. Val is the ruthless and cold sister with the single minded focus on becoming a Phoenix rider and Veronyka is the more soft hearted one. The story is however told from many view points with each chapter jumping back and forth between different characters. As readers we found this disorienting. The last series that did this was the Game of Thrones and George R R Martin had better managed the constant jumping back and forth. 

Veronyka does ultimately find the remnants of the Phoenix riders who are trying to rebuild their cadre but suddenly finds that they are accepting only boys as riders and not girls, which is very strange considering that up to that point the book had been going on and on about the Phoenix riding queens and the other women who were legendary riders. The author suddenly switches around and changes priorities and character behaviour without sufficient explanation, leaving the reader confused and that is the main problem with the book.

The story has the makings of an epic fantasy but somehow just fizzles out. This book got a mixed bag of reviews on Goodreads with any number of five stars and one stars. For us it was just the inconsistencies that irritated us. We don’t think we have the patience to see if the second book is better. 

A Fun Ride

Once in while a book comes along which is just pure entertainment. But then again, most of Jonathan Stroud’s books are like that. His Bartimaeus Sequence and the Lockwood & Co series were fun, adventurous books. So when The Outlaws Scarlett and Browne was published we didn’t even think about it and bought the book as soon as it came out.

A post apocalyptic Britain where society as we know it has collapsed and been divided into seven different regions. Scattered towns govern themselves. Society has closed in behind the walls of the towns and a strict adherence to morality is the norm with religious establishments holding sway. Outside the town walls is pretty much lawless and wild country with mutated wildlife and mutated humans, know as the tainted, waiting to attack and eat unwary travellers. Then there are the common garden variety outlaws, robbing and stealing to their heart’s content, but not eating, at least not the humans. Into these picturesque surroundings enters Scarlett McCain, an outlaw, bank robber, murderer(out of necessity) and all around lawless person with attitude but who doesn’t swear and carries a curse box and a prayer mat (for meditation only). Scarlett is colourful in every way, not just her name but also her hair is red and the words used by other people to describe her tend to be rather colourful too. A well rounded outrageous, impatient and fearless character, likely to beat you up but at the same time save your life. Scarlett comes across Albert Browne hiding in an overturned bus in the badlands and ends up taking him along. Browne is the opposite of Scarlett, naive to the core and seemingly clueless of most things around him. The only thing he knows is that he wants to get to the Free Isles where he believes he will be safe.

Scarlett and Browne surprisingly complement each other really well. Though Browne’s cluelessness constantly infuriates Scarlett and she keeps reconsidering her decision to help him but at same time she is intrigued enough to see him through to his destination. The duo are chased by a group of unshakeable unknown persons on their way to the Free Isles while they rob and steal to fund their passage. Its a gun toting, swash buckling western but set in Britain, if anything could possibly be stranger than that.

It goes without saying that Jonathan Stroud writes beautifully, there are enough twists and turns and villainous villains in the story to keep one absorbed. Yet at the same at time the book is funny, there are enough one liners to make one laugh even in the middle of a tense situation. We enjoyed ourselves immensely. Waiting for book 2.

Oddball friendships

Now is the summer of our discontent made inglorious by a messy monsoon. And Sometimes paraphrasing Shakespeare is what gets one going after a long hiatus. The last few months have really been a time of discontent. It hasn’t just been the lockdowns and isolation and restrictions but also the number of people we personally know who have succumbed to Covid or friends who have had family succumbing to Covid. It has been a time of constant worry, paranoia even and absolute uncertainty. In the face of all that it felt a little flippant to be reviewing books, even the comfort reading ones. Now that things have eased off a little, however temporary it may be, we seem to be gradually getting over our reluctance. Since we have been reading through the lockdown, there are some books that we really wanted to review and decided to make a start today. We thought we will start with an easy reading book which is touching and sweet (but with rather dark undertones which however do not overwhelm the book).

Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa, translated into English by Alison Watts is a book about unusual friendships, food and cherry blossoms. All three making it a feel good but thoughtful book. To make up for his misspent youth Sentaro runs a small shop selling dorayaki pancakes stuffed with sweet bean paste. The shop is on Cherry Blossom Street in Tokyo and in the summer the falling blossoms billow outside the shop. One day he is approached by Tokue, a seventy six year old woman with misshapen hands, who offers to work for him for a pittance. In spite of his reluctance but because she is so persistent and her sweet bean paste is the best he has ever tasted, Sentaro hires her. This leads to a turn around in sales and stocks in the shop often getting sold out before the end of day .

Tokue has years of experience making sweet bean paste from adzuki beans. Her attention to detail, the refusal to take short cuts and her recognition of minute differences in taste brings about a complete change in taste of the pancakes. The adherence to quality in the making of the paste also brings about a change in the way Sentaro runs the shop. Tokue becomes friendly with the customers, especially a school girl called Wakana. These three people, at different stages of their lives, each lonely in their own way, strike up an extremely unlikely friendship in the face of societal prejudices for their circumstances – Sentaro for having been to prison, Tokue for being a survivor of Hanson’s disease, more commonly known as leprosy and Wakana who comes from a poor family.

Through it all the cherry blossoms continue to fall and Tokue tells stories of recipes made with cherry blossoms during the Second World war when blossoms were all that were available.

Our only grouse was that the book ended too abruptly and a lot of things were left unsaid. Other than that it is a peaceful but poignant book. The sadness really comes from the manner in which people with Hansen’s disease were treated in the past and the prejudices which continue today despite there being a cure and the impossibility of being infected by someone who has been cured. The descriptions of sweet bean paste made us want to taste dorayaki pancakes. But we don’t think we have the patience to go through the process of making it ourselves. Like Sentaro did initially, we might just try to get hold of canned bean paste. Obtaining fresh cherry blossoms to make tea will be more difficult.

Nearer to vital truth

Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history ~ Plato

Since the beginning of this year we have been pleasantly surprised at the manner in which poetry readings have lifted world events to a new level. Perhaps because of the pandemic people are more willing to slow down and look at different ways of expressing. As a result there is a lot of appreciation of poems heard in the public space.

The most enduring visual image of last week was Queen Elizabeth II sitting all alone in accordance with Covid 19 restrictions at her husband’s funeral service. The news media may have talked ad nauseam about which member of her family are talking or not talking to each other and what they would be wearing and enough has been said about Prince Phillip himself as a royal consort, as a navy man, a promoter of charities and the tireless work done by him. But for us the real truth and emotional context was created by the elegy written by the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage. We have always admired his poetry and readings but The Patriarchs: An Elegy really brought home to us how poetry written with the right sentiments can connect people across the world. Mr. Armitage very astutely wrote the poem about a generation rather than just one person since, as he said, he did not know Prince Philip personally. As a result he manages to strike a chord with whoever reads or hears his reading of the elegy. The sombre tone of his reading and the serious content has an underlying note of cheekiness which comes from fondness and affection. Anyone with older parents or grandparents will surely connect when he describes the hands of the patriarchs at rest which look like maps with “hachured valleys and indigo streams“.

Earlier in the year, after the hotly contested and denied results of the US elections, the standout image of the Biden inauguration, overshadowing everything else, was the 23 year old Amanda Gorman reading her poem The Hill We Climb. Those of us who have not gone through the fractious US politics of the last few years or their history of the last 200 years could still understand and appreciate the sentiments expressed. Because that is what poetry does, it brings to the fore human nature and human sentiments in an emotional context rather than in the dry facts, figures and dates that history deals with. As such, it really is nearer to the vital truth.

The price of a wish

“Be careful what you ask for, be willing to pay the price. And no matter how desperate or dire, never pray to the gods that answer after dark” (The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue)

This quote pretty much encapsulates the story of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab. In early 18th Century rural France, a young girl, desperate to get out of a marriage which would trap her and tie her down, makes a wish after dark and is granted that wish. The wish was to be free, to not belong to anyone else, to live on her terms and to have time to live like that in exchange for her soul when she is tired of living.

Addie soon finds out the hidden cost that no one would ever, ever remember her. She lives the next 300 years, moving from Europe to the US not being able to form any relationships or attachments since people promptly forgot her once their back was turned. This existence continues until Addie meets Henry in a bookshop in modern day New York. He seems to have no trouble remembering her. As a concept this story sounded fascinating to us and V.E. Schwab’s writing as always is amazing. The book is about loneliness and loss and desperately wanting connections. As such it could be pretty representative of how a lot of people feel at some point or the other in their lives. But there is a but – it is very difficult to identify with Addie for some reason or anyone else in the book for that matter. We just couldn’t find ourselves invested in the characters.

Perhaps because it is a stand alone book and there wasn’t enough time for character development that the reader never feels in sync with Addie’s attitude towards her situation. Plus the jumping back and forth in time takes away from any arc that could have been built up. Otherwise, surely a character like Addie’s should have aroused considerable sympathy as well as admiration from the reader but unfortunately it failed to. There was also that strange mutual Stockholm syndrome between Addie and Luc, the god/demon, throughout the book which keeps muddling up the emotional content of the story.

A book like this also reminds one that in most western fantasy novels the old gods are often portrayed as mischievous and unreliable, having their own agenda which is not necessarily for the good of their flock. A little too much conditioning perhaps that paganism is not good?

Worth reading for the basic storyline, V.E. Schwab’s writing and the last few chapters when the characters show greater depth

Baking

For those who got excited with the title of the blog post, sorry to disappoint but this is not a food blog. The food part did happen last year with people baking non stop in order to keep themselves going during the lockdowns. But that is all. Weather wise this time last year was fine, in fact it was great. The air was clear, no vehicular pollution, no sound pollution and the birds were audible. But being locked up with the entire family baked people’s brains and sent them reeling. This year we are back to being baked by the climate, resulting in brains being baked in a different way. Summer started for us in mid February. Some places even recorded 44 degrees in Feb itself ( we commiserate Bhuvaneshwar).

All the usual signs of summer are around but somehow it all feels excessive this year. The gentler and slower days of last year have spoilt us totally. It is almost as if the weather has to make up for last year’s clemency. The gulmohar trees have started blooming but the red which looks great any other year is a little too blazing this year. The jasmine is as lovely as ever to look at but the fragrance is a little too overpowering; the bougainvillea is excessively showing off, as are the hibiscus. The honge trees (Indian beech) any other year are lovely with their little lilac/pink flowers shedding all over the streets but this year even their subtle fragrance is getting on our nerves. It all feels too much in the face and nary a drop of rain. Not even on the 1st of April when it always rains in the city. Refrigerators are filled with varieties of watermelon and the freezers with ice cream. Dogs are lying about with their tongues hanging out and grumbling if you try to give them a hug.

And to cap it all, Covid is still here! And how. What happened to all those declarations that it can’t survive the Indian summer? Looks like it thrives in extreme temperatures. Instead it’s the humans who are struggling to survive the summer. There are months to go yet and we are thinking of shutting down. Might as well, since the state government is not going to lockdown and is behaving as if the pandemic is not happening. The worst part is that the reading has stopped once more and the dire situation with the daily numbers is cooking our minds so much that we are just not able to concentrate. If anyone has any suggestions about light hearted books ideal for baking hot, covidified days, capable of distracting frazzled minds, please do let us know.

Gullible or narcissist?

The Indian perspective on the biggest news of last week – the Meghan, Harry, Oprah interview- is pretty much one of mystified bemusement. People here are scratching their heads and wondering what the deal was about? It’s all so familiar that it just sounds like what any bride faces in joint family homes. All Meghan’s revelations which scandalized Oprah and most of the US populace just sound like a checklist of what newly married girls usually encounter.

In laws being overbearing and hideous – check.

Feeling trapped and not allowed to step out without ‘permission’ – check,

Being made to cry almost daily- check

Feeling like killing oneself at times – check

Feeling like killing those around you ( this one Meghan did not mention, the good girl that she is) – check, check , check

Discussions not just behind your back but also in your face about the colour of the baby’s skin – check. In fact here the discussions also extend to the colour of your skin.

What one wears, says or does being open to critical comment- check

So while we do sympathize with not just Meghan but everyone who has had to go through with this nonsense, we don’t see Oprah coming to interview any poor girl here, or sound scandalized about all that goes on. She did the wrong interview the one time she was here. True, no one wants to know about the problems faced by commoners but there are Royals galore littering our pavements and quite possibly the girls in those families face as much or worse. But they aren’t telling. Possibly they are better prepared to handle stuff because of the endless TV serials on this very subject. Besides, at least Meghan’s husband seems supportive. Which Indian husband would be willing to invite his family’s ire by supporting (shock, horror!) his wife? Not that Harry seems to be all there. He said he felt trapped in all the royalty and that his father and brother were also trapped. Really? What about the people who are not able to provide even one meal a day to their children? What about the children in parts of the world who have suicide vests strapped to them? Or, the little girls who are trafficked? Or even just the middle class persons working day in, day out at their mindless, boring jobs to pay off the mortgage, car loan, school fees etc. And he feels trapped by all the pomp, ceremony, splendour and expense! Something went wrong with the education perhaps. If you don’t want to be in the public eye, don’t give interviews to Oprah.

We would also like to emphasize the problem with not reading enough. Meghan needed to read up on her own mother-in-law’s experience and Google more on the Royals. Typical American that she is, her knowledge of British Imperial rule probably ends with the Boston Tea Party and a cutesy, sing song version of George III in Hamilton. Does she not know that she married into a family that colonized and subjugated lots of little brown and black people for centuries? It is difficult to get rid of genes like that in just a few generations. Somebody, somewhere in the family was bound to make comments that would raise her hackles. Besides, race is a much wider and bigger issue than just one person aiming to make Oprah’s s jaw drop theatrically.

And seriously they did not make money out of this interview? They needed to take lessons from Ekta Kapoor who has raked it in making TV serials on the same subject. Anyway, for the general public, jaded with the pandemic and bored out of their minds with lockdowns and social distancing, the interview came as a fresh breeze full of juicy gossip and entertainment. Who doesn’t enjoy the rich and powerful washing their dirty linen in public. That too in a dress and settings so beautifully staged. But on a scale of seriousness, over here, the general opinion is – much ado about nothing.

Whose age?

Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid is one of those books which are an easy read but later on the reader starts to think of the layers and levels in the story and then the questions arise. Whose age does the title refer to? Is it the protagonist, Emira Tucker, in her late twenties and still finding her way around? Briar, the three year old who is Emira’s part time charge? Or does the title refer to the times we live in when there is more awareness about racism? Or is it the age of the smart phone and social media and it’s resulting lack of boundaries with the concomitant high jacking of people’s lives?

Emira Tucker, an African American, works as a baby sitter for Alix and Peter Chamberlain’s daughter, Briar. The two of them have a good connect, with Briar as yet unaware of her own whiteness. Not so with the parents who are are strange and very aware that the babysitter is different from them. One night, because of an emergency at home the Chamberlains ask Emira to take Briar out of the house. Emira and her friend, who were at a birthday party and dressed accordingly, take Briar to the upmarket grocery store nearest the Chamberlains’ house. Another shopper, observing them, reports to the store security that the little girl possibly might have been abducted. The following interaction with the store security is recorded by a third customer until Peter Chamberlain is called by Emira and comes to clarify things. Thereafter Emira is subjected to different view points on what she should do with the recording and the complaints that she should file. On the one hand there is Emira who doesn’t want to do anything and just wants to put the whole incident behind her and get on with her life. And then there are all the others who believe it is her duty to publicize the matter.

This incident at the store is the catalyst for the rest of the story. Kiley Reid has used it as the means to bring out everyone’s racial prejudices as well as supposed awareness. Instead of the characters reacting to each other on a person to person level, they always interact based on what they think their reaction to the other person’s race should be. The concept of overwhelming political correctness and being ‘woke’ dominates the book. As a result Emira and Briar are the only two people who come across as being themselves while everyone else is trying too hard or has an agenda.

How true a representation are all these reactions, we wonder? Is being ‘woke’, a fake awareness, such a big part of American society today? Are the people not capable of just being people? What does it say about a society where being unaware results in discrimination and hyper awareness results in people not being seen as another person but purely as representative of their race? Will there ever be a middle ground? As we said in the beginning, the more one thinks about the book, the more questions it raises. Emira is a unusual protagonist, she is contented, low key and just wants to have a peaceful time of things. Her lack of activism or ambition may be galling for those who suffer routine prejudice but it also makes her seem more normal in some ways. Which is probably part of the problem, that most people just want to let prejudice slide as making an issue of it could ultimately effect them adversely.

For the curious

Susanna Clarke‘s first book was huge in size and hugely successful but we found it was not for us. Piranesi, her second book, written after many year’s hiatus is a little book which lands the reader in a strange, surreal existence where one doesn’t know what is happening or who the narrator, the eponymous Piranesi is. And yet one keeps reading through additions to Piranesi’s journals, strangely dated with the days and months past the day the albatrosses came to some hall or the other.

Piranesi is apparently only one of two human occupants in a series of massive buildings and halls populated by innumerable statues with the sea having submerged the lower levels and coming in further up during high tides. The only other life is fish in the sea and birds in some of the halls. Piranesi wanders through recording whatever he sees and mapping not just the labyrinthine halls but also the stars and the tides. Twice a week he meets the man he calls the Other since he is the only other live person in the place. One gets the impression that the Other is a coldly, detached person in contrast to Piranesi who is quite affectionate and grateful to all the little things the Other brings him. The reader’s curiosity as to where the labyrinth is situated, who the Other is and why Piranesi is there, carries one through the first half of the book when not much is happening. In fact Piranesi is the one who seems contented and on home ground whereas the reader is lost and confused. Fortunately the book is short and this feeling of confusion doesn’t last too long else it might have gotten boring and we don’t know if we would have had the staying power to see it through.

The novel, published timely during various lockdowns, provided us with another perspective on the concept of isolation and how one can keep going with a sense of routine and maintaining an aura of curiosity and wonderment even with daily, mundane occurrences. There is also something to be said about making up stories in one’s mind. Piranesi takes comfort from the stories and connections he has imagined between himself and the statues.

A strange , mystical kind of book, which is one of those rare books that transcend genre. We can’t bring ourselves to call it fantasy as it is a weird mixture of history, magic , psychology and transgressive philosophy. The novel has received rave reviews and is certainly worth reading because it is so very different to anything one can imagine.