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.
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”
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!
Reading for us is an on going fact of existence but when everyone around you is counting the months gone by and reducing the year to lists, we too are forced to look back on the year in the only way we know – through books.
What made the year different was that we read more e-books than regular books. Sadly. Inspite of our love of the convenience of e-books, we can’t help the lingering feeling that we are letting the side down a little. But we suppose the the tides of change have swept us along with them. Out of all the books we have reviewed this year, only two were read by us in the physical form. And it seems extremely unlikely that our new year resolution will be to read more physical books.
Most of the books that we enjoyed reading during 2017 have already been written about by us. But we got to thinking that if we had to pick just two each out of the books that we read this year(not necessarily ones that were published during the year), to recommend, in both fiction and non fiction it would be the following:
LL: In fiction I would recommend My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologises by Fredrick Backman for its amazing and real characters and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for its magic.
PS: Definitely I too would vote for My Grandmother Sends her Regards. It is one of the most endearing books I have read in a long time. The second book for me this year would be The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry for the beautiful way in which it has been written. What about your picks for non fiction?
LL: I think the book that made me think the most would be We Should All be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. A book meant both for women and men. For the other book I would pick Drop the Ball by Tiffany Dufu. It made me relook at the way I do things.
PS: I notice that both are feminist books.
LL: Well, since the Miriam Webster word of the year is feminism, it is entirely appropriate. Which are your picks for non fiction?
PS: I think Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. An amazing look at the journey of human kind from its origins to now. For the second book I would pick The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker. No other book has made me think so much about what I read and how I write. Of course there is also a flip side to noticing the style of writing as it makes one less tolerant and consequently grumpy with books lacking it.
So, those were our picks of the year. Here’s wishing everyone who reads Mostly Mondays a Merry Christmas and a New Year spent happily getting lost in books.
The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, is a ridiculously optimistic story with a ridiculously decent protagonist. Good thing then that it’s a fantasy novel, or else, in all our cynicism, we would have dismissed it as being ridiculously unrealistic. That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy the book. We did.
Maia, the half goblin son of the Elf Emperor is too likeable a character, and the book too full of the twists and turns of political intrigue to not be enjoyable. The mixed race Maia, who has been kept in penury away from court, suddenly finds himself the Emperor after his father and all his half brothers die in an accident. Friendless and an outsider, that too of mixed race, he finds himself dealing with all the intrigue and political machinations of those who have been steeped in it their entire lives. And strangely, he comes out each time, doing the right thing for his seemingly ungrateful people.
There are no battles, in this book, with the forces of evil or any sword and sourcery or even dungeons and dragons. All the action comes from the political ambitions and scheming of the characters and Maia learning how to deal with his new situation. We particularly enjoyed his struggles in maintaining all conversation in the royal plural “we” as befits the Emperor.
Maia’s compassionate, non discriminatory, gender equalising, and basically ‘good’ route to power consolidation makes the book a heartening and refreshing read. A fantasy, truly. Just right for Christmas.
A fantasy series based on Russian folklore is unusual and as such The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is an intriguing read. Set in medieval Russia when it was still called Rus, the story is about Vasya, a head strong and free spirited girl, gifted with ‘sight’ and growing up in a small village in the northern provinces.
Arden has very atmospherically described the severity of winters, shortage of food, runny noses and chilblains. The freezing cold of winter is offset by the warmth of Vasya’s family kitchen where the entire family sleeps on the flattop of the oven and where Vasya’s nurse tells magical tales. The province is a place where the summer sun is watery at best and winter with its god, known as the winter king or Morozko, one of the old gods, is predominant. But Morozko is more benign than his brother, the bear Medvedev, who is forever in search of supremacy.
The book, through Vasya’s story, is really about the conflict between the old religions and the new. Vasya and those in her village, though Christians, continue to leave out food for the old gods and spirits of home, hearth, land and forest. This brings them up against the newly appointed priest in their area who wants to wipe away all the old beliefs. In the process of taking control and in his arrogance and self righteousness the priest falls under the sway of Medvedev and ends up strengthening the evil of a being he does not believe in. The story is allegorical in the sense that denial of something’s existence is the best way to fall under its sway, being unprepared to counter it. In Yoda’s (Star Wars) words “Named must your fear be, before banish it you can”.
We find that a lot of fantasy books have a combination of ridiculously old men (who look very young) and feisty young girls (who actually are young) developing a relationship. Is this the Twilight effect, we wonder? But it is getting a little creepy now and makes us worry as to what it says about society. At least in this book Arden has left the relationship between Vasya and the winter king ambiguous but the second book is already out and might have more clarity.
Overall a magical fantasy about winter, the old gods, a girl with magical powers and a horse that is more than a horse. We enjoyed it but we did not find it riveting.
The 19th of November was the 10th anniversary of Amazon releasing the Kindle e-reader. The very first device was a strange clunky looking thing, like something that may have been used in the old Star Trek TV series and considered as cutting edge in the 1970s. Much has happened in the last 10 years, the Kindle in its four variants is sleeker faster, lighter and altogether better. Although most readers just swear by the Paperwhite. After all, there is no other reading device which lets you read in sunlight without any glare on the screen and has an in built light for reading in a dark room. And, oh the joy of being able to turn the page with your nose if your hands are occupied with cutlery.
We have written in the past about our own capitulation to the Kindle way of reading, which is why we decided to answer (seriously) the questions raised in an article in The Guardian on how the kindle has changed us.
1. Are we up past midnight diving into the next novel of some series after buying it with just one click? Hell, yes. The Kindle has taught us to be self indulgent like nothing else.
2. Are we out exploring the vast self published world beyond traditional publishing’s gates? Nope. Our reading tastes are still dictated by the books available in the regular bookshops, award nominees and the reviews published in magazines and newspapers, probably at the behest of publishing giants. Advertising does count. Not to mention well designed book covers. Even if you are not holding said book cover.
3. Have we turned publisher ourselves? Not yet but are tempted by the abandon with which traditional publishing industry doles out rejections. Just goes to show that self publishing is for the writers and not the readers. But not everyone strikes lucky like Andy Weir (of The Martian fame).
4. Has Bezos changed the way people read? The answer to that starts with the question – Is it ever possible to get rid of books? The only one book which one really no longer reaches for is the Dictionary since the Kindle has an in built one. In our case the Kindle, to some extent, has taken the pressure off the book shelves but only adds to the clutter of ever increasing reading material. Paper books are not replaced by the Paperwhite.