Trees, seeds, soil and lab

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  Whoever thought, like us, that chemistry labs are dingy, boring places with strange smells emanating from them, should read Lab Girl by Hope Jahren to get an insight into how passionate scientists can be about their labs. Hope Jahren, is a geochemist and geobiologist with an obsession for trees and plant life. Her memoir, Lab Girl alternates between fascinating fact about trees and personal recollections of what it means to be a woman scientist and professor, the issues of funding for her lab, dealing with students, and her own obsessions. Together with these difficulties she writes also about the joys of science and of the companionship of her lab partner, Bill, which becomes a life long friendship. Each personal chapter alternates with one about trees and that is where Jahren truly waxes lyrical. Her awe for the existence and survival capabilities of trees and their seed really comes through in her writing.

“For trees that live in the snow, winter is a journey. Plants do not travel through space as we do; as a rule they do not move from place to place. Instead they travel through time, enduring one event after the other, and in this sense, winter is a particularly long trip. Trees follow the standard advice given for any extended travel within a rustic setting: pack carefully.”

  The book is a fascinating look into a life obsessed – we can think of no other word. How Jahren and Bill survived without sleep, proper food, limited funding and no security that any more funding would be forthcoming, is mind boggling just to read about let alone the stress of living through it. Jahren is also very matter of fact, in the book, about her bipolar disorder. Though scary at times, at no point is the reader invited to feel any pity. It’s just how it is and the lab activities continues.

  Though she is consumed by her work, Jahren does not come across as someone who knows only science. To us one of the most appealing portions in the book is her use of quotations (from David Copperfield by Dickens) applied to happenings in daily life while working part time at a hospital pharmacy during her undergraduate years. Then there is the very unusual aspect, in today’s consumerist world, of how little meaning material possessions have for Jahren and her colleagues. Unless it is something that finds place or use in their lab, the show no interest or inclination for acquisitions. It is very refreshing as a reader to read about people who are so different from the norm.

  This is a book well worth reading and even those of us who come with a predisposition to like trees will see them in a different way after reading Jahren’s beautiful prose describing their lives, tenacity and capability to exist. All of which is now seriously endangered.

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The days of plenty

  Being readers we are always fascinated with the way people read and how they are drawn to certain books and, these days, the medium in which they read. We also love to write about our observations. Sometime back we had written about the easy availability or downloadability of books from around the world because of e-readers. At least for readers, these are the days of plenty.

  Just last week someone we know was reminiscing about the days when the release of each Harry Potter book was an event – how one person in her class ( in school and then in college) would get a copy and it would be passed around the entire group of friends. Each one who would complete the book would maintain their silence about the story until the others had finished their turn. We too well remember the anxiety and eagerness whilst waiting out turn for a long awaited book. Once finished, you could never sit on the book because the next person in the queue would be breathing down your neck.

  Until about five years ago even books which were not well known would be picked up by one person who might have read a review somewhere, had it recommended at the bookshop, seen it on the shelf and liked the look of it, gifted it by someone or stumbled upon in the library. These books, if liked would be discussed with friends and colleagues and then lent to them. Everyone who had at least a shelf of books which had been either bought or gifted and equally treasured, would happily run their own little lending library for their friends. The books would however be lent along with dire warnings for safe return and death threats for non return. One never bothered to buy books which were already in the library of someone we knew. Those were the days when a lot of books were not easily accessible and a random copy might crop up in an odd shop somewhere. One of the ‘to do’ things for anyone travelling, even if was just to Mumbai or Chennai, would be to visit a bookshop there in order to pick up books not available in Bangalore.

  Gone are the days when one had to scrounge for a book. This was borne upon us last week because of Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow which we had loved and reviewed in our blog post a few weeks back. A number of friends have since decided to read the book which we had borrowed from the e-book library and then subsequently bought for ourselves on the Kindle since it is book which deserves a second and third reading. A friend was gifted an analog copy, another friend downloaded the e-book, another one is reading it from their e-book library. No one asked if we had a copy which they could borrow. Gone are those days, it’s now all about I, me and my device. And of course the convenience of availability.

  Although so many people are reading the book, which is great for the author and the publisher, somewhere we feel as if something has been lost in that little bit of withdrawing into oneself.

The one library…

 

  The most powerful people in the multiverse are not the dragons that sit at the order end of the spectrum or the elves which are predominant at the chaos end but the librarians that maintain the balance. The Invisible Library series by Genevieve Cogman is set around the Library that straddles the space between the parallel earths and collects rare books from each. There are worlds where Jane Austen or Dickens have written additional books, Shakespeare has written other plays. The Library sends it’s librarians to buy or steal these rare books and store them in the library which somehow maintains the balance between the dimensions.

  Irene is a junior librarian travelling through doors in the Library which lead to different worlds. Her apprentice Kai is a dragon in human form. In the first book she is sent to a Victorian, steampunk version of London to pick up a unique publication of Grimm’s fairy tales which has an additional story not to be found in any other world. She comes across, becomes an ally and then a friend of Peregrin Vale, the greatest private detective in that London who is a live alternate of Sherlock Holmes. Irene comes across the renegade librarian Alberich, fights battles, survives by the skin on her teeth three fourths of the time, trains Kai while trying to deny her attraction to him(dragons being beautiful and all that).

  The second and third books follow pretty much in the same vein. It seems to be the era of elf bashing. We can’t remember having read of any good elves since Lord of the Rings. In this series the elves are chaotic and unabashedly villainous.

 Though we love the premise of the series, the library and it’s warrior like, James Bondish, Indiana Jonesish, book heisting librarians who wield immense power for the protection of the worlds and their humans. Despite Irene being a strong, spunky protagonist the books unfortunately read superficially. Which is why we stopped at book three although there are two more in the series to date. The books, written in the first person and full of adventure, do not manage to completely draw the reader in. As a result the reader never manages to fully identify with Irene, probably because her emotions feel a little shallow and detached.

It’s nice racy read, just don’t expect to be gripped. There are still questions to be answered at the end of book three: exactly how the library controls the worlds, Irene’s parentage, her relationship with Kai and Vale and of course the fate of the villainous Alberich. If any of you are reading beyond book three please let us know what happens as we are moving on to other worlds and other tales.

Irrepressible green thumbs

 There was a time, long, long ago, when Bangalore was known as the Garden City of India. The old Bangalore had tree lined roads, bright bursts of bouganvillea and Rangoon creepers spilling out over walls and carpeting pavements. Every home had a garden in front with perhaps a little pond in it. People took pride in their gardens and were not beyond robbing cuttings from their neighbours or any random house. Rapid vertical concretization has put paid to all such things which brought us a good climate and pleasant environs. Buildings are now constructed to the edges of each property so that builders can optimise their profits to the last construct-able inch with the municipal authorities willing conspirators in the money making exercise. As a result even a tiny strip of land is not to be seen and the city’s character has undergone a sea change (a sea of brick and concrete).

 The gardens have all but gone and those of us who remember can only console ourselves that they might still exist in a parallel universe. But, even though the gardens have disappeared, the gardeners all haven’t. They crop up in the lonely tree to be seen in the balcony of a 90 flat building, the hibiscus that spills out in abundance through the rails of another, the terrace gardens and vegetable patches that reveal themselves as one travels in the elevated metro. The green thumbs still hanker for that tiny bit of soil and seed.

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 In 1929 Karel Capek, a Czech author, published The Gardener’s Year which is a whimsical collection of essays on the year in the life of a gardener. Capek’s humour and obsession for his garden is something that people can relate to even today, no matter where they are in the world. People for whom the climatic conditions and varieties of plants are totally different can still identify with his frustrations, worries and preoccupation with soil, weather, rain, sun and pests. Man/persons were meant to garden from the time of Adam – no matter that we now live piled one on top of the other in crowded cities and have no patch of land to call our own. Gardeners will and do continue to exist and garden in pots on balconies and terraces and on window ledges.

 Like readers and pet owners (or pet family members because ‘owner’ is no longer politically correct) gardeners, when they identify each other, instantly bond . The most boring of parties become interesting in discussing the best way to get rid of aphids and spider mites whilst bemoaning the attack of squirrels, crows and monkeys. Those with surviving little patches of land end up waging wars with bandicoots. But in recounting these battles, most gardener’s exhibit an indulgence of the various creatures together with the frustration. After all, a gardener more than anyone else understands the need to live with nature and find some sort of a balance. There can also be unexpected benefits – a gardener we know, worried about the bats nesting around her house, had the pleasure of discovering different fruit plants cropping up in her pots because of the seeds dropped by the bats.

 We have been bombarded last week by pictures of huskies in Greenland pulling a sled through water which should have been ice. The horror of it sends chills down one’s spine (despite the warming). No matter how much people may deny it, climate change is real and environmental degradation is on our doorstep. Despite all the nay sayers and all those who don’t care, there are the gardening few who hold out hope that nature and greening as well as the joy of seeing something grow which you can eat or put in a vase, share with friends or just sit in the midst of with a cup of tea, has not gone out of fashion. The world may yet be saved, a gardener a day. May their tribe always increase.

An Epic Door stopper

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Its long time since anyone has written a solid, big, standalone epic fantasy. Samantha Shannon certainly deserves credit for giving us The Priory of the Orange Tree in one complete package. In this age when most epic fantasy novels come in parts, to sink ones teeth into a big, solid chunk of a book without having to worry about having to wait for the next instalment makes for a very satisfying read. Of course, we feel that this may be a book better suited to the Kindle in order to save the strain on ones wrists and also it is less daunting if the reader is not constantly reminded visually of how much is still left while reading. We understand the contradiction of this since on the one hand we like the chunkiness of the book yet we felt daunted by the size. This is how readers are.

There are dragons and then there are dragons. It would seem that we have inadvertently become stuck in a dragon loop for some time. Every other book we pick up has dragons in it! Not that we are complaining too much as dragons make for good tales (or tails). It could also be that for us if there be dragons, it is reason enough to pick up the book. So, in PotOT the Nameless One is the bad, evil dragon, asleep for a thousand years but about to wake, his minions are already about. There are water dragons in the east who are friendly to humans. Most of the kingdoms follow Virtuedom, a religion based on defeat of the nameless one and the saints who had originally bound him. Into this mix comes comes Ead Duryan appointed secretly to protect Sabran, the Queen of Inys who would become the main target for the Nameless One and his followers because of the legend that it is her bloodline that keeps him bound. Ead is actually from a mysterious and secret order, the Priory of the Orange Tree, which wields magic in a world where it is not permitted. In the east is Tané the counterpoint to Ead, and who is a dragon rider. The book shifts back and forth chiefly between the viewpoints of Ead and Tané but there are also others which at times makes it disorienting for the reader but perhaps it was necessary for the writer to cover all the ground.

None of the characters behaved in expected ways in their morality or orientation which at times is very unsettling for the reader. Every book requires at least that one fixed compass when it comes to the major characters which was lacking in the book. The readers find themselves  unsettled through the hugeness of the book, trying to figure whose shoes they want to be in and hoping for one of the characters to settle down into that relatable person.

The story took some time introduce all the characters but it didn’t drag and like we have already mentioned, it was a satisfying read. We only wish that the ending had not been so hurried. Perhaps it was necessary in order to limit the book to its eight hundred odd pages.

 

Power, politics and practicality

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  The third book in the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden is an action packed, satisfying conclusion to the series. The Winter of the Witch truly brings the witch in the book out in the open with both the political powers as well as the mythical ones looking to her to do what is necessary. And the witch, with true witch like practicality, rises to the challenge.

 Vasya has come into her full powers and also fully accepted them, even going so far as to agreeing to inherit the legacy of Baba Yaga once the threats to Rus from the Tatars are sorted out. In a sense this is much more political and dark book than the others. The violence sits at edges through the story, erupting on centre stage every once in a while. But it is also a book about Vasya accepting her powers and demanding her due for the power she wields for the good of others and for the good of her people, both human and mythical. At one point Vasya very pertinently states that she, as a woman is allowed to “want”.

 Moscow is suffering and reeling from the aftermath of the fire that engulfs it at the end of The Girl in the Tower. Also the Tatars are on the verge of attacking and the Grand Prince of Moscow, Dimitri Ivanovich is trying to rally all the Boyars in Rus to defend it. Konstantin Nikonovich, the priest, Vasya’s old nemesis is back to foment trouble and unable to shake his obsession with Vasya. Morozko, the winter king’s power is waning so he makes a bargain with his brother Medvedev, the chaos force, and sets him free to help Vasya. Konstantin once more falls under the spell of Medvedev and is raising the dead and causing terror in the city. Vasya manages to escape being burnt as a witch and lands up in the land of midnight on the edges of which her great grandmother Baba Yaga rules.

 The book is populated with all the mythical creatures of house, countryside, forest and river who look to Vasya to bring about a balance in all the opposing forces. In essence that is what the book is all about – finding a workable balance between opposing forces, between man and nature, male and female, opposing religious beliefs, chaos and order. This is also a book about how those opposing sides can co exist and even collaborate for the good of all, which surely makes it a tale for today. Through it all runs Vasya, her brother and the Grand Prince’s love for the motherland. There is also a lot of actual history woven into the story – the battle of Kulikovo actually took place between the forces of Rus and the Tatars. Dimitri Ivanovich was the Grand Prince of Moscow who led those forces and the Vasya’s brother Alexander Peresvet was a historical figure, a warrior monk who fought in single combat against the Tatar warrior Chelubey. History, myth and story are all mingled together to bring the trilogy to a beautiful end.

 Arden has gone from strength to strength with this trilogy. We were a little unsure as to how much we liked The Bear and the Nightingale, the second book The Girl in the Tower was definitely better but The Winter of the Witch takes it to another level. A must read as a series.

Old world charm

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Every once in a while a book comes along that you can fall quietly and deeply in love with and you know that you can pick it up over and over again and read bits of it. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles is one such book.

In the Russia of the Bolsheviks the protagonist Count Alexander Rostov, a youngish man, is tried and declared a ‘former person’. He escapes the usual fate meted out, which is execution, because he is credited to have written a revolutionary poem during his college days. And so he has to suffer the lesser punishment of being placed ‘under arrest’ and living out the rest of his life in the hotel (The Metropol) where he is staying.

With the Count the reader too is confined to the limits of the hotel for a book that spans a period of almost 40 years, as he makes a life for himself within the The Metropol. On being ‘arrested’ the Count is moved from the suite he was occupying to an attic room and is allowed to keep only such personal effects as would fit in the room. The Count finds ways to continue his life under these new circumstances and though, in effect imprisoned, he manages to retain his personality, gentlemanly ways and innate curiosity.

One would expect that a story restricted to the events that take place within walls of one building could easily become boring and descend into nothingness; instead the life of post revolutionary Russia flows in and out of the doors of the Metropol before the eyes of the Count, an avid observer and commentator. It’s amazing how the character feels very little resentment for his own situation or that of his class. Instead he is for the most part curious about the changes life brings and the vicissitudes of society. He is able to draw parallels between the old system and the new since people are just people at the end of the day. Other than an occasional nostalgia for his family estate and his long dead sister, there is very little in the way of melancholy in the character. Instead he makes friends with the chef, the waiters, the barber and with a little girl, the daughter of a bureaucrat staying at the hotel. The friendship with the girl (who has a skeleton key to the hotel’s locks) opens up to the Count areas which he didn’t even know existed.

The progression of a person from an aristocrat to a self reliant person and then a worker without losing any of his innate graciousness is written by Amor Towles with amazing charm and a fondness for the character. The reader is forced at some point to acknowledge that perhaps the aristocracy were more than just a privileged, entitled, thoughtless and racist bunch of people. In a world where boorishness is not just accepted but prized, for the reader to be able to inhabit a book steeped in the manners of a gentleman seems almost soothing.

We had never heard of Amor Towles till now but as soon as we finished the last page of A Gentleman in Moscow we ordered his first book, Rules of Civility, from the library and are waiting impatiently for our turn.