A Poet’s Way

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  Every once in a while we get reader’s block and find ourselves re reading an old favourite rather than delving through a new book. Travelogues and books about journeys are always an easy read in the circumstances. Unlike a novel which, once you are engrossed, is difficult to put down and then you just end up being cranky for being interrupted, travel books can be read in bits and pieces, even going backwards and forwards. There is a strange sort of delight in sitting in a comfy chair with a cup of tea and reading about the tribulations of someone on the road. We have, recently, once again picked up Simon Armitage‘s Walking Home. After seeing him reading one of his poems at the Jaipur Literature Festival some years back, we decided he was just our kind of poet. Some poets write poetry and do it well but there are very few who can read their own poetry out aloud with such flare and panache so as to enthral even the non poetry readers. And we, who actually enjoy poetry, completely fell for it. There is enough available on YouTube and is well worth a watch.

  As a result, as soon as it was available here, we picked up Armitage’s  Walking Home – an account of his walk on the Pennine Way, towards his home village of Marsden. It is normally the starting point for most people who trek the route from south to north but Armitage felt it might be more motivating to head home rather than moving away. He trekked the entire way without taking any money with him and because of a notice on his website, volunteers organised poetry readings in return for meals and a bed each night. So basically, instead of singing for his supper, he recited his own poetry for his supper. Sort of, as he calls it, a modern day troubadour.

  Like other travel writers, Armitage describes the scenery around him and the difficulties of navigating the Pennine Way, which is one of the most challenging walks, and the people who he met along the way and those who occasionally accompanied him for short stretches.

  We did feel that considering it is a book by a poet, there could have been a few more poems in it but it would seem that lists were more important to him as a walker.  There are lists of places to reach each day, lists of things carried, lists of things he was dreading and not dreading and a list of the types of people met on the road (on the basis of “prejudicial assumptions”). Armitage provides detailed descriptions of walking in mud and the English weather. Which all sounds like fun when read while sitting at home.

  We are planning to read his next book – Walking Away at some point, however, not having read it before we have to wait for our readers’ block to pass.

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The Appeal of the Detective

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  In 2017 crime and thriller books outsold general and literary fiction titles in the UK. This could be partly because of television adaptations that bring in more readers. But there is also the theory that in troubled times people turn to murder mysteries which are, notwithstanding the twists and turns in the book, predictable. After all the deductions, the culprit is apprehended and sent off to be punished. At the end there is the guarantee of justice being handed down and a closure for the reader. The predictability also comes from the detective in a series who becomes a familiar character, the inner workings of whose mind the reader comes to understand and appreciate, despite the story itself being different in each book. The reader of a murder mystery will always identify more with the detective than with the victim, purely because none of us want to be victimised but do like to see ourselves as crusaders of justice. This combination of familiarity, admiration and desire to do the right thing probably explains why the persona of the detective quite often ends up overshadowing the will of the author.

  But then, what makes a good fictional detective? What are the characteristics that the readers will feel invested in and proprietorial towards? TS Elliot who was a fan of detective fiction felt that “the detective should be highly intelligent but not superhuman. We should be able to follow his inferences and almost, but not quite, make them with him.”

    For writers however, a popular detective can sometimes become a double edged sword. On the one hand the popularity of the character sells more books, but on the other hand , the public’s admiration invests the detective with a real persona and takes the character out of the control of the writer. And some writers just end up feeling haunted by the characters they create and cannot get away from.

  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was possibly the first writer of detective fiction who felt the pinch of his character becoming too popular.  He actually said ‘I weary of his name’ and killed him off in the Adventure of the Final Problem, which appeared in The Strand magazine. People were so upset that more than 20,000 people cancelled their subscription to the magazine. And of course, as we all know, Sherlock Holmes was resurrected and through the ages has had many avatars on film and TV screens. But no one remembers Doyle’s other works which he felt Sherlock Holmes distracted him from.

  Then there was Agatha Christie, her detective Hercule Poirot has made as many appearances on screen if not more than Holmes. But the author once described him as a ‘detestable, bombastic, tiresome, ego centric little creep’! As admirers of Hercule Poirot we feel offended for him. Christie, after having created him, felt that he limited her work. She very much wanted to get rid of him except her publishers would not let her because his popularity sold books. Finally in 1975, one year before Christie’s death, she published Curtain, the last Poirot novel, in which he dies. He is the only fictional character to have received a front page obituary in the New York Times. If anyone knows if the author herself received the same honour a year later, please let us know.

  Although  Dorothy L Sayers did not dislike her detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, she stopped writing detective novels after thirteen books as she felt she was done with him. She instead wrote extensively for radio and stage and even carried out a scholarly translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy into English. But she is still known in the public’s mind primarily as the creator of Peter Wimsey. And as with all of them, the books are known by the detective’s name.

  But as always, the grass is greener on the other side. There have also been popular authors who switch genres and start writing detective fiction/murder mysteries and would probably be very happy to have their detective become more famous and known independent of the author’s persona. Figure that one out for yourselves.

A good witch

AF821452-3386-494A-BE17-B804BE448EB2  Mythological stories in general lack novelty. We have versions of the stories which already exist in our consciousness through tales heard and read since childhood. So how much can an author play around with a retelling? Stick too much to the original and it becomes boring, write something wildly different and it is unacceptable. However, Circe by Madeline Miller manages to find that ideal balance with a gripping retelling of the life of a minor immortal who is mentioned in a few passages in the Odyssey for turning Odysseus’s crew into pigs and then showing him how to get home after having delayed him for a year.

  Miller manages to flesh out a more human character for Circe who was the daughter of the Titan Helios, the sun god, and the nymph Perse (the daughter of Oceanus). Because she is not as lovely as an immortal should be, she receives only scorn in her father’s and grandfather’s courts. Perhaps because of the disregard of the immortals, she is drawn to humans in a different way from the other gods whose interest in humanity is purely for the sake of self aggrandisement. Through the book, written in the first person, Circe keeps referring back to the bleeding and battered Prometheus tied up in her father’s court before judgement was pronounced on him by Zeus for helping humans. The implication being that her own view of the treatment of humans was impacted in some way.

  Ultimately Circe is exiled, partly due to the politics played out between the Titans and Zeus, to the island of Aiaia which becomes her home. She teaches herself witchcraft and becomes a powerful witch and lives her life accompanied by wild beasts and the occasional visit from Hermes. It is at Aiaia where Odysseus, on his return journey to Ithaca after the Trojan war, encounters Circe. The way Miller tells the story, they are both fascinated with each other and find solace in each other without any element of entrapment. Even the crew being turned into pigs is explained as self defence.

  Circe is basically a feminist story about a woman who teaches herself her profession, lives her own life without any help from her family and yet she is always willing to help those who need her, including her sister who despite all her derision for Circe, calls her for help when giving birth to the Minotaur. The completely new perspective that Miller gives on Odysseus, as a man who cannot accept going back to a small life on a small island after having been on the centre stage and been the guiding force behind world events, is fascinating because it is so plausible.

  The story is, throughout, infused with the fickleness and perfidy of the immortals who are shown as self serving and basically full of themselves. In their desire only to be worshipped by humans but not really caring anything about the small lives of the mortals, is an explanation, as good as any, for why the religion might have died out. Even Athena the goddess of wisdom, does not seem have the wisdom to look beyond her own greatness. Only Prometheus is shown to have considerable nobility, grace and compassion. But then again, no human can possibly write about Prometheus without imbuing him with those qualities.

  Miller has written a gripping and easily readable book, shedding new light on a lot of known characters along the way. We absolutely loved this one.

Tasting the word

88E22C08-7FDD-486D-8972-2813FCF30F6B  Surprisingly,  a bit of news that escaped our notice about a month back was about Peter Mayle, the author of A Year in Provence and numerous other books, having passed away on the 18th of January. The Indian news media, in its mysterious wisdom, felt it was not noteworthy and it was hardly reported upon. This despite his first book having sold something like six million copies worldwide, and which was extremely popular even here. The film ‘A Good Year‘, based on another one of his books, continues to be shown repeatedly on movie channels. We were particularly saddened by the news being ignored as A Year in Provence, though a little book, always has a big impact on whoever reads it and the author’s passing deserved more attention.

Peter Mayle moved to Ménerbes in Provence after selling up in England and wrote of his experiences of finding a house, refurbishing it, settling into the community and discovering the local food and wine. When published in 1989 (but we only discovered it in the mid 90s), A Year in Provence sold a dream to people around the globe, either overwhelmed by the rat race or running the treadmill of daily, mundane existence. The book, with its monthly chapters covering the changing seasons, descriptions of Provençal countryside, lavender fields and small market towns is the perfect vicarious escape for a reader. The descriptions of hearty, rustic Provencal food are written with such savour that the reader can almost taste it. And it doesn’t  matter if one is a vegetarian or meat eater. We have known vegetarians, otherwise experts at being grossed out at even the thought of meat, happily consuming Peter Mayle’s books and relishing them.

Over the years we have found ourselves recommending A Year in Provence to people as a good distraction from anything and everything. But it is a very difficult book to lend as it rarely makes its way back to the owner. We learnt this after losing a few copies and being forced to buy more for ourselves; because it is also a book that one keeps returning to. It was wonderful that Mr. Mayle was able to share this slice of his life with his readers. And perhaps he also inspired many to try a similar lifestyle for themselves, though not always as successfully. Ultimately it is the attitude that matters when moving to a new country or even a new community and in his humour and voyage of discovery, he seemed to have gotten that right. He is also credited with having inspired the trend of food and travel reality shows on TV which are so avidly watched but which are a pale comparison to the sensory experience of Peter Mayle’s words jumping right off the page.

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.

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.’

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”