From a younger perspective

It’s always great to talk to someone who enjoys the same books as you and when it’s your favourite author that they like – it’s that much more fun.  We have never had a third party interaction on our blog posts before, so when, because of an unexpected school holiday, we found ourselves chatting about Terry Pratchett with a fourteen year old, over ice cream on a Monday, it was both envy raising as well as fascinating.

Why envy? You may well ask. When we start reading TPs books, it was an anxious wait every year for the release date of the new book but the younger generation have had the pleasure of binge reading all the books without need for pause or wait.

But it is fascinating and also great to known that the younger generation has the capability to appreciate TP. Which is why we we ended up grilling the kid and bought her a second ice cream so that we could continue. So here is a conversation all about Terry Pratchett.

Us: Which was the first Terry Pratchett you read and how old were you?
Kid: I was 12 when I read the first two Tiffany books – Wee Free Men and A Hat Full of Sky.

Us: Which would you say is your favourite Discworld book?

Kid: I don’t know… wait… Hogfather and Monstrous Regiment, I think. Hogfather because of the idea that belief makes the Hogfather real. Small Gods has a similar theme but Hogfather has Susan in it. In Monstrous Regiment, it’s the dystopian feel and female empowerment that I liked.

Us: Of all of the amazing characters TP has introduced us to who is your favourite?
Kid: Susan with the hair (Susan has light blonde hair with one streak of black) and Tiffany with her rather violent cheese that wears a kilt and goes mnam mnam. What I like about both of them is that they are very sensible and don’t put up with any nonsense from anyone.

Us: If you could live anywhere on the Discworld, where would you choose to live?
Kid: I would want to live in Lancre, because that’s where Nanny Ogg is. (Oh, the appeal of witches!)

Us: And if you were living on Discworld, what do you think you would like to do?
Kid: I would love to be a witch but I am not practical enough so maybe I would join the Watch.

Us: What is your go to series? Since you are wearing a Marvel T-shirt?
Kid: Definitely TP and Discworld! I wish there was any Discworld merchandise available. Because then that is what I would be wearing. Also if I had 15 mins I would pick reading a Terry Pratchett book over watching Marvel movies any day.

Us: what draws you to TPs books?
Kid: It’s an entirely new world that is relatable but yet detached from ours. It’s not dependent on any thing that happens here but has everything that we don’t have like dragons, imps, goblins, vampires, witches, wizards and elves. What appears good is not necessarily good and what is bad is not necessarily evil. Because everyone is shady. Except for Carrot (In the Nightwatch series) who is so good that he seems off.

Us: What is your favourite food on Discworld?
Kid: Nanny Oggs suspect recipes.

Us: So which series do you prefer, Harry Potter or Discworld?
Kid: Discworld, because it’s funnier and more relatable. TP makes you think more and you can’t ignore the darker shades. Although Harry Potter is great too.

Us:  Do you feel reading TP changed your reading habits in any way?
Kid: I discovered at it at the right age. It supported the direction I was already going in.

So that’s it, another one is quite obviously bitten by the bug. And probably the bug will last life long.

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In the beginning…

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  In the beginning there was a sword….. and so the stories go. Whosoever pulled the sword out of either a stone or out of a lake got to become king. The sword was central to the Arthurian legend and ensured that Arthur was recognised as King by the people of Britain. Most stories have him pulling out Excalibur from a stone where it was embedded but there is the alternate legend that the Lady of the Lake showed him where to pull the sword out from a lake. And so the stories get built up – swords, wizards, round tables, knights and kingdoms accompanied by a whole lot of fanfare (at least in the movies).

  The tales have been written, with variations, over and over again and inspired generations of fantasy and epic writers and movies.  Starting from Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory to Tennyson’s epic poems, the much beloved Once and Future King by T.H. White to the Merlin trilogy by Mary Stewart and the Warlord Chronicles by Bernard Cornwell. The myth of the sword identifying the ruler is central in the readers’ minds

  No one, however, expects such storybook events to take place outside the pages of a book or the cinema screen. And certainly not with the words “Daddy, I found a sword”. Which is what eight year old Saga Vanecek said when she  pulled out a 1500 year old sword from Viodstern lake in Sweden earlier this year.

  It’s not surprising that people immediately started drawing parallels and talking about Saga as the rightful queen. Even her name in English means a heroic tale, a perfect name for a story come to life. Certainly, going by the tales, it is only right that the person who pulls out the sword gets to be king or queen. But Saga is reportedly more interested in either being a vet or an actress when she grows up. She did, however, say she wouldn’t mind being queen for one day.  No one seems to be offering her that as yet. Whether she gets to be queen or not, she seems to have found magic along with the sword. According to her the lake feels magical now. What else does any eight year old need to fire up the imagination? A sword and magic should certainly do the trick.

We are just waiting to see whether in time a legend grows around the story of the girl who pulled a sword from a lake.

Chucking it all up

  There is a standard formula that works – Leave (or be forced to leave) a well paying job in a city and move to a picturesque yet ramshackle house in the country, an overgrown garden, minimal connectivity and locals who can’t understand you and you can’t understand them. Some of them may even be downright unwelcoming.

  Why is it that just getting in a plumber to stop a tap from leaking is such a headache but when somebody writes about their travails about working on making an entire house liveable, it makes for good escapist reading? What makes us classify our own plumbing/electrical concerns as a nuisance whereas the plumbing nightmares of others become  fantasy?

  And while getting the house done if there is also a garden/olive grove/ lavender fields/ vineyard that needs backbreaking work, all the better. There is some inherent desire in human beings to run away and start afresh and do something closer to nature and something that does not turn you into a 9:00am to 12:00am, constantly connected to the online world, zombie. There is obviously an appeal to the real world which cannot be replaced by the internet. Plus such books always have detailed descriptions of the food consumed between setting the house to rights, working on the grounds or trying to be accepted by the locals. Food and drink are, of course, one of the biggest attractions to the reader. Whether commonplace or exotic, it’s always nice to know what is being consumed.

  Books along these lines are written every day and yet there is always a market for more. Each one that is published, continues to sell. A Year In Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun, Extra Virgin, Up with the Larks are all memoirs about getting away. Since the formula works so well there are also series of fiction written along similar lines.

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We recently read Jenny Colgan’s The Little Beach Street Bakery, set in a fishing community on a (sometimes) island off the coast of Cornwall. The protagonist, an outsider renting a falling apart building manages to turn her life around by indulging in her passion of baking bread and making a space for herself. She finds that the community also houses a resident bee keeper and an eccentric millionaire who are also trying to live a ‘different’ life. The book should have been stressful with a broke Polly dealing with the disintegration of her business and long term relationship in a cold flat overlooking a haunted wharf. Instead we found it a relaxing and easy read. The bread always came out well, no matter the conditions, a puffin becomes a pet and the locals eventually become friends.

  Being close to nature, even the ferocity of it, calls to some genetic memory in humans. Perhaps because we were farming, bee keeping, baking, hunting and fishing long before we were Whatsapping, Instagraming, Snapchating,  Tumblering and blogging.

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.

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.