The appeal of grumpiness

a man called OveA book that apparently began with a blog about the writer’s pet peeves was then turned into a surprisingly successful novel about a cantankerous old man whose attempts to commit suicide are constantly being interrupted by his neighbours. A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, is about the transformation that can be brought about by social interactions.

Although it would be easy to attribute all the peeves that Ove has in the book – with the younger generation, the local council, people working in IT, hospitals, parking lots, foreign brands of cars etc.- to normal old age behaviour, we realised that we identified with most of Ove’s complaints and obviously so does the author who is so much younger than us. Which is a relief because it just goes to prove that one is allowed to be cranky at any age. Particularly when it comes to the opinions about IT professionals! Leaving all that aside, the gradual change of a reclusive and curmudgeonly man through forced association and socialising with those much younger than him including his adoption by a stray cat, is not very new and distinctly Silas Marnerish. But the book is touching and humorous despite the underlying theme of loneliness and despair.

As with the earlier book of Fredrick Backman that we had reviewed (My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises) A Man Called Ove is translated from the Swedish. But if, as they say, something is always lost in translation we can only wonder at how well the original must read. 

The book is incredibly funny and readable despite being totally politically incorrect. Or perhaps because of it, since political incorrectness is now fashionable across the world. ‘Covefe’? 

Tabebuia Heaven

A short story inspired by and written as a tribute to those Bangaloreans who persisted with the protest against the proposed 6.72 kilometre steel flyover in the city. Also in memory of the seventeen trees recently killed on the outer ring road by acid being poured around their roots. This was done to provide a better view of an advertisement hoarding which displayed the beauty of sunsets in New York! And for the scores of other trees around the city suffering a similar fate, making way for ‘progress’.

 Tabebuia Heaven

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That day started with a series of objections. Vriksh’s father threw a fit, “You’re mad! I forbid you from going out and wasting the entire day standing in some foolish human chain. Your exams come first. You are seventeen years old, for heaven’s sake. Leave city management to other people. You need to focus on your exams because if you don’t get a good engineering seat, you won’t get a good job with a good salary and your life will be a waste!”

Being seventeen Vriksh couldn’t keep his mouth shut, “None of that will matter if I am going to be sick and dying in ten years’ time from choked air, chemical laden water and a plague ridden, rat infested city from all the garbage lying on the streets, not to mention  the plastic bags flying around in the apocalyptic breeze.”

“Oh stop the melodrama. At least you will have money to pay for your treatment.”

“No Appa, my pus oozing bubonic sores and wracking bronchial passages will prevent me from going to work and earning any money.”

On his way out he bumped into neighbour aunty who gave him her bit of ‘gyan’. “You will get heat stroke. Your parents will be so worried. You will miss college for so many days. And for what? So that you can post it on Facebook that you stood in a queue with so many crackpots?”

The watchman in the apartment complex was stoic “Bhayya, the politicians have already collected their share. Nothing will stop it now. Relax, you have AC at home. Why do you want to stand in the sun?”

At the end of the street his dad’s friend Sharma Uncle, who Vriksh was certain had been positioned there by his distraught father, waylaid him. “You young people these days! Because everything comes to you so easily you have no ambition. No seriousness towards life. Think of your parents and all the sacrifices they have made. This is how you repay them? By wasting your time in foolish and frivolous pursuits.”

By this time Vriksh was wilting under the weight of censure. His phone rang. “Dude!” exclaimed his friend Aaryan, “You are not seriously going ahead with this? Anyway we are going to get jobs in the US, so who cares how many trees are cut in this city? But now that you have broken out of the parental prison let’s spend the time more constructively. Meet me at the mall.”

The next time the phone rang he was chilling on the bus in a traffic jam. It turned out to be his father’s sister. Since aunts aren’t gentlemen, even the guy sitting next to him heard her. “Steel shmeel. Whatever. Progress cannot be stopped. Look at how horrible the traffic in the city is. Something has to be done. Only idiots are protesting against it. A few trees chopped here and there… what is eight or nine hundred in the larger scheme of things? It’s just collateral damage. If you are so concerned, plant one in front of your building.”

The human chain was pretty much well formed by the time Vriksh reached Mehkri Circle, with people of all ages from all over the city thronging around with a sense of purpose. It included celebrities and surprisingly, even some foreigners. Somebody handed him a placard which he faithfully held up after patting a nearby tree to reassure it. And then his mother called.

“Vriksh, I really appreciate that you want to take a stand. I brought you up to be an environmentally conscious boy. But I don’t want you to be disappointed. Because nobody ever listens. The protest will ultimately benefit no one but the TV channels who will get their sound bites. In reality all governance is infested with apathy and rampant corruption. And people like us are never heard. Come back home. You have made your point.”

But Vriksh rooted himself to the ground and stood firm in his conviction. Come what may he would show the government, along with the three thousand other people in the chain that Bangalore did not want the unholy massacre of trees to facilitate a steel flyover which would make no significant difference to the congestion in the city.

Four months later in the season of the Tabebuia Argentia, blooming golden across Bangalore, the government announced that the steel flyover project had been scrapped due to public demand. Vriksh, who had spent the intervening time dealing with questions the like of “What did you manage to achieve?” smiled. The next day in a small neighbourhood park he sat, books beside him, on the grass carpeted with sunshine blossoms as the light breeze dislodged more petals from the exuberant tree. At least in this one instance the protests had managed to thwart those who carelessly build “a Hell in Heaven’s despite”.

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(Thank you Shabri, for allowing us to use your photo ‘Meditation Under the Tabebuia’.)

Found in translation

my-grandmother-sends-her-regardsSweden is in the news. So not surprisingly, being readers, our conversation soon veered from supposed attacks, to horses rescued from wells, to an English translation of a Swedish book we had read recently. Fredrik  BackmansMy Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologises‘ (American title ‘My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She Is Sorry’) translated by Henning Koch, was delightful, quirky, poignant, full of humour and throughly enjoyable. 

Seven year old Elsa is precocious to the hilt and  her Grandmother is her superhero because to her ‘a grandmother is both a sword and a shield’. Her school and her mother think Elsa needs to learn to ‘fit in’ but her grandmother knows that she is perfect and introduces her to an entire land of the imagination where currency is not coins but good stories. Elsa and her grandmother are not just inhabitants of this land together but friends in real life. When her grandmother dies she entrusts Elsa with the task of delivering a series of letters, personally, to various people that takes her on a journey of discovery. 

PS: Often stories get lost in translation.No matter how good the translation is, it is not possible to bring out the nuances of one language in another. But strangely we didn’t even realise that this was a translation. 

LL: I think I was initially too absorbed by the craziness of the grandmother who fires paintballs from her balcony and breaks into the zoo in the middle of the night and assaults beleaguered police officers with animal poop. 

PS: Any child who has read ‘superior literature’ would want a Grandmother who can argue the merits of Spider-Man vis a vis Harry Potter. 

LL: The book is full of blurring of lines between being a child and being an adult, reality and fantasy, goodness and evil and death and life and all of this somehow combines to make a story that sharpens the focus on life. 

This is a book about accepting people and their eccentricities. And about how the circumstances of life can effect people differently: “Because not all monsters were monsters in the beginning. Some are monsters born of sorrow.” It is also about finding unlikely companionship in a journey dealing with loss. Ultimately we were a little envious that Fredrik  Backman, being so young (in his early thirties when he wrote this book), can write so insightfully.

The taste of it all

Not surprisingly, in any situation, food is what draws people’s interest. Ultimately it’s not the mystery in murder mysteries, not the thrill in the thrillers, the magic in the fantasies or the science in the sci-fi that readers remember the most from books. What sticks in the readers mind will be the hunk of bread and cheese, stew or the elvish bread that the protagonist eats at the edge of a battle field after a gory and protracted battle or while trying to hide from the sinister eye on top of the tower, amongst other dire situations.The sense of comfort in a much besieged character having the opportunity to tuck into something as simple as a scotch egg or even the horror at the ability of a character to enjoy a dainty lemon cake in the midst of murder and mayhem remains with reader long after the book itself has been digested.

The food in fiction is the one reality everyone can identify with. It makes the characters more empathetic and relatable and somewhere along the line, authors, probably besieged by questions of ‘Why that particular dish?’ or ‘Do you have the recipe for…’ decided it’s easier to come out with spin off cookbooks that deal with people’s food obsessions, no matter how bizarre some of the recipes may sound. Ultimately the fun in these spin off cookbooks is not necessarily in the cookability of the dishes or accessibility of the ingredients but instead it lies in the little quips and quotes from the characters that pepper each recipe. And if one is actually able to cook using the recipes, there is a sensory transport of the reader to the world of the book. After all, part of the appeal of Universal Studio’s Harry Potter World is the tasting of Butterbeer, Pumpkin Juice and Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans. 

Here is our list of literary cookbooks which we have read and enjoyed and also some which are on our wishlist. 

  1. Brunetti’s Cookbook by Roberta Pianaro and Donna Leon (A Taste of Venice-At Table with Brunetti). Full of the recipes of the scrumptious food described in Donna Leon’s commissario Brunetti Mysteries. The are all eminently cookable and enjoyable. Even if one doesn’t enjoy cooking it’s a feast just to read. 
  2. Nanny Oggs Cookbook by Terry Pratchett, Tina Hannan and Steve Briggs. Written in the typical, naughty, Nanny Ogg style with common sense advice mixed in with rude songs and plenty of double entendres thrown in to spice it up. The bawdy witch from Discworld makes hilarious reading. 
  3. A Feast of Ice and Fire -the Official Game of Thrones Cookbook by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel and Sariann Lehrer The medieval kitchen via Westeros is beautifully illustrated. We haven’t as yet gotten around to getting hold of this one but it seems the recipes are not too outlandish and include little descriptions of the authors cooking the dishes. The Authors had been blogging (innatthecrossroads.com) for some time about the food in Game of Thrones before compiling the book. 
  4. The Shire Cookbook – also by Chelsea Monroe-Cassel. The Hobbits were exceedingly fond of food and it’s about time that a book with the Shire foods mentioned in Lord of the Rings was brought out. We can’t wait to get hold of this one. 
  5. Roahl Dhal’s Revolting Recipes – we love this one just for names like Snozzcumbers, Mud Burgers and Stinkbug Eggs. It’s just the regular stuff with lots of food colouring and a practical guide on how to make them. Delightfully disgusting. 

Then there are of course numerous unofficial cook books based on well loved literature, like The Little House Cookbook, The Jane Austen Cookbook, The Pooh Cookbook, The Ann of Green Gables Cookbook and so on. It just goes to show that readers are keen to savour the food eaten by their favourite characters. 

The ones we are still waiting for are the Chocolat Cookbook by Joanna Harris, the authorised Asterix Cookbook (with inputs from Druid Getafix and none from the fish monger Unhygienix’s wife), the authorised Enid Blyton Cookbook and the Extremely Indulgent Lockwood Cookbook by Jonathan Stroud. 

As important as food?

If asked to list the necessities of life, invariably it’s food and shelter that vie for the top spot. But physical needs are not the only needs. After all, we are a thinking animal and the mind needs sustenance as much as the body. In very dire circumstances, in times of stress or even just needing comfort at the end of an exhausting day, physical refuge is not alone sufficient; the mind too needs a refuge.

As readers we totally understand this and therefore an article in the newspaper about a bookstore themed hotel in Tokyo called Book and Bed made perfect sense to us. Normally the idea of those little capsule hotels makes one hyperventilate with claustrophobia at the mere thought.  But the thought of bunking down after a hectic day in a large city behind a bookshelf and with a book, somehow feels cozy and comforting. 

One of the most interesting human stories we read last year was about a secret library in the Damascus suburb of Darraya. In the midst of all the danger, bombing and fighting a bunch of students had gone around the city collecting undamaged books from bombed out sites and kept them at an underground location for others to freely access. The deputy librarian was 14 years old! Children and students, at great risk to themselves would make their way to the library to borrow books or just to sit and read while the world around them was going to hell. Those who had been interviewed felt that the soul needs books like the body needs food. It kind of reminded us of Marcus Zusak’s book The Book Thief, about a little girl in Nazi Germany who went around stealing and rescuing books from being burnt by the authorities. There is comfort in absorbing oneself in a book when all else is devoid of hope. 

In a world that is rapidly changing around us with so many points of friction and walls being put up, one can always turn to books for sanity, for enlightenment, for the beauty to be found in words, for a different point of view. Or to just take us to a different world for some time and shut out this one. Lord Macaulay’s poem Lines Written in August had the spirit of literature appropriately saying:

‘I brought the wise and brave of ancient days

To cheer the cell where Raleigh pined alone: 

I lighted Milton’s darkness with my blaze

Of the bright ranks that guard the eternal throne. ‘ 

When on restless night dawns cheerless morrow

When weary soul and wasting body pine

Thine am I still, in danger, sickness, sorrow,

In conflict, obloquy, want, exile,thine.

A book by its title

Despite being told not to judge a book by its cover we often end up doing so. But why is it that people rarely warn about picking a book by its title? More often than not the title comes from the author whereas the covers are created by the publisher. We invariably end up agonising over titles and names and so we know the value of the interesting and intriguing book titles that abound.

Many books are simply named after a character like, Emma, Jane Eyre, Moby Dick, Marley etc. and it’s worked well for them. Some are named after places in the book like Wuthering Hights, Jurassic Park and the magically named Neverwhere and that seems to work too. Another favourite are the Shakespearean titles which seem to work well for the murder mysteries and Agatha Christie seems to have picked the maximum number of these. Even Dorothy L. Sayers and Ruth Rendall have been swayed by the appeal of naming their books in the same way.

We particularly like the titles that are inventive and are not only catchy but mean more after reading the book. We recently read Donna Leon’s ‘The Waters of Eternal Youth’ and were fascinated how a phrase which refers to something desirable has a very negative implication in the book. We realised it refers to an acquaphobic who was attacked and fell into a canal in Venice and since remained mentally fixed at the age of sixteen.

We especially admire authors who come up with fascinating titles book after book in a series. Douglas Adams tops the list with The Hitchhikers series. Who wouldn’t want to pick up a book titled ‘A Restaurant at the End of the Universe’or ‘So Long and Thanks for all the Fish’. Alexander McCall Smith’s the Sunday Philosophy Club series has titles like ‘The Careful Use of Compliments’ and ‘The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds’ just to mention a few. The there is Alan Bradley with ‘The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie’ etc. One of the most beloved titles that just encapsulates the entire book and the book lives up to promise of its title is Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals.

We especially love the magical and quirky titles like ‘Five Quarters of an Orange’ by Joanne Harris, ‘The Kitchen God’s Wife’ by Amy Tan and ‘I Shall Wear Midnight’ by Terry Pratchett.

In our experience, sometimes judging a book by its title is totally worth it. If nothing else,  we end up learning a great quote from some obscure earlier work or poem.

The Real Post

There was a time long, long ago, almost as if in a galaxy far, far away, when there was no email, no text messages and no WhatsApp and their ilk. All there was, was pen and paper, a stamp and an envelope and all the thoughts in one’s mind. The postman, these days, does not bring anything more interesting than bills. That too may only be because one hasn’t opted for e bills yet. Parcels are brought by the Amazon man and his ilk. So, where are those envelopes with interesting stamps, perhaps from different corners of the world with date stamps in different languages? Those handwritten sheets from friends and family, sometimes written over a period of days, giving us a glimpse into their lives or holidays? An auto corrected and spell checked two line mail or message can never be the same as a sheet with words scratched out, spelling mistakes and insertions which made one feel like the person was just there even though one knew that the letter had been written a few days, perhaps weeks, back.

One of us receiving a letter, possibly the first in the longest time (when the last one came would be any body’s guess) reminded us of the time when there used to be such things and the books that we have read which were about letters. Books like 84 Charring Cross Road which is a collection of letters exchanged between Helene Hanff, a writer in New York and Frank Doel, chief buyer of Marks&Co, antiquarian book sellers in London. Over a period of time, Helene Hanff through the letters ordering books became friends with everyone in the bookshop across the ocean. The letters themselves are funny, affectionate and filled with little snippets of information on life after the Second World War. Helene Hanff became so close to the people in Marks&Co that they started exchanging gifts after some time. Mainly food which was rationed in post war Britain.

The second book that came to mind was The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer. The book is set in the same period but is fiction. The main character, Juliet Ashton, is a writer who enters into correspondence with the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society after receiving a letter from one of its members who had bought a second hand book originally owned by her. Interspersed are letters with Juliet’s publisher. The book, through the letters the story of German occupation of Guernsey during the war and how books helped to bring assorted people together and deal with the horrors of that occupation.

The third book that we remembered was one which we had read a long time ago, Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. Definitely a dated book (written in 1912, it was dated even when we read it) but enjoyable nonetheless. The illustrations, also by the author, added to the charm of the book. But in hindsight, maybe the charm came from the letters written by Judy to her benefactor who she has never seen and only once catches sight of his shadow on the wall of the orphanage in which she lives. Not knowing his name and the lengthened shadow with long legs prompts her to address the letters to him as Daddy Long Legs.

None of the above books would have worked as well or explained as much in the form of emails. Each one with its flavour of times gone by remind us of what we have lost through modernisation and the age of technology. Not to sound like Luddites, we like being able to put up our blog posts and read those of others on various devices, anywhere and without bad handwriting holding one back. However one cannot discount the appeal of paper which has physically traversed distances, imbued with the feel of places unseen before reaching our hands. But only the nuts do such things now.