Magically Strung Out

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Miracles do happen. Authors do manage to complete a series that they set out to write, without making their readers wait for inordinate lengths of time. V E Schwab‘s, A Conjuring of Light, the third and final book in her Shades of Magic trilogy is one of those rare series concluding books. When we thought about it, we realised that out of all the major, new fantasy series we have started to read in the last decade, or so, this is probably the only one that has actually finished. Just for that V E Schwab deserves to be applauded.

The final book would have been a door stopper had we bought the physical book. As it was, while reading the ebook we didn’t even realise, till we were half way through, that the book didn’t seem to be anywhere near an end. That in itself is an indication of the pace of writing which kept us gripped throughout.

The trilogy is set in parallels worlds with different levels of magic. The only thing they have in common is the city of London which exists on each one of them. People are not supposed to travel between worlds, except the Antari, the rare breed of higher magician born on these worlds. The barrier between the worlds keeps out the poisonous magic from Black London which had been overrun and corrupted by inordinate use of that magic. But, as is the nature of evil, it always manages to find a way of getting out. On the face of it the series abounds with the tropes of fantasy: the magicians drunk on power, the maniacal Rulers as compared with the good King and Queen, the spoilt and wild prince, the dashing pirates, et all. But Schwab’s style of writing provides a lot more. It is not just the descriptions of the various worlds and the characters but also their relationships with each other which are explored. All the relationships, even the friendly ones, are complicated, not just with suspicion but sometimes with the desire to kill. The good are constantly struggling with the temptations of power and their own strengths, and things can go wrong very quickly and very easily where magic is involved.

This book, like the second one in the series, is set largely in the world of Red London where magic abounds. It begins where book two ended – right in the middle of the action. Interestingly enough Schwab intersperses the story of evil magic which now infests Red London with the back story of Holland the Antari from the colourless and vicious White London. While the earlier books had focused more on Kell, the Red London Antari and Lila the thief from Grey London who becomes a pirate, this one deals with the nature of Holland, causing the reader to sympathise with a character who, until now, was more of a villain.

The book has elaborate descriptions and spectacular imagery- what with castles that appear magically in the air, a ship that is a floating market of all varieties of magical contraband and the megalomaniacal personification of magic itself. It is a satisfying conclusion to the series but with perhaps more violence than we were comfortable with; though fairly tame in comparison to the Game of Thrones. V E Schwab does not seem to be particularly partial to any of her main characters and makes them all suffer terribly and equally but perhaps we detected a slight preference for the Pirate captain, Alucard Emery. Or maybe that’s just us. Although the story ties in nicely from the earlier books in the series and many of the questions are answered, there are enough lose ends left for a either a sequel or a prequel. Although we hope Schwab avoids the temptation of either. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.

 

Cooling Summer

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The Sun God seems more upset than usual this year and is breathing down fire. April’s barely begun and the ceiling fans are working overtime. There are reports that certain parts of North India, already in the mid-forties, are going to hit fifty degrees Celsius this year. There was a time when we in Bangalore would moan and groan and collapse into puddles if the temperature hit thirty degrees but now we are glad if we just about manage to avoid forty degrees.

The happiest people at this time of the year, that too when the school holidays have started, are the cola companies with their incessant advertising on TV, showing people noisily quenching their thirst with chilled bottles appealingly covered with condensation. All of it gives you the impression that you can build a bubble of coolness around yourself, just by reaching out for that bottle or can.

But we know better. Traditionally there are so many drinks that used to be made in homes across India, designed specifically to beat the heat. Those drinks have the capacity to truly quench thirst and cool down the entire body from the inside, instead of just making you hanker for more and loading you with sugar. They come from natural sources, don’t contain BVO and also sometimes contain actual fruit pulp. Of course those drinks would lose out on the ‘coolness’ quotient because they are not accompanied by fancy packaging and glitzy advertising.

The very first one that deserves to be mentioned is the matka stored water. Those round earthenware pots that were brought out every summer to store drinking water, giving it a faint earthy taste, and chilling it in a much friendlier way than the refrigerator. And without power consumption, we might add.

At least in Bangalore, down every street corner, there is a man selling tender coconut water. If you walk down a hot blazing street, there is heaven to be found within the confines of that green coconut shell, the top of which is expertly hacked off and a straw stuck into the hole for you to access the cool, enervating liquid inside.

Then there is the ubiquitous aam panna. A visitor to any north Indian household in the summer is invariably served a glass of this tangy, sweet and salty raw mango drink. Large amounts of the concentrate are made and kept in the fridge, to be readily consumed by the parched multitudes, after adding more water. We must add that we have since discovered the joys of aam panna spiked with white wine. Modernity, must after all, be accommodated in some ways.

The other favourite is the drink made from the Bael fruit, also called the wood apple. The fruit juice is supposed to be one of the most cooling drinks that one can have in the blazing heat of summer, not to mention many other health benefits of the fruit. Similarly, glasses of watermelon juice with mint leaves floating on top make an appearance in most homes at this time of the year. The watermelon vendors appear magically on the pavements of the city as the weather starts warming up. Then there is the buttermilk, lightly spiced with curry leaves and popped mustard seeds to add flavour and the cooling green drink made from khus grass (Vetiver). All of them providing coolness and additional nutrients.

Thirty years or so ago, the only bottled drinks that were consumed widely in summer were the fresh lime soda and the drink made from the Rooh afza concentrate which has been around since 1906. The concentrate contains a gooey mix of various cooling agents including rose petals and has an equal number of people who either love it or hate it. Possibly it needs a modernising impact by way of spiking!

All the fancy, bottled cola drinks claim to cool us down through the sheer power of our own refrigerators as there is absolutely nothing in the drink itself which has a cooling effect. So why are we all veering towards those drinks? Is it the appeal of advertising? Or the pull of sugar? When a plethora of alternatives is available, we all run towards the one that will ultimately do more harm than good.

 

 

 

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.

Rising to Expectations

waters-of-eternal-youthDonna Leon’s last few books were disappointingly lackluster and almost felt like they had not been written by her. So it was with great trepidation that we approached The Waters of Eternal Youth, The 25th Guido Brunetti Book, wondering whether we should read it at all. But we are fans and as such we always live in hope as far as our favourite writers are concerned. And this time the hope was justified. Leon seems to be back in full form, almost. Brunetti, his family and colleagues seemed themselves again and of course Venice, with its beauty and problems and food, which largely accounts for the appeal of the books, was ever present. 

Brunetti, Leon’s  food, book and family loving Commissario  of Police has been asked by his mother-in-law’s friend to look into a possible crime committed against her granddaughter fifteen years ago. The girl had fallen into a canal and remained underwater long enough for her brain to be damaged. But her grandmother was convinced that she had been pushed because being an aqua-phobic she would not have voluntarily walked close enough to the water to have fallen in accidentally. Typically, while carrying out the investigation Brunetti’s interactions with those around him, their discussions on life in Venice and the problems faced by the city provide the main focus of the book.

The reader also gets to see Brunetti physically ageing in this book and its not just a matter of his children getting older. He now feels the need to stop at the second landing, while climbing up to his flat, to catch his breath. He needs his reading glasses and is less sure of his footing on a wet street. These little personal insights, not to mention his pleasure in the Paccheri Con Tonno his wife serves him for dinner, make him, as always, a character the reader can easily identify with. Moreover there is the aspect of Brunetti’s moral compass, which, since Donna Leon is back in form, is evident that much more. In a cynical world, it is good to see humanity, at least within the pages of a book.

Brunetti’s colleague, Claudia Griffoni, also has a prominent role in the investigation, with her place in the Questura having developed over the last few books. Her relationship with Brunetti serves to bring a female point of view to the police work ( beyond that of the slightly frightening perfection of Signorina Elettra).

Only a woman while investigating a crime could with such assurance  reason that women don’t use knives to kill and the proof of this lies in the kitchen. 

“The knives are kept in the kitchen, and their husbands pass through there every day, countless times, yet very few of them get stabbed. That’s because women don’t use knives and they don’t stab people.”

We were also interested to learn that Italy has a statute of limitations, even for serious crimes. And that the period continue to run during the course of the trial. So if the trial takes too long and the conviction does not happen within the ten year period from the date of the crime, the accused can walk away free. All the more reason to procrastinate, one would think. Strange are the ways of criminal procedure. 

The Waters of Eternal Youth is a typical Donna Leon mystery in which the mystery is more a backdrop for the development and journey of it’s dramatis personae. As such you forget to look for the red herrings and loopholes in the plot and focus instead on the hard moral questions asked by the characters.