Everyone pretends it’s not happening

IMG_2677Donna Leon’s novel ‘Earthly Remains‘ is the 25th installment featuring her Venetian detective Commissario Guido Brunetti. More than her earlier novels it concerns itself with crimes committed against the environment, its repercussions on the perpetrators and colluders as well as wide spread impact on the general populace. 

A feigned breakdown to save the career of a colleague is attributed to stress and Guido Brunetti finds himself on a forced dream holiday, all on his own, in a relative’s villa. He spends his time on the small island in the Venetian Lagoon, rowing with the caretaker, reading in the evenings and sleeping soundly at night. This idyllic situation becomes a busman’s holiday when the caretaker disappears in a storm and is subsequently found dead. 

The story lacks the usual ingredients of Brunetti’s life which add to the charm of Donna Leon’s books.  There are very few family interactions and no descriptions of the fabulous meals that Brunetti’s wife seemingly effortlessly places on the table. We always wondered about that one until we concluded that if we were making the dishes she does and the amount of wine consumed and manage to walk off all the calories, we wouldn’t grumble either about the daily cooking.

Earthly Remains is basically a book which takes a meandering route through an assortment of crimes, though not all from the present day. And the different powers which people hold, whether money, information or influence that can so easily help them in remaining unpunished. As with any book concerned with crime, it is also about the short sighted and selfish nature of human beings vis a vis their personal gains.

As murder mysteries go, the book is not a very satisfying one but Donna Leon has become progressively more environmental with each Brunetti book. And we appreciate that. It is so very important that at least someone is talking about the rapacious harm being caused, even if it is within the pages of fiction. . The apathy of the general populace and the need to ignore what is happening around in the name of development and industrialisation, is prevalent across the world. After all it is easier to concentrate on the jobs being created and money being made rather than thinking of the cancerous substances in the air, soil and water. If we start thinking about all of that then what do we breathe and what do we eat and what do we drink?


What makes the money?

Forbes magazine recently came out with another one of its annual lists pertaining to the wealthiest, richest, magnificientest etc. persons. This one was a list of the highest paid authors in the last one year, having sold phenomenal numbers of their books, movie rights and book based merchandise. None of the persons featuring would be considered literary geniuses but, then again, that is not what making money is about.

Not surprisingly J K Rowling topped the list this year, the release of the Cursed Child having placed her there. It is quite another matter that the word ‘cursed’ is an oxymoron when used in conjunction with any book written by JK considering the magic her books have worked on the author’s bank balance. This year she displaced James Patterson who had apparently topped the list for the last three years. He is an author who has somehow never figured on our reading lists. Neither have too many of the others for that matter.

With the exception of John Grisham and Dan Brown and the children’s authors whose popularity with the younger readers comes close to achieving a cult following, the popularity of the others mystifies us. As far as Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid) and Rick Riordan (Percy Jackson books) go, parents are just grateful that they are getting the children to read. Rick Riordan is largely to be credited for the resurgence in interest in Greek and Egyptian mythology with pre-teens throwing around random bits of information about classical mythology and the Olympians and leaving their parents wide eyed. Had he been an Indian, we can imagine a godman advising him to construct a temple to those gods because of whom he has become so famous (read ‘rich’) leading to a resurgence of dead religions and long forgotten gods. A separate business plan could be constructed around the religious experience thereby bringing further wealth to the writer. We can see thirteen year olds buying Medusa Shampoos and Poseidon bottled water. The Nike sneakers already exist but the Hermes ones would do as well.

So, readers, it would seem, are creatures of habit. They like the authors who are able to churn out their standard formula, at regular intervals. With the exception of Paula Hawkins who has written just two books so far, all the other authors on the list do not believe in deviating too often from their regular style (Dan Brown and John Grisham both deserve honourable mentions here), so much so that they become boring after a while. But it doesn’t matter because it obviously works. After all, what is gained by being on the long or short list of the numerous literary awards around? The Forbes list is the one list to be on. The writers all know whom they are writing for and are able to satisfy their readers year after year. Also, no one is surprised to see EL James on the list. We all know what sells. And so does she.


Always Jane


There is really nothing we can say about Jane Austen that hasn’t already been said. But as fans we couldn’t really meet and not discuss the fact that this year is the 200th anniversary of her death. Around the globe the last one month has had Janeites coming together and organising events to pay homage. These functions have been attended with a good mix of enthusiasm and Regency costumes. So, with a dearth of Austenmania happening locally, we felt the least we could do was raise a cheer and write a blog post.

After numerous movies and television adaptations in various languages, biographies, inspired books, references to her characters and even her face now featuring on bank notes, Jane Austen remains relevant despite the passage of so many years. The fan fiction based on her books probably outstrips any other author’s. Even established authors like PD James (Death comes to Pemberley) and the ones roped in for the Austen project (Joanna Trollop, Val McDiarmid, Alexander McCall Smith and Curtis Sittenfeld) have been at some point or the other, seduced into fan fiction.

People talk about cutting wit and tongue in cheek aspects of Austen’s writing but in fact what it boils down to is the bitchiness of her characters comments, which feel real even today. Many of her characters are people who have transcended time, different cultures and social attitudes. Which just goes to prove that human beings are basically the same no matter which part of the world or which time they come from. Our lives are littered with versions of the opinionated Mr. Collins, the air headed Mrs. Bennetts, the full of themselves Wickhams and Mr. Eltons, the naive Harriets, the resigned Anne Elliots, the know it all Emmas and the numerous social butterflies and climbers that Austen’s books are littered with.

But of course everyone is still searching for ‘dear’ Mr. Darcy! He is still unreal. The best part of it is that when we come across these people in our lives who would ordinarily really irritate us, we find ourselves applying the appropriate Jane Austen quote and laughing them off.  Perhaps therein lies the true appeal of Austen in that she helps us to better deal with others’ foibles by helping us to caricaturise them.

More than anything we can say to explain Jane Austen’s popularity, we feel her writing speaks for itself:

“Better be without sense than misapply it as you do.” (Emma)

“I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible” (Northanger Abbey)

“Selfishness must always be forgiven you know, because there is no hope of a cure” (Mansfield Park)

“Eleanor agreed to it all, for she did not think he deserved the compliment of  rational opposition” (Sense and Sensibility)

“A large income is the best recipe for happiness I ever heard of.” (Mansfield Park)

“You have no respect for my poor nerves.”                                                                                 “You mistake me my dear, I have a high respect for your nerves. They are my old friends. I have heard you mention them with consideration these last twenty years at least.” (Pride and Prejudice)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Pride and Prejudice) – This is quite possibly one of the most quoted first lines of a book.

“It isn’t what we say or think that defines us, but what we do.” (Sense and Sensibility) – A quote made famous for being paraphrased in the Batman Begins movie. But Jane Austen said it first.

One can go on and on with the quotes but they are, as is to be expected, much better read within the books.




No cause for anxiety

Continuing with our theme of e Reader appreciation from last week, we started discussing how e Readers, or lets be precise, Kindles (since that is what we use) have changed the mind set of readers. Normally when people have OCDs, the Universe conspires not to pander to them. But readers somehow have turned out to be fortunate in this regard because their obsessions have been indulged by one of the biggest corporations in the world (it may in fact be trying to take over the world). We have a different theory, since the Universe likes readers, it is rewarding Amazon for staying true to its readers. Which Flipkart and countless others did not.

LL: It’s amazing how our reading habits have changed since we accustomed ourselves to reading on the Kindle.

PS: I remember a time, not so long ago, when the anticipated release of every new book would cause more trauma than joy because we had no idea when and if the book would be available in India.

LL: Particularly genre books like fantasy, or authors not on the usual best seller lists unless they suddenly were shortlisted and won awards.

PS: It wasn’t so long ago when it was so difficult to get hold of books like Donna Leon and Sarah Caudwell’s murder mysteries or fantasy writers like Ursula K. LeGuin. Out best bet was someone who had bought those books abroad and then sold it to one of the second hand bookstores here.

LL: I used to get such strange looks when I would request visiting relatives to get me books by Diana Wynne Jones who is basically a children’s author. At least with the Kindle I don’t have to explain my reading choices to others.

PS: The reading of reviews from around the world and not being able to get hold of the books was absolute agony.

LL: Thanks to the Kindle that’s all gone now. Instant gratification is the order of the day. And buying habits have undergone a sea change. I would be interested to see a survey on how many books are bought late in the night. There is nothing else that we buy online which comes instantaneously as no shipping is involved.

PS: The anxiety of something becoming available has completely gone and a comfort level has set in. Does that take away from the charm of anticipation?

LL: Anticipation having a charm is an unheard of concept now.

PS: I prefer it this way. At least when it comes to buying books.

And the Universe is obliging us. Long may e Readers last.





Liberation by e reader

Books are back! Or so most newspaper and magazine articles are telling us. The charm of e-books is waning and there is an increase in the sale of physical books. Yay! We knew it was bound to happen. After all, no e-reader can replicate the feel and smell of paper. Have you noticed even dogs are more attracted to physical books and not e-readers? This could of course be because of the low munchability factor of the Kindle but we put it down to the intrinsic (and perhaps fragrant) charm of printed paper.

Unfortunately we are always behind the curve and take our time jumping in. When e-readers first came out, nobody and their dog turned up their noses at them like we did. And when we finally succumbed and got ourselves e-readers (Kindles, to be more precise) and are finally ready to sing their praises, apparently they are not happening anymore.

We have contemplated the advantages and disadvantages of e-book readers before, (Are you e reading? and Is e ink blotting out print?) but a fractured ankle a few months back made us realise the biggest advantage of e readers, which as blinkered people (we have to own up to our own deficiencies) had failed to consider. For a person who is house bound because of either a temporary or permanent disability an e book reader is God sent.

PS: My very first worry after coming out of the hospital was how to return my library books.

LL: Trust you to make that your first worry. Not food, not the house or its inhabitants, not the dog walking but the library books.

PS: Couldn’t help it. The books were sitting on the bedside table glaring at me for being overdue and, as you remember, I had to keep asking my visitors if they were headed in the direction of the library. At least with e books you don’t have to rely on someone to go to the library for you.

LL: Or I suppose to the bookstore when you need to buy books because you are running out of reading material or when a new book by a ‘must read author’ comes out. Even when your friends get the books for you, you still feel limited because getting the book is different from browsing and then deciding to buy the book.

PS: I know. Just the thought of it is claustrophobic.  It’s the combination of online payments, internet browsing and the ereader provide you with the convenience of browsing for books, reading reviews, buying and instant downloads all without moving from your bed that gives you a euphoric feeling to rival the pain medication.

LL: Better than an opioid? Seriously?

PS:Think about it, it’s two o’clock in the morning, can’t sleep; worried about the next day’s doctors appointment; need to take your mind off broken bones and the futility of months spent sitting in bed.

LL: Feeling the walls hemming you in?

PS: Precisely. So the obvious solution is to download books and travel to a different town, country or even better, a different universe.

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’? 

It is all chemistry

Murder needs chemistry. We are not talking about the rash, violent type where the murderer grabs a gun or a knife but the more cold blooded, subtle kind that requires the use of poisons. We realised this when we started writing a murder mystery and were flummoxed at each stage because the minimal chemistry learnt in school did not equip us to know which is the more suitable poison if you want the victim discovered only the next day after having taken a phone call the previous evening, not looking obviously poisoned, what would be the dosage required, and because we are soft we wouldn’t want them to have suffered too much and  it would also help the story line if we could get the murderer to distill the poison in a home lab. Just the basics of any old murder mystery but the details are important to build up the story.

Consequently we have been bemoaning the lack of practical chemistry education in schools, which seems to be true even today going by all the kids who are less than enthused by the subject. Beyond tedious memorising of the periodic table and the distinct rotten egg smell of hydrogen sulphide there is not much else that stays in one’s mind from school chemistry lessons. Alan Bradley‘s eighth Flavia de Luce book ‘Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed‘ which we read recently, had the twelve year old precocious detective going about the countryside solving murders effortlessly through the use of chemistry; inciting sighs of envy at each turn of the page at Mr. Bradley’s knowledge of not just the subject but also its history.

So we wonder why we had not been inspired to look at chemistry in a different light in school. To think of the possibilities and the practical uses we could have put it too! We could have been amazing gardeners ensuring the most spectacular garden because our plants would have been fed the correct nutrients and the right combinations of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium etc. Or, we imagine ourselves as ground breaking organic farmers recognising the artificial chemicals from the natural ones and throwing them out. We may have been world class, constellation level, Michelin starred chefs knowing the exact chemical reactions of the ingredients with each other and with degrees of heat, not to mention the chemical interactions between our creations and saliva for optimum effect. We could also have been intrepid archaeologists, discovering lost civilisations or even a palaeontologist discovering dinosaur bones and cleaning up our finds with the gentlest chemicals, carbon dating and carrying out the correct DNA sequencing. Not to mention the pharmaceutical and bio chemical uses of chemistry for developing lifesaving drugs.

Truly, it’s only when one is older that one realises how pervasive chemistry is, being as it is, the stuff of life. Is there anything that we do or any human behaviour which is not dictated by chemical reactions within our bodies or our brains? And in knowing how these chemical reactions make us work, can we not control them? There are also the numerous nefarious uses of chemistry like the processing of fossil fuels, manufacturing of plastics and of hallucinatory substances which we shall leave out. There are limits, after all, to the practical applications that should be taught in schools, except perhaps as a warning about the rampant destruction that can also be caused by misuse of any subject.

But the need we have for chemistry right now is to enable us to effectively plot and detect a murder. Asking friends and acquaintances who have some knowledge of the subject seems dodgy and would garner a lot of strange looks and snide comments, which we can do without. Google searches are likely to raise a lot of eyebrows from persons who have access to our search history; possibly also trepidation at the reasons for such searches, requiring lengthy explanations from us of the plot and story line. All of it best avoided. The search is on for a practical workshop for murder mystery writers. Chemistry teachers, are you reading?