The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

In the centre of the square stood a statue of a lady September knew well by now, patted together from cream-colored crumpets. Below her benevolent gaze, a long table groaned with food: apple dumplings and apple tartlets and candied apples and apple chutney in big crystal bowls, huge roasted geese glistening brown and gold, giant potatoes and turnips split and steaming, rum cakes and blackberry pies, sheafs of toffee bundled together like wheat, squash soup in tureens shaped like stars, golden pancakes, slabs of gingerbread, piles of hazelnuts and walnuts, butter domes carved like pine cones, a stupendous broiled boar with a pear in his mouth and parsley in his hoofs. And pumpkin, pumpkin everywhere: orange pumpkin soup bubbling in hollowed-out gourds, pumpkin bread, pumpkin muffins, frothy pumpkin milk, pumpkin trifles piled up with whipped cream, pumpkin-stuffed quail, and pumpkin pies of every size cooling on the clean tablecloth. 
No one ate at the table or guarded the feast.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own, by Catherynne M. Valente.

Umm Bano is a magician of power and dispenser of supernatural justice on behalf of the Queen of Vijayanagara. That empire, true to its name, has victoriously spread across not only the subcontinent but throughout firang lands. Magic, operating on many levels, is the substrate from which Vijayanagara rules. As a world imperium, it faces not only physical threats but also aetheric ones, from within and from without.

A college of magic has rigorously instructed Umm Bano in the arts dark, defensive, offensive and diabolic. She is deemed Param, a top-flight practitioner. She is assigned bodyguards, magically enhanced supermen. As a woman in the world of the 19th century, she is constrained and denigrated by men. The result is a constant chafing against social strictures that often explodes into Bano's acts of spectacular violence against the enemies of the empire.

Bano is petite, fiery, with a wonderfully acid repartee. She does not suffer fools gladly. She lives in a house secured against all assault, served by a staff of indigents she has saved from evil fates.

She is immensely wealthy, but whether the lucre stems from the royal treasury or is magical in origin is not clear. Her table groans under the finest food. Her dresses are the very latest in fashion.

Other agents secure the empire as well. Logicians such as Archit Bal Khair use their superior deductive ability in detection and counter-intelligence. These people are antithetic to the sorcerous; magic being supremely illogical, it generates visceral reactions amongst these sensitive savants.

Even setting aside the magic and the counter-historical Indian empire, this world is not entirely as we know it. Clever smiths and engineers have wrought cybernetic animals of cunning clockwork and shining metal. The economy runs not only via production and trade and conquest but also by mediating with the magical demimondes. In other ways, it is very of its time. Human rights are often quoted but more often abused. The level of poverty is staggering as is the level of wealth. Petty jealousies among the puissant result in devastation among the commoners.

In the very first tome of books set in this mysterium, The Business of the Steel Naga, Bano is tasked with saving Vijayanagara's logicians. One by one, they're being exterminated. Archit Bal Khair, sinking into despondence following lifelong failures, encounters Bano. Their initial antipathy turns into cooperation and grudging respect as the duo investigates the reasons for the murders and uncovers a conspiracy aimed at overthrowing the rule of Vijayanagara.

The second book, The Business of Visarpa, finds Bano and Khair recovering from their exertions against the mechanicals when a fatal and fiery epidemic explodes across Vijayanagara. In their frantic search for its cause, they uncover yet more discontent and other malicious Params. Bano finds it hard to continue her works while facing constant contempt from the Queen and her family. Her horror at the suffering of the citizenry persuades her to do her best, but will her relations with the Queen be sundered?

The latest book, The Business of Behram, starts with a literal bang, as revolutionaries blow up courts and ruin Khair's sanguinity. Bano goes back to the gutters of her childhood in search of a gruesome serial killer. The victims are all carved up in a strangely ritual fashion. The popular press inflames the populace and sectarian war is only an ember away. Will Umm Bano and Archit Bal Khair manage to stop the murders? And what will the cost be to their friendship?

Lalitha Sen Grover has written quite the trifecta. We cannot wait for the next in the saga of Bano and Khair.

Jul 25, 2017

Lviv feast

On the table the appetisers were waiting: eggs stuffed with mushrooms and mayonnaise, red and black caviar canapés, beetroot and prune salad, the Olivier salad mandatory at every Soviet feast, home-made marinated roast peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, herrings and dill pickle, thinly sliced yellow cheese and various kinds of sausage, with larger or smaller lumps of fat. On the windowsill stood bottles of wine and champagne, vodka and brandy, Borzhomi mineral water and orangeade.

From The House with the Stained-Glass Window, by Żanna Słoniowska (translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones).

Jul 14, 2017

Deference to the vas

The other day, the boy and his amma and I watched Dear Zindagi. He has been a fan of Alia Bhatt since he saw her in Student of the Year. He thought this film would be as fun as the schoolish one. All the psychoanalysis left him slightly bored. When (spoiler alert) it turned out that Bhatt's character was suffering from the psychological consequences of childhood abandonment, he grew pensive.

Later, he had a conversation with his amma.

"Are you happy with me?" he said.

"Of course, sweetie," she said.

"You don't want any other kids?" he said.

"No," she said.

"If you had another kid, would you leave me with my grandparents?" he said.

"Don't worry, sweetie," she said. "We are really not going to have any more kids."

"Ok," he said.

Then he said, "If you don't want any more kids, why doesn't atcha get a vasectomy?"

"What!" said his amma."Poor guy, why should he go through all those procedures?"

"It's no big deal," he said."It won't hurt at all."

Jul 10, 2017

Telephonic Discoveries

A few years of working in Delhi after graduating from IISc, I took up a job in Chicago. Once there, I began to reach out to old friends who'd preceded me to the US. Emails were becoming quite standard at most workplaces and it was easy to track people down. The acquisition of a discount phone card also meant I could call half the planet with impunity.

I heard on the grapevine that one of my classmates was moving to the US. She was working for Tata Consultancy Services. They had tentacles everywhere. Their engineers would usually rent a big flat or house and share rooms, just like in college. I called my friend in Bombay and her father answered. We'd met before and he knew who I was. We exchanged a pleasantry or two.

"May I speak to such-and-such?", I said.

"She is at the airport, flying to the US later this evening," he said.

"Ah," I said. "Where is she flying to?"

"San Francisco," he said.

"Is TCS sending her?" I said.

"Yes, she'll work at a client site," he said.

"Is there a number I can reach her at when she arrives?" I said.

He gave me the number.

A day or so later, thinking she'd have arrived and probably settled down in one of those TCS shared hangouts, I called the number.

A guy picked up the phone.

"Hello," I said. "May I speak to such-and-such?"

"Hello," he said. "She hasn't arrived yet."

"Ah ok," I said. "When does she get there?"

"In about 4 hours," he said.

"Who is this?" he added.

"I'm so-and-so," I said. "We were at IISc together."

"Ok," he said. "I'll tell her you called."

"Will she be staying there?" I said.

"Yes," he said.

"At that same address?" I said.

"Yes," he said.

"So I will be able to reach her at this number if I were to call tomorrow?" I said.

"Yes," he said.

"She's on assignment with TCS, right?" I said.

"Yes," he said.

"Are you working on the same project?" I said, just to be friendly.

"No," he said.

"Ok, thanks," I said. "Bye."

"Bye," he said.

A few hours later, my friend called me, fairly sizzling in outrage.

"What the devil do you mean," she said, "by asking my husband if I am going to stay with him?"

"You're married?" I said.

"Yes, of course, I'm married," she said. "Didn't you know?"

"How the dickens would I know?" I said. "You never told me. And your dad didn't tell me either. We spoke for nearly ten minutes and he never mentioned it."

"Well, now my husband thinks I know some seriously weird people," she said.

"Next time you get married," I said, "Be sure to tell me."

Years later, I still haven't met said husband. My friend still occasionally brings up the story of how I called the man to ask if his wife would be living with him after marriage. I should protest every time, but a blog post is better.

Jul 7, 2017

Overheard XXIV

Green blonde: Hello darling! How was the weekend?

Blue blonde: Oh, well, we went drinking on Friday, and I was so hungover on Saturday.

GB: Oh yah, yah, I don't mind coming into work hungover, but on Saturday? It's a no, no. How was Hamburg?

BB: Oh, the usual. There was some terror thing and the hotel was barricaded and we couldn't enter, and we said, "We don't care - we just want a room!"

GB: God, yah, these disruptions are the worst! I was in Mykonos and wanted to go to Santorini, and everybody was on strike. No boats anywhere. We had to go the long way around. And Santorini - have you been? What an overrated place? Sure it's got the best sunsets ever, but the sea is rough, the beach is horrible, the food is lousy. People who say Santorini is amazing are those who've never seen anything better.

BB: Yah, yah. How was your weekend?

GB: Well, it was my sister-in-law's birthday so we all went to this Russian restaurant in Knightsbridge. It was gorgeous, and the food was amazing. You simply have to go. It was great, the staff was excellent, we had a great time. Then we went to Annabel's and closed the place down.

BB: Ah, nice! So are we on for tennis next week?

GB: Yah, yah.

BB: Watch out, she wants to get off.

GB: How do you get on in Germany? Do you speak German?

BB: Well, I studied it for many years and I can get by, but Hamburg's a bit bleh, Munich is so much nicer.

GB: Yah, I love Munich.

BB: Do you speak German?

GB: Well, in school we had four languages offered, German, Spanish, French and Russian, so of course one had to do Russian.

BB: I looked at Russian for a bit. I learned the letters and all, so I can read it but I can't understand it. It's a nice language.

GB: For sure. And in that Russian restaurant, even the toilets, you know, the restrooms, they were dreamy. You really should go. They had recordings of folk tales playing over the speakers, in a real Russian manner, sing-song, you know, 'И Бабушка сказала...'

BB: Where was it again?

GB: Knightsbridge. I really recommend it.

BB: Cool. So are we on for tennis next week?

GB: Yah, yah. Oh, isn't this your stop?

BB: Yah, yah. Bye, darling.

GB: Bye, darling, see you next week.

May 19, 2017

Muhi al-Din Lari

I came across a reference to Muhi al-Din Lari in Ziauddin Sardar's magisterial Mecca: The Sacred City. Lari was supposed to be a hugely influential miniaturist, famous for his 16th century pilgrimage guide to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the Kitab Futuh al-Haramayn. The book, written in mystical and ecstatic Persian prose and illustrated by Lari, was produced in various editions - in Mecca, Turkey, Persia and India. Its depiction of the Sacred Mosque became the de facto standard for imagery of the Kaaba for centuries thereafter.

Sardar called Lari an Indian painter. He also said that very little is known about the man's life. He is supposed to have died around 1526, but I've also seen 1521 as a possible year of death. A brief bit of rummaging about the internet located a book that said Lari was Persian, though his chief work, the pilgrim's guide (written about 1505 or so), had been dedicated to the sultan of Gujarat. I suppose this is possible - Lari might refer to a person from the Iranian town of Lan, not far from Shiraz. Indeed, another book said he was a student of a famous Persian scholar who did indeed travel to Lar. On the other hand, there is a Lar in Uttar Pradesh too.

In the early 1500s, a famous artist would have had a selection of patrons to choose from - the Lodis in Delhi, the Bengal sultanate, even the Bahmanis in the Deccan, besides the rulers of Gujarat. What would prompt a painter from North India to seek the favour of a Gujarati sultan? It's still possible, of course, that Lari was, indeed, Iranian. His teacher wanted to move to India in search of cultural patronage, and it's possible that he either accompanied his teacher, or that he was inspired by the idea to seek the patronage of a Western Indian king.

I'd be interested to learn how Sardar determined that Lari was Indian. Where was he born? Where did he live? When did he go on his pilgrimage? What are the other works he created? How is it known when he died? Perhaps there are still myriads of Persian manuscripts that haven't been translated which might tell us more about this early polymath.

(At any rate, I have drafted an article with as much information as I could find and put it on Wikipedia's sandbox. If I can find a couple more citations and add a bit more to the piece, I might be happy enough to post it as an article.)

May 9, 2017

Steamed White Rice

Don walked back into the living room and announced that dinner was ready. A full course Chinese dinner, family style, prepared by Don's father. Cornish hen, Chinese broccoli, beef stir fry, sautéed shrimp, vegetable medley, pan-roasted sea bass. And of course, steamed white rice. A meal is never a meal without steamed white rice.

- Angela S. Choi, Hello Kitty Must Die.

Apr 20, 2017

Serial reading

Scarcely a month after my remarks on reading more than one book by the same author, I find myself in the midst of not one, not two, but three series.

One of them is a one-woman demolition of Bechdel tests: Victoria Schwab's Grey London series in which women barely talk to each other except to discuss men. There are three Londons with varying degrees of magic, there are rare blood magicians who can travel between them, and there are envies and resentments between the rulers of the three worlds. There's also a murderous thief who insinuates herself into the politics and remains insouciant and irritating throughout. It's rip-roaring in the first book and rapidly bulks up and becomes a bit too self involved in the next two.

Self involvement is the last thought in my mind when I consider N K Jemisin's books of Orogeny, the first of which, The Fifth Season, I polished off at rapid clip. Set in a far future earth of a single continent and tectonic violence, the world is divided into communities of normal people, derisively called "stills", by the Orogenes, humans capable of extracting telekinetic power from the environment and reducing the effects of tectonics. Orogenes are generally hated by the stills, who kill them as soon as they're detected, but a large number are enslaved and trained by a shadowy organisation that then sends them out to the world to sort out environmental problems. Jemisin's imagination is superb and her controlled pace of revelation leaves one panting for more. I'm rather keenly awating the weekend so I can go grab the second book in the sequence, The Obelisk Gate.

Much to Sakura's dismay, I picked up the first of Steven Erickson's Kharkanas trilogy before ever reading the Malazan set. On her admonishment I slunk back to the library to return it unread and there I found Seth Dickinson's fantasy of economics and politics, The Traitor, which I'm now half way through, and it's grippinger than an octopus. I'll probably be quite disgusted very soon when I find that it ends on a cliffhanger and the second book, The Monster, is as yet unpublished.

I also, for old times sake, read Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd, the latest in the Flavia de Luce series. I was previously going off the set for its self indulgence and unnecessary conspiracy theories, but this is a triumphant reversion to Flavia's skills of detection and brilliance of character. All to the good.

(Now I hear that Jason Goodwin's detective series set in the Ottoman world is being adapted for TV. Woot woot is what I say, as the books are good fun. Check out one of JK's reviews here.)

Apr 3, 2017

Fine Food in Bookholm

I stood marvelling for a long time in front of a blackboard on which all the delicious fare one could order was listed in chalk. I was bewildered by the abundance of food and drink bearing names with literary associations. Printer's Ink Wine and Blood and Thunder Coffee; Sweetpaper Sandwiches (they could not only be eaten but also written on); Muse's Kiss Cocoa and Liquid Inspiration (the latter a brutally high-proof spirit); Horror Candies (to be eaten while reading thrillers, many of them with surprise fillings of vinegar, cod liver oil or desiccated ants); and seventeen types of pastries named after various classical poets, for example, Bethelzia B. Binngrow Buns and Ardelf Nennytos Cookies. Those in need of more substantial fare could gorge themselves on dishes named after popular novelists or their heroes, for instance Prince Sangfroid Pie or Risotto a la Avisko Dosti, but there was also a light Syllabic Salad incorporating alphabet spaghetti and trombophone mushrooms. It was enough to make your head spin.

Having pulled myself together at last, I ordered a big jug of Midnight Oil Espresso and a pastry known as a Poet's Ringlet.

- Walter Moers, The City Of Dreaming Books, translated from the German by John Brownjohn.

Mar 10, 2017


It appears that J P Vaswani is still going strong, nearly a century after he was born. While he is known for his spiritual teachings, at one time his c.v. also included a line to the effect that he was the nephew of T L Vaswani, a boon companion of Mohandas Gandhi himself, and a founder of a mission. I was never clear on what that mission's mission was.

Back in Jakarta in the 80s he would visit our school frequently. As a Shukracharya for the kids, he would hold forth on a variety of topics for our moral instruction. We'd sit in the assembly hall, wilting with boredom, and listen to him go on about matters of the soul and supreme powers and the like. Once in a while he'd come out with an illustrative story or two. We rarely paid much attention.

One day he was talking about the immensity of God.

'Do you know osmium?' he said. 'It is the heaviest metal in the world.'

We stirred.

'It is so heavy,' he said, 'that you could not lift a spoonful of it.'

At this point half the class turned to look at me. I was no less than JP at throwing out random assertions.

I shook my head in teenage outrage.

'He is wrong,' I said through clenched teeth.

After the lesson, my classmates laughed at me.

'Come on, guys,' I said. 'Work it out.'

A spoon is about 15 millilitres. The density of osmium is 22.6 grammes / ml. So you have 339 grammes of osmium in a spoon.

I'm yet to find a person who can't lift 339 grammes.

Mar 7, 2017

Reading Habits

How easy it is to fall into habit. A few years ago I decided to read every novel under 200 pages at my local library. Now, automatically, my eyes glide over fat books and focus only on the slim ones. A few years earlier I had started reading fiction in translation. So what do we have now? I look for non-English authors among thin books.

Last year, of course, my reading was dominated by women writers. As a result, these days I almost by default ignore fat books that are not translated and are by men.

I guess that means that it will be an effort for me to even locate the next book in G.R.R. Martin's saga.


Meanwhile, in my constant search for new authors, I find myself reading very little by authors I had already read before. Exceptions remain, though, and they're usually in genre fiction. Now that it appears no new translations are forthcoming in Boris Akunin's Erast Fandorin series, or in Arturo Pérez-Reverte's Captain Alatriste series, my series reads are restricted to Scott Lynch's Gentlemen Bastards sequence and Robert Galbraith's Cormorant Strike set. Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce has become far too self-indulgent and unnecessarily conspiratorial, so I'm losing interest there. And, to be honest, I'm getting a bit tired of Precious Rhamotswe as well. These are a generally time-pass sort of books, requiring little concentration or effort, but now that Mma Makutsi is happily married, there's not much to look forward to.


I keep thinking I should read the Malazan series but have you seen the size of those tomes? Each is thousands of pages long and there are at least 13 in the series. Sakura is a long-standing fan and has been urging me to give it a go for years. I persuaded a colleague to get the lot and he's utterly captivated. In turn, he wanted me to check out Stephen King's Dark Tower novels. I don't know if I have the enthu.

From the Economist's Prospero blog:

If these songs are a fascinating historical record of a changing city, they are also important linguistically. Svampa and his colleagues sang in Milan’s nasal dialect. Its mixed-up vocabulary is a reminder of how recently Italy was a jumble of independent states with connections to different neighbours. French terms like coeur (heart) and oeuf (egg) are just two examples. Indeed, the prevalence of the French oeu and ch sounds can make Milanese seem more Parisian than Italian. Its peculiar negation, using minga instead of non, also distinguishes Milanese from regular Italian.

Indeed, Milanese can often be a struggle just to understand for someone from Naples or Rome. A typical song, “El ridicol matrimoni”, lists the huge quantities of food eaten by a bride before her wedding night:

Trii padéj de risòtt giald
quatter mastèj de lasàgn cald
ses cavagn fra uga e pêr
e quatter navasc de caffè ner.

Compared to this, almost every word is spelt and pronounced differently in Italian:

Tre padelle di risotto g[i]allo
quattro mastelli di lasagna calda
sei cesti di uva e pere
e quattro fiaschi di caffè nero.

In English, the feast included

Three pans of saffron risotto
four trays of hot lasagna
six baskets of grapes and pears
and four large jugs of black coffee.

Nowadays, terms like navasc are dying out. Only about 2% of Milanese still speak the dialect fluently. Ironically, the upheavals of the “economic miracle”—which provided so much inspiration for Svampa and Jannacci—ultimately doomed their dialect. Now that Milan is a thoroughly multicultural city, with immigrants from all over Italy and beyond, it makes sense to just speak Italian. “There are people born in Milan, but who perhaps don’t feel Milanese because they have parents from Puglia or Campania,” says Edoardo Bossi, a Milanese dialect teacher. This is in contrast to parts of Italy that have attracted fewer outsiders, where dialect is still dominant: Sicilian, for example, is spoken by 4.7m people throughout southern Italy. Moreover, young people are shy to speak milanes. The dialect’s gruff reputation hardly helps. According to Mr Bossi, “when you speak Milanese in public, people look at you as if you’re being rude.”

The dish of the day was a splendid roast guinea fowl cooked in sea-salt, with a chickpea purée. Lola ordered it without thinking twice. Ingrid had gone for a seared steak tartare with French fries.

Dominique Sylvain, The Dark Angel.

The headmaster saw the boy in the corridor between classes.

"Where are you going?" he said.

"To the toilet, sir," said the boy.

"You may have not been here for very long," said the headmaster, "but in this country we call it 'lavatory'."

"I've lived here all my life, sir," said the boy.

"Well, you don't look like it," said the headmaster.

Jan 19, 2017

An Actor on Jury Duty

I was on jury duty a while ago. Two weeks of my life spent on my civic responsibility. Most of the time was spent waiting to be selected for a trial. During that time, I had little to do than eavesdrop on my fellow jurors.

An actor waited in the summoning room. He held forth at length to an attentive young woman.

I was called to audition for The Crown, he said. To be a doctor.

I thought to myself, do I really want to be a doctor? It is far too generic. So I declined.

I didn't want the role. It is better to chase a role not wanting it and not getting it, than chase it wanting it and not getting it.


I am going to be rather busy in the New Year, he said.

Do you know Robert Fisk? He has written a book on the Middle East. I'll be doing readings from it in Rotherhithe.

I am teaching at an acting boot camp. It is a somewhat difficult balance to achieve. If I spend too much time on any one person, they won't learn their lines. If I spend too little, they are resentful.


Last year was interesting, he said. I was in Italy. The fringe theatre scene there is incredible. It is in the most unlikely places, and inexpensive, and people turn up after a long day's hard work.


My family? Well, there are actors, he said. My sister directs. My mum runs a bed and breakfast. It tides over the lean times.

She is like you, he said, she has an arts background. But she is more practically-minded.


My sister organised a panel discussion with the remaining cast of Solaris. Yes, for the 50th anniversary of Gagarin's flight. It was awesome.


You know, the real creatives in TV are the producers and the scriptwriters. The director is like a glorified first assistant.


Can you imagine Maggie Smith and Alan Rickman with all those kids? Here you have the best of British acting and the camera is focused at their knees and all those children milling about. Paid good money, though.

We went for dinner once with Rickman and when the bill came, Rickman stopped us, saying: "Two words: Harry Potter."

The actor was so pleased with his drawling imitation of Rickman that he said it again:

"Two words: Harry Potter."

Continuing the round-up of 2016: three more non-fiction titles that were well worth my time.

Elizabeth Pisani is a multitalented woman - journalist, health-worker, linguist. If you look past the arrogance of her wanting to 'introduce' Indonesia to the world (a phrase she has repeated in her preface and several interviews) and the irritating comparison of the country to an old flame, her Indonesia etc.: Exploring the Improbable Nation is a comprehensive account of the lives and times of the fourth most populous country in the world. While the general tourist will likely visit a city or two in Java and Bali, Pisani travels across the archipelago, living with subsistence farmers, fishermen, smugglers, the nouveau riche, the up and coming politicos, the religious fanatics, and the indigent. Many times, the story is ostensibly repetitious - she arrives at an island, discovers a quirk of the local society, meets the bottom and the top of local society - and after a while, every island seems to blend into every other. But the people are affectionately described, and combining sociology with a thorough exposition of modern Indonesian history and political economy, this becomes overall a fine book.

Helena Attlee runs horticultural tours in Italy, and when she's not popping in and out of some of the finest gardens in the country, she studies the citrus fruit, and she writes absolutely riveting books, such as The Land Where Lemons Grow: The Story of Italy and its Citrus Fruit. Weaving history and botany, architecture and landscape design and scrumptious foods, the book ranges across the peninsula and explores oranges, lemons and every citrus in between. (The blood orange is my own particular favourite, and her account of the groves beneath Etna made me want to hurry over and retire there immediately.)

Finally, we have Margalit Fox's Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code and the Uncovering of a Lost Civilisation, an excellent guide to the people behind the decipherment of Linear B, the ancient Minoan script. She is as good at the technical details of the decipherment as at the personages involved. In particular, she puts to the forefront the lesser-known Alice Kober who provided most of the impetus for the cracking of the code, though it was the ultimately tragic Michael Ventris, a self-taught decipherer, who managed the breakthrough. The tablets he read weren't stirring tales of kings but rather palace accounts; still, the thrill of the chase and the frustration of the dead-ends are well worth the time spent on the book.

Jan 3, 2017

Hussar Blowout

Before the Hussars even got to Waterloo, one of their chiefs, the 2nd Earl of Uxbridge, put down riots in London by hungry people protesting the Corn Laws. In their spare time between engagements, what did the Hussars do? They consumed:
‘Turtle, Fish, Venison of the best quality’ washed down with ‘Champagne, Hock, Burgundy, and Claret’ as well as ‘Vin de France and Hermitage drunk in copious libations.’

I didn't go to Reading, not this year, at least.

Poor pun, that... What a strange, troubling year this has been. Besides worrisome politics and deaths, there has been ill-health, injury and sickness in the family, and the boy was badly bullied in his new school and had to be moved when that school showed little inclination to tackle the issue. It has felt that there was no time to truly relax and unwind. Even books, at every other time a palliative, failed to boost the spirit, except during the brief snatched moments that they could be read. A strange, troubling year.


Considerably and consistently behind the times as usual, I decided to read books by women this year. Various luminaries had encouraged us to do so. Some spent a year practising what they preached. Others created lists for interested readers. My own reading over the decades has generally been dominated by male authors. This is because the default position - in libraries, newspapers, shops, review journals - is the promotion and preponderance of males. To look for books by women is an active choice, and the effort involved is considerable because of the sheer dominance of publications by men.

Over the past few years, I've pretty much given up reading more than one book by the same author. Except for the multi-volume fantasy or science fiction cycles, it seems that there are more authors for me to discover than to explore the variations of any given one. So too this year.

Total books: 105
By women: 81

of which

Fiction: 62
Non-fiction: 19


My attention span continues to dwindle, and my memory of the contents of the average book is fairly fuzzy. So I continue to read smaller books. Not many of the books this year exceeded 200 pages. The ones that did were mainly non-fiction ones.

There were some truly superb pieces of non-fiction. A particular favourite was Marwa al-Sabouni's The Battle for Home: The Memoir of a Syrian Architect. Born and brought up in Homs, al-Sabouni is  an architect, and her book is a thoughtful exploration of the collapse of her native city and the role of alienating architecture in its fission. She intersperses her academic experiences with the horrors of living through wartime, and she beautifully analyses both theoretical and practical considerations in the design of living spaces. An amazing thought-provoking work.

In the vein of wartime stories was the The Diary of Lena Mukhina, a sixteen-year-old girl who survived the Siege of Leningrad. The book begins a month or so before the German invasion and all Mukhina can think of is a boy in her class and why he pays her no attention. Once the war begins, in between accounts of school exams and studies, and which of her girlfriends is really a friend, she is happy to repeat propaganda that the Soviets will triumph. It is after Leningrad is encircled and there is constant bombing and food begins to run out that she suddenly steps up her game: her intelligence and empathy is fascinatingly mature for one so young. In between puppy love and friendship and Communist platitudes are truly beautiful passages describing the lives she, her family and neighbours are leading. The terrors are all too real and the terse text is spellbinding. I couldn't bear to read another page and I couldn't bear not knowing what would happen next.

Again on the theme of war was Lizzie Collingham's magisterial account of the battle for food and the maintenance of its supplies for the soldiers and the home front during World War II: The Taste of War: World War Two and the Battle for Food. This is well-written, often fast-paced albeit saturated with statistics. It was clear to the Nazis that they could never produce enough food to feed their armies and the Fatherland, and to this end they were willing to sacrifice any number of lesser beings in Eastern and Southern Europe to repopulate those lands with Germans who would, of course, be the most productive farmers ever. Meanwhile, Churchill was willing to sacrifice the health of the colonies (in particular India) to supply his armed forces, and is directly implicated in the horrors of the Bengal famine. The Japanese left their soldiers to forage as they advanced through Asia, resulting in more  military deaths from starvation than from actual fighting. The Americans, on the other hand, amped up their agricultural production so well that their civilians and soldiers remained the best-fed and healthiest on the planet, and managed to feed many of the Allies as well. At the end of the war, the US was the dominant agricultural and industrial power on the planet, and everybody else was in ruin.

Lest you think I was solely immersed in sanguinary matters, I'd like to highlight the fact that I looked up to the stars as well. Lisa Randall's Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universeis an exciting overview of the search for dark matter and an elucidation of her theory that explains why the Earth faces periodic bombardment from comets (among others leading to the death of the dinosaurs). Of course, nobody has seen dark matter, and nobody has a model that explains all aspects of cosmic evolution and the distribution of the galaxies. And this makes the situation exciting both scientifically and sociologically because there are various theories fighting to overcome each other as the cosmic model. Priyamvada Natarajan, another fine astrophysicist, wrote Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos, a rather good explanation of the latest scientific thinking. 

The latest headmaster is a bit of an eccentric.

In the boy's class one day he announced that he hated Spanish women. (It is not clear what prompted the outburst.)

The boy's classmate, a Spanish girl, burst into tears.

'Stop snivelling,' said the headmaster.