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Thanks for all the fish

Thanks for all the fish

This past week, everything on the internet was about turkeys and thanksgiving. And though we don’t do thanksgiving here in India (except for a few people on Twitter), it IS November and that signals the end of year. The  Guardian already has a list of the best books of 2012, so this is my list of things I’m thankful for this year.

The writers of Community, The Newsroom, Mad Men and Homeland:

Personally, I haven’t had the best year. But as always I find distraction and solace in television and books. And I have to thank Community, The Newsroom, Mad Men and Homeland for getting me through it without going batshit insane, growing dreadlocks and living in a tree. It’s probably not the healthiest thing to do; being so invested in fictional characters but it just makes me feel so…so alive and so…you know, I’m just going to give my hard drive a big hug right now.

Books that find you:

As you might have gathered, my life decisions don’t always lend itself to a well-fed bank account. But that’s what second hand bookstores, sales and friends are for. This year I have read borrowed books, books I picked up for Rs 50 at a sale, and books that I abandoned or never got around to reading. And I have been consistently surprised and happy. They have been books I have picked up grudgingly because I was too broke to buy what I wanted. But the good ones just found me. In many ways, I’m an old lady who is afraid of new things. I like finding my comfort zone and sticking to it and sometimes have a closed mind. I don’t want to listen to your new favourite band; I don’t want to read an author I’ve never heard of before. But almost every time I have done it, I have been rewarded. I’ve read a great deal of books this year, even signed up for a post graduation course in literature (not made a dent in that list yet though) and I do hope the next pay cheque is big enough to do some splurging. But till then, there is always my Flipkart wishlist to check and sigh everyday.

Amy Pohler:

Amy Pohler is not only television’s funniest woman, she is also the personification of woman power and an example for girls all over the world. Along with being the super ambitious and funny Leslie Knope on Parks and Rec; she also has her own youtube channel. Called, Smart girls at the party, it encourages young talented girls to be themselves and be proud of it (the last episode had a Sikh girl explain her religion and what her culture entails).  I imagine Pohler in real life to be something of a superwoman. Incredibly talented, funny, confident and amazing. Even if she isn’t, I’m just glad she’s on one of the best sitcoms I’ve seen this year.

The interwebz:

On a regular day, I spend about nine to ten hours on my laptop. I can find and read this on Wednesday, laugh till my ribs hurt at this the next day and watch this on the weekend. And I can sit here in Mumbai and read the New Yorker and The Slate and The Guardian and Flavorwire. I can spend hours looking at cat videos and I can also spend hours talking to a friend in San Francisco. We talk about dependence, we talk about how the internet has us by the balls (metaphoric ones) but I don’t see the problem. The good things outweigh the bad, a million times over. The internet is filled with vile and disgusting things offset by art. Beautiful art in the form of music, videos, literature and so much more.

2012

What a great time to live, I think sometimes when I’m standing inside a matchbox sized room and listening to the Bombay Bicycle club or when I feel gooseflesh on my arm from watching The manganiyar seduction on stage. I think about the lives my parents must have led when they were my age and I can’t believe my luck. International artists aren’t just those mythical creatures forever stuck on records (or iTunes library) any more. India isn’t just a far, exotic land of elephants and snake charmers anymore and every month we hear announcements of international artists performing here, international films being screened, international brands setting shop and we are here to witness this. It fills me with such a rush to realise that we are part of a turning point of sorts, for this country in the cultural field.

Yes, the world is still listening to Justin Beiber and One Direction, but you know what, fuck that. Every small singer, songwriter and trumpet player now has opportunity. Opportunity to reach out and make themselves heard (whether they’re good or not decides how far they go) and that’s as good as it gets. A million music, art, theatre and literature festivals have sprung up. Can’t find an audience there? Put your work online and somebody in a tiny town in Brazil may just become your fan.

I can tell my very tambhram family that I want to be a writer and they don’t automatically assume that all is lost. Just that much is great. I live in a time when I don’t have to mind my manners, wear corsets that cause asphyxia or be ‘married off’ when I turn 18. I don’t have to rebel. I know, most people don’t see the appeal in that and find rebelling against society and their parents very cool but really it’s not. We have been born in a time when it’s not rebellious to cut your hair real short and come home at 5am. It’s normal. It’s great that we don’t have to fight these tiny battles because the previous generation already paved the way for us. They fought to break out and now it’s up to us to take that chance and go as high and as far as we can. We owe it to so many, many people.

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Old school forever

Old school forever

Hey, remember when Reader’s Digest used to be good? Remember when there used to be fights about who got to read it first, till things got ugly and there were time slots allotted to each family member? Remember when the joke page used to actually make you laugh? Remember when there were bleeding heart stories about how a mother helped her five year old son fight cancer, or adventure stories about how someone fought off a grizzly bear? That slim, notebook sized volume had such a great exhaustive tank of good reading, that I remember certain stories even to this day. Ooh, remember the one where…ah never mind. I don’t recall exactly when it was that the magazine just straight up stopped being as entertaining as it used to be. I’ll wager it was around the time Brooke married her 700th Forrester husband on The bold and the beautiful.

But the magazine had some glory years, I’ll tell you that much. Reader’s Digest and the National Geographic were the only two magazines that my household didn’t give away to the raddi waala. You just didn’t do that kind of stuff. For years, a falling down bookcase in my grandmother’s house held editions from the early eighties. Tattered things that held great big-hearted true life stories. And we even had a separate shelf that held those special edition RD Volumes- you know the ones that were denser than the Bible. Yeah, we were purists all right.

Sundays were spent at my grandparent’s little cottage back then and there were three main events in the day. Lunch, which was always amazing. A 3 o’clock, kids movie on Star Movies. And then going to the bookshelf and choosing a dusty, hard cover volume of Readers Digest, special edition. The dust would stick to my fingers and mix with the sweat on my palm and form a kind of grimy paste, but I would read lovely illustrated stories like Good Morning Miss Dove, My son Goggle, Old Yeller and Mr Hobbs Holiday. There was no greater joy than a Sunday and reading.

I was reminded of this exhilarating joy when I read this argument recently. Its heavy stuff, but let me sum up the essence of what Piper is saying. A real book, a paper and jacket cover and ink book, actually stands for something larger that what it is. It’s how your body acts when it’s reading. How you lie down on your back, holding your book up on your stomach, or on your stomach with your ankles crossed in the air, or propped up on your elbow, or sitting up at a table or whatever. When you’re reading a book, your whole damn body is reading with you. Your fingers feel the paper, the paper yellows over time and the heavy weight of a book in your hands can never ever be replaced by some cold, chrome thing. In any case, I’m fighting a lost cause. Technology will be technology after all and it will go on ahead and change lifestyles and values. But it gets me upset, because when it comes to certain things, nothing beats old school. Reading and literature is one of those things. A grandiose Forrester wedding is another.

Enter the Russians

Enter the Russians

The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment were names I’d just heard a lot, mostly from superior Delhi University type friends who spoke of the writer in tones of hushed awe and respect. I, in my whole life of reading, talking about reading and finding new things to read, had never read the Russian Masters so I decided to go for it. Two weeks ago, I began my first Dostoevsky. The Brothers Karamazov. And I couldn’t be happier. My train and bus commutes are like watching mini episodes of The Wire. In my head I’ve named my future children, Katerina and Anastasia. My days are filled with this book, its atmosphere, how it’s written. Of course, in two weeks I’ve barely made a dent in the tome but every page is promising. This book promises to be a family saga of great dramatic, proportions and so far I’m riveted like never before.

There are a couple of things I love so far about reading The Brothers Karamazov. One, the unnamed narrator, who seems to be the most chilled out guy on the planet. There is a bit in the text where he is giving the reader the story of Smerdyakovs birth and suddenly he brings the tale to a hasty end by saying apologetically, “But I must not bore you with stories of servants.” He seems so real to me, just like the rest of the characters do, but I don’t know anything about him except that he seems to belong to the same village as the Karamazovs. Will I learn his identity at page 1045, or is he going to be He who must not be named until the end. I don’t know.

The second thing I love about this book is the fact that each character is very lovingly and painstakingly sketched out but not in a way that makes me feel like I know them intimately. Some actions, the curl of a lip or a sneer perhaps, aren’t explained at all and I’m left wondering why the person did it. It’s like I’m watching the story unfold before me but I’m still not invited inside the actor’s heads. It’s very strange and unsettling. Sometimes, when a character is narrating a story to another – Dmitri Karamazov talking of why he is leaving his fiancé for instance – I somehow, seem to distrust them just a little bit. I catch myself thinking “I’m sure that’s not the whole story. He is definitely glossing over some things.”  I don’t know how Dostoevsky does it. I feel like I’m learning to read all over again.

The third thing that really fires every neuron in my brain is when the plot takes a whirl with drama. This morning, on the train, I missed my stop because I was so engrossed in a scene where Dmitri Karamazov throws his father to the floor and kicks his face with the heel of his boot.

It’s amazing. I have no idea why I haven’t read Dostoevsky before but I do know this. Now that I have started, no reading is likely to be the same.

Three pieces of literature that taught us true things about love

Three pieces of literature that taught us true things about love

And what it all comes down to is that love as an emotion is so powerful, every writer and his grandfather must use it in one way or another. From the star-crossed lover theme to unrequited love, poetry, drama and novels just plunk it in there. It was obviously easy to get it right at first (My love is like a red, red rose indeed). But as time passed, people changed. What’s more, facebook was invented and with it came relationship statuses. So literature started fucking it up. We got all manner of insipid pulp lit, supposedly about strong confident women, but with a love story at the heart of it. We got 50 shades of grey.

Wait, wait. This is not another one of my superior rants. I’m actually going to talk about books that got it right. There are several but only three have impacted my life and my perception of relationships that hold a romantic tenor.

The scene where lady Macbeth goes all “Be a man!” “From this time/ Such I account thy love.” OUCH. From Macbeth. Don’t even deny it. Sometimes in a relationship, the girl gets the guy to do stuff he wouldn’t do normally, by hinting delicately that he might not be man enough to rise to the occasion. It might not be as dramatic as murder, like it was over at casa Macbeth. But still, “Oh. Okay. I don’t know. Whichever guys I know think nothing of killing lizards. It’s sport to them.” Check. And mate.

Gloria and Anthony Patch from The Beautiful and the Damned. When insecure meets insecure, there can be no awesome. Write that down and put it up on the fridge. In my experience, the more insecure you are, the more you’ll stress out about not appearing insecure. It’s only human nature. That’s why in relationships, two messed-up souls who seem to have it together only end in tragedy. This makes for great and poignant story lines. But off the page, its more hysterical weeping over vodka martinis, punching walls, threatening to throw the beloveds possessions into a river or taking penknives to mattresses to carve out names into the coir. I may or may not have seen all of this in real life. Living in women’s hostels can be pretty instructive.

Scarlet and Rhett from Gone with the Wind. There I go defying my hipster-ness by citing the most talked about love story of all time after Romeo and Juliet (I’ll never be that much of a sellout.). The Scarlet and Rhett angle to love is the most amazing, because the can’t-see-past-the-end-of-ones-nose philosophy (Props Mary Poppins) happens to one in every four people. “Oh my god. Eddie liked me, when I liked Joe. But I actually liked Eddie all along. Isn’t that the craziest”? Cosmic misdirection and misread signals are the hugest part of this ladka-ladki chakkar. And only one novel nailed it.

I’m Mole!

I’m Mole!

You guys, I’m Mole. From the Wind in the Willows. I’ve only just realised it and had to weep to someone because who wants to be personality-less Mole? He hid himself underground till he was sick of it and then he attached himself to Rat and embraced a new life, but he was never as cool as Rat, though he always tried. I’ll probably never be as cool as Rat. It’s so creepy when an author or scriptwriter creates some sort of version of you that he totally dreamed up out of nowhere. It’s worse when its an animal. Hands up if you identify with at least two of the weirdest creatures from Alice in Wonderland (For me, it’s the flamingo at the croquet game, and in my incompetent days, Bill the Lizard, Jury Member from the Trial scene). I wonder if the writers know they’re doing it. It’s pretty damn annoying regardless.

As far as characters go I always like the ones that are not like me. If a character in a book or film, is too close to the real me for comfort, I’ll immediately back away. For instance, if I were to be completely honest, as a kid I was like the shy and timid Beth March but I avoided this absolute truth because I wanted to be feisty like Jo. In films too, I have to aspire to the personality types of characters, or I’ll hate them right off the bat. I’d rather be happy-go-lucky and risk taking Kumar than the uptight, paranoid play by the rules Harold but I suspect that the opposite is true. I totally want to be House MD, witty and brilliant, but I’m so completely Wilson – seemingly well-adjusted and easily manipulated.

So anyway, since I’m on this whole self-actualisation trip, I might as well come clean. These are three characters that I’d want to think I’m like, against the one’s I’m actually like.

What I want to be: Bobbie Wickham and/or Stiffy Byng from the Jeeves series. Spontaneous, quick on their feet and inventor of hare-brained schemes that never end up working.

What I’m actually like: Florence Craye, pseudo-intellectual and little formidable and scary. “The root of the trouble was that she was one of those intellectual girls, steeped to the gills in serious purpose, who are unable to see a male soul without wanting to get behind it and shove.” Bertie Wooster, Joy in the morning. Sigh. It’s kind of true.

What I want to be: Kima Greggs from the Wire. Capable, smart and quick.

What I am: The Bunk. Good at his job, but undeniably lazy and disgruntled with everything.

What I want to be: House MD. Witty, sexy, confident, brilliant, self-assured and downright amazing.

What I am: Wilson. Sidekick to awesomeness.

What I want to be: Stan from Southpark. Chilled out and cool. He even has a girlfriend until he went goth. (“They’re all a bunch of conformist bastards.”)

What I am: Tweak. I can panic on demand. My philosophy is “If there’s a reason, even a small one, to flip out like a pancake, do it and don’t think twice.” A lot of people think Tweak’s character was over the top. Not so. I’m like that. I even twitch when I’m nervous.

Okay that’s enough honesty for today. I still want you guys to like me after all (another reason why I’m like Wilson) and I don’t want you’ll to walk away saying “she’s the crazy half of this project.” That’ll just be sad.

To-do: Read

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To-do: Read

We are nearing the release of The Dark Knight Rises and people are going more insane than usual, yes, yes, Nolan, Bane, I get it, stop drooling already. Almost all the tickets are booked for the release weekend and I’m feeling the pressure. What am I to do if I don’t get tickets, what will I talk to people about? Will I be shunned from society?

I have a job and something of a social life and I have to make time to read books, watch movies, watch TV shows, stay updated with everyday internet business. I do it all and in spite of that there are so many things I’m still to do and watch. It cannot be done!  I’ll be having a wonderful conversation about television with someone and then they’ll start talking about Six Feet Under or The West Wing or some other show I haven’t watched and it pisses me off. Let ME tell what a good show is! Just shut your mouth long enough for me to look down upon you for never having watched Studio 60.

I’m so saturated with pop culture that I desperately need the world to stop creating things. Just stop. Stop doing everything, stop making shows, stop writing books, creating art so I can catch up already!

But what suffers the most is my reading. Every once in a while my reading takes a back seat and soon enough it takes me a whole half an hour to get through 2 pages and then I stop putting a book in my bag…it’s just lawlessness  and chaos from there.

So, I’m making a list of books I need to read from The Guardian’s The top 100 books of all time, BBC’s The Big Read and Flavourwire’s 30 books everyone should read before turning 30.

There are 148 books; which means I’ve read 82 books that were on these lists.

I will keep you guys updated on how many I manage to finish. I still have to watch Season 4 of Breaking Bad and Season 3 of Louie, so I might get distracted, but as NPH would say, challenge accepted.

You can tell me how many you’ve read and add to my list in the comments section. But don’t add too many, I’m already intimated. And don’t go all “you haven’t read xxyy yet? Wooooah” on me, ok? Ok.

  1. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
  2. A Doll’s House, Henrik Ibsen
  3. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
  4. A Sentimental Education, Gustave Flaubert
  5. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth
  6. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
  7. Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner
  8. Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  9. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
  10. Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer
  11. Beloved, Toni Morrison
  12. Berlin Alexanderplatz, Alfred Doblin
  13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
  14. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
  15. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
  16. Blindness, Jose Saramago
  17. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  18. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
  19. Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann
  20. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
  21. Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
  22. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
  23. Children of Gebelawi, Naguib Mahfouz
  24. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  25. Collected Fictions, Jorge Luis Borges, Argentina
  26. Complete Poems, Giacomo Leopardi
  27. Confessions of Zeno, Italo Svevo
  28. Crime And Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky
  29. Dead Souls, Nikolai Gogol
  30. Decameron, Giovanni Boccaccio
  31. Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, Lu Xun
  32. Don Quixote, Miguel De Cervantes
  33. Double Act, Jacqueline Wilson
  34. Dune, Frank Herbert
  35. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
  36. Essays, Michel de Montaigne
  37. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
  38. Fairy Tales and Stories, Hans Christian Andersen
  39. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
  40. Faust, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
  41. Gargantua and Pantagruel, Francois Rabelais
  42. Ghost World, Daniel Clowes
  43. Gilgamesh
  44. Girls In Love, Jacqueline Wilson
  45. Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
  46. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
  47. Gormenghast, Mervyn Peake
  48. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
  49. Guards! Guards!, Terry Pratchett
  50. Gypsy Ballads, Federico Garcia Lorca
  51. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
  52. History, Elsa Morante
  53. Holes, Louis Sachar
  54. Hunger, Knut Hamsun
  55. I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith
  56. Independent People, Halldor K Laxness
  57. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
  58. Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
  59. Jacques the Fatalist and His Master, Denis Diderot
  60. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
  61. Journey to the End of the Night, Louis-Ferdinand Celine
  62. Katherine, Anya Seton
  63. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman
  64. Love In The Time Of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez
  65. Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

See the full list here.

Judging ’em by the covers

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Judging ’em by the covers

The cover of J. K Rowling’s highly anticipated novel for adults, The Casual Vacancy was released a couple of days ago as was Manu Joseph’s new book, The Illicit Happiness Of Other People. Both are bright yellow, eye-catching and you know they will command a place of prominence at all bookstores (Not accounting for the popularity of the writers, of course).

If you walk into a book store, with absolutely no reviews, tweets or marketing ploys hard-selling books swirling about in your head, what would make you pick a book? The unfortunate and inevitable answer is the cover. The second is the title and synopsis.

We can try to not judge a book by its cover, but judgment comes naturally to us. Book covers, like magazine covers are pretty important to make a sale.

This is why it is so surprising that so many writers have such terrible book covers. Almost the entire rack of books written by new Indian authors (The journalist-turned-author, the IIM graduate-turned author, The-nutritionist/fashionista/twitter account turned writer) have uninspiring, boring and corny covers that give you no indication of what the book contains. Hearts, coffee mugs, clip arts of women with shopping bags; they just blend into each other and you can’t tell them apart.

Having sat in on a few magazine cover ideations, I know that the writers and designers work together on a cover that will best represent the magazine (or at least the writers will agree with the designer’s point of view). Unfortunately in publishing, the writers have only so much control over the cover design. At a discussion panel on the rise of Indian chick-lit I attended, Kiran Manral, author of The Reluctant Detective pointed out that she has no idea why the publishers decided to put a high-heeled shoe on her cover. And, that as a first-time author, she had no choice but to agree. You’d think a writer who has finally got their work published would fight tooth and nail to have it look the way they want. But then again, you’d rather lose that battle than not have your book published at all.

Aesthetics are important in almost every field and while we want to be idealistic and say that if the writing is good, who cares what it looks like, for the average book readers and buyers, the cover is the first thing that attracts your attention. (Disclaimer: This is only applicable to retail items. You can look like Einstein or never comb your hair like APJ Abdul Kalam; if you’re a genius, it doesn’t matter. You don’t need to adhere to the society’s superficial standards of beauty.)

Think of the beautiful cover of The Great Gatsby or the iconic Lolita or the simplicity of the Godfather that manages to thrill you. Of course, book covers take on a different meaning once you’ve read the book. In my head, angst is the cover of J D Salinger’s Catcher in the rye, Harper Lee’s To kill a mockingbird will always make me feel homesick, DBC Peirce’s Vernon God Little always makes me feel wretched and Zen at the same time.

Colours, fonts (JK Rowling’s new book cover has two different fonts and it grates my eyes), images all contribute to the emotion they are trying to convey.

Here is some visual stimulation for you. Flavorwire has some great minimalistic book covers here, some book covers compared to their movie posters here and some book covers with exceptional design here.

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