In The Christie Affair , Nina de Gramont ( Pan Macmillan India) attempts to figure out where exactly did the popular crime writer, Agatha Christie, vanish for eleven days. It is a mystery that has never been solved.
This novel is a lovely, light read and is very much like a story that Kristin Hannah would write. Focussed on the women characters, delving into a historical period, recreating it but telling the story firmly with a very modern perspective. So while “The Christie Affair” is immensely readable, it does leave you wondering if the author used Agatha Christie as an excuse to kickstart the story. Ultimately, Nina de Garmont tells a mystery story that is very much in the style of an Agatha Christie story. Bewildering turn of events but no point in overthinking it. Just enjoy the story for what it is.
“We leave, we leave, we leave. We always leave. It is in our blood to leave.
But perhaps it’s also in our blood to return.
Why did we ever believe home could only be one place? When existing in these bodies means holding many worlds within us.
At last, we see.” (P.137)
“Our weary mother, so practical and unimaginative — or so we believed. Who we were certain never had dreams.
How wrong we were.
But how could ‘We wanted to make a better life for ourselves — and you’— be a dream? How could a place be a dream? (Did we live up to their dreams? we wonder, uneasy.) Understand that we will never fully comprehend their dreams having come of age in this Promised Land.
Understand: We are their Promised Land.
Never in a million years would we have the courage to move to a foreign country on a dream, become fluent in a strange language, raise families on foreign soil, far from those we love. Raise children who often feel like reflections in foggy mirrors. Who, from the moment they learn to walk, are running further than they can see.
Resilient, strong, determined, our mother’s carved out homes of their own.
This, too, is in our blood.” ( p.181)
“In the Motherland ( Fatherland?), our speech is filled with holes. We don’t remember the words for many objects. Some of us flush with embarrassment when we must speak, humiliated by our ineptitude, our jumbled, strangely pronounced words. Some of us must rely on transaltors, human ( our cousins) and nonhuman ( apps on our smartphones). ‘What do you mean you never learned the language?’ is a question we are constantly asked. ‘You’re practically deaf and mute here!’ Harsh as it is, it’s true, and we hang our heads.
But some of us who have been our parents’ translators our entire lives — at parent-teacher conferences, banks, supermarkets — know how to communicate fluently. We discuss politics with our uncles and aunties.
All of us have cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who toggle with ease between various dialects and languages, English included. They apologise for their accents, but we don’t care — we are in awe of them and could listen to them speak all day.” ( p.126-7)
Debut novelist and Columbia University graduate, Daphne Palasi Andreades’s Brown Girls ( Fourth Estate, Harper Collins India) reads like a novel meant to be recited like a dramatic monologue. It is narrated by “a” narrator (or is it a bunch of young girls/women using the collective pronoun?) to describe their trajectory as ten-year-old girls on Brooklyn to women/wives/mothers. The girls in this group are Nadira (Pakistani), Anjali (Guyanese), Michaela ( Haitian), Naz (Ivory Coast) and Sophie (Filipino). But the narrator gets the slips created by others brilliantly while addressing the girls, their nationalities, identities and names are all mixed up. No one seems to care. Even the girls have learned to be immune to these slights. Later in the novel they remark of the daily violence they encounter in these small acts and have learned to build a life around it.
There was a brief period in contemporary American literature where ABCD (American Born Confused Desi) fiction was a category. Brown Girls and much else of recently published diaspora fiction disproves this fact. More often than not, young writers are sure of their identities, they are Americans first but are very aware of their ancestral identities. They may be self-affirmed “coconuts” but they recognise the power that they have if having this dual cultural perspective. They don’t feel culturally dislocated like previous generations. It is possible to navigate and develop a life. It may not be easy but it is possible.
Brown Girls is reminiscent of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot where the excellent craftsmanship of the writer seeps through the pages and the growth of the protagonist is reflected in the surety of writing and confident speeches. Similarly in “Brown Girls”, where at first the little girls are absorbing and watching the world around them but slowly through their teenage confusion and hormonal changes, they learn to understand themselves better. It too is reflected in the mix of scripts, languages and cultural experiences that the author brings to play in the final pages of the novel. She flits between Urdu, French, Hindi/Bollywood songs and American culture.
Brown Girls is utterly fabulous and has to be read in one gulp. Nothing else will do it justice.
I love cooking. I cook very day. I enjoy reading recipe books. I have done so as long as I can remember. I collect recipes. I have four notebooks of handwritten recipes, spanning generations. They are a repository of so much information in terms of food habits, what is in vogue in a particular age, etc. Inevitably recipes get passed orally within families. Writing down recipes presumes that the families are educated, especially women, and cooking techniques are clearly spelt out. Families like mine have written and shared recipes for generations. I have handwritten recipes from the last century. These are precisely written. Short. Nothing elaborate. Easy to replicate. No fuss. Recipes by women meant to be used. No time wasted in reading and understanding.
In recent years, especially ever since Paul Hamlyn made four-colour, illustrated cookery books by Margueritte Patten phenomenal bestsellers, recipe books sell consistently. Most often, little expense is spared when it comes to scrumptious layouts, specialist food photographers are hired and double-page spreads are the norm. In recent years, this domain has slowly and steadily been overtaken by male writers. Again, fine. Except that some of the bestselling recipes books are becoming more and more tedious to read. For instance, Jamie Oliver. His early cookbooks were a delight to read but the newer ones are too elaborate. Even Joe Wicks churns out some interesting recipes but far too expensive in terms of ingredients used and too complicated when it comes to increasing portions. Cookbooks should be easy to read, easy to understand, and the recipes are easy to visualise in one’s minds eyes. Of course, printed cookbooks are now competing with the Internet where many recipes and videos are available, not tucked away behind paywalls. So to maintain the fine balance that will persuade readers/consumers to buy expensive hardbacks for a few recipes is tricky. Having said that, London-based restauranteur and Michelin star chef Rohit Ghai’s Tarakari: Vegetarian and Vegan Indian Dishes with Heart and Soul seems to achieve this balance. It is a pleasure reading the recipes. Easy instructions. To-the-point. He adds details like focusing on consistency or batters and gives reasons. Most of the recipes included in “Tarkari” are adaptations of what he learned in his mother’s kitchen. So they are familiar recipes such as “Aloo Tikki”, “Dal Makhani”, “Pesarattu”, “Chole Bhature”, “Tadka Dal”, “Jaipuri Bhindi”, but as happens with Indian households, there are variations. Also, being in London, some of the dishes like “Chickpea and Samphire Salad”, “Kadai Tofu” and “Courgette Mussalam” are examples of fusion food. They are not classic Indian dishes but they work.
Tarkari is reminiscent of very well-made Indian cookbooks by non-resident South Asians like Meera Taneja, Sameena Rushdie and Madhur Jaffrey. I am definitely going to be trying some of these dishes. Rohit provides tips and cooking methods with generosity, love and kindness and not the niggardliness that exists in some folks when asked to shares recipes. Rohit Ghai’s explanations of vegetarian and vegan dishes fulfil many of the parameters I seek while reading or sharing recipes.
Later, perhaps, I will write at length about these two extraordinary novels — Anuradha Roy’s The Earthspinner ( Hachette India) and Sarah Hall’s Burntcoat ( Faber & Faber). Both, very special in their own way. For now, I find the similarity between the two novels very striking. For instance, both stories raise critical questions about the point of art, significance of an artist, articulating personal sentiments or communicating zeitgeist through their installations and facing the consequences. The hauntingly moving and equally disturbing novel “The Earthspinner” is about the narrator, Sara and the potter, Elango. “Burntcoat” is about the narrator Edith, a sculptor, who writes her life’s testimony as she is dying to an unnamed virus. She reflects upon her work, her mission as an artist and her achievements. One of her last commissioned pieces is a memorial to commemorate those who died in the epidemic.
It was continually miraculous to him that fired clay did not melt back to earth again — it could be broken or weather-beaten but it had a life force that was inextinguishable.
…yes, of course, I’m the wood in the fire. I’ve experienced, altered in nature. I am burnt, damaged, more resilient. A life is a bead of water on the black surface, so frail, so strong, its world incredibly held.
It is a remarkable coincidence that I read these in quick succession. The preoccupation of both novels with the role of the artist in society is truly worth reflecting upon. We need writers to document, interpret, share and preserve their witnessing of history. It survives. It raises important questions.
Philip Dettmer’s Immune is really very well written. Beautifully illustrated. Daughter has whisked it away. I don’t know how much she is comprehending but seems to be liking it. Her new found love in academics is science. She is chuckling while reading the descriptions of the immune system. Now this is really making science accessible!This book has been adapted from Dettmer’s very popular YouTube channel — “Kurzgesagt: In a Nutshell”. It has more than 14 million subscribers that reaches over 30 million viewers every month. He has a team of more than 40 people helping him create the content for the channel, while remaining true to science.It is a really fascinating book. A layman can understand it. A scientist will find it useful.
This is the first collection of essays by Booker-shortlister & Goldsmiths Prize-winning author of the brilliant Ducks, Newburyport. Some of the essays in Things are Against Us ( Pan Macmillan India) have been previously published but a fair number are unpublished.
These are a fantastic collection of honest, very blunt, sharp, informative and extremely funny essays. The humour stems from Ellman’s delicious ability to call a spade a spade. She does not mince words. She provokes. Her wit is spot on. She may as well be a stand-up comedian in her ability to hold a mirror to society especially when it comes to the manifestation of patriarchy in relationships.
There are far too many superb examples in the book that are to be shard. But two stand out. One is The Mea Culpa declaration (photographed below) and her essay on tourism that is in many ways reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s essay on being a tourist. Ellman is also able to share examples from her mother’s work of comparing the male gaze in analysing women writers.
A Fish In Alien Streams by Herjinder is an extraordinary book. An account of the introduction of trout by the British. The colonial rulers missed angling as they did “back home”. So they figured out ways in which to transport ova, by sea, in cold conditions to lands as far as Tasmania and India. The Victorian Age was known for some incredible innovations but to discover a viable method of transporting trout ova from Europe to Tasmania and India was astonishing.
I picked up lovely fun facts. One of them being that the original British owners of Kissan jams and sauces were responsible for introducing trout into the sub-continent. Also, how floods have been responsible for dissemination of the fish into the streams of Kashmir, Nilgiris and Sri Lanka. The last interview in the book is with an eighty-three-year-old Jimmy Johnson, an angler. He is a Himachali / Anglo-Indian, whose father, Lt. Col. C. R. Johnson, was one of these British officers who were deeply involved with trout culture farming. But Jimmy learned angling not from his father but by watching the famous angler of the valley, T. Tyson ( the author of “Trout Fishing in Kulu, 1941”). Jimmy’s school was in Mahili, across the river from Katrain where Tyson used to fish virtually every day. And Jimmy would watch the great angler while playing with his friends on the left bank of the river. He started to like Tyson’s ‘game’ more than his own childish ones, seeing it as ‘an interesting game in which delicious lunch and dinner were also guaranteed’.
But in nearly a century since there was abundance of trout in the rivers, the fish is fast disappearing. One of the prime reasons being the rampant construction in the valley and global warming. There are many occasions that Jimmy goes to fish and returns home empty-handed. Yet he renews his angling license annually. In his lifetime, Jimmy has seen trout-abundant rivers to sparsely populated ones now.
It impossible to recapitulate the essence of A Fish in Alien Streams by Herjinder. Suffice to say that this is a wonderful mix of historical narrative and primary source material such as books and interviews. It is very easy to read even if you are not interested in fishing or trouts.
The book cover by Harshad Marathe deserves a special mention. It is unique.
Her mother likes telling stories about her. The time when she split open her knee and went all by herself to the dispensary. The time when she got her first pair of white ballerina shoes and was told to be careful not to dirty them, and how she became so cautious that she outgrew them before she had ever had a chance to wear them outside the house. The other thing her mother likes to say is, don’t get too caught up with thinking. She said it when her wedding was arranged with her cousin’s brother-in-law and she hadn’t quite finished college. Don’t think so much. The only choice one has is how to do the thing that’s got to be done. Do it easy and quick, it gets done easy and quick.
That’s how she does things, quick and quiet. They like her for it. They say how quiet and quick she is. When her first son arrived, they bought her a pair of gold jhumkas. Bracelets, the second time around. Glistening black eyes, fat with pride and relief, now watch her move around the house, on her feet all day, doing what’s got to be done: 6a.m., tea for the in-laws, 6.30, tea for the husband. Start chopping potatoes for the breakfast poha at 6.45. Bathe and dress the older one at 7.15, feed him at 7.30. Walk him tot he bus stop at 7.50. Call the others to breakfast at 8.30. Feed the younger one before aeting herself. Take stock of the kitchen at 10. Start cooking lunch at 10.30.
Unknown to them, after the school bus has taken away her first child, she stops for a secret glug of time. … She doesn’t dare stay longer than ten minutes. The other mothers would have returned to the building and her family will start to wonder. Still, she stretches out the minute as far as it will go.
( p.46-7) “A Housewife Walks out with her Children but Fails to Board the Train”
Award-winning writer, Anni Zaidi’s new short story collection, City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts, is of nameless characters who live in the city. It is published by Aleph Book Company. The short story titles are the only indication of the character’s identity — policeman, salesgirl, bank teller, wood worker, housewife, beggar, security guard, adulterous man, trinket seller, and manager. These descriptions are very similar to how stories are shared by Indians in languages apart from English. Stories begin from the middle, consist of nameless characters and move ahead and equally abruptly end.
annie Zaidi’s keen eye is extraordinary. She observes with a minuteness that is breathtaking. Her stories are reminiscent of J. Alfred Prufrock:
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? …
Annie Zaidi, probably like many of her readers, has imagined stories about the many nameless people in a crowd. Zaidi has taken it a step further — she has written down the stories. Short sketches are meant to be packed with detail, not a word out of place, and this is exactly the vividness that characterises this collection. And yet there is a sense of universality about the sketches as the reader will instantly recognise such characters in their lives too. The empathy with which she writes is at the heart and soul of every story. The stories linger with the reader after the book is closed.
The universality of her characters is also played out by the ordinariness of their roles. Community, caste, and religion are not the identifying features of these stories. These scenarios can belong to anyone. It comes as a shock to the reader to realise this. Everyone has a story to tell. This collection proves it as long as one is prepared to look beyond the nameless faces and make the effort to understand. City of Incident: A Novel in Twelve Parts puts the spotlight on the ordinary challenges, ordinary dreams, ordinary ambitions, of the ordinary folk. The significance of this is accentuated given that Annie Zaidi is known for her sharp commentaries through the arts on sectarian violence. The grief and distress of the ongoing pandemic, coupled with the normalisation of communal hatred in society, has been horrific. Yet, Annie Zaidi has chosen to bring the conversation back to where it is essential — the common man and his/her daily struggles. Annie Zaidi epitomises the role of a writer/artist in society; and as always, she does it with calm fortitude and grace.
Patrick Radeen Keefe’s award-winning book, Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty is an extraordinary account of the Sackler family. Beginning life in Flatbush, Brooklyn, the three brothers — Arthur, Mortimer and Raymond Sackler — built an empire worth billions of dollars. Their only inheritance from their first-generation immigrant parents was their name. The sons, especially Arthur, ensured that the Sackler name was emblazoned on the walls of prestigious institutions like museums and universities. The brothers, all of whom had trained as doctors, donated generously to the Met, Smithsonian, Columbia University and Harvard University. Few knew where this wealth originated.
Patrick Radden Keefe unravels the stupendous history behind the obscene amounts of wealth that the Sackler family had made. He methodically explains Arthur Sackler’s workaholic nature that enabled him to earn money for his family while he was still in school. The young Arthur was earning sufficient money to feed and keep his family health and safe even during the Depression. Post-war, by which time he was also a qualified doctor, Arthur was practising medicine but also a publicist for pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Roche. The popular demand that Arthur Sackler managed to create for drugs like Terramycin, Valium and Betadine, by running superb marketing campaigns ensured that he was true to his promise to the manufacturing firms that he would make the names of these medicines “household names”. What is truly extraordinary is that Arthur Sackler negotiated deals for himself with the companies that were equivalent to a sliding scale of “royalties” as payment for running the campaigns. So as the companies earned millions of dollars from the sale of the pills, Arthur Sackler’s income rose proportionately ( the manufacturers could not keep pace with the demand!). It meant that the brothers could easily relocate to posher parts of New York. Slowly and steadily, Arthur also began to build one of the largest private collections of Chinese antiques. Soon, the brothers had sufficient money to buy a small, nondescript pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma. This became the firm that was used to create and sell drugs. For a long time, the brothers names were linked to selling laxatives and less harmful drugs, very different to what the PR firm they owned was promoting. But it is their development of the OxyContin drug, that was easily available and the basis of the opioid crisis that is truly terrifying. Knowingly, the Sackler family profited billions of dollars while more than 450,000 Americans perished due to this drug — the number far exceeding the combined number of American casualties in all the conflicts since World War II.
There is so much in this book to share that it is impossible to say it all in a short book review. Please read it. Empire of Pain documents the insidious and nefarious ways in which empires are built, economic exploitation of the masses is done in a calculating manner but the powers-that-be are unable to or rather choose not to do anything about it as the Sacklers bribe them. This book is packed with details as to how smoothly the family operated. Most often, Mortimer and Raymond were clueless about the operations as their brother was the mastermind. Yet, as became evident that with Arthur Sackler’s death, the remaining brothers and the younger generations, had inherited the buzz to make money at whatever cost. Arthur Sackler may have negotiated some mind-bogglingly smart deals ( inevitably in his favour) but it was his extended clan that manufactured OxyContin and profited from it. It became harder and harder to pinpoint the Sacklers as being responsible for the healthcare crisis. It required the dogged persistence of the New Yorker reporter, Keefe, to wade through piles and piles of documents, visit archives, interview over 200 people and read correspondence with friends and acquaintances of the Sacklers ( as the brothers were notoriously secretive) to write this comprehensive account. Through it all, no one from the family was ready to speak to him, not even via their lawyer. Yet, he wrote this award-winning book. So far it has won the Baillie Gifford Prize and has been shortlisted for many others.