Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Bill Buford’s Heat: Every amateur’s dream come true

Heat coverAfter a wait of many months, I was finally able to lay my hands on a copy of Heat: An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany. You may have read excerpts from this book in the New Yorker – there was one about Buford’s attempts to learn pasta-making, and another about his cooking and eating a whole hog. If you do remember those pieces, the rest of the book is much more fun.

I confess to a fascination with completely useless bits of information, and anybody who can explain what a “hotel pan” is, and do so in an amusing manner, is already a winner in my books. Kitchen jargon apart, this book is a mine of colorful characters. Mario Batali, known to food TV junkies as Iron Chef Batali, is one of them. The world of professional cooking seems to abound in such characters – Batali, for example, drinks wine by the case. Marco Pierre White, one of the foremost experts of French cooking, has thrown customers out of his restaurant for daring to order meat cooked the wrong way (the “right way” being what White thinks it is, of course). Other endearing and equally eccentric characters include a taciturn master butcher (known simply as the Maestro), a Tuscan bull (who is briefly suspected of being a homosexual for being bashful about getting it on with four cows), and Frankie, the terrifying sous-chef at Babbo (my favorite quote, “You’re doing this because you know we will fucking lose our fucking three stars if we start serving fucking instant [polenta], and if we lose our fucking three stars I lose my fucking job.”).

Heat is more than a book about food and the people who cook it. Buford writes of how
interns and “Latins” fit into the hierarchy of a typical New York restaurant, how women cooks deal with the macho environment of a restaurant kitchen (one female sous-chef wonders if she is expected to go and look at a hooker dining at the restaurant because every one of her male colleagues has done so), how you need a special “slave visa” if you wish to, well, be an unpaid kitchen slave in Italy. He effortlessly takes us from New York City to obscure European villages, and back again, stopping to quickly explain how some recipe is still adhered to centuries after someone came up with it, or how someone else came along to give another age-old recipe a little twist.

In some ways, Heat is also a lamentation for the old ways of cooking, and living.


“In Tuscany, you can’t get [chianina] meat at the heart of the region’s cooking, so Dario and the Maestro found a small farm that reproduces the intensity of flavor they grew up with. How long will that taste memory last? The Maestro will die. Dario will die. I will die. The memory will die. Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity. Find it; eat it; it will go. It has been around for millennia. Now it is evanescent, like a season.”



Despite his seriousness about the business of food, Buford is laugh out loud funny. He has a wonderful knack for self-deprecatory humor, and even though you’re supposed to feel sorry for him, or cringe, you can’t help laughing at how he ate hundreds of cubes of carrots (not all come out as perfect cubes), or how he burnt his fingers by throwing in ribs into some very hot oil (it didn’t occur to him to use a pair of tongs), or how he was made to walk around the kitchen holding a fish in a pair of tongs (because he’d failed to get fish off the grill).

My only grouse is not with the book, but with myself. For lovely as it was, reading Heat, to me, felt a bit like being insensate and having someone else describe sights, smells and sounds. I am a vegetarian, have been one all my life. Usually, this poses no greater handicap than being restricted to three or fewer menu items to choose from. But Buford’s book posed an unexpected challenge. How does a vegetarian imagine what it feels like to prepare, cook, and eat meat? The typical ½ hour cooking show on television does not treat meat with the same reverence (despite all the “ooh, the flavor is just lovely!” declarations) as Buford does. And most of my close friends are also vegetarian, so I’ve never observed anyone eating say, spare ribs.

Most of the terms baffle me – take “spare ribs” for instance. Why are they spare? It’s not as if the cow or pig (btw, are ribs species specific? They shouldn’t be, but who knows) said, “Here, I’ve a couple of ribs to spare. Take ‘em! No, really, I insist.” Here’s another – what is a “gamey” taste? There are other terms that I had no idea were related to meat, until I read Buford – sweet meat is one (pigs’ balls to those as clueless as I used to be. When I found that out, I said a small prayer of thanks that the Empress of Blandings is the Empress and not the Emperor!). And if I allow myself to think about them for more than a few minutes, the bits I do understand disgust me. After reading about ‘mutant’ ribs which are too malformed to look pretty on a dinner plate, assorted slimy creatures cooked in their own blood, etc., I came away with the impression that meat eaters will eat anything, including rotten food. One recipe involves “aging” meat over many days. Marco White describes how he experimented with different aging periods, from one day to twenty one days. He pithily concludes that the bird aged for twenty-one days was not good. No kidding.

Over exposure to some aspects of food and cooking has turned us into jades. The only country I can speak for is the US – here food has been reduced to sport (which is surely amongst the lowest forms of television…OK, an inch or two above Jerry Springer, but they are close enough to be first cousins). When “television personalities” (not chefs) are “edutaining” an audience whose idea of a family meal probably involves a bucket of chicken from the nearest KFC, what else can one do but get orgasmic over garlic (“Bam! Bam!”)? Come to think of it, it’s not just food. The idea that anyone with a mouth and a willingness to express themselves is an ‘expert’ is all pervasive. While this is an empowering notion, it puts a damper on day-dreaming. If you’re already a master chef, an excellent judge of singing talent, cricket guru, or whatever, what’s left to console yourself with during those soul-crushingly boring meetings most of us spend our lives attending?

“Heat” reminds you that there is such a thing as a true expert, and that becoming one is very hard. Every amateur, of cooking or of something else, dreams of quitting his day job someday and of spending the rest of his life overcoming such challenges. Buford’s account holds out hope by the bucketful for such dreamers. Even if you aren’t that ambitious, it’s one heck of a ride to merely observe genius in action.



It’s interesting that the term bibliophile is inextricably linked to the physical object. I wonder if there’s a term which only means ‘lover of reading’, something that denotes just the act of reading, independent of the medium. Perhaps when the term was coined, one didn’t conceive that reading might be possible on non-print media.

At least for people of my generation, a love for the physical objects themselves was a pre-requisite. I can’t remember my first ever visit to a library or book store. It must felt very close to how it felt like when I wandered into McLeod’s Books in Vancouver last month. The smell of pulp, that very distinctive smell of slightly musty pulp, made me feel heady. The sight of so many books at one spot added to that feeling of slight imbalance. I came down from that high pretty quickly, as I felt overwhelmed by the thought that I’d never be able to read all those books, or even read enough to understand what most of those books were about. That low was followed by a slow climb to another high (a more permanent high this time), where I decided that I’d somehow manage to read everything worth reading, regardless of the seeming impossibility of that goal.

These days, it’s difficult to recapture that sense of awe-struck wonder. For one thing, neither the Donnell Library nor Barnes & Noble are at all musty. Even the Strand doesn’t scare me anymore. Everything is too neatly labeled and categorized. I suppose the idea is to make it less overwhelming, but all it really does is to make it all seem more mundane, and therefore easier to ignore. My love for new books, with their slightly moist pages, and their smell of new binding is for another post. But in this one, I am going to say that as much as I like new books, with their shiny covers and untouched pages, I’d much rather take older books, used or not.

Even libraries don’t seem to carry very many old books these days. You might get lucky and get an old edition of something that no one reads any more, or something which the library hasn’t gotten around to replacing with a shinier version. But that’s extremely rare. All you get these days are new books trying very hard to look like old books – with their vain attempts at evoking the past, replete with references to old paintings and books and maps. These are the books whose pages are thick and their edges a tad rough, as though the paper’s been cut with a dull-edged knife. Who’re they kidding? They’re as close to “old” as Dan Brown is to Umberto Eco.

When I was a kid, if you claimed to ‘love to read’, you also had to love the musty-odor, and the silver-fish, and the cob-webs. Books were hard-bound in an intimidating sort of manner (intimidating because they reminded you that they really belonged in a fancy glass book case and that you were ruining them by stocking them in your modest non-glassy shelf). There were no capitalized or italicized blurbs shouting the book’s worth to the world, no quotations from Michiko Kakutani or Salman Rushdie, not even a summary. There was nothing. You either had to have read something else by the same author, or you’d heard of the book from a friend, or you went with the title and what little you could make out from skimming through a few random pages. These books were clearly not published in the 80s. These are books from my grandfather’s generation – but for some reason, these were the sorts of books one found at libraries – be it the British Council or the Shankar Lending Library at Cuddalore.

When I was a kid, reading was a solitary pursuit. I didn’t have friends who liked reading half as much as I did. I didn’t have siblings who might have steered me toward or away from books. I suppose I started with what my parents thought I might like, or rather, what looked like appropriate reading for a kid. Then I went through many authors they themselves liked – Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robin Cook… I used to go “through” authors then – if I liked one book, I read anything and everything else from the same author. Most of the books I now swear by were read for utterly random reasons – an uncle who happened to spend a few months in Germany brought back an Asterix comic as a present; old Mr. Shankar from the lending library told my Mom that Perry Mason would be “appropriate” reading for a young girl; a couple of my Dad’s friends from his bachelor days were PGW nuts, and Dad remembered the name long after he’d stopped being a bachelor; a neighbor had hard bound copies of all of Jane Austen’s novels in a book case they inherited from their grandfather; a senior from high school thought that our system of education was irredeemably screwed up because they no longer taught Shakespeare in the original – R quoted from Othello, I think, and insisted that the language was alive and not scary at all – I had a crush on him after that fine speech (mostly for being revolutionary enough to question the merit of a thing I’d taken for granted, and for not being afraid to openly express a fondness for reading stuff even older than what I’d read till then), and decided to give Shakespeare a shot, even though I doubt that I spoke to R ever again… It’s funny that the very strong likes and dislikes I now claim to have were developed so haphazardly.

Only in the last five or so years have I finally managed to connect with other readers. It still feels odd to ask someone about their reading – I am too scared to ask the question of people I think I would like to be friends with. I am terrified that they or I will give the wrong answer and a possible friendship might forever be lost. Even if I didn’t have friends, there are a zillion reviews to read, hundreds of rankings and blogs and book clubs to tell me what I should be reading. Suddenly, reading is a social activity.

But I get distracted. This was supposed to be about the books themselves, not about reading. McLeod’s as you can see from the photographs, is an amazing store. It was a delightful spot to kill a few hours, as I waited for my visa. One of the books I bought there is an old edition of Robert Graves’s Claudius the God. I’d been reading a library copy in New York, which I had to return before I could finish it. I like the book well enough, but the only reason I bought this copy was because it was inscribed:

“January 19th 1959.

To successful years ahead – and contentment – B.H.”

How could I have not bought the book after seeing that?

I have the book on my bed as I type this. Every time I read this inscription, I think of McLeod’s, the way the store looked and smelt, and I remember some of the reasons I fell in love with reading for the first time.

Strangers in strange lands

The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai

(Some spoilers)

Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of Loss is my first foray into works by the Desai clan. The experience has been good enough to warrant many more. The Inheritance of Loss reminds you that there are confused desis in India, UK and the US. The novel straddles three generations, and three different sorts of lost and dissatisfied Indians.

First, the anglophile ICS generation, loyal to a way of life that they perpetually aspire to, but never achieve. They live in Indian cities and villages, and long after the departure of the Brits, continue to fill their worlds with symbols from their ideal society: eating scones and cucumber sandwiches for tea, reading Agatha Christie, meeting one another at crumbling Gymkhana clubs, conversing among themselves in English, and with the servants in pidgin Hindi, and for all intents and purposes remain completely oblivious to the people, the language, the food and the problems that actually surround them. Many of the characters in this book belong to this generation – a retired Gujarati judge, a couple of Bengali sisters, an Uncle Potty of unknown origin…

Then there is the Amreeka-is-great generation. They believe they’ll be richer in the US, fatter, and surely happier. Biju, the cook’s son, is an illegal immigrant, working for less than minimum wages in one New York restaurant after another. His experience is understandably worse than that of the average H1B software type, but how different are they? Aren’t they all trapped in a common nightmare, even as they dream their common green-card dreams?

The green card, green card, the machoot sala oloo ka patha char sau bees green card that was not even green.

Unlike the previous generation which is happy in its yearning, this one bends over backwards to get to the land of their dreams. When they get there, it’s too late to wonder why they wanted to go there in the first place. At one point, Biju wonders:


What was he doing and why?
It hadn’t even been a question before he left. Of course, if you could go, you went. And you went, of course, if you could, you stayed


Perhaps the Anglophiles are the smarter ones – yearning lasts longer than attainment, and therefore is better?

…love must surely reside in the gap between desire and fulfillment, in the lack, not the contentment. Love was the ache, the anticipation, the retreat, everything around it but the emotion itself.

Dissatisfied as they are, the Anglophile and the Yankophile are a mild lot. The third bunch is so disillusioned that nothing short of political autonomy – a separate x-stan / y-land (replace x and y with your preferred minority community / region) – will do. A good part of this novel takes place in Kalimpong in the late 80s – at the height of the Gorkha unrest. How alien the very idea is to the first two classes is best expressed by Lola (the Anglophile widow):

And what is this with the GOrkha? It was always GUrkha.

My friends and I have frequently marveled at India’s uncanny knack for survival as a country. It is a matter we pride ourselves on, particularly when we see so many others falling apart with much less provocation. [1] But given the latest news from India, I can’t help remembering this passage:

What was a country but the idea of it? … How often could you attack it before it crumbled? To undo something took practice; it was a dark art and they were perfecting it. With each argument the next would be easier, would become a compulsive act, and like wrecking a marriage, it would be impossible to keep away, to stop picking at wounds even if the wounds were your own.

Desai’s novel is about class as much as it is about one’s sense of national identity. In any society, for a while these are maintained in hermetically sealed compartments, either out of ignorance or by force. But ultimately, people of different identities and classes do react to these differences. And when they do, some end up with illegal huts on their lawn, others get beaten to a pulp by the police. Yet others like Sai, the judge’s granddaughter who has a crush on her Indian-Nepali tutor, have their hearts broken.

The house didn’t match Gyan’s talk, his English, his looks, his clothes, or his schooling. It didn’t match his future. Every single thing his family had was going into him and it took ten of them to live like this to produce a boy, combed, educated, their best bet in the big world. Sisters’ marriages, younger brother’s studies, grandmother’s teeth-all on hold, silenced, until he left, strove, sent something back.

Sai felt shame, then, for him… The dilemmas and stresses that must exist within this house – how could he have let them out? And she felt distaste, then, for herself. How had she been linked to this enterprise, without her knowledge or consent?

I haven’t read Desai’s first novel (Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard), but I must say that The Inheritance of Loss still feels like an early work. Desai’s strengths lie in her ability to draw fresh insights out of characters and situations that appear clichéd at first glance. However, towards the end of the book, it feels as if the author is panicking – worried that she might not be able to tie all those lovely characters with their lovely stories together into one cohesive whole. And she doesn’t. There is no great so-what at the end of this great build-up. People just go back to their old ways, or grudgingly resign themselves to whatever lousy cards they’ve been dealt with. Perhaps this makes it more real. After all, even Spiderman or Superman don’t take on poverty and beat it to a pulp.

And the balance that Desai maintains so well through the first two thirds of the book, giving equal importance to the three main story threads, is somehow lost in the last one-third. Some stories and characters are ignored at the expense of others. I felt a little like waiting in the queue at Thirupathi – I’ve waited a long time to get to that spot, and just when I feel like I’ve earned my right to savor the moment, I am bustled along by some cop shouting, “Jaragandi! Jaragandi!”

Bottom line: The Inheritance of Loss is a very good read. Kiran Desai is definitely someone to watch out for. If you were born in India in the late 70s as I was, you’ll find many things to relate to, and therefore enjoy in this book.

[1] As Southies born in the late 70s, I realize that my friends and I have had no experiences that might be classified as being “provocative”, so it’s mostly idle posturing.
[2] Go here to read Falstaff’s equally positive review. And here to read Pankaj Mishra’s take on the novel.

Magic that makes you lose your illusions

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking

I have a tendency to expect the worst. I’m screwed up enough to believe that if I can prepare myself to face the absolute worst, then I should be alright, I should be able to survive whatever life decides to throw my way. Expecting the worst has worked for me, because, usually, things don’t get as bad as I fear they will.

Of course, I’ve had my share of times when expectations are met, even mine. And when something goes wrong, it takes me a while to get used to the idea of being miserable, as opposed to merely fearing that I’ll be miserable. The last am an expert at – the first feels new, every time. All that preparation is apparently worthless. So, why I do persist? Do I actively enjoy gloom?

I’ve have the last question asked of me by friends who believe I also have a tendency to read or watch what they label as “depressing stuff”. I faced the latest round of questions after foolishly announcing that I’d read Joan Didion’s amazing ‘The Year of Magical Thinking’. [1] To review Didion’s book does not feel right – it would amount to commenting on someone’s life, worse, on someone’s grief. It feels too presumptuous. Instead, am going to take a shot at answering the question my friends ask of me – why I read books like Didion’s and what, if anything, do I get from them.

It’s a tricky thing to read memoirs. When they’re filled with lists of accomplishments, I feel that I’m condoning self-indulgence. When they are about challenges overcome, I start to wonder if I haven’t been tricked into a self-help book sugar-coated as an auto-biography. When they’re about pain or grief, I feel like a voyeur.

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking falls into the last category. In case you haven’t already heard about this book, it is an account of Didion’s life in the one year after her husband of thirty-nine years dies of a sudden heart attack. That their daughter is battling for her life at the time of her father’s death and for much of the time afterwards does not help matters. At some point, Didion hears herself being referred to as a “cool customer”. As you keep reading, you realize she is one. She counters the haze of grief with clarity: she reads up psychological studies on bereavement, reads what medical textbooks say about her daughter’s condition, jumps through bureaucratic hoops to get her daughter transferred to different hospitals. If you can define something, you can master it. The principle does not seem to apply to grief. For all her attempts, Didion doesn’t always manage to get her arms around this shape-shifting monster. The least expected things trigger memories and she goes right back to square one.

So much for what that one year did for Didion. What this book does to you is to make you question your opinions about a number of things (after it makes you admit that what you hold are only opinions, in the first place).

First, there’s the debunking of a number of theories I’ve come to believe simply from repetition.

1. “It’s ok to die after you’ve lead a full life”. Here is a couple who led a life that can easily be described as full. I’ve been told that that should be enough. You find out that it’s not. You think you have a ton of happy memories? Wait and watch, for they are likely to come back to haunt you.
2. “To die in a moment, without going through a prolonged period of illness is a good thing.” I hear this all the time, especially from my grandparents. You encounter both types of death in this book. Neither is one easy for the ones who’re left behind.
3. “With age comes wisdom”. Perhaps it does, but at 70+, there’s still one heck of a lot you don’t understand.

Then there’s the issue of judgment. To benefit from loss does not feel right. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that turning your grief into a successful book isn’t something that my mother would approve of. [2] Silent martyrdom feels like the only right response to the death of a close friend or family member. Of course, I immediately felt guilty about feeling that way. Who am I to impose rules on the ways people can deal with their loss? What has conditioned me to think of silence and martyrdom as being the best, or worse, the “right” reaction?

Along with this vague mixture of disapproval and guilt comes a bit of wishful thinking. Didion and Dunne appear to have had a wonderful marriage. Despite all the grief that the end of such a wonderful relationship entails, I realize that I should be lucky to have one in the first place. There’s also wishing that if I live to be Didion’s age, I hope I’d have even half the tenacity, half the clarity of this woman. And who am I kidding – I also wish for at least half her success.

At some point, I realized that this book was becoming a part of my internal calibration mechanism. [Bear with me while I take a detour to explain what I mean by this.]

If reading in general is a great escape hatch, reading about misery is the zenith of escapism. It not only helps you escape life at the moment you’re reading, but also long afterwards. I’ve been reading for about a couple of decades now (which sounds great, doesn’t it? This is the only instance where I’m proud of my age), and I’ve started to notice that “original” moments are becoming rarer and rarer. Everything I do or feel, I’ve probably read about already (and therefore experienced, even if only vicariously). Perhaps the accumulation of experience is merely an artifact of age, but reading certainly quickens the process like nothing else does [3].

For the most part, I compare and contrast my real experiences with ones I’ve already had. I read more than I do anything else, and so even when I come across something completely new, my immediate reaction is to think of an appropriate author and how he or she might describe what I’m going through. As a result of all this measuring and analyzing, lots of times, I escape from actually feeling (unless I remind myself to – which immediately makes the experience artificial, don’t you think?). At the bare minimum, I get to defer impact of feeling. The act of calibration always comes first because it feels so much more important than what I’m feeling, which can always be done later. While the worth of this “suspension” is debatable in happy times, it has become invaluable in bad ones. And the more I read, the richer my portfolio of experiences. End digression.

Didion’s book is now part of this mixture. The good thing about reading Didion’s experience is that it forces you to acknowledge that it is Didion’s experience – if something like that were to happen to me, I would have to find my own ways of dealing with it. There is no guarantee that just because Didion seems to have survived, I will. She makes it abundantly clear that deep loss is always personal, and that there is no escaping it.

When I read what I’ve written, I see that I haven’t given a straight answer to the question I set out to answer. Why do I read books like this one? I did not enjoy it, at least not in the way my friends imply. If this were fiction, I might have considered agreeing with them. [4] On the contrary, this is real, and all the more terrifying for that reason. It is brutal, like Alice Sebold’s Lucky, if less violent.

One reason I started to read this particular book was simply because I’d read uniformly positive reviews about it. [5]. Also, I’ve been moping around a bit lately, and felt the need to see the world as seen by someone older, and therefore hopefully wiser. To get some perspective, so to speak. It was an unsettling experience to read Didion, because what I finally got from her was that there is no way to escape bad things. And whatever my personal misery, it is different from Didion’s and there were no “lessons” I could learn.

But for all that, learn I did. Thanks to Didion, I think I understand the mechanics of my own approach to disappointment better. Will I deal with it any better the next time I face it? I don’t know. But understanding helps me fine tune my internal calibrator. More importantly, understanding helps me recognize my fancy calibrator for the illusion that it is. And both have value.

[1] To my credit, I did not ask them to read this book, despite the fact I was dying to *order* them to read this book. I merely told them what the book was about.
[2] Warning: I have a nasty habit of assigning responses to “moral” questions to my mother, especially to those answers I feel I “ought” to give. I have no idea if my mother approves or disapproves of this particular book. She hasn’t read it.
[3] The alternative is that I actually go out and live life. Are you kidding me? Why would I ever choose that option, when I can experience all there is to right from the comfort of my bed, and get to read awesome writing at the same time? Life’s totally overrated!
[4] Note, the term used is “consider” – stories about unhappy people unfortunately happen to be some of the best written – and that’s my reason for reading those books, so there!
[5] How many books get positive reviews from Michiko Kakutani and Falstaff? Go here and here to read them.

A guided tour of the last days of the Roman Empire

Review – Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

History is an interest I have only lately acquired. I believe my interest in history began shortly after I wasn’t required to remember five salient points about the First Five Year Plan. But it has taken a good decade, and then some, for me to actively seek out and read an actual book of history [1].

OK. So much for the build-up – the book: Rubicon by Tom Holland. It covers the last 100 or so years of the end of the Roman Empire, with a focus on the latter half. Starting with Marius and Sulla, we’re given a quick guided tour of the expansion of the empire and the implications of this expansion. The good things about the tour include interesting snippets of information about the personalities involved – Julius Caesar used to be a “loose-belted” dandy in his youth; rich Romans were curiously obsessed with fish; Mark Antony might have been bisexual, and more in the same vein.

That the tour is “guided” ensures that one rarely lingers at some spot interesting only to a few – one is ushered along the timeline, from dictator to dictator, pausing only briefly at scenes of great battles (Carthage, Gaul, Alexandria) and civil wars (revolts caused or put down by Sulla, Spartacus, Cicero, Caesar (both Julius and Augustus)). At the end of this book, I felt a bit like coming off a road trip with my parents. I’ve seen all the places I’m “supposed” to have visited on a trip to XYZ town; all meals (strictly vegetarian) were eaten on time, no sleepless nights or mad rushes to the train station or airport… I feel I’ve “completed” something I set out to achieve, but there’s an unstated promise to myself to visit these places again someday, on my own, or with my friend J who abhors lists of all sorts.

Good things about Rubicon:

– It is a surprisingly fast read for a book that’s mostly about two thousand year old politicians and despots.
– It accomplishes all it sets out to achieve – which, I assume, is to give the layperson a chance to quickly understand the most important aspects of an entire civilization. I may act snooty about my parents’ preferred method of sight-seeing now, but traveling with a check list isn’t entirely without merit.
– It does not read like a text book. There are foot-notes, but you’re never in danger of losing yourself in asterisk marks and pluses and other assorted special characters. The language is not cumbersome or dry, which brings us to the not so great things about this book.

Tom Holland has a weird habit (weird for a historian, that is) of dropping any numbers of allusions all over the book. Here’re a few samples:

Sulla, first in consternation and then in mounting fury, retired to his tent.

It was Lucullus… who had first made the rumors of incest public. No smoke without fire-and there must have been something unusual about Clodius’s relations with his three sisters to have set tongues wagging.

Caesar would one day talk of rolling a die when he faced the gravest crisis of his life, and his taste for the metaphor must surely have derived from his childhood.

I appreciate Holland’s wanting to make ancient history sound less ponderous. But frankly, I’d prefer that he leave emoting to novelists and the outright guessing to super-market magazines. Holland is at his best when he states facts, and in this case, I strongly believe the facts are interesting enough to never really need the props that he so eagerly supplies.

The book covers considerable breadth, and understandably, that is achieved at a cost. If you’re the sort who loves to read about battle-ground tactics or the intricacies of political tap-dancing, prepare to be disappointed. Holland deals with such matters only cursorily. Be it Julius Caesar’s defeat of Vircingetorix or Pompey’s manipulations of the Senate in the months leading to Caesar’s crossing the Rubicon, there are any numbers of fascinating stories that receive no more than a passing mention here. Had I not been fortunate enough to have read a book and a half from Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series, I’d not know enough to miss these stories.

Bottom line: Rubicon is a good book for history neophytes like myself, whose knowledge of Rome is limited to information (at times gravely distorted) from Shakespeare, the odd Hollywood tent-pole, and Goscinny and Uderzo [2]. However, this is just the beginners’ course. Any extra credits on how little democracy has changed since the birth of the Republic; why despite all its ills, democracy still appears to be a lesser evil than the alternatives, and lessons, if any, for modern super-powers – you’ll have to do on your own.

[1] History disguised as travelogues, or sugar-coated as fiction; movies and documentaries that involve one or more of the following persons or entities are all classified under entertainment, not history: Tony or Ridley Scott, Jeremy Irons, Geoffrey Rush, either half of Brangelina, Eric Bana or anyone-who-looks-as-good-as-Bana in a mini skirt (forgive me, I meant to say toga / battle dress (whatever)), a major Hollywood studio, or a Major Hollywood Studio once removed (which plugs the HBO loop-hole).

[2] Whose most important insight into the Roman psyche is captured in those famous words: “Ils sont fous, ces Romains!” also known as “These Romans are crazy!”

A humorist after my own heart

Some humorists make you laugh till your stomach hurts. Others can make you chuckle ruefully. Woody Allen makes me glad I’m me. [1]

I first fell for Allen’s words, not his movies. I read White Feathers first (or it may have been Side Effects) and moved on to the scripts of Annie Hall, Manhattan and a couple of others I don’t recall now. I must have been in my under-grad then. I’m not sure what directed me to his books at the USIS library, but I suspect I’d have found his works sooner or later. It’s difficult to imagine who would have replaced Allen had I not discovered Allen.

Over the years, I’ve watched many of his movies (although I’m glad that I still have quite a few saved for rainy days ahead) – from the truly sublime ( Crimes and Misdemeanors , Zelig , Annie Hall, Manhattan), the utterly delightful ( Deconstructing Harry, Manhattan Murder Mystery) to strictly-for-fans only ( Sleeper, Don’t drink the water, The Front, The Purple Rose of Cairo). It’s good to be the fan of a man who is not only a genius, but also prolific. Just compare the experience of being a Woody Allen fan to being a fan of, oh, David Mamet or David Lynch – with Allen you simply get more.

I suspect age may have had something to do with how thoroughly I fell in love with Woody Allen. For a 17 year old, to live in a big city, have sparkling conversations with friends, listen to jazz, visit museums, and yes, deal with existential problems (Allen’s characters almost exclusively have existential problems – infidelity, temptation, boredom… You don’t often come across characters who have bad jobs, or no-job, no-money, and most certainly never no-apartment) all represented the very best of “adulthood”. Allen’s world was the stuff my dreams were made of.

I’m older now, and I still want to turn into an Allen character when I grow up. Technically, I’m supposed to be living that life I dreamt about at 17 (and in a way, I suppose I am, although I don’t live in the Upper East Side or hang around Swedish film festivals). Now, I simply appreciate their fine escapist quality. I don’t resent the 20-something artists their real estate. They seem to be so sweetly unhappy with their lot that I don’t grudge them the odd 2-bedroom-apartment-with-terrace-and-view-to-die-for, in Midtown or Belgravia.

Also, Allen is an optimist. I can’t think of a single movie of his at the end of which I felt cynical. Things that are liable to make one want to kill oneself in real life – losing the love of your life, getting caught committing murder, or having your spouse of several years cheat on you – only seem to leave Allen’s characters perplexed and mildly annoyed. And in almost all of these cases, you just might manage to live happily ever after (or as happy as one’s neuroses will allow) after all. No, you don’t want Woody Allen for lessons in morality. You watch them to amuse yourself.

A good number of my friends are NOT Allen fans. Their complaints range from
“he looks like he does, and yet ends up with very pretty ladies”, “he married his own daughter, for crying out loud!”, “they talk too much in his movies”, to “he’s a twisted guy who makes twisted movies”… As for the first complaint, I admit it was a bit awkward to see him pair up with Julia Roberts, but in his old movies, honestly, it didn’t feel at all weird to see him with Diane Keaton or any of his other leading ladies. He’s never vain about his looks – whether he’s playing a cheesy, unsuccessful talent manager, an oily Latin lover, or a husband dumped by Meryl Streep for a woman, his looks are an essential part of the charm. As for his personal life, well, he’s no more or no less koo-koo than tens of other Hollywood stars (including the erstwhile matinee idol – Tom Cruise). Who cares what he does with his life as long as he makes such wonderful cinema?

This week-end, I watched Match Point. I found it a bit boring at first (the first two-thirds are pretty slow going), but the last third convinced me that the master hasn’t quite lost his touch yet. It is such a thoroughly delightful movie. But I fear that Allen may have become dated. The average age of the audience was 55. This figure was skewed by 7 or 8 odd people below 35, all of whom, I was glad to note were desis. I can see how selling Allen may be a difficult proposition when the mainstream audience needs Kiera Knightly to draw them into watching Austen, and Ashton Kutcher to make sequels to Sidney Poitier flicks (*shudder*).

I turn to the other humorists I’ve been writing about when I need to be cheered up, or need to get away from my life’s madness. I turn to Allen when I need to be reminded about myself. [1]

[1] Reading back, I realize some of this stuff sounds very vain – after all who am I to say that Woody Allen reminds me of me? I can only protest that when I say some of these things, I do so with the greatest degree of awe. A lot more of “Allen reminds me of the best I want to be”, with just the odd dash of “he reminds me of who I am.” [2]
[2] While I don’t want to sound very vain, I don’t mind sounding somewhat vain.

Memories of pigs, four-eyed secretaries, fat farms and dog races

“Nostalgia’s just the longing for a time you know you can survive.”
– from The Well-Appointed Room by Richard Greenberg

It’s weird to start a post on Wodehouse on that sentimental note. But Greenberg succinctly sums up what I suspect is the most important reason I continue to read PGW. I owe my introduction to PGW to a friend of my dad’s. This friend is apparently a great fan, and my father remembered the author and got me The Head of Kays . I must have been oh, 10 or 11 then. I was quite livid with my father for buying me a book which featured neither Tin Tin nor Asterix, and worse, was apparently all about boys and cricket. I refused to read the book for I don’t know how long. In those days, I actually used to read everything I bought, or could lay my hands on. Frequently, I actually ran out of books to read.[1] On one such occassion, I finally gave up my pride and truly gave Kennedy and Fenn a chance.

Kays isn’t particulary funny. But having changed schools often myself, I completely related to Kennedy who finds himself in a new house. The book that made me a life-long fan was Leave it to Psmith , another gift from my dad. A serendipitous gift because it features Blandings Castle AND Psmith… I’ve never cared much for Jeeves (whom I consider to be the meanest character PGW ever created). Had I started with one of the Jeeves books, I doubt I’d have carried on with Wodehouse.

I’m not even going to attempt going over Wodehouse’s style. Entire forests must’ve been mown down for the topic. Instead am just going to indulge in nostalgia, and say why Wodehouse is special to me…

– I remember reading somewhere that people who read do so in order to feel like they belong – borrowing Wodehouse from the Madras British Council library made me feel like I was part of a club – PGW books from the BC always had a lot of notes on the margins, lines underlined, references to other books where the same characters were featured, lines that some previous reader had felt were “the best!”. Now, almost all of my friends read. But growing up, I didn’t really have anyone I could discuss books with (my dad’s participation was limited to footing the bill for my expensive hobby.) The doodles and underlines and notes on PGW books were the closest thing I had to a conversation…

– The suspicion with which my mom’s always regarded PGW. Apparently, the sight of her one and only spending holidays cooped up with a book, and periodically letting out maniacal howls of laughter while clutching tummy and rolling on the floor wasn’t my mom’s idea of “normal” behaviour. I’d try to explain the joke to her, but you know how PGW is. My mom would only get even more convinced that her child was apparently daft as well as crazy – why else would anyone laugh at the idea of a fat pig being stolen, or a secretary in lemon pajamas? When the Stephen Fry / Hugh Laurie Jeeves shows were broadcast on televsion, I believe I made my mom watch them. She’s never taken to PGW for some reason, and my forcing it down her throat didn’t help. Something changed in my mom’s opinion of me after she saw my tear streaked face as I read that last chapter in Leave it to Psmith – where Freddy Threepwood puts his leg through a rotting floor. I’ve done and read lots of things things that perplexed and continue to disturb my mom since then, but I’d like to think that that was the first.

In a fit of nostaligia, I watched the Fry-Laurie Jeeves series last week. It’s just not the same. Laurie and Fry are still great (although Laurie wears too much make-up *shudder*), but the aunts are no longer menacing. In my memory, I’d also confused the actor who plays Steggles as being Gussie Fink-Nottle. Aunt Agatha looks just like Aunt Dahlia and Bingo Little & Tuppy Glossop feel more like a couple of extras rather than being the jolly chaps they’re in the books.

I no longer howl with laughter when reading Wodehouse. But I still read him whenever I want to escape to a world where the worst thing that can happen is that an aunt might want you to steal a cow-creamer, and the most intelligence you need to possess is to not give your real name to the judge post boat-race night.

[1] Those were golden days, when one didn’t carry all the world’s guilt at not reading one or another book from a backlog longer than I care to make metaphorical jokes about. My mom told me that if I wish for many things in life, I’d be sent back at the end of this one so I could live out all my wishes. That was meant as a warning against wishing for too much, I think. Personally am not sure any number of lifetimes will get me through my reading back log.

Poking fun, with love

For the next few days, I am going to write about my favorite humorists. This is my effort at reminding myself that there’s still lots of stuff in life that can make me laugh (with pleasure, not hysteria).

I’ll begin with David Sedaris. I was introduced to him by an ex- colleague who gifted me Me Talk Pretty One Day (easily the best gift I’ve ever received). I’ve been hooked ever since. Sedaris will be no stranger to regular readers of the New Yorker, or to listeners of NPR.

For the uninitiated, here are a few links where you can listen to the author. Warning: Do NOT attempt to listen to these recordings at work, or at any place where falling off your chair while searching your memory for something, anything to make the laughter stop can get you into trouble. After that build-up you’re bound to find anybody unfunny, but here goes anyways:

Readings:The sex of French nouns, Excerpts from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.
To sample his writing, read Turbulence.

For the most part, Sedaris writes about himself, his family, life in North Carolina, his boyfriend Hugh and their adventures in France (the author & his partner split their time between France & the US, or used to till the last piece I read). It’s a real pleasure to listen to Sedaris because he delivers everything in a vaguely regretful monotone, which somehow makes situations and characters funnier. My all time favorite piece is ‘Jesus Shaves’, a hilarious account of Sedaris’s painful attempts at learning French. ‘Santaland Diaries’, an account of the author’s short-lived career as a supermarket elf is a close second.

I’m a sucker for self-deprecatory humor, and Sedaris is about as self-depreciating as humorists can get. He doesn’t bother with elaborate plots, or verbal pyrotechnics. His characters are drawn from life. But the effect is somehow not unlike PGW – both excel in developing a cast of characters that you come to love over time. His sisters, his lovable but weird parents, one very interesting brother, his rather sweet boyfriend (I suspect he says only the nicest things about him for obvious reasons) – you meet them all in different essays, and reading a new Sedaris piece is like catching up with a much loved and somewhat goofy family.

Humor can be caustic. Sedaris blends his with acceptance and love. Having grown up with Wodehouse and Thurber, I think I’m used to my humorists being nice people (or writing like nice people). Sure, I enjoy the more caustic kind, but poking gentle fun is somehow so much more fun.

Genre-fication aka Reverse-engineering the magic sauce

Popular fiction is becoming like the restaurant business. If it’s new, it’s a good idea to try it now. In three months, you’ll get the same gravy / sauce (if the cuisine’s Italian) that is mass manufactured in Guangdong or Gurgaon and air-lifted to every restaurant in the world.

Take Austen. The lady writes a delightful comedy of manners and society. And since they didn’t have the internet back then, it took several hundred years for the mass production to start. First came Georgette Heyer, then Helen Fielding. Now, you have whole sections devoted to Chick-lit, all of which read exactly alike.

The Name of the Rose was great. Foucault’s Pendulum. Even better. We then move to 25+ million copies of a somewhat re-hashed Foucault’s and before you know it, you have a whole genre of wannabe historical mysteries. The latest addition to this genre is Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. The premise looked interesting enough. Problem: a good two generations worth of mystery surrounding Vlad, the Impaler (aka Dracula), plus at least one kidnapped Professor of History. The heroine: another Professor of History who looks into old documents collected by her father, and his mentor and travels all over Europe to unravel the mystery and to rescue the missing person(s).

It’s such a pity that what made Eco’s old sauce work has now been reverse-engineered into its individual components. The ingredients for Writing a Historical Mystery:
1. One pinch of history (vital that this pinch be from some area that even science majors will know about)
2. 5 heaped scoops of nerdiness (why would anyone who is truly cool be remotely interested in Sir Francis Bacon or a 400 year old Romanian landlord?)
3. 2 tea-spoon full of Great-Looks (for your oeuvre to really have legs, the casting director must be able to use leggy actresses) [1]
4. One attractive reward that awaits the intrepid scholar / librarian / diligent student at the end of his or her adventure (helpful hint: world domination, buried treasure, heirs to sons / daughters of God, even cataloging a rare and extensive collection of books and manuscripts – all taken – please think of something else)
5. The following are essential ingredients that you cannot replace, no matter how adventurous you’re feeling: Istanbul / Constantinople, Rome, obscure village in some-country-formerly-behind-iron-curtain, at least 2 piazzas, 3 water fountains (at least one of which should be functioning – remember leggy heroine must get wet), 4 chapels, 17 libraries and 1 railway station (to remind your US audience that Europeans are so archaic they still use trains!)
6. Very important: Pique the readers’ curiosity at the end of every word / sentence / para / chapter. If you are confused about how you can do this, begin by replacing full stops with exclamation points!

Kostova sticks to all of these rules. I might have found the book merely tedious, but the “prize” (refer rule 4 above) offered by Kostova transports the book into the realm of the ridiculous. It’s not “propah” to disclose more. I will merely say that the secret had two of my friends in splits. I was in too much pain to laugh.[2]

When I consider this genre-fication phenomenon, I realize that the fault lies with me (as it almost always does). When I see a good thing, why can’t I just let it go? So, I loved Eco. I shouldn’t try to seek that same thrill over and over again. I should move on. The hang-ups that served me well in childhood (if you enjoyed one book in the Tin Tin series, reading allof them is a good thing) no longer apply. A good friend’s always asking me to expand my horizons. I’ll try to heed his advice in at least one area of life. No more wannabe Tolkiens, Ecos, or Austens[3].

[1] In my more paranoid moments, I wonder if this whole history + mystery movement hasn’t been started by academics who would appear to have finally hired Rick Renard or someone of his caliber. In my less paranoid moments, I wonder which celebrity is a Rosie Crucian / Free Mason / what-have-you (as you can see, Foucault’s Pendulum has left a lasting impression.)
[2] For a fee of twenty-five cents, full plot will be disclosed via personal email.
[3] You should be so lucky to get wanna be Tolkiens, Ecos or Austens. You’re more likely to end up with wannabe-wannabe-Tolkiens (a wannabe-Rowling or wannabe-Paolini for instance), wannabe-wannabe-Austens (the wannabe-Fieldings and the wannabe-Bushnells figure here)

The joys of co-hosting

Technically, it was Karthik who got tagged. But I’ve no powers of resistance against tags such as this. Am butting in. But Karthik – Veena & I are both eager to know your own list.

Total number of books I own
About 300-400 (counting stuff from the dark ages, including my collection of Russian children’s literature). Practically of it is back home in India. I have less than 10 (although I suspect 25 may be a fairer number) in Dallas. My parents are under strict instructions to NOT lend my books out, and I conduct random, unannounced phone interviews to ensure that they’re sticking to the rules. Thankfully none of my cousins is into most of the stuff I read, but my old Asterix comics are under constant threat and that’s enough to keep me awake at nights.

Last book(s) I bought
Ponniyin Selvan Collection by Kalki as translated by CV Karthik Narayanan
Parthiban Kanavu by Kalki (another English translation)
Two Lives by Vikram Seth
Valuation: Measuring and Managing the Value of Companies by McKinsey & Company Inc., Tim Koller, Marc Goedhart, David Wessels – purchased in a moment of madness I still can’t explain

Last books(s) I read
Howard’s End by EM Forster
The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole by Stephanie Doyon
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Caesar: A Novel by Colleen McCullough

Books I am currently reading
Two Lives by Vikram Seth
Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
White Teeth – Zadie Smith
Shipping News – Annie Proulx

Five books that I have really enjoyed or influenced me
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
The Head of Kays (my first Wodehouse)
Pride & Prejudice
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
The last two are major ‘influencers’, and have contributed in a major way to my approach to life and romance – the conviction that I don’t want to settle for anything short of the sort of romance that Elizabeth & Darcy have, balanced by the equally unassailable conviction that true love can only lead to a marriage like Helen Graham’s. My friends & family wonder why I’m screwed up – well, now you know. I place the blame squarely on these two long dead Englishwomen.

Books I plan to buy / read next
Haruki Murakami – Kafka on the Shore
The White Mughals by William Dalrymple
Anything by Kazuo Ishiguro / Zadie Smith / Vikram Seth / Margaret Atwood
The next Harry Potter

Authors / Books that caught my attention and I have never read, but consider my “duty” to read
The Histories – Herodotus
Homer’s Iliad & Odyssey
Niall Ferguson

Books I own but never get around to reading
Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude
Salman Rushdie – Midnight’s Children
Michael Cunnigham’s The Hours
Valuation: Measuring and Managing the Value of Companies by McKinsey & Company Inc., Tim Koller, Marc Goedhart, David Wessels. I knew this would happen. It’s lovely to be so right about things.