Archive for February, 2011

February 19, 2011

February Thoughts from South Asia

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BY KULPREET YADAV

 

Prof P. Lal, one of the most loveable Indian Publishers, closes his final book

I won’t talk about the literary festivals that are proliferating in India these days like wildfire (but don’t take me as someone who is averse to them). Rather, with esteemed reverence I would like to remember one of the India’s greatest publishers and writers, Prof P. Lal, who passed away recently. His ‘Writer’s Workshop’, during the five decades plus of its existence, published many famous names of the present times: Vikram Seth, Anita Desai, Shashi Deshpande and Raja Rao, to name a few.

 

I got to know about Prof P. Lal about four years ago and spoke with him on a few occasions. This was the time when I was looking for a suitable publisher for my novel. I had spoken to about a dozen editors and publishing house receptionists or so, and the only one who spoke to me with excitement was Prof Lal. Not just that, he also gave me a few words of encouragement, something that did a lot to my confidence and for which I am forever indebted.

But sadly, I couldn’t publish with Writer’s Workshop (I repent it to this day). And the only reason I didn’t publish my first title with him was due to the simple fact that WW didn’t have a distribution setup. Mr. Lal’s love for books was so deep-routed and his idea of books so unique that he hand-bound the books himself in lovely and colorful Indian sarees (the traditional clothing of Indian women) cloth pieces from his house at Kolkata, in north east India, and the book numbers were kept as low as 100, something like a limited edition.

During one of our recent conversations, I requested him to accept a small donation from me for the Writer’s Workshop, which his website announced they needed. I was honored because, not only did he accept my offer, but he also made it a point to talk about my small gesture on WW’s website. It is still there now. Aside from this, there was a poetry collection I had been working on, too, about which I told him and he asked me to send it for consideration. But since it wasn’t fully ready, I couldn’t send it. Now, perhaps, I never will. Worse, no one as good might ever be willing to see it.

 

A father at 94

Well, this got me thinking, I mean, how is it possible to father a child that is biologically one’s own at 94?

But it has happened right here in India! The man who achieved this feat asserted, according to a national daily, that it’s due to the food he had consumed when young: three liters of Buffalo milk, half a kilo of almonds and half a kilo of ghee (melted, clarified butter) everyday. It’s a magic formula to remain virile until the final breath, if you go by his theory. Food for thought for scientists, I guess.

In a race to unsettle the previous record holder, another Indian man who fathered a child at 90, this nonagenarian farmer is not just happy, he is bubbling with newly attained fatherhood and posing for pictures in his village in India’s northwest. He has called this unique achievement, ‘The God’s gift’. His wife is in her mid-fifties.

An important question: Is it not the responsibility of a parent to consider, before bearing a child, if he or she has enough residual time to bring up the child properly? But at 94 he can hardly be blamed to worry about such issues. And as Hugh Hefner, CEO of Playboy enterprises, recently said during his engagement to a Playboy model 60 years younger, ‘When you’re in love, age is just a number.’ Let’s watch out: he’s 84.

 

When it’s for the family, it pays to fight the weather

With the onset of a particularly aggressive winter this year, it hurt many of us to see so many people stuck at the airports all over Europe and America, spending Christmas and other holidays sprawled on hard benches or floors. So the question is: is it really worthwhile for you to jettison your travel plans, or the possibility of being with your loved ones, for the fear that the weather may play a spoil sport?

I would like to share what happened to me when I was confronted with the option and the opportunity came for me to visit my family at Delhi, nearly three thousand kilometers from where I am stationed. The newspaper had reported diversion of 76 flights during the last few days of December yet I grabbed the opportunity to visit my family with both hands and booked myself a flight for the first of January. And as luck would have it, the aircraft arrived in the afternoon on a clear day and on time. So you see, it does pay to fight the weather.

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February 17, 2011

Book Review: The Witness House by Christiane Kohl

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THE WITNESS HOUSE
by Christiane Kohl

Other Press
(October 2010, $14.95, 272 pages)

What would happen if Hitler’s right hand men shacked up under the same roof as Holocaust victims? It’s actually a true story and is told in The Witness House, by Christiane Kohl.

The Witness House takes place during the Nuremberg Trials in 1945, after the fall of the Third Reich. Accommodated in Novalisstrasse, a boarding house on the outskirts of Nuremberg, are witnesses for both the prosecution and the defence of the Nazi regime’s war crime trial. Mediating opposing viewpoints in Novalisstrasse is Countess Ingeborg Kálnoky, a local appointed by American liberation troops. At the Countess’s every beck and call is Elise Krülle, Novalisstrasse’s chambermaid and waitress.

It’s interesting to see the level of intellect Nazi devotees have in this story. For example, Rudolf Diels, the first to head the Gestapo, claims he was never a Hitler supporter. He perpetuates the guise by acting like a ladies man as he attempts to charm the Countess by kissing her hand, among other flirtatious moves, but Kálnoky knows that Diels is a dangerous man and is on “room arrest” for a reason.

Erwin Lahousen also projects an air of mystery. He was on the front line during the war, often close to Hitler, but he claims he was a member of the Resistance and that he came inches from murdering the head of the Nazi party.

The Witness House offers lively scenes begging for analysis. For instance, Countess Kálnoky acts as a middleman between Lahousen and Hoffman, Hitler’s personal photographer and close friend. Lahousen is in need of soap and razors, scarce items in post-war Germany, which Hoffman has stashed away. The Countess cons these items into her possession and then passes them on to Lahousen. You can only ask, when would this ever happen in the outside world?

Kohl’s research into wartime Germany and the Nuremberg trials offers moments of serious awakening. Gerhard Krülle, the chambermaid’s teenage son, grew up as a hypnotised Hitler youth. He tells of how, under the regime, he believed in the Fuhrer but was rudely awakened when National Socialism fell and his mentor was exposed as a war criminal. The propaganda young Germans faced is a viewpoint rarely exposed and it is worth reflecting upon.

Concentration camp life is also revealed. Stories of SS brothels run by Nazi soldiers sicken the reader and shed light on a part of the war we try not to think about. The most gruesome scene comes by way of French prisoner Maurice Lampe. He witnessed political prisoners “forced to keep carrying heavy blocks of stone up [. . .] steps. One after another, the men had collapsed, and soon the stairway was covered with blood and corpses.”

Aside from telltale violence, it is the absurd which gives you nightmares. Stories of “daily roll calls, often lasting for hours, when the prisoners were ordered ‘Caps off!’ or ‘Caps on!’ again and again”; in the Mauthausen camp, “a macabre execution scene that [. . .] had been accompanied by music from a gypsy band forced to play the melody of ‘J’attendrai’ (‘I will wait’)” raises your neck hair.

Down the line, getting all the way through The Witness House becomes an uphill struggle. For the first half, and a good chunk of the second, each chapter focuses on a new arrival at the house. The writing is vibrant, the characters animated, but you find yourself fidgeting in anticipation of when the exposé will cease, and hoping a climactic fever will finally overcome redundancy. However, you shake the blues near the end, when some of the most dark stories of Nazi Germany are revealed. At times you really are amazed at the similarity to fiction this true story has.

– review by John Coleman

February 14, 2011

Book Review: A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates

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A WIDOW’S STORY: A MEMOIR
by Joyce Carol Oates

Ecco
(February 2011, $27.99, 432 pages)

It is a rare opportunity to gain an honest glimpse into the private life of a public persona. When it happens, the reveal is often surprising because the discovery of the “real” life is quite different from the character known to the public. Joyce Carol Oates’ memoir of her husband’s unexpected death and the aftermath of grief over her loss is a deeply personal and honest look at her submersion into the ill-defined world of present-day widowhood.

In 1961, after a brief courtship and at the tender age of 23, Oates married the love of her life, Raymond J. Smith, in Madison, Wisconsin. Their marriage was her foundation for nearly 50 years. In her private life, she was Joyce Smith. She and Ray shared a deeply loving marriage marred by few upheavals, trials or separations. Their academic careers mirrored, they often taught in the same universities or at colleges located close together. In 1974 they founded a literary magazine, The Ontario Review and its publishing house The Ontario Review Books. Ray left academia to become editor of The Ontario Review and while Joyce continued to teach and write, she also took on the role of an associate editor. Their union, by her own definition was, “a marriage of like minds.”

A Widow’s Story begins with Ray’s hospitalization for pneumonia at Princeton Medical Center. Ray, an editor, runner, writer and husband, had been in good, if not excellent health, for all of his 68 years. His bout with pneumonia, requiring hospitalization, was unexpected but not catastrophic. Both patient and wife expected a speedy discharge with life quickly returning to its happy and peaceful domesticity. Oates was blindsided by the rapid decline of her husband’s illness: heart arrhythmia, admission to the Cardiac Care Unit and the close monitoring of low oxygen levels. Throughout, she expected that he was going to rally and return to his usual healthy state. However, within the week Ray was dead of a rare but deadly hospital acquired infection, E coli bacterial pneumonia. Ray’s sudden, brutal and unexpected death unceremoniously threw Oates into a panicked state of widowhood. She tried desperately to comprehend the wrenching loss of her husband.

Oates’ widowhood is dark, full of grief and provides a frank look at the abyss of absence. Her observations mirror some of the bleak themes she has explored in her own writing as her author-self, Joyce Carol Oats, to whom she refers to as JCO. A Widow’s Story is deeply personal and painful to read because it describes a wrenching end of a loving marriage. We as readers experience a Pandora’s Box of the unexpected and unwanted as she writes about the aftermath of death and of a life she never expected, wanted, or planned.

Ray was her life. They had only each other; there were no children, just two cats and a garden, (mostly Ray’s cats and Ray’s garden). She compartmentalizes the year following his death into 5 distinct periods of time: I. The Vigil, II. Free Fall, III. The Basilisk, IV. Purgatory, Hell, V. “You Looked So Happy”.

Oates is brutally honest with her reflections and recollections and she writes with a rawness that thankfully lacks self-deprecation or the canonization of the departed. She is truthful in her fear that she may not be able to carry on and writes poignantly about the difficulty of daily tasks and of wearing a brave face. Equally, she’s brutally honest about her perception of living up to others’ expectations of her as The Widow. Her grief does not follow any predictable stages. She is able travel and give speeches within a week of Ray’s death but she is unable to write. She cannot sleep, although she is perpetually exhausted. She keeps an exact inventory of pain pills, anti-anxiety pills and sleeping pills and, in the beginning of her life without Ray, she thinks often of making a quick and peaceful exit from her own painful existence. She has flashbacks of his death, she dreams that he is alive and she feels she is being watched by a reptilian creature who wants her to die. This honest recount of raw grief is painful, wrenching and lonely.

A Widow’s Story is not only a memoir; it is also a social commentary on widowhood in the 21st century where there are no set rules. The formalities that mark the phases of widowhood are nebulous and isolating. Oates finds herself buried in food baskets she can’t consume and plants she can’t care for. She is never able to write acknowledgements of Ray’s death nor can she even pick up the phone. Her most uplifting and meaningful correspondences are via e-mail. Oates takes a very difficult look into the modern age of widowhood, speaking to the greater societal issue of avoidance and of the compartmentalization of people who are no longer part of what was once a comfortable whole.

Yet, A Widow’s Story is not without humor and light: lives well-lived and full of love must have their glory. Thankfully, Oates reveals many of her beloved husband’s traits, characteristics and talents. She is able to describe the Ray she knew, lived with and loved for almost 50 years. She recognizes that while it is painful to imagine the loss, it is also an honor to share in the life. Her year ends with hope and with a small kernel of insight which reveals that grief, even fathomless and unimaginable grief of love lost, is worth wading through. Life will go on.

Sweetman

February 7, 2011

Book Review: Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

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SHADOW TAG
by Louise Erdrich

Harper Collins
(February 2011 pb, $14.99 , 272 pages)

We once lived next door to some rather inscrutable neighbors: friendly enough when caught in the driveway for a quick hello, but otherwise cool and aloof. Occasionally, we’d catch glimpses of their interior lives – a tearful phone conversation on the patio, voices raised in argument, a slammed car door and the racing engine of a hasty departure. There seemed no way to inquire about their well-being, to offer a hand, or a thoughtful word. They kept their distance quite efficiently. They never wanted to connect, never offered to reciprocate after we initiated the social niceties. But how much did we really want to know anyway? How much should we know? Where did they end and we begin?

Reading Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag is a bit like looking too long over the inscrutable neighbors’ fence. It feels like you shouldn’t pry, yet it explains so much. The irony in Shadow Tag – one of many – is that Erdrich’s main characters, the artist Gil and his wife, Irene, have become strangers to each other within their own home, erecting careful facades, putting together each other’s stories from miscues – and in Irene’s case, intentionally misleading clues.

Erdrich’s character development draws the reader in the same way looking too long over the fence might; you don’t want to keep listening, but you want to know – need to know – what’s happening and why. Although I don’t typically care for indirect third person dialogue (sans quotation marks in this case) it’s an effective device for the terse, tense nature of Gil and Irene’s marriage. The distancing created by the third person is akin to hearing a conversation through a wall instead of being in the same room with the speakers. When Irene meets her half-sister in a restaurant, it’s as if you’re in a neighboring booth, lacking context or facial expressions; it’s just a vignette of voices.

 

 

The line between internal thought and external dialog is blurred in Shadow Tag. Without quotation marks it all becomes one long stream of consciousness, flowing seamlessly from journals, to thought, to conversation and back – one big head game. Time is fluid in the novel. The past informs the present, the present puts the past in perspective and the story flows between histories both personal and cultural. Shadow Tag functions as art history, too, a gallery of arcane knowledge about paints, colors, and artists.

But mostly, it’s a literary portrait of a family in turmoil, framed by the ethnic and popular culture of their times. History must have a narrative, Irene says at one point. Shadow Tag is the narrative that brings her and her family to life and also puts the reader at a safe distance, though perhaps too safe a distance. With no frame of reference for the Native American cultural issues – it took me a few page rereads to figure out what “enrollment” meant with respect to tribes – and the third person dialog that never quite lets readers into the conversation, or fully invites them into the experience, I found it hard to connect with the story or find some commonality with the characters. Not that you’d necessarily want to be part of their experience, which is a generally dark and dysfunctional one with a somewhat predictable outcome.

While I think the book is well written, I don’t feel that I took away anything of value from it. I didn’t find it transformative in any sense, nor was it particularly enlightening or escapist in the way of taking me on a journey of self-discovery, intellectual revelation or entertainment. I found much of the story frustrating. Although perhaps, like a game of shadow tag, you take away from Erdrich’s novel only as much as you’re able to make out in the dim light of the characters’ lives, what you’re able to piece together watching from the periphery of their existence, and then perhaps only within the framework of your own family history.

In the end, I found Shadow Tag masterful, but depressing. But maybe that’s how it is when you look over the neighbor’s fence too long.

Theresa Willingham

February 1, 2011

Music Review: Warpaint’s The Fool

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Warpaint
The Fool

Rough-Trade Records, 2010

It’s a struggle to get a sense of how LA hipster-garage outfit Warpaint pull off such a provocative offering on their first full-length record, The Fool, released in October. The Fool does nothing less than hypnotise with a blinding trip-factor of layered, reverb-drenched guitar harmonies and rhythm structures so intricate and entrancing there are points when even the most straight-edge scenester will worry about being slipped a hit of acid.

Albeit Fool and Warpaint’s other release, 2009’s mass-hailed EP Exquisite Corpse, were produced by ex-Chili Pepper John Frusciante, which explains the clean, surfy approach, but there’s more to dropping distortion that makes this band so admirable.

Warpaint’s sound is an eclectic mash-up of influences unbelievably encompassing a pop-music past that is misconstrued and re-sorted into a Picasso-esque offering. Yes, Warpaint hits the epitome of what post-modern rock and post-punk represents right now much more than all their LA and London buddies, who only tend to recycle what the last guys did.

The mark of this prophet is in influence. “Undertow”, Fool’s poppiest tune, has distinct shades of sixties, Luv’d Ones style girl-garage with a foundation of traditional chords and psychedelic vocals. (Somehow, the song even makes a two-word Nirvana reference, right?)

Elsewhere more influences bleed through the facade, favourably on “Baby” and “Shadows” which obliquely play on Johnny Thunders’s near-folk but drearily alt-acoustic style. You can just see Emily Kokal strumming away in a manly fedora as a 70’s tranny-punk inverse. Nerds rejoice, these and countless other oldschool markings, embedded deep in Fool and barred only by slight mocking flair, impress beyond belief.

But aside from being clear rock ‘n’ roll high school grads, Warpaint has a stark sense of originality. With nine five minute-plus songs that spread over two LPs, Fool subdues your stream of thought with convoluted leads and complex rhythms rooted firmly in bass-laden foundation. The sharp-toothed guitar tone is the most unique approach in the LA alt-cum-indie scene yet.

Almost to downplay its freshness, numerous areas of Fool – notably on tracks like “Undertow” and “Set Your Arms Down” – are radio friendly. But, like on every track, the near indefinable Warpaint-ness eventually illumines. “Composure” wittily hints at an overwhelming clash with familiarity; Kokal proclaims “How can I keep my composure? “ amidst guitar leads so reverberated, the panicky thought mirrors the sound, emphasizing the disconnect from structure.

It’s tough not to envision the women of Warpaint – Theresa Wayman, Jenny Lee Lindberg, Stella Mozgawa and Kokal – as a cliquey gang, locked up in a members-only clubhouse, working away at their very own Rumours amidst scattered records, ashtrays and herbal tea. Obsessively concerned with reinventing, there isn’t a moment on Fool where you will say, Nah, I’ve heard that before. I can butter it up to no end but Fool is what modern music needs to be catchy, knowledgeable, but above all, new.

John Coleman