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The Parisian Murders

Again, this post should have been written like anons ago, but as I have been explaining, practically in all my posts of May, that, Travel, illness, weddings and other social events kind of got me completely off tracked….however, I am back and like they say, lets get the show moving. As part of 12 Months Classical Reading Challenge, where the April theme was “A classic you’ve seen the movie/miniseries/TV show of”, I read Murders at Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe. Now, as God be my witness, with so many films and television shows based on books, I have no idea why at that point I was penning the list did I choose this one! Except, that I made the list right after the Winter holidays, where I spend another film watching marathon on every single film starring Val Kilmer. To take a minor detour from the usual book review post, let me quickly give you a background – I was 8 when I saw Top Gun….it was nearly 5 years since it had originally be released in US, but India was still playing catch up. A cousin of my best friend had gotten a VCD of film as a gift to her and we sat down to watch something that had  been cool in US 6-7 years back! Oh! Well! While my best friend drooled over Tom Cruise (natually) I was completely mesmerized by the golden haired gum chewing bad boy – Val Kilmer. I feel in love and I am still in love though I know he is old and well not as happening as he used to be, but hey…this true love and true love abides! Back to present day, while I books own my soul and I do not like films too much, there are times when I indulge and Val Kilmer movie marathon was one such indulgence. For those who do not know his film credits by heart. The Murders at Rue Morgue was a made for television movie in 1986 and had a pretty impressive star cast of George C. Scott, Rebecca De Mornay, besides Kilmer. While I saw the film, I had never read the novella and it made sense to read Poe as part of this event!

The Murder at Rue Morgue begins with the narrator sharing with the readers a theory on analytic and analysis and how the latter influences the former and then introduces us to his friend Auguste Dupin, a brilliant man not particularly social with certain eccentricities with whom the narrator shares an apartment. Their daily routines of reading through the day and writing and debating and walking the streets of Paris in the night, is disturbed as the news of the gruesome double murder of  Madame L’Espanaye and her daughter in the Rue Morgue, erupts in the city. The details of murder are bizarre and grotesque – the Madame L’Espanaye throat is badly cut that her head is barely attached and her daughter, after being strangled, has been stuffed into the chimney. The murder occurs in an inaccessible room on the fourth floor locked from the inside. The neighbors who heard the screams of the two women and ran into the house claim that they heard two voices talking – one in French and the other in another language, which each neighbor accounted for differently; one called it Italian, another Spanish, yet another English and another said Russian. There seemed no clear motive for murder either ; the mother and daughter were quite retiring ladies who saw very few people, but  shared a mutual affection. It was an interesting fact that Madame L’Espanaye had made a withdrawal of $4000 a day before her murder, but the money was found stewen all over the chamber. The police arrested the clerk who worked in the bank and has escorted Madame L’Espanaye back to her house, after she made the withdrawal, but they are unable to establish a motive and most importantly explain the murders. Dupin who had received a favor from the bank clerk starts his investigation to clear the latter’s name and reveal a most unusual and improbable events that led to the murders.

This was the first tale where Poe had introduced his now famous Dupin and he does full justice to his character. Dupin is not flamboyant like his competitor Mr. Holmes and he does not display any habits like violin playing or indulging in drugs. He is however eccentric, anti-social, connoisseur of books, with brilliance that like a streak of bright light hurtling at you. The mental processes which Poe showcases through Dupin are steeped in psychology and human behavior and the reader has to pay very close attention to all the details to genuinely enjoy the marvels of a brilliant mind. The novella is not a nail biting mystery, where you are hanging on by each page, but a slow revelation in intellectual persistence and layer by layer, the mystery is revealed. The conclusion, I thought both for the film and book was a bit exotic  and sensational – but then considering the time and audience the books were being written for, it seems to also kind of fall in place.  The language is simple, but since Poe uses a lot of psychological analysis in moving his plot forward, it is not a breezy mystery read to be rushed through! A very fine read and though I have not yet given up my devotion to Holmes, I have every intention of exploring a bit more of Mr. Dupin’s mind!

A final P.S. note before I end this post – this film is the an example of very reason why I do not like watching films based on books! On reading the novella, I discovered there is no Horace (Val Kilmer) and Dupin played by Scott is an old retired police officer who was discharged from the police force for disagreeing with the chief! There is his daughter played by De Mornay who is engaged to philandering but innocent of the murder bank clerk! I understand taking artistic liberties, but this is just stretching the whole liberty to a new height!! Stick to the books I say!

 

Wandering Through 19th Century India

I got this book when I was planning to go for my vacation in end of March, but between other books and a suddenly hectic social life, I finally finished the book last week! I have been very very curious about this book and the timing appropriate as I was reading of events and history that would instigate the 1857 Mutiny in India, the historic event, which formed the backdrop of Shadow of the Moon by M.M. Kaye, which I almost inevitably read during May – the month when the mutiny began! Emily Eden also fitted in beautifully with my Women’s Classical Literature Reading Event.

Up the Country is a series of letters and journals that Emily Eden wrote to her sister between 1837-1839 when, her brother Lord Auckland traveled from Calcutta, the then capital of British India to Shimla, the summer capital of British India and back. To give the readers a bit of a background, the Eden’s were a prominent aristocratic family of England and Lord Auckland her brother, was Baron Eden, of Norwood in the County of Surrey, and Earl of Auckland. He served as the Governor General of India between 1836-1842 and during this tenure, his sister Emily and Fanny accompanied him to India and served as the hostess for the Governor General. During his tenure, Lord Auckland made a land trip between Calcutta and Shimla and back to Calcutta, a combined distance of  approx. 4200 kilometers, with all the camp paraphernalia of elephants, camels, and camp followers, which took him 2 years in an era, before the introduction of railways in India. Emily Eden captures all the joy, irony and tragedy of traveling continuously for 2 years and living in the camp, with all the regal majesty that befits the representative of the King of England in India.We attend grand balls and picnics near the waterfall and can quite understand Ms. Eden’s lack of enthusiasm in acting as a hostess to the never ending series of dinner and balls that the Lord Aucland has to host or has to attend in every station/township they stop at during their travels. We read about The Pickwick Papers as they were published and as soon as Ms. Eden and her sister could lay their hands on them all the way in India. We walk through Bazaars as they pick up shawls and beautiful enameled boxes for spices. We also attend in parallel the colorful nautch girl performances put by the local rulers for Lord Auckland and walk through some of the majestic gifts especially in jewels that are presented to the British Government by them. There is trouble with the native  servants who are cantankerous, but never ever err in the their steadfast loyalty to the “Laat Sahib” and his sister! Their is the weather to contend with as well, harsh never ceasing hot burning plains of north India to the perfect coolness of the hills, to the camps awashed with the thundering monsoon rains! Emily Eden brings to life the ADCs, the Magistrates and all the great leaders of the Indian administrative service with anecdotes and dry ironic observations.We meet the great Ranjeet Singh and Shah Shuja in the most common and intimate manner and get to know about their pets and peeves as if they were next door neighbors and not the greats of history! There are lovely descriptions of the Governor General’s house in Shimla, before the modern day commercialization as well as some haunting descriptions of Qutub and its surrounding ruins!

History is testimony to the fact that Lord Auckland was one of worst administrators of the British India empire and his policies had far reaching effects and came back to haunt his subsequent successors, especially Lord Canning who was the Viceroy during the horrific mutiny. However Emily Eden’s account of the Governor General travels is filled with insight, laughter at absurdities of both her own country men as well as Indians and a very honest take on what is the expected duty of British to India. She has no patience with the women of a particular cantonment, who refuse to attend a dance because she invited some of Anglo-Indian (of mixed parentage) soldiers and the wives. There is much humor and irony at the expense of all including her illustrious brother and merriment at way some things turned out! Politics of course cannot be divorced from such a narrative and the reader gets some very interesting insights into the India-British interactions to understand why things went wrong! For instance, it is evident through out the journals, that both rulers of Punjab and Oudh (two of the largest principalities of India) sough British approval and partnership to govern their respective provinces and despite going out of their way to solicit, soothe and align the British dictates, in less than 6 years time, would see their territories arbitrarily annexed and they themselves being sent into exile. We also see that Lord Auckland despite his good intentions, had little or no understanding of the East and it comes through practically every page of Ms. Eden’s journal that they thought that their residence in India as some kind of penance and exile; while one can understand that for Ms. Eden, it cannot be excused in a man who was accepted the responsibility of the fate of 1 billion people.No wonder the Anglo-Afghan wars during his tenure were disastrous and wonderful cities that his sister’s captures in her journals would be completely annihilated in the aftermath of the mutiny! However, Ms. Eden’s narrative is a wonderful read and if at times, she comes across as intolerant, it is wise to remember that most men and women of England held far more racist views and she at least believed in fair treatment of Indians and equal justice for all, regardless of the skin color. Most importantly, this book is a wonderful and colorful description of a road trip, before automobiles and railways made road trips a breeze and one of the first and most authentic travelogues before travel books became a vogue! A must read for all India aficionados!

Notes on Bookish Readings When Ill

I have been writing this post in my mind for the last 3 weeks since I have recovered from a painfully long bout of bronchio-asthma, but there have been out of station weddings to attend and friends to visit and preparation for a Project Management exam, that  blogging took a back seat and worse, for a while there was not enough time to even read! Anyway, such things are happily in the past and I hope I am back to the settled rhythm of daily reading and frequent blogging!

While I was laid up three weeks, I was mostly in a irritable temper, struggling to breathe while fever came and went and the Indian summer heat rose. I could not eat much and doing almost anything gave me a headache. The only thing I was capable of was watching endless reruns of F.R.I.E.N.D.S , but for such bookish creature like us, you can watch only so much of sitcoms, without yearning to dive back into books. Herein lay the problem, I was too ill, to read my April reading plan books….I could not bear to look at Shakespeare or Poe, Spenser made my eyes dance and see things and Willa Cather was simply out of the question! So I decided to hunt the ever reliable internet for some suggested readings when ill. However for once, the cyber space completely let me down; while some sites suggested the tried and tested Austens and Rowlings, most sites suggested some very grim readings, biographies filled with struggle and toil and one site even suggested As I lay Dying (I don’t know if the guy was being funny!!) I don’t know why people would read such stuff when they are physically so unwell, which in turn has to have a psychological impact! Why read depressing stuff when you are already  down and out, but I guess, different strokes for different folks and for a different folk like me and I am hoping other like me, we need a much more cheerful reading list. Therefore, I humbly present to you 10 books/series/authors  you ought to read if you feel like laughing out loud or even chuckling a bit or simply take your mind off the physical trauma, when laid up with maladies –

  1. Jane Austen – Devoted as I am to Ms. Austen, I must say she has helped me recover several times in my life and made the illness more bearable. I do not recommend all her works but Pride and Prejudice, Emma and the lesser known Lady Susan! In the author’s own words – light, bright and sparkling!
  2. Terry Pratchett- I have said this before and I will keep saying it again, the world is a better place, thanks to Sir Terry. When your are completely fatigued with the mundane sameness of your surroundings, compounded by a sever iron grip variety headache, take a walk in the Discworld and meet the witches and the watch and Death and so many more characters, that will take you to whole new world and keep you there laughing, agreeing and coming out as a much more happier, healthier and even a better human being!
  3. Short Stories by Saki – The much lesser known Hector Hugo Munro, aka, Saki is the perfect anecdote when you are irritable and cannot stand your fellow creatures! Saki’s short stories filled with irreverent humor and biting sarcasm is a treat, as you wander into a 1900’s England filled with social gaities and find succinct observations, served with irony and dash of laughter to help recover your soul!
  4. Sherlock Holmes Series by Arthur Conan Doyle – You want to escape the physical discomfort, then there is no better escape than Victorian England where a hook nosed, opium using detective takes you down the lanes of England and Europe to unravel some of the most unbelievable acts of crime!
  5. Father Brown Series by G.K. Chesterton – While very different in tenor, than the Sherlock Holmes series, Father Brown is another detective, with whom you will be alert and constantly involved as you unravel one gritty mystery after another, in a intuitive, philosophical and patient way, that characterizes , one of the best detectives in Fiction!
  6. Miss Marple Series by Agatha Christie – When you are ill, and need a distraction, who better than the queen of crime. While all most all her books are addictive, I prefer Miss Marple, because I cannot get over the impression of a weak woolly old lady going after some of the most ruthless criminals and that kind of always makes me feel better and hope that I will recover soon!
  7. Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling – Cliched, I know! But I cannot help it! The wizard world is such a pick me up and then there are all kinds of fantastic creatures and constantly changing dynamics and yes, there are several deaths, but the books always end in hope! So it is way better option than As I Lay Dying, when ill!
  8. Lord Wimsey’s Series by Dorothy Sayers – I read my first and only Dorothy Sayers when I was ill and she did me a world of good! First impressions are not usually a thing to go buy, but I am taking a chance here – me think reading her when ill, will make you feel infinitely better! At any case I can vouch for Busman’s Journey, among all the other books in the series!
  9. Jeeves and Wooster by PG Woodhouse – Need I say anything! A Jeeves is exactly what you need when so ill,but it being in short supply and only available in fiction, wade through the mis– adventures of Bertie Wooster in 1920s England as he is rescued and saved every time by the dependable Jeeves!
  10. Asterix Comic Books by  written by René Goscinny and illustrated by Albert Uderzo – Follow the Gauls through one magnificent adventure in Roman world after another, as they meet Caesars and Cleopatras and discover pun like never before! Laughter and more laughter!

There you go folks, that’s my list and my recommendation! What are yours?

 

Changes in the Ancient Greek-Roman World

Now this post should have been like written centuries back, but what can I say except life, vacations, friends and finally sickness caught up and this post went lower and lower in the priority, until today, when I finally swore that I will not budge until I had written this post. Considering it took me 3 months of solid reading time to get through this book, it is of utmost important that I devote atleast one post to it!

Back in January, in a fit of complete madness, when possessed by book demons who tempt you to read all kinds of things, I agree to a read along – Metamorphoses by Ovid, with Cleo and O and couple of others. The idea was to read a book every week starting from January and finish the fifteen books by March-April. It seemed doable enough and come on, this is Ovid; in the absence of a real Classical education, this was as close to a group study/help event I was going to get to read one of the most important texts of the Roman world! There was no intention of giving up on something like this and through hail and high water, sometime exhilarating and sometime faltering, I managed to complete the book, early August.

This is an epic poem which is a compendium of all Greek and Roman legends. Each books talks about certain events that led to a metamorphoses of a God, demi-god or human into some feature of nature, tales with an intended moral epiphany. I am not getting into the details of each book, instead I leverage Wikipedia to provide an overview. For details, I would strongly recommend you visit Cleo or O’s  blog post for an excellent summary of each book! For now, Ovid divided the poem in 10 books comprising pf about 250 myths, from the time of creation of the world util the rule of Julius Ceaser. The Books can be broadly categorized as –

  • Book I – The Creation, the Ages of Mankind, the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, Apollo and Daphne, Io, Phaëton.
  • Book II – Phaëton (cont.), Callisto, the raven and the crow, Ocyrhoe, Mercury and Battus, the envy of Aglauros, Jupiter and Europa.
  • Book III – Cadmus, Diana and Actaeon, Semele and the birth of Bacchus, Tiresias, Narcissus and Echo, Pentheus and Bacchus.
  • Book IV – The daughters of Minyas, Pyramus and Thisbe, the Sun in love, Salmacis and Hermaphroditus, the daughters of Minyas transformed, Athamas and Ino, the transformation of Cadmus, Perseus and Andromeda.
  • Book V – Perseus’ fight in the palace of Cepheus, Minerva meets the Muses on Helicon, the rape of Proserpina, Arethusa,Triptolemus.
  • Book VI – Arachne; Niobe; the Lycian peasants; Marsyas; Pelops; Tereus, Procne, and Philomela; Boreas and Orithyia.
  • Book VII – Medea and Jason, Medea and Aeson, Medea and Pelias, Theseus, Minos, Aeacus, the plague at Aegina, the Myrmidons, Cephalus and Procris.
  • Book VIII – Scylla and Minos, the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus, Perdix, Meleager and the Calydonian Boar, Althaea and Meleager, Achelous and the Nymphs, Philemon and Baucis, Erysichthon and his daughter.
  • Book IX – Achelous and Hercules; Hercules, Nessus, and Deianira; the death and apotheosis of Hercules; the birth of Hercules;Dryope; Iolaus and the sons of Callirhoe; Byblis; Iphis and Ianthe.
  • Book X – Orpheus and Eurydice, Cyparissus, Ganymede, Hyacinth, Pygmalion, Myrrha, Venus and Adonis, Atalanta.
  • Book XI – The death of Orpheus, Midas, the foundation and destruction of Troy, Peleus and Thetis, Daedalion, the cattle of Peleus, Ceyx and Alcyone, Aesacus.
  • Book XII – The expedition against Troy, Achilles and Cycnus, Caenis, the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, Nestor and Hercules, the death of Achilles.
  • Book XIII – Ajax, Ulysses, and the arms of Achilles; the Fall of Troy; Hecuba, Polyxena, and Polydorus; Memnon; the pilgrimage of Aeneas; Acis and Galatea; Scylla and Glaucus.
  • Book XIV – Scylla and Glaucus (cont.), the pilgrimage of Aeneas (cont.), the island of Circe, Picus and Canens, the triumph and apotheosis of Aeneas, Pomona and Vertumnus, legends of early Rome, the apotheosis of Romulus.
  • Book XV – Numa and the foundation of Crotone, the doctrines of Pythagoras, the death of Numa, Hippolytus, Cipus, Asclepius, the apotheosis of Julius Caesar, epilogue.

This book has inspired, poets, play-writers and painters. Its effects can be seen even in the 21st century and needless to say has many complex and layered meanings in it. Ovid creates a world which both incredibly frightening at the same time extremely interesting – like a world you are scared to explore, but cannot seem to draw away from! There is intense violence in the book; some of the most grotesque violence I have ever read were in this book – violence that defines imagination and brings in shuddering horror! Violence against women is another theme that runs through the book – they seem to be constantly chased and violated by some God or other for their beauty. Makes one wonder, why these creatures were designated Gods in the ancient world, because they seem to display very little God like behavior and you would never want to be a nymph in ancient Greece, because first the Gods chase you and rape you and then the God’s consort turns you into a tree or an animal for enticing him! Yeesh! In fact Ovid’s woman do not come out in a good light, either they are making each other’s life miserable through curses, or lusting after father/brothers. There is a certain antagonism against the women that comes through in all the 15 books.Having said that, let me re-emphasis that the Gods are no better and their deeds no very God like either – challenge them and you will fall, defy them and you will fall , ask for forgiveness, that too may be denied! They indulge in wars which sound like bar brawls and the only thing that seems to keep em’ going is to engage in some kind of sexual escapade! To me this kind of action from Gods seemed difficult to relate, especially growing up around Hindu mythologies, where Gods are Gods because of the exemplary conduct; it was difficult to wrap my head around a concept of a God with as many failings as a common mortal! It is written in meter of epic poetry, very much in the lines of The Illiad and The Odyssey, but in a significant departure to those poems, Ovid combines all kinds of genres in Metamorphoses – there is tragedy, comedy, drama, irreverent humor mocking the Gods, love poetry as well pastoral hymns! Yet while writing an epic, he subverts some of the key events which are considered of epic nature – The battle of Troy and the adventure of such heroes Achilles or initially Hercules. But then, considering the breath of his work, Ovid may have considered skipping some of the more well known events to focus on lesser known stories! He briefly touches on these subjects/heroes and nimbly and quickly moves on to other subjects! of Another unique feature of this book is the way Ovid plots the books together; in a daring leap of innovations, he plots the books through themes and yet manages a chronological timeline which propels the reader from one century to another. Though there are times, the plot seems to jump leaving certain threads hanging, yet one cannot help but appreciate the different approach to a timeline.

To end, this has not been an easy book to read! Especially towards the end, I have had to struggle to continue and the treatment of Roman myths was a let down. Also the amount of violence and the kind of personal pleasure that Ovid seemed to describe it and re-visit it disturbed me greatly! However there is no taking away that Metamorphoses is a grand adventure, a Goddish tour-de-force if you will and while I do not like the poet much, I cannot help but say, that read this book atleast once!

 

 

May-ish Reads

Ah! May…..the fire breathing months on Indian plains, where the sun burns and earth scorches and you wonder if hell is like this! Joy! Naturally, so joyous a month will begin with something depressing and nasty and it did – to celebrate the May coming, the weather here turned nasty and between pollens and pollutants, my lungs practically gave away! I have spent the last two weeks in bed, trying to work from home for projects that will not wait and read on books that required little if any brain work! Needless to say I am completely and disastrously behind all my reading schedules!

I have not read a single page from Murder at Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe for my April reading for the 12 Months Reading Challenge and here is May where I had committed to reading Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis for the theme of An American Classic. I have not turned a page in my Women’s Classical Literature Event cum Classic Club Spin 12 reading of Willa Cathar’s Death Comes to the Archbishop and I am not even getting started on how much I have to catch up on my Reading England Project or my epic read alongs like The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien and The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser and Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens! I am behind, behind and way far behind in all my reading plans! The plan for May is therefore to re-group and catch up! I am not starting any new book until I finish all my spill overs from March and April. I am not even going to start on Arrowsmith, till I have finished everything else. But there are exceptions and I am only human with absolutely no self control when it comes to books and this I have committed to read along with Cleo and Hamlette for Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, but the good part is that it does not start until the end of May, so I should have made some significant inroads to my overloaded pile. And knowing its May and it is the anniversary of The First War of Independence in India, I will for sure go back and read one of my most favorite and one of the best work of fiction based on the event – The Shadow of the Moon by the inimitable MM Kaye! Like I said  I have enough and I mean ENOUGH to read on my plate and this one time I really really need to stick to the schedule!

Therefore I bid adieu and head back to plunge in the tottering pile of books! Hopefully I should find my reading rhythm again, but until I plough through the significant amount of that pile, I keep my post short and well, I cannot really do sweet!

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